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My Union Right or Wrong.
A history of the Ship Painters and Dockers Union1900-1932
By Issy Wyner


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John McDonald

Among the many active, union-conscious members of the Union,JOHN McDONALD stands out as a charismatic, militant,conscientious Painter and Docker. He was admitted to the Union on10th December, 1917.

Soon after joining the Union, being a regular attender at meetings, he soon came to the notice of the members, and was elected to act as Vice President at the meeting on 29thApril, 1918, when the President was absent and the Vice President was Acting President. At the following fortnightly meeting, he was once more prominent in moving a motion concerning the deportation of Italian citizens. His motion, seconded by James Pauley briefly declared

That the question of deportation of Italians and the question of conscription contained therein be referred to the Member for Dalley for the purpose of making representations to the Government.

While there were members wishing to take the issue to a more extreme position, such as Henry Sloan’s assertion that"the only logical conclusion was to withdraw from the war",the Secretary (Mahony)

stated the case was before the Labor Council at the last meeting and they had decided to enter their protest and render all assistance possible in the matter.

And McDonald’s motion was carried which meant giving full support to the Labor Council’s decision on 9thMay, which read:

That in view of the fact that the people of Australia have twice by referendum vote declared against conscription, this Council protests against the action of the Commonwealth Government calling upon Italians in Australia to render compulsory military service. That the above be forwarded to the Minister for Defence demanding an immediate cancellation of the mobilisation order.

It is an important incident in the career of McDonald and of the Union that such a stand was taken in a period when there was little sympathy in Australia towards Italians, Jews, Aborigines, etc. The Painters and Dockers remained consistently unconcerned, when accepting members, of their national origins, and McDonald’s motion showed his support for that position.

When the meeting’s attention was drawn to the fact that the Vice President had been absent from three consecutive meetings without apology, his position was declared vacant, and McDonald was elected unopposed to fill the vacancy. As well, he was elected to replace the Vice President as a delegate to the Labor Council.(Minutes, 13/5/1918)

At the half-yearly meeting in January, 1919, McDonald was elected President, defeating the long-time President, A.Wheeler, by 79 votes to 42. As well, he was elected as a delegate to the Labor Council and, together with Mahony and Joselin, as a delegate to the still young Federal Council of the Union. (formed in 1916).

In 1921, Bill Swadling resigned as President of the New South Wales Branch and McDonald was elected to replace him. (Minutes, 1/8/1921)

Two years later, at the half-yearly meeting on 3rdJanuary, 1923, Jack McDonald defeated Nation for the position of Assistant Secretary. In that position, he performed many of the duties of the Secretary, especially after Mahony added to his field of activities by being elected to the New South Wales Upper House.Among the varied duties of the Secretary was that of visiting jobs to endeavour to convince workers to join the Union and to take upwith the companies the various problems raised by members.

A few weeks after his election as Assistant Secretary, he reported to a meeting, of having visited Nicol Bros., Huddart Parker and other employers with the outcome in each case being "very satisfactory in the interests of the Union". He also reported on advice from Mahony that the Shipbuilding Tribunal proposed to move their headquarters to Cockatoo Island. As a result of this report, Swadling and Shepherd moved that the Branch enter

An emphatic protest against the Shipbuilding Tribunal shifting to the Head Quarters of the Employer at Cockatoo Island& we consider it to be detrimental to this Union.

This motion, on being carried, was followed by a further one from Lannen and Thomas

That the Assistant Secretary be congratulated on the manner in which he is carrying out the duties of his office.

The carrying of this motion seemed to show that McDonald had brought a new outlook to the position which, when held by Nation,was less of an organising and problem-solving one. From this time forward, the energy, drive and militancy of McDonald produced many favourable results for members and his regular visits to jobs was welcomed as giving the members a genuine form of contact with their official, much in the tradition established by Mahony in the early years of the reformed union. (Minutes,29/1/1923.)

At a meeting in May, 1924, Assistant Secretary McDonald (who had by then also become Federal President) reported on what had occurred on April 23rd at about 9.10 a.m., so that the minute book was not available for that meeting,

Three policemen arrested him on a charge of conspiracy in connection with the "Port Lyttleton". They also took the minutebook and rough minutes book. The case was brought before the Court at 2.30 p.m. when it was remanded until May 1st and further remanded to May 15th.

The General Secretary reported that it was the most high-handed action ever taken by any Government. He explained that if what the officials had done was conspiracy, the people attending any Union meeting would be conspirators.

Moved by Mr. Swadling and seconded by Mr. Cromford That we,the members of the Painters and Dockers Union pledge ourselves to assist Mr. McDonald, the Acting Secretary both morally and financially in this trouble. Carried unanimously. (Minutes, 5/5/1924.)

Swadling then moved a further motion giving moral and financial support to the members of other unions also caught up in the Government’s drive against the "Port Lyttleton" strike. These were officials of the Seamen’s Union (Jacob Johnson),Boilermakers (Thomas Falkingham), Shipwrights (Samuel Shearer),Engineers Union (Arthur Stanley Evenden), Engine Drivers and Firemen (Robert Pinkerton) and Marine Stewards (Robert James Heffron). All were arraigned before a Darlinghurst Court on the phony charge of conspiracy, cooked up by Sir George Fuller’s anti-Labor Government. After a three-day trial, the judge held that no case had been made out by the Crown and directed the jury to return a verdict of not guilty of the charge. In the interim, the New South Wales Branch voted £25 as "a first instalment to assist the officials who are charged with conspiracy". (Minutes, 12/5/1924)

Earlier in the year, the Port Lyttleton and Port Line ships were declared black after the crew of the Port Curtishad been given gaol sentences which the Labor Council described as"savage and vindictive".

A meeting of the Federal Management Committee convened in August and noted in its records

During the hearing of the Case the men were refused Bail; and had to spend two nights in Long Bay jail. Having to go through the same routine as the prisoners there. Moved and seconded that this Federation condemn the action of the N.S.W. Government in treating the seven men charged with conspiracy in the "Port Lyttleton" case as criminals inasmuch as they were refused Bail and were put in the criminal dock, and treated in the jail as if they were convicted criminals. (Federal Minutes,24/8/1924.)

In July, the General Secretary gave a lengthy report on the treatment meted out to the officials of the Transport Group of unions, following which the meeting

Resolved That we congratulate the Acting Secretary on his honourable acquittal from the charge of conspiracy preferred against him and six other members of the transport Group by the Government of New South Wales.

Resolved That we enter our most emphatic protest against the action of the New South Wales Government in treating seven men charged with conspiracy in the "Port Lyttleton" Case as criminals inasmuch as they were refused bail and were put in criminal dock and treated in the jail as if they were convicted criminals.

And moved by Mr. Feilberg and seconded by Mr. Gallen That the Acting Secretary be voted the sum of £20 in lieu of holidays due to him, and also to show our appreciation of his conduct during the severe trial he has undergone . The following spoke in support of the motion Messrs. Murphy, Thomas, Winter, Isaac and Goyen. Carried unanimously.

The Acting secretary on returning thanks to the members for their kindness and congratulations gave a very lengthy report from the beginning of the trial to the final stages. (Minutes 28/7/1924)

In October, McDonald, as Federal President, was called on to goto Melbourne with Federal Secretary Mahony to attend a conference with employers on the Union’s Log of Claims and he and Murphy were elected to represent the Union at a conference about May Day.The decision was for the delegates to vote for May Day as a holiday"providing it is not the intention to do away with Eight Hours Day" (Minutes, 20/10/1924)

Among the more unpleasant tasks which McDonald had to confront was the occasion when he reported on the case of Murphy "who was along way in arrears". His report started with his informing Murphy that he would not be allowed to work in the industry until he paid,when Murphy had retorted that he would take McDonald before a Magistrate and charge him with intimidation. He then stated that he would put McDonald where he had been quite recently on the conspiracy charge: in Long Bay gaol. The matter was referred to the Management Committee to deal with and make a recommendation. (Minutes, 1/12/1924)

The outcome of the Murphy case, when dealt with by the Management Committee some months later, and despite his denials of threats and refusal to pay, was a decision "That the case having been proven, Mr. Murphy be censured". (Minutes,25/3/1925)

Half-yearly elections in January, 1925, resulted in McDonald being re-elected unopposed as Assistant Secretary, Delegate to the Union’s Federal Council and delegate to the Labor Council.But McDonald was obliged to report an incident which required the Union’s attention. This concerned a member named Walter Glover, who had abused McDonald in front of the passengers on a tram going from Balmain to the Railway. Bill Swadling was with him when Glover put on his public performance. The meeting decided to leave the matter for the Management Committee to deal with. (Minutes, 12/1/1925).

He continued to act as Branch Secretary through Mahony’s many absences on Federal or Parliamentary matters. And thus was able to give a lengthy report to the New South Wales Branch on the outcome of the Union’s Log of Claims which had ended in an offer from the shipowners for a rise of 1½d. per hour.

Just as Mahony was engaged in seemingly never-ending activities as parliamentarian, as well as Federal and Branch Secretarial matters, and his "outside" interests in the Workingmen’s Institute and the Balmain Leagues Club, so, too, McDonald (an active member of the ALP and the Eight Hours Committee) showed a zest and enthusiasm for his work as acting Secretary which was slowly developing into a full-time job of standing in for Mahony.His work was so strong in dealing with the constant needs of the members on their jobs that one company, Mort’s Dock, took action by prohibiting him from entering its premises. When reporting this incident to a Union meeting, he asked that no action be taken until the General Secretary considered certain ways in which the difficulty could be overcome. (Minutes,13/6/1925)

By August of that year, Mahony had decided that his work as full-time Federal Secretary and parliamentarian did not allow for his also working full-time as Branch Secretary and he announced his retirement from that position. While this decision provoked much discussion on how to retain Mahony for Branch needs in the Arbitration Court, it was also decided to elect a Branch Secretary,and to this position McDonald was elected.

However, by October, he was obliged to report that King, the manager of Mort’s Dock had issued instructions that he was not to be allowed on any ship at Mort’s Dock, to which the Union responded through a motion from Swadling and Pender

That any dispute taking place at Mort’s Dock was to be settled at the Union Rooms. (Minutes,19/10/1925)

With this problem and the variety of other activities which absorbed his time, McDonald was unable to take time off by way of annual leave. A reminder of this came up at a meeting when he reported that under a new agreement signed with the Clerks Union,the office girl was due for annual leave. In discussing this, the meeting was advised that McDonald had not taken any leave for two years and, having in mind the overload of work which he was handling, it was decided that instead of taking the leave he bepaid in lieu thereof.

With Mahony having relinquished the position of Branch Secretary, McDonald was installed in the position at the beginning of 1926. And at the half-yearly meeting on 10th January,1927, he defeated Jack Lannen and Bill O’Keeffe for the position.

He continued to attend to the Union’s affairs, including joining Mahony and Moloney in conferences with shipowners, seeking to attain some improvements while the Award remained in limbo.

But amongst other calls on his time was the funeral of an old member, Fred Stevens, who had lost his life aboard the "Greycliffe"which had been sunk by the R.M.S. "Tahiti" in Sydney Harbour. In his work, A Century of Ships in Sydney Harbour,(1980), Ross Gillett and Michael Melilar-Phelps wrote of this disastrous event

At 4.15 p.m. on 3 November, 1927, the little 133 ton Greycliffe left Sydney Cove, homeward bound for Watson’s Bay,with 125 passengers on board, many of them school children. She was only 3 kilometres from her destination when , off Bradley’s Head, she was overtaken by the rakish 7585 ton Union Steamship Company’s ship Tahiti, outward bound for San Francisco with passengers and mail and, at the time, under the direction of a pilot. Subsequently it was said that she was exceeding the harbour speed limit. However, for the moment, the two vessels proceeded on parallel courses. Without warning the Greycliffe suddenly altered course. It will never be known for certain but it is assumed she suffered a steering-gear failure. Whatever the reason the illogical manoeuvre brought her right under the guillotine of the fast-moving Tahiti’s bows which, with appalling violence, sliced her inhalf. Some passengers, with fast-reacting survival instincts, divedoverboard at the last moment before collision and others managed to scramble from the mangled, sinking wreck. They either swam ashore or were picked up by rescue craft which arrived with alacrity. In all there were eighty-three survivors. The sea claimed an official total of forty-two.

Undoubtedly, this tragedy was on the minds of members when the meeting once more discussed the overcrowding of launches takingworkers to various jobs around the Harbour and decided that the Secretary write to the Premier and Prime Minister on the matter.(Minutes, 17/10/1927)

In the following month, he felt obliged to raise a personal issue at a meeting.

He wished to inform members that he was not a servant of any individual member and that he strongly objected to receiving orders from any particular person. He would carry out the wishes of the Organisation. (Minutes, 6/2/1927)

In 1928, another distorted attack was made on McDonald and the President called on him to reply to the allegations made atMort’s Dock to the effect that

he had been telling people that they could not make arrangements with any other Undertaker other than Wood Coffill and Co. He gave an emphatic denial and stated that arrangements hadbeen made with those people many years previous to him being appointed Secretary, in the event of the deceased friends notknowing who to make arrangements with and also members who died who had no relations and he had not departed from that procedure.

He also stated that statements had been made that he belonged to a Secret Society and he wished to give that also an emphaticdenial and that if he did belong to an Organisation which had been reported he would not be ashamed to admit it, but these statements had been made to injure him in the eyes of some of the members. He wished to state that the person who made those statements was unmitigated liar. The person who made the statement also said that he had been told by one of the members that his father belonged to that particular Organisation and that Mr. McDonald was a lodge-mate.

The question was then asked as to who the person was and the Secretary informed the members that it was Mr. O’Keeffe and that Mr. Schneider was the person who had informed him (O’Keeffe) about the Lodge-mates. Mr. McDonald had been informed that Mr. Schneider had given that a denial. Mr.O’Keeffe then stated….that the Secretary should make enquiries and find out whether the statements were correct before accusing any person….. The Secretary then informed themembers that he had been told by a person who he had implicit faith in and had never known the person to tell any falsehoods and who was an honourable man in his opinion. The President was the person who told him of the matter.

Charlie Weston, President, gave his version of events, indicating that he had questioned O’Keeffe, who claimed that Schneider had made the allegations, but Schneider had denied having done so. Bill Feilberg then suggested O’Keeffe should tender an apology, but McDonald stated that

He did not wish an apology from O’Keeffe but that he had been pleased to get the opportunity of refuting statements that had been made and he thought if anyone had anything against the Secretary the place to make such charges was at the Union meeting and not try to stab him behind his back, as he was at all times prepared to have any charges levelled against him at the meeting so that he could either refute or substantiate same. (Minutes, 6/8/1928)

Following McDonald’s statement, the matter was taken no further.

In opening the Special Stop Work Meeting on 29thApril, 1929, the President announced that he had received a Doctor’s certificate stating that the Secretary, Jack McDonald, would be unable to attend to his duties for a few days.This turned out to be an optimistic assessment of McDonald’s condition, for his absence extended into many weeks and appear to stem essentially from his attention to his duties as Secretary of a Union which was constantly in a state of ferment and ever-demanding on its officials. The meeting then decided that the President,Charlie Weston, should be the Acting Secretary until McDonald’s return; Jack Sylvester, nominated for the position, declined.

At the first meeting in June, it was decided to send a message to McDonald, "expressing regret at his prolonged illness".But, a further attack was aimed at him at this meeting, when M.Kennedy moved a motion of which he had given notice

That this Union pay no officials while they are not at their respective positions either through sickness or otherwise

This seemingly all-embracing motion showed up as an attack on McDonald who was the only paid official in the Union. However,there was probably some unrecorded advice given to Kennedy about attacking a man laid low with sickness, because, when called on to move his motion, he asked permission to withdraw "until after the Secretary McDonald returned to the Office" and nothing more was heard of the motion.

By the time of the meeting on 24th June, Weston was still announcing McDonald’s continued illness and he was continuing as Acting Secretary with Bill Swadling as Acting President.

This position remained for the half-yearly meeting on19th August, 1929, when McDonald was able to resume his position and Weston resumed as President. McDonald thanked the members for their expressions of sympathy and well-wishing during his long illness.

A month later, he was reporting on having taken up the reins of office fully, including travelling to Newcastle to deal with problems there which included vexatious demarcation issues with other unions. As well, he took the opportunity to advise the Newcastle members to join their respective Branches of the A.L.P.

Elected once more unopposed in January, 1929, McDonald continued to actively work for the Union and its members, giving much time to the demarcation issues that arose. In this regard, the Ironworkers’ moves to cover work specified in the Ship Painters and Dockers Award, called for prolonged conferences arranged by the Labor Council and the Court.

Issues such as the employment of non-union men also engaged much of his time. At the last meeting of the Union in April, he reported on an interview with Mr. John Wilson, Manager at Cockatoo Island,on men bringing letters of recommendation for work to the Foreman.

Mr. Wilson stated that he had always informed the people who brought letters, that they had to be members of the union in the calling in which they were seeking employment…. He, Mr.McDonald showed them a sample of the Union’s badge….Mr. Wilson stated that he would give instructions to the Foreman that no one should be picked up unless they were wearing a badge. (Minutes, 28/4/1930)

At the same meeting, McDonald reported having attended the Industrial Court to give evidence on behalf of the Coal Lumpers. He was cross-examined by Dr. Evatt on behalf of the Coal Lumpers and Mr. Evans on behalf of the Overseas Steamship Owners. He was informed by Evatt’s Secretary that "Dr.Evatt considered his evidence had supported the Coal Lumpers".

In this period, a dispute occurred in the ranks of the Unemployed Workers Movement, essentially arising from the attitude of the Communist Party whose leadership was expressing increasing hostility to the ALP and any organisations associated with it, and McDonald showed support for the original UWM. But he then sought some means of clarification of the position. The Union was confronted with the matter when an application was received fromthe UWM for use of the Union hall for its weekly meeting, each Tuesday night from 7.30 p.m. to 10 p.m. He suggested that the matter stand over until the issue was resolved. (Minutes, 13/10/1930)

The generally compassionate attitude of the members towards those experiencing illness, etc, was noted at the next fortnightly meeting, when Standing Orders were suspended to deal with "the question of the serious illness of the wife of the Secretary, Mr.McDonald" and then moved

That owing to the serious illness of Mrs. McDonald, wife ofthe Secretary, this meeting stand adjourned to this day fortnight and that the next meeting be a Special Meeting to deal with all business referred to the Branch, viz., notices of motion, etc.

To this, an amendment, indicating a lack of sympathy, even, perhaps, some hostility towards McDonald, , was moved by H.McQuade and J.Richards

That the Secretary be allowed to leave the meeting and that someone be appointed in his place,

This was defeated and the motion carried. (Minutes, 27/10/1930)

At the next meeting, on 10th November, the Secretary

Asked the President for the right to thank the members for the very kindly action taken at the last meeting re his wife’s sickness. He wished to express his appreciation for their very sympathetic thoughts and expressions.

In March, 1931, when the Union was making donations to the Pyrmont Soup Kitchen and other worthy causes, McDonald reported having been elected as Vice-President of the Eight Hour Committee,which he deemed "an honour conferred on the Union".

His ability to argue a case was evident when he was called to the Sydney Ferries yard where Painters and Dockers had been docked 10% of their wages, in line with the Arbitration Court’s Depression wage cut for all workers. He had interviewed the company’s Industrial Officer and had informed him that Painters and Dockers were working under an agreement and that no application had been made to the Court to include the Agreement in the general reduction of wages. A week later, he was informed that the moneys had been refunded to the men. Though nothing more was reported, undoubtedly, the company would soon have sought to rectify their blunder. (Minutes,30/3/1931)

Despite the antagonism of O’Keeffe towards McDonald, when O’Keeffe complained of being left out of a pick up for work at Cockatoo Island, McDonald went directly to the Foreman who picked up the men, Bob Blane, and the matter was quickly rectified and O’Keeffe given work at the Island. (Minutes, 31/8/1931)

Having risen to President of the Six-Hour Committee, McDonald issued a statement advertising the March in 1932, which included

This committee, in years past, was the pioneer of the fight for the eight-hour working day. And maintained the fight right through. The Committee, realising that economic changes demand a shorter working week, have altered its name and ideals from 8-Hour Day to "Six-Hour day and Labor Demonstration Committee"….

And, as President, he was later to express pleasure at "the success of the demonstration" in 1932, and his appreciation at"the splendid cooperation that had been shown by all sections in establishing Labor Day as one of the most important events of the year". (Labor Daily, 4/10/1932)

Jack McDonald died in 1933 after a heart seizure while walking up the gangway of a ship. His funeral (almost of State funeral proportions) was one of the largest arranged for a union official of that period and was widely publicised in the press. The Labor Daily reported

The great esteem in which the late Mr. John McDonald,secretary of the Ship Painters and Dockers’ Union, was held by the Labor Movement was demonstrated at his funeral on Saturday when all sections joined in paying their last respects to one who was a pioneer of Labor in this State.

Following a Requiem Mass in St. Michael’s Church, Stanmore, the remains were interred at Rookwood Cemetery…..

A procession, in which members of the union and representratives of all trade union bodies took part, led the cortege from the church to Parramatta Road.

The large number of floral tributes and messages of sympathy with the relatives, received from all parts of the State, and other States, were eloquent tokens of the popularity of the late Mr.McDonald.

Chief mourners were Mrs. McDonald (widow), Eric and Roy McDonald (sons), Misses May and Dorothy McDonald (daughters), Mr.R.McDonald (brother)….Mr. Rolfe, Mr.B.Blake, Mr.J.McDonald (nephews).

The Federal Parliamentary Labor Party was represented by Mr.J.Beasley, MHR, who was accompanied by Mrs. Beasley, and Mr.J.Rosevear, MHR, and the State Parliamentary Party by Mr.J.Quirk, MLA, who was accompanied by Mrs. Quirk.

The ALP Executive was represented by Mr.P.J.Keller(president), Mr.J.Grave (general secretary), Mr. H.E.O’Regan (returning officer), and Mrs. O’Regan, Mr.E.Boland and MrsJ.Dwyer. The editor and the manager of the "LaborDaily"…..

…..the Trades Hall Association….Six Hour DayCommittee….Mr.A.McAlpine, Mr.J.S.Garden who was accompaniedby Mrs.Garden and Mr.R.King MLC (Labor Council).

Representatives from the Ship Painters and Dockers Union included Mr.R.Mahony MLC (for the Federation), Mr.W.Swadling and Messrs. J.Sprount (president) and E.Carroll (secretary) Newcastle branch.

The Maritime Transport Council was represented by Mr.J.Tudehope (Marine Cooks), Captain Lawrence (Merchant Services Guild), Mr.C.Beal (Radio Telegraphists), Mr.J.Telfer (Marine Engineers), Mr.S. Shearer (Shipwrights), Mr.F.Ferry (Waterside Workers) and Mr.J.Cameron (Seamen).

There followed a list of unions represented including United Labourers, Painters, Boilermakers, AWU, WWF, Water and Sewerage Employees, Sugar Workers, Transport Workers, Milk and Ice Carters, Clothing Trades, Farriers, Ironworkers, Food Preserving, Saddlers, Glass Workers, Plumbers, Hairdressers, Tramway Employees, Shop Assistants, Stovemakers, Wicker Workers, Amalgamated Engineers, Brushmakers, Meat Industry, Bakers, Rubber Workers, Printing Industry Employees, FED and FA, Carpenters, Railway Commissioners, Amalgamated Printers, Sheet Metal Workers, Miscellaneous Workers, Blacksmiths

The ALP was well represented by officers of Branches in Darling Harbour, East Marrickville, Alexandria, Petersham (Younger Set),Petersham State Electorate Council, Stanmore (a large number of members), Earlwood, Annandale, Erskineville.

Labor members of Parliament were well represented, particularly by Members of the Upper House who also happened to be officials of unions.

Among others represented was the Union Steamship Company, Sydney Hospital Board, Main Roads Board, City Council, Glebe Council (Mayor and nine aldermen).

A large contingent of members of the Ship Painters and Dockers Union led by H.Walker, W.Bingham, E.Dodds, W.J.O’Keeffe, J.Ceretti, R.Walsh, E.Murphy, S.Fellowes, J.Carlson, O.Olsen and Mr.A.Mott. (Most of these became known to the writer in later years.

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