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My Union Right or Wrong.
A history of the Ship Painters and Dockers Union 1900-1932
By Issy Wyner


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William T. Swadling

WILLIAM T. SWADLING was one of the finest of the old stalwarts of the Union and of the ALP. He was a union militant with a strong sense of compassion for the underdogs of society and an equally strong loyalty towards his Union. Little is known of his personal life, chiefly because what papers, records, etc., he may have possessed, were destroyed almost immediately after his death. When the writer spoke to his housekeeper very soon after the funeral, she stated that she had burned whatever was in the house.

Swadling joined the Union on 8th February, 1915, at the age of 32. He was born in the year that the original union (the Balmain Laborers Union) was formed, in 1883. In the obituary, in the Union’s Branch Bulletin, the writer noted

With the passing of Bill Swadling, the Union and the labor movement lost a grand old man, a Labor stalwart of many long years standing, a unionist in the finest traditions of unionism, a man of infinite patience, understanding and sympathy for workers and the working class.

Bill Swadling’s record goes back over a long period of years of close association with Bob Mahony who pre-deceased him by some three years, and includes direct involvement in many industrial disputes in the days when a strike was a strike and the sacrifices were many and great.

In his own quiet, unselfish way Bill Swadling showed many a worker where his real interests and loyalties lay, and what were the fundamental aspirations and objectives of Labor. He was a lamp to the feet of many in the labor movement. (Branch Bulletin, No.6, April-May 1964)

In 1916, Swadling joined the Army, together with the one-time President and Vice-President, H.Scrimshaw. But before joining, he had contested a position as Union representative on the Demarcation Board for Cockatoo Island and Garden Island. In an "exhaustive ballot", with six contenders, he ended with 75 votes to Scrimshaw’s 49. (Minutes, 31/1/1916).

Throughout the years that the writer knew Bill Swadling (from 1939 until his death in 1964), he was almost completely deaf (hearing aids gave him some small relief) and he was so close to blindness that to read any document or paper required it be held within an inch of his nose. In all those years, the writer was never able to find one member who could offer information on whether these handicaps were war-based (1915-1919) or arose from some other cause. Certainly in those 25 years no one ever made fun of him over these disabilities or used them as a means of defeating him in any of the Union positions he held for decades until the Communist moved against him during the Second World War.

The meeting which elected Swadling also adopted his motion that "the rotation system at present in vogue be done away with" and followed this with a further motion that balloting for jobs "take place in the vicinity of Office". The records do not indicate what form of "rotary system" was in practice, but balloting for jobs still was preferable to the hand-picking of men by the Foreman. But rostering of unemployed members was to become a constant issue over the years and Swadling was to become a strong champion of it as a means of achieving fairness in apportioning jobs.

In April, 1916, the Union meeting made two decisions involving Swadling: Firstly, with regard to his position on the Demarcation Board, a motion to pay his out-of-pocket expenses to the extent of £3.3.0 was amended to provide "That should Mr. Swadling’s expenses come to more than £3.3.0 they should be paid by him" (a strange decision, but one at which he did not cavil.) . Indicative of his work with this Board, was the case recorded in transcript, of a dispute between the Professional Painters and the Ship Painters, to determine a demarcation agreement between the two unions to cover all work in Naval establishments in the State of New South Wales. The record noted

(Mr. Swadling who had enlisted in the A.I.F., obtained leave from camp to represent the painters and dockers on the demarcation committee.)

The Management Committee met on 13th April, and invited Swadling to report on the Board’s deliberations. He reported that the Board had decided on a division of the painting work on ships, which decision the Professional Painters Union rejected and Cockatoo Island Management stated that it would implement. The Committee congratulated Swadling on his efforts. At a later meeting, Swadling told members

That the only thing he was sorry for ….. was the gain to the Professional Painters on the upper deck work. However, we had more than made up for that by our gain in the ‘tween decks. (Minutes 1/5/1916)

The second decision indicated his standing with the Union:

That before Mr. Swadling’s departure for the front he be tendered a send off by the Union. (Minutes, 17/4/1916)

This decision was considered by the Management Committee when it met later in the month and decided

In the matter of the send off to Private Swadling… was recommended that he be communicated with, in order to get some idea as to the probable date of his departure for the front. It was also recommended that the next meeting should elect a committee to manage the carrying out of the send off and decided what form it should take. (Minutes, 27/4/1916)

The meeting on 1st May, decided that the former President, Scrimshaw, should be added to the decision for a send off for Swadling who took the opportunity to express his thanks for the proposed function and announced that "he expected to leave for the front about the end of the month".

Three days later, the Management Committee decided that a hall should be engaged for the function, £3 allocated towards the cost and that 500 tickets be printed and sold at 1/- each.

On 7th May, the last minutes signed by Scrimshaw before going off to the war, noted

That all members of the Ship Painters and Dockers who had joined the Expeditionary Forces and expect to leave for the front about the end of the month should be tendered a send off. The function to take place in the Oddfellows Hall, Darling Street, Balmain on, 26th May, 1916.

The meeting also decided that 500 tickets should be sold to members of the Union only.

The departure date for troops was extended to August and at a meeting held then

Private Swadling (late Vice President) wished members goodbye & success to the Union. Received with applause.

The President addressing Mr. Swadling voiced the sentiment of the Union, wishing him a safe return.

Mr. Swadling in his reply advised members to stand solidly together. (Minutes, 10/8/1916)

Some twelve months after the end of the War, a Union meeting showed pleasure when

The President at this stage welcomed Mr. W.Swadling on his return from the front after 3½ years active service, Mr. Swadling responded and stated he would be prepared to give the Union all assistance possible. (Minutes, 12/11/1919)

At the following meeting, on 24th November, Swadling was once more back into Union activity when the President, Jack McDonald, who was also the Cockatoo Island delegate, asked for another delegate to work with him and the meeting elected Bill Swadling, once more employed at the Island, to the position.

Active as a job delegate and a regular attender and speaker at union meetings, he was elected as a Branch delegate to the Union’s Federal Council together with A.J.Elvin and Jack McDonald and as a delegate to the Labor Council with McDonald and Mahony. At the same election, McDonald defeated Swadling by 121 votes to 71 for the position of Branch President. At the same meeting, he resigned as delegate at Cockatoo Island, giving as his reason that there had been conflicting decisions made which placed him in a false position as delegate. The main delegate at Cockatoo Island, McDonald stated that he had carried out instructions.

The Secretary (Mahony) stated that he took full responsibility for the whole matter. It was done to force the hands of the Painters Society. Mr . Swadling was a very reliable delegate at Cockatoo Dock and it was in the best interests of the Union he should reconsider his decision.

Mr. Swadling said he could not see his way clear to withdraw his resignation. (Minutes, 17/1/1921)

Nothing further was recorded to clarify what "decisions’ had riled Swadling, but he would certainly have regarded himself as an authority on demarcation issues with the Professional Painters and may have been left out of some of the discussions with that union.

At the half-yearly meeting in 1921, Swadling was elected unopposed as President and Jack Lannen as Vice President. McDonald, although very popular with the members, having stood for the position of Assistant Secretary, was defeated by W. Nation by 80 votes to 74, although he was still elected as a delegate to the Labor Council. (Minutes, 4/7/1921). A month later, Swadling resigned from his new position as President, with no reason recorded, and McDonald was restored as President.

In the still uncertain political stances of the main participants in the Union’s affairs, at the half-yearly elections in January 1922, McDonald, once more stood for Assistant Secretary and was defeated by W.Nation (86 votes to 66). Jack Lannen was elected as President with Charles Weston as Vice President. Swadling stood for Treasurer and was defeated by H.Witton. The Labor Council delegates elected were J.McDonald, W.Swadling and E.Murphy. Mahony was elected unopposed as Secretary and apparently did not nominate as a delegate to Labor Council. (Minutes, 9/1/1922)

It was at this meeting in January 1922, that Swadling moved a number of motions, of which he had given notice, which indicated his thinking on certain democratic needs in the Union. First, he moved to remove the election of officers from meetings and replace this practice with a type of polling booth election, That election of officers be by referendum of all financial members.

Ballot to remain open for one week at the Union Rooms. Financial members not being able to attend Union Rooms ballot papers to be forwarded to them on written application made to the Returning Officer. All ballot papers to reach the Returning Officer before the closing of the ballot.

The motion was carried by 64 votes to 14. Next he moved

That meetings be held monthly and no work be done after knocking off time on night of meeting.

And this was defeated without any vote being recorded.

Then he sought to establish a position which members had squabbled over for years, by moving that

A room be rented on the Sydney side for the use of members.

And this was defeated by 40 votes to 27. These two motions and the following one signalled issues which many years later came into their own.

Swadling’s final motion did not gain majority support either, as he moved that

The Assistant secretary to visit jobs and examine scaffolding and staging.

It was pointed out that there might be legal difficulty as to responsibility and the motion was declared lost without a vote being recorded. This position was rectified some years later when the Union decided to have a second paid official, to be "Vigilant Officer", whose job was to be a "walking delegate" and attend to Sydney side matters. When the central picking up place was established on the Sydney side, the V.O. attended there each day and a phone was installed. Swadling’s motion foreshadowed these later developments.

Election of officers in early 1923, resulted in T.Sloan being elected as President, Swadling as Vice President, Mahony as Secretary and J.McDonald defeated W.Nation for the position of Assistant Secretary. H.Witton remained as Treasurer, Sloan and Swadling were Labor Council delegates and Swadling, McDonald and Mahony were elected as Federal Councillors. (Minutes, 3/1/1923)

It was at this stage in the political developments in Australia, that the Communist Party, formed some two-three years earlier, found itself offside with the Executive of the ALP, but not necessarily with the whole of the rank and file of the Party. At that time, it was still considered that the CPA could operate as a faction within the Labor Party while still continuing as a separate organisation. Thus, in October, 1923, Swadling could propose and have carried by a meeting

That the Branch enter its emphatic protest against the executive of the Australian Labor Party expelling the members of the Communist Party and that the Assistant Secretary write on the same to the Labor Council. (Minutes, 22/10/1923)

At the following meeting, the Labor Council wrote on the same theme and asked the Branch for support, to which the Branch replied that it had already carried a motion on the subject. And, clearly, Swadling and a majority of members at Union meetings, took the view that such actions as the Labor Council’s affiliation with the Red International of Labor Unions (obviously a Communist Party initiative) and when most of the Council’s officers were either members or close supporters of the CPA, was acceptable behaviour within the ALP. This view, however, was to change as events unfolded within and outside the ALP, and amongst Painters and Dockers.

In November, some discussion arose over Swadling being called on to attend the Federal Council’s conference in Melbourne. Explanations were given to the effect that Bill Swadling was a Trustee of the Federation and that no monies could be withdrawn from the Bank without his signature (together with the other Trustee (E.Storer) and the Treasurer (Moloney). The difficulty occurred through the Branches having reduced the size of their delegations to the conference, for financial reasons, with those attending given proxy votes for those who did not attend, such as Swadling. In view of the need to have him present to sign cheques, the Branch agreed that he be permitted to take up his position as a delegate and attend the conference instead of giving his proxy to Mahony.

The meeting on 19th November, which made the decision concerning Swadling’s position as Federal Trustee, was held after the Federal conference ended and a report was given by McDonald on its deliberations. At the meeting, the matter of the CPA and ALP surfaced again and Swadling, supported by Thomas successfully moved

That this Branch ask the Labor Council for the co-operation of other affiliated unions to call a conference in January re faked ballot boxes and expulsion of the Communist Party.

The racketeering involved in gaining pre-selection for parliamentary seats was a great scandal within the Labor Party and the unions affiliated to the Party, and had gone on for some years, with murmurs and mutterings about something being done and about little improvement when some forms of action were engaged in. Thus, the investigations in 1920 still left much to be done, and brought motions such as Swadling’s from other unions and from ALP Branches in 1923.

Swadling also took the opportunity to express his position on another thorny problem, that of prohibition and he moved successfully that the Union’s delegates to the Labor Council be instructed to vote against prohibition. (Minutes, 3/12//1923)

As delegates to the annual conference of the ALP, McDonald and Swadling reported to a meeting in 1924. None of their report was recorded, however, and this left unremarked the fact that this was the conference which made the final decision on removing members of the CPA from the ALP. It appeared that the decision to clearly place the Communist Party outside the Labor Party, passed without demur at the Union meeting (Minutes, 5/5/1924)

Nevertheless, some months later, the Union meeting received a request from the Labor Council to adopt a motion submitted to it by the Boilermakers Society on the demand for a special conference to deal with the ALP decision against ALP/CPA dual membership, stating

That this Union views with disgust the EXCUSES put forward by the Executive of the New South Wales Branch of the Australian Labor Party as to why they have changed their minds re the holding of a Special Conference which they agreed should be held on 30th August 1924.

Further, we publicly charge them with corruptly using their positions as custodians of the A.L.P. Rules, in the interests of a few self-seekers to the detriment of the whole working class movement.

We are further of the opinion that the statement issued by them doubting the validity of the petitions forwarded from the various leagues and unions is an insult to every affiliated unionist and fully bears out the contention that the cleansing of the movement attempted at the last conference had been a dismal failure.

Swadling and Thomas moved that the request be complied with, which was carried. (Minutes, 22/10/1924)

Inroads into the rights of unionists in ALP pre-selection ballots and delegations to ALP conferences was raised in a letter from the Tramway Employees Union from which a motion from Bill Swadling, once more seconded by Thomas, declared, with regard to the Labor Party’s Rule 6 entitlements of unionists in pre-selection ballots

That we endorse the resolution carried at the conference of Rule 6 unions held on 13th inst. at the Trades Hall:

That this Conference of Industrial Unions realising the serious deprivation of rights suffered by the great majority of Rule Six voters by the recent regulation issued by the ALP Executive relating to the qualification of such voters and the differential treatment accorded to certain other voters, believe that it is in the best interests of the movement as a whole that facilities be afforded to Rule Six voters where more than 20 are employed, to vote at their place of employment, or immediately adjacent thereto. And further that the qualification required by the ALP Executive shall be made such as that it already finds acceptable in the case of AMA voters voting at the pit where a list furnished of such members is signed by the Secretary of the Miners Lodge.

Swadling’s motion having been carried, he then continued to express indignation by moving that a protest be forwarded to the ALP Executive on its failure to call the Special Conference, and this was carried also. (Minutes, 22/9/1924). It will be appreciated that Swadling’s views and stance with regard to the ALP were based essentially on the general view at the time, that the ALP was the creature of the unions and not the reverse. Coming out of the founding of the Party in 1891, as the result of the initiative of the unions at the time, any attempt to reduce the position of the unions vis à vis the Party was seriously and strenuously opposed and Bill Swadling echoed that sentiment.

In the New Year, Swadling was a witness to an incident in which a member abused the Acting Secretary, McDonald, in front of the passengers on a tram car going from Balmain to the Railway, and the matter was referred to the Management Committee to deal with. (Minutes 12/1/1925) And, at the same meeting, Swadling and Thomas revived the issue of a central picking-up place on the Sydney side, with a call to the Federal Secretary to take up with the shipowners the need for a "starting place for the whole of the waterfront on the Sydney side". On being carried, he next proposed that the Union Rooms be the central picking-up point for Balmain and any other places.

Among the many and varied issues which Bill Swadling took up as a job delegate was the case of T.Pender, who suffered an injury at work and was denied workers’ compensation by the Queensland Insurance Company on the grounds that he was not left-handed, so that the accident was occasioned by the carelessness of a right-handed man and therefore, was not entitled to any payment. Swadling took the matter up with the Cockatoo Island management and was able to prove "to the satisfaction of Mr. Morgan that T.Pender was left-handed and he (Mr. Morgan) was notifying the Queensland Insurance Company to that effect." (Minutes, 2/7/1925).

And, among the many matters which engaged his attention, was his proposal that the Union should consider the presentation of an illuminated address to Bob Mahony on his relinquishing the position of Branch Secretary (to devote more time to the Federal Secretary position and his parliamentary duties) and that Mahony be made a Life Member of the Organisation, which proposals were adopted by the meeting. (Minutes, 10/8/1925)

In the half-yearly election of officers, at the outset of 1926, with McDonald ensconced as Branch Secretary, Swadling was elected as a member of the Management Committee. And in April, with the new Industrial Arbitration Act of 1926 in force, the Committee decided to recommend that application be made for the Union to be covered by the Board which would deal with Painters and Dockers matters. The recommendation also included that the Union’s representatives on the Board should be McDonald, Swadling and Dodds.

Swadling’s views on the Communist Party appeared to undergo a serious change during 1927 when his motion to rescind a previous decision was carried. His motion proposed to rescind the decision (26//4/1927) which referred to the ALP’s "spineless attitude…. in excluding bona fide members of the working class" (members of the CPA). (Minutes, 30th May, 1927). The rescission was carried by 22 votes to 12, but no record was made of any debate. Swadling’s new position could be said to be diametrically opposed to his earlier stance.

Later in the year, he was elected as alternate delegate (McDonald delegate) to the ALP’s Provincial Conference and as one of the Union’s four delegates to the ALP’s Transport Group. (Minutes, 28/11/1927)

In the following year, he was involved in a fight with a member of the Union, A.Peterson, and laid a charge against him of "accusing members of this Union of being a lot of scabs" and members of other unions had asked Swadling "what was the matter with Peterson accusing men of being scabs". Swadling had spoken to Peterson who had admitted the offence

Peterson then stated that they had fought for the principle of the casual rate and in his opinion permanent men were only a lot of scabs. Swadling then said that he was one (permanent hand) and would not take that from him or anyone else. He then struck Peterson, they had a set-to until they were separated by a number of members….. (Minutes, 5/12/1927)

The Management Committee, which heard the charge on 5th December, adjourned the case until further information could be obtained on the basic allegation made by Peterson, that the permanent hands had taken a day off work at the employer’s request. It finally reported to a meeting that

Mr.Swadling had said that he could not produce witnesses as Mr. Peterson being a chargehand could use his power to their detriment in their employment. The witnesses seemed afraid of same….. The President ruled the business out of order owing to no witnesses. (Minutes, 19/12/1927)

At a Special Meeting in April 1929, Swadling, as Vice President, was in the Chair when the President, C.Weston, stepped down due to a notice of motion to be dealt with. The motion, of no confidence in the Executive Officers, was moved by G.Brennan, and Swadling also then announced that "he did not intend to remain in the Chair owing to the notice of motion to be dealt with", and Mahony defeated four other candidates to be elected as Chairman for the meeting. Among the speakers on the motion, only Sylvester drew the point that there was a political motivation behind the motion and he agreed with O’Keeffe that no charges had been laid against any member of the Executive or Management Committee. When put to a vote the motion of no confidence was defeated by 58 votes for and 111 against. (Minutes, 8/4/1929)

With the No Saturday Work ban continuing, as basic to the Union’s demand for a 44-hours week (and no work on Saturdays), there were still serious problems arising from other unionists doing Painters and Dockers work on Saturdays. Thus, once more, the Union was obliged to adopt a motion, moved by Swadling

That the Secretary correspond with all unions whose members trespass on our work on Saturdays and ask them to protect our interests in the attitude we are taking up in asking for double time on Saturdays. (Minutes, 11/11/1929).

In September, when dealing with arrangements for the Eight-Hour Day march, Swadling moved

That a placard be carried stating that the 48 hour bill had been made obsolete by the Premier’s (Mr. Bavin) action in his 40 hours rationing scheme and we now declare that the time is opportunate (sic) for a 36-hour week to absorb the unemployed. (Minutes, 15/9/1930)

Swadling was elected as the Union’s delegate to the ALP Provincial Conference for 1930. Later in the meeting, his motion was carried

That the delegate be instructed to vote against any of the ten applicants who stood for conscription. (Minutes, 3/2/1930)

As a Returned Soldier, Swadling held strong views against conscription and against supporters of conscription in the two referendums in 1916 and 1917.

In 1931, a group, calling itself the Australian Labor Army forwarded a copy of objectives and "methods of carrying out those objectives" and the meeting carried Swadling’s motion of support, but the minutes gave no mention of the objectives. Swadling, McDonald, Bingham, Dodds and Simons were elected to work with the District Council. (Minutes, 16/3/1931).

Jack Lang’s attempts to convert the Upper House to a body more amenable to Labor’s aims, found strong support in the Union when a meeting carried a motion from Swadling and J.Shepherd

That we the members of the Federated Ship Painters and Dockers Union emphatically protest against the action of His Excellency the Governor of New South Wales in refusing to accept the advice of his elected Ministers in their request for further appointments to the Legislative Council so as to get both Financial and Industrial Legislation which has been passed by the Legislative Assembly placed on the Statute Book of New South Wales. (Minutes, 20/7/1931).

Regardless of the efficacy of Lang’s second effort to load the Upper House with Labor appointees who would not rat on the essential purpose for their appointments (its abolition), the first indication of the hostility of the Governor towards a Labor Government was made apparent.

With the Depression continuing to destroy men’s hopes of ever getting regular work, the management of Cockatoo Island sought its own means for handling the increasing pressure to sack more workers. Swadling reported to a meeting that

Owing to the shortage of money the management had approached the Committee of all unions…..made certain suggestions re rationing of work which had been accepted. He had gone into the matter as the Delegate for Painters and Dockers and ultimately decided that eight men in the Dockers and Riggers section would be rationed one in five; Kennedy’s men (four) one week in four; Pert’s men (3), one week in four; Paint Shop (eight), one week in four; Osborne’s men not finalised. (Minutes, 28/9/1931)

The meeting endorsed the rationing of work as determined by Swadling. It appears as an undemocratic procedure, when the men at Cockatoo Island apparently were not consulted and the delegate’s decision was simply adopted without any expression of opposition.

In the 1932 election of officers, Swadling only nominated for the position of Delegate to the Labor Council and was elected.

At a Special Meeting in February, 1932, Swadling initiated a move for the Branch to give expression to its appreciation of Charlie Weston as a long-term President:

At this juncture Mr. Swadling informed the President that he was required outside. The Branch granted him permission to interview the person wishing to see him. The Vice President took the Chair. Immediately he left the room Mr. Swadling gave notice that he wanted to move suspension of standing orders to devise ways and means of showing the Branch’s appreciation to Mr. Weston who was shortly leaving for England.

Standing Orders were suspended and it was decided that the Management Committee be authorised to examine "ways and means". Charlie Weston returned to the meeting and tendered his resignation from the positions of President and Federal Councillor, which the meeting accepted with regret on a motion from the Branch Secretary, Jack McDonald. (Minutes, 1/2/1932)

With McDonald’s death in 1933, Swadling became the next N.S.W. Branch Secretary of the Union.

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