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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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Charles Weston

Among new members admitted to the Union on 5th February, 1917, was CHARLES WESTON. From the outset, he appeared to be a likeable and hard-working man whose popularity grew with his years in the Union. It appears that he first appeared as showing an interest in the industry and the Union in 1920, when he attended a fortnightly Union meeting and asked for information about a gang of Ironworkers sweeping the dock floor at Woolwich and assisting in docking vessels. On that occasion, involving a traditional Painters and Dockers’ job, it was left to the Secretary, Bob Mahony, to take it up with the company and the Ironworkers Union. (Minutes, 19/7/1920)

By 1923, Weston had become sufficiently well-known to be elected President of the Branch and was therefore President when the Union took its first step on the long road to a 44-hour week. This was a decision for the Union to "fall into line with all other Federal Unions policy adopted at the respective workshops". (Minutes, 5/1/1926)

He chaired a meeting (on 9/1/1926) of members at Mort’s Dock (where he was employed) in opposition to the introduction of the permanent rate. This meeting was also attended by "Jock" Garden, Secretary of the Labor Council. The meeting had been convened when the company handed a number of members notices of being transferred from casual to permanent hire, which notices they had handed back. As a result of refusing to accept the employer’s edict, and the threat of dismissal, the men refused to dock a ship. Members in other gangs were ordered to take up the ship’s lines and they refused, as did the Shipwrights when asked to work without Painters and Dockers. The Shipwrights were dismissed. And the strike mounted. Eventually, Garden claimed to have obtained an agreement on the issues and received a vote of thanks from the members.

Weston was President at another meeting when he was obliged to asked Bill O’Keeffe whether he held office in any other union or whether he represented any other union on the Labor Council. O’Keeffe claimed to have resigned all positions when he left the Sheet Metal Workers Union, and Weston then ruled that O’Keeffe was entitled to run for office in the Painters and Dockers Union. (Minutes, 11/1/1926). However, the moves against O’Keeffe persisted and later in the meeting, while Weston insisted that his ruling must stand, other members pressed for holding O’Keeffe out of any right to nominate. Eventually, Harry Simons and Albert Fisk moved that his name be removed from the Ballot Papers and this was carried, Weston not having ruled the motion out of order on the basis of his earlier ruling. (Minutes, 11/1/1926)

The strike against permanency did not conclude with "Jock" Garden’s agreement and, in fact continued for some time. The Labor Council’s Disputes Committee issued a directive to the Union to convene a special meeting for 10 a.m. which would be attended by Garden and Jack Beasley. When the meeting opened, these two addressed it with strong arguments such as:

the Ship Painters and Dockers Union …. were in a fairly good position, but that 1150 other men had been locked out and that it was in the interests of these men that the members of the Ship Painters and Dockers should go back to work….

The advice was accepted by a vote of 70 to 56, which on a division became 98 to 57. In the ensuing Court hearings, Weston attended in the interests of the Mort’s Dock men and thus, heard at first hand, the President of the Court (Sir John Quick) hand down a decision on 14th April, 1926, which gave the right to the employer to use "permanent" men for some jobs. Like others affected, he was not happy with the outcome and supported the men when they again refused to accept permanency. The matter continued to be argued for some time afterwards and Weston was always a part of the conferences and Court cases involved.

In early 1927, Weston was confronted with a serious issue at Mort’s Dock, where he continued to be the job delegate. It began when the Branch Secretary, McDonald, was told by the Foreman Painter,

That he had received instructions to cut air off and take away the air hoses in the tanks on the "Iron Chief". He was informed that if he cut the air off the men would knock off as it was a breach of the Award (Clause 17).

The instruction to cut off the air supply, with its callous disregard for the workers’ well-being, was indicative of the employers’ attitude towards cost-cutting devices when set against men’s health. The stoppage occurred as soon as the air was turned off and the men then demanded their wages be made up and paid to them immediately. In the flurry of arguments over payment of wages and the need for a supply of fresh air in the tanks and a demand for payment for waiting time, the Manager and the Superintendent of the shipping company agreed to restore the air hoses and meet the demands re payment. The men then decided, at a meeting in the Paddock, chaired by Weston, that they would resume work on the Monday morning "with no victimisation". (Minutes, 21/2/1917).

Weston also sat in on conferences over the disputed areas of work involved in painting new steel work and in slinging steel sections, and was a party to the final outcome in which much of the work was agreed upon as that of Painters and Dockers. (Minutes, 7/3/1927)

During March,

A representative meeting of the members employed at Mort’s Dock was held in the Paddock on Friday March 25th to appoint a delegate at Mort’s Dock….

Mr. O’Keeffe moved and Mr. H.Thorpe seconded that the meeting recommend to the Branch that Mr. C.Weston be the accredited delegate.

However, an amendment moved by Jim Shaw was carried which provided for the President to represent the men in the same way as the Secretary would "as had been done in the past". Rather than any sign of not wanting Weston as their delegate, this decision showed the extent of his popularity in establishing him on the same footing as the Secretary for Mort’s Dock purposes.

The No Saturday Work decision, as the means of enforcing a 44-hours working week, was constantly a source of dispute with other unions which sought to ignore it. At Mort’s Dock, the issue was more noticeable than elsewhere, and thus Weston was often called on to deal with it. Thus, at the Branch meeting on 13th June, O’Keeffe was elected as Acting Chairman because Weston was absent attending a meeting with the Shipwrights Union over the tradesmen working without Painters and Dockers on Saturdays. He was later to report that he had met the President of the Shipwrights Society who "was surprised to hear… as that was not the spirit of the resolution carried by his Organisation" and he asked Weston for the names of the shipwrights involved. (Minutes, 25/7/1927)

While attending to the wide variety of job problems at Mort’s Dock, including such matters as ensuring that members were paid the Coal Lumpers’ rate of pay when moving small amounts of coal, as per agreement, Weston also had to keep au fait with the many matters which came before Union meetings, to determine whether they were permissible for attention by the union. Thus, he considered it proper for the Union to hear addresses by two officials from the Labor Council "on the appeal of Sacco and Vanzetti, they having the authority of the International Defence Committee". The meeting agreed, and allotted 15 minutes to each speaker. It was unfortunate that the night on which the speakers were heard, was also the day on which the two framed-up Italian workers had already been executed in America, regarded as one of the most blatant and venomous attacks on freedom of thought and expression in the history of the labor movement. (see Appendix 13(f))

As well, his position as President placed him as a member of the delegation, together with McDonald and O’Keeffe, to meet the Minister for Labor and Industry (introduced by Bob Mahony, MLC) on the attempts to obtain a waiting shed for Painters and Dockers on the Sydney side. This was the first of many attempts over the next few years to establish a more civilised set-up for men seeking work, than hanging about on street corners or sitting in the gutter while they waited for possible jobs with the shipping companies. The State Government saw no urgency in the matter and the shipping companies disclaimed any responsibility in the Union’s claim (Minutes, 26/3/1928 and 30/4/1928)

So full was his calendar, that at one stage O’Keeffe was elected as the Collector of Union dues at Mort’s and, on another occasion, Sylvester was elected as "Deputy Delegate"(Minutes 30/4/1928) Even so, Weston still found time to take lists around the Dock for J.Milne, "laid off for some considerable time and in all probability he will not be able to work again".

(Minutes, 14/5/1928). At this meeting, he was obliged to defend McDonald from an attack for having worked on Saturday contrary to the No Saturday Work rule. Weston ruled

that the position of the Secretary was entirely different as he would be carrying out the business of the Organisation and would not be working for the capitalist class. (Minutes, 14/5/1928)

Weston also attended meetings of the Maritime Transport Group of unions as a Branch’s delegate, and thus joined McDonald in reporting on the major strike by the Marine Cooks which involved a demand for more men in the galley and the use of a roster system for employment. McDonald and Weston expressed full support for the strike. (Minutes, 11/6/1928)

The President was also involved in a dispute over use of a paint spraying machine and during inspections on its use,

Messrs. Meagher and Weston were later discovered with paint spray on them, Mr. Weston having the greater amount on his hat, clothes and boots. (Minutes, 11/6/1928)

The inspection led to the Union banning the use of the machine, but caused concern when other unions were found to be using the equipment at times to the detriment of the Ship Painters and Dockers Union.

Weston reported as a delegate to the Labor Council (together with McDonald and Swadling) on the call for funds for the ALP

The Labor Council had decided that each delegate to the Council and full-time union officials should contribute £1 to the Labor Defence Fund. He and the Secretary had each contributed 10/-d. He did not know what Mr. Swadling had contributed. (Minutes, 17/9/1928)

With McDonald absent on leave, Weston, as Acting Secretary, reported on unfinancial members on permanent hire at Garden Island and was instructed to bring such members before the Management Committee "to show cause why the Branch should not take whatever action" was deemed necessary.

In January 1929, Weston was re-elected as President and Delegate to the Labor Council and, in that position, authorised the Secretary to advertise in the Labor Daily notifying members of a demonstration organised by the Labor Council against the attempts to reintroduce a 48-hour week. A month later, he was instructed to act with the Secretary to approach any shipowners not covered by the Award to try and convince them to accept the conditions provided under the Award. (Minutes 27/2/1929.)

In March, a Special Meeting was convened when the Secretary received petitions from members working at the A.U.S.N., the Union Steamship Company, Cockatoo Island and Mort’s Dock. The petitions contained 200 names and Weston sought to have the matter dealt with by the Management Committee "owing to confusion on the decisions of the previous meeting on the 44 hours". The Special Summons Meeting then proceeded to debate a motion to rescind the 4th March decision "That no man work more than 44 hours per week inclusive of overtime".

When the meeting opened, Weston was asked to rule on whether the motion was constitutional, since less than 14 days elapsed since the decision was made and Weston ruled that the motion was out of order.

A very heated discussion took place the President requesting the members to give every speaker a patient hearing and he hoped that no interjections would take place so they could get the business over…..

The debate centred around a motion to defer the matter until the 14 clear days had occurred. This led to an amendment proposing a return to the status quo as it was prior to 4th March. A further amendment declaring the matter unconstitutional was ruled out of order by Weston, but dissent from his ruling was carried by 118 votes to 34. The meeting then defeated the amendment seeking the status quo by 126 votes to 40 and carried the further amendment declaring the matter unconstitutional. (Minutes, 11/3/1929).

On 8th April, an attack on the Union’s officials through a motion of no confidence was launched by G. Brennan, and Weston announced that he would not chair the meeting which would deal with the issue. Vice President Swadling also refused to chair the meeting and eventually Mahony was elected as chairman. A long and heated debate occurred at this meeting, during which J.Hagen a member of the Management Committee under fire, wanted to know what they had done to merit the censure and Murphy declared that

he had done more for the Union than ever Brennan did, and he had known Weston at all times could be found working in the interests of the Union.

The motion was defeated by 58 for and 111 against.

In one of the many attempts to establish a more equitable distribution of work, Alf Hindman proposed that the motion on the books which debarred members from moving from one job to another at Mort’s Dock while there were members out of work be extended to all dockyards. This produced amendments seeking to extend the rule to all respondents to the Award and banning changing jobs whether there were men available or not. Weston’s concern for the unemployed members of the Union was shown when he left the chair to express support for the motion which was opposed by Swadling, Mahony and others and when put to a vote the motion and the amendments were all defeated. (Minutes, 29/4/1929)

In this period when the Timberworkers strike was at its height, Weston was appointed as Acting Secretary during the protracted illness of the Secretary, Jack McDonald. In this capacity, Weston reported to a meeting on a conference he had attended to discuss a two-way transfer system between the Union and Seamen’s Union. The outcome was uncertain when Weston reported that agreement arrived at the meeting differed from the views expressed in a letter from the Seamen’s Union Federal Secretary, Jacob Johnson. The matter was deferred for clarification, but Weston was concerned over the possible trend away from agreement by the Seamen’s officials.

The Union continued to make fortnightly donations of £50 to the Timberworkers until a meeting in May, when a motion by E.A.Hill to make a further donation of £50 was opposed by Brennan on the grounds

That it is illegal to support any Organisation on strike and further stated that he had received legal advice on the matter and in view of that he did not feel inclined to sign any more cheques which would be drawn for the purpose of donating funds to the Timber Workers.

Weston chose to ignore these arguments and permitted the motion to be debated, after which it was put and carried. (Minutes, 27/5/1929.)

A variety of problems and issues made demands on Weston, including members rebelling against the union decision to leave the Paddock by 9 a.m. each morning and await calls for labour at the union Rooms. On this issue he was instructed to bring the men before the Management Committee. And other members were ignoring the No Saturday Work rule at Morrison and Sinclair. They, too, were to be hailed before the Committee. (Minutes, 10/6/1929). Later meetings decided to take no further action against both groups of men , but the ban on Saturday work continued.

Continuing in his capacity as Acting Secretary, during McDonald’s persistent illness, Weston also accepted nomination as a delegate from the Union together with Swadling to a conference convened by the International Class War Prisoners Aid, an organisation which organised many demonstrations and other forms of action on behalf of people being victimised in one way or another by Governments, such as the frame-up of the twelve IWW men. (Minutes, 22/7/1929).

Back in the Chair once more when McDonald had finally recovered from his long illness, Weston accepted a motion of which notice had been given to donate a further £50 to the Timberworkers’ strike. (Minutes, 19/8/1929.)

Later in the year, Weston permitted a motion to be moved for a donation of £50 to be made to striking miners, even though the Rules debarred such a motion for any amount above £3 unless notice had been given. His sympathy with the strikers was clear from his ruling that owing to special circumstances, he was prepared to allow the motion provided that it was not taken as a precedent. However, when objection was taken to his ruling, he concurred with the calling of a Special Meeting "to deal with financially assisting the miners (a) by voting a sum of money from the funds of the Union and (b) by a compulsory levy of 2/-d. per week." (Minutes, 18/12/1929).

Following his election unopposed as President and delegate to the Labor Council, on 6th January, 1930, Weston accepted a motion from E.A.Hill to donate a further £50 to the Miners Relief Fund, which was carried.

In May, 1930, Weston found himself in conflict with McDonald over the need for the Union to take a position on a strike by Engineers at Mort’s Dock. He reported to a Union meeting that

owing to the Engineers’ strike at Mort’s Dock he thought that the Organisation should define its action in the event of non-unionists being employed in their place. He had informed the members on Thursday afternoon May 8th that a meeting of the employees at the Dock would be called to discuss what the attitude of members would be…..

This report led to a heated debate involving a motion for deferring any action until the Labor Council dealt with the matter and amendments aimed at doing nothing until members were directly implicated.

The Secretary stated that he had consulted with the President but because arrangements had been made by the President to hold a meeting at Mort’s Dock before starting time Friday morning, he should explain the position and only accept a recommendation to call a Special Meeting Monday night. The reason for that being that….the whole of the members of the Branch should have an opportunity to define their attitude towards the troubles. The Branch was affiliated with the Labor Council and the ACTU and their policy was no action until organisations likely to be implicated have the right to discuss their attitude and in connection with the leaflet that had been handed to the President by Mr. Feilberg entitled "All Out at Mort’s Dock. Elect a Strike Committee. Extend to all Shops" (and that owing to the Engineers at Mort’s Dock having struck against the victimisation of their comrades who were sacked because they refused to accept a 20 per cent reduction in shift rates, we must immediately commence picketing the jobs and force the rest of the workers, Ship Painters and Dockers, Ironworkers, etc to fall into line and thereby completely tie up the job), whoever had issued the pamphlet did not have the courage to put their names on, but it appeared to him that some outside influence was trying to force this Organisation to take part in a strike, and that the members should follow out the policy laid down by the ACTU and the Labor Council.

The President then addressed the members and he thought that some decision should be arrived at as to what policy should be followed and not wait until scabs were brought in and then decide whether the members should work with them or not. He, for one, would not work alongside a scab.

Weston’s attempt to have the Union express some solidarity with the Engineers was passed over in favour of McDonald’s advice to rely on the leadership of the Labor Council and the ACTU. (Minutes, 12/5/1930)

A month after this issue was debated, the problems at Morrison and Sinclair’s surfaced again, when a report was given to a meeting of the Secretary and President having met the father and son combination (Sinclair senior and junior) on the constant complaints about tradesmen doing Painters and Dockers work. Sinclair junior had adopted the position that Painters and Dockers "were not the only people who could drive winches" and "if we took strong exception … the Waterside Workers might claim the right of doing all that class of work…"

Weston declared to the meeting

he was of the opinion that Morrison and Sinclair’s were not very much concerned about work for the Painters and Dockers and thought that in a very short time they would be trying to do without labourers doing any work. In the matter of hours, Weston added, the company was intending to alter their starting and knocking off time and the hours to be similar to Mort’s Dock and Howard Smith’s. Both he and the Secretary had agreed that the hours mentioned which meant a 44 hours week in five days would be satisfactory to the Branch. (Minutes, 10/6/1930)

However, the company’s letter to the Union on the hours question was different to what had been said at the conference. In the debate which followed, it was finally decided that the President and Secretary go back to the company for clarification on the hours and other working conditions.

When the matter was reported to another meeting a fortnight later, it included advice from the Federal Secretary, Mahony, that the Morrison and Sinclair offer of a 42½ hours week with three quarters of an hour for dinner should be accepted. But the meeting on 23rd June rejected this advice and the offer by the company.

Weston’s views on employers, Courts and Governments may be judged from his opening a discussion at a Union meeting on "certain statements" made by Judge Detheridge "on the economic conditions of industry etc during the hearing of the AWU case". By his remarks, Detheridge had signalled profitability as preferable to Higgins "living wage" for determining a basic wage. Arising from his raising the matter, he then accepted a motion from E.A.Hill and E.Murphy, which the meeting carried

That the following protest be forwarded to the Labor Council, That we protest against the statement of Judge Detheridge made in the Arbitration Court during the hearing of the AWU case, viz., ‘that it did not matter which government was in power they would have to take into consideration the economic conditions of the industry etc’, and we also endorse the action of the AWU in withdrawing from the case. (Minutes, 23/6/1930)

In November, Weston asked leave to be excused from the meeting because

He had been served with a summons to appear before the Court next morning charged with taking part in an unauthorised procession. . He had not taken part and had to go and find some witness on his behalf. (Minutes, 2411/1930.)

In the half-yearly elections, held on 5th January, 1931, Weston was re-elected unopposed as President. He was also elected as a Federal Councillor.

Early in the meeting, he ruled out of order an attempt to oblige all pick-ups of labour for Mort’s Dock to take place in the Paddock

owing to it being too vague and that they had claims before the Court which affected the whole of the members of the Federation. In these claims we were asking for two picking up places.

The two picking up places were one for the Sydney side and one for Balmain and any other employers. (Minutes, 5/1/1931)

At the February meeting, a motion was moved by Simon and Bingham, which was tantamount to a rejection of a request by the UWM for a donation. An amendment by J. Hagen and Olsson, to donate £2.2.0 was then moved. When put to the meeting, it resulted in a tied vote and Weston gave his casting vote in favour of the donation. (Minutes, 2/2/1931)

The continued demarcation squabbles at Mort’s Dock were once more manifested in a conference between officials of the Ironworkers and the Ship Painters and Dockers (including Weston). On this occasion, Weston joined Mahony, McDonald, Swadling and Dodd in reporting a satisfactory, outcome, with the signing of a letter addressed to the company from both unions, spelling out the various areas of work to be performed by the members of each union. (Minutes, 2/3/1931)

In October, Weston was obliged to apply the Rules against Jack Sylvester (who was still riding high as the leader of the UWM in Balmain), being permitted to attend the meeting, because he had failed to make himself financial for a long period (from March 1929) and had been struck off the books. An attempt by O’Keeffe, to dissent from the Chairman’s ruling was defeated and Sylvester left the meeting. (Minutes, 20/10/1931)

At the same meeting, Weston introduced another issue which he considered called for an expression of views from the union. This was the matter of

the new registration form which had to be filled in by members making application for the dole.

This concerned what was known as the "Thirty-two Questionnaire Form", requiring answers to a wide variety of personal and totally inappropriate questions concerning parents, grandparents, etc. The meeting carried a motion by O’Keeffe for the Union to join an ALP delegation to the Premier to protest against the outrageous requirements.

The elections at the half-yearly meeting on 11th January, 1932, saw Weston once more returned unopposed as President of the Branch. However, in February, he resigned all positions as he proposed to return to England

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 a suspension of standing orders to devise ways and means of showing the Branch’s appreciation to Mr.Weston who was shortly leaving for England.

When standing orders were suspended, it was decided

That Mr. Weston was leaving and it was fitting to make a presentation of some sort to him for the services he had rendered the Organisation.

Weston returned to the meeting and tendered his resignation from all positions he held in the Union. This was accepted with regret on a motion from the Secretary, Jack McDonald, which he supported by stating

He understood recently that Mr.Weston’s father had died and that there was no one at home with the mother who had written out requesting him to come home. We would all be sorry at losing him but he was pleased to see that the President had decided to comply with the wishes of his mother. (Minutes, 15/2/1932.)

Following acceptance of Weston’s resignation, Bill Swadling moved that the resignation be "received this night next month" which was put and carried and the Vice President then asked Weston

To complete his term as President at the meeting. Mr. Weston then returned to the Chair and thanked the members. (Minutes, 15/2/1932.)

The Committee of Management met a week later and decided that the "half-crown fee" paid to each Committee member for attending Committee meetings, for that meeting, should be put into the fund towards the presentation to Weston. It was also decided that collection lists should be sent around the jobs and that a committee of four should interview business people in the district for donations. Finally the Committee agreed that the presentation should take the form of "a watch (suitably inscribed) and chain or a watch suitably inscribed" The intention was to allow Weston to choose between a watch and chain or a wrist watch (which was still somewhat of a novelty at the time.) Weston later advised the Secretary of his preference for a wristlet watch, for which McDonald would speak to the Managing Director of Hoffnung's (a well-known warehousing company of the time.)

At the meeting on 29th February, O’Keeffe outvoted other contenders to replace Weston as President and as Delegate to the Union’s Federal Council.

On 14th March, 1932, the President, Bill O’Keeffe called on the Federal Secretary, Bob Mahony, to make the presentation, for which Mahony stated that it was a most pleasant duty to do so and went on

Mr.Weston had joined the Union in the March Quarter of 1917 and had proven his worth by remaining loyal right throughout the 1917 trouble. He had been elected President nine years ago and had represented the Union on the Labor Council for a number of years. He had also been elected to Federal Council in January 1929….

The inscription on the wristlet watch read

Presented to Mr.C.Weston by the Ship Painters and Dockers Union, in appreciation of his services as President for nine years.

In reading out the inscription, Mahony expressed the hope

that every time he looked at it he would remember his work mates and fellow unionists in Australia.

Other speakers followed Mahony including McDonald, Swadling, Murphy, Trainor, Carlin, Walke and Dodds and before Weston rose to respond "the members then sang ‘For he’s a jolly good fellow’ and wished Mr. Weston bon voyage". And Charlie Weston responded to the general good wishes. With regard to Bob Mahony’s wish that he keep the Union in touch with the events overseas, he said

that the opportunity would be limited to forward any information which would be of any use to the Organisation owing to the fact that in England he would be living far away from the Industrial movement.

(Minutes, 14/3/1932.)

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