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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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Jack Sylvester

One of the most notable figures in the Ship Painters and Dockers Union for a few years, was JACK SYLVESTER, born John J.W. Sylvester on 27th July, 1894, died 2nd August, 1965. He enlisted in the British Army during the First World War, at the age of 20 years and was decorated for bravery in the field in 1915, for which he received a promotion to sergeant-major.

Sylvester arrived in Australia with his wife, Dora, in 1925 and after seeking work in various occupations, such as journalist and photographer, found his way into the Ship Painters and Dockers Union in 1927. At the half-yearly election of union officers, on 9th January, 1928, he was elected to the Union’s Management Committee. As an Auditor, elected at a previous election, he presented the Auditor’s report to the January meeting.

At that time, and for a long period of years, Sylvester lived at 24 Waterview Street, Balmain and during the Depression years, the rear portion of the premises was lived in at various times by unemployed seamen, miners and other workers. Amongst them was Danny Carlin, who some years later became a chargehand Painter and Docker at Cockatoo Island. One of Danny Carlin’s brothers was Joe Carlin, who became President of the Union in the late 1930s. Another Painter and Docker who became a close friend of Sylvester, but did not live at the Waterview Street address, was Bill Telfer, a Scottish miner who became the Chairman of the Mayor’s Relief Fund during the Depression. With the co-operation of Sylvester and the UWM and others living at Sylvester’s address, Bill Telfer, in 1931, established the closed-down Volunteer Hotel, in Darling Street, Balmain (on the corner of Stephen Street), as an Unemployed Workers Hostel.

On 30th April, 1928, the Union meeting elected Sylvester "Deputy Delegate" for Mort’s Dock, where he worked with the main delegate, and later Union President, Charlie Weston.

As a member of the Management Committee, and always in attendance at meetings, he expressed concern at other members of the Committee who failed to attend regularly. In July, he raised the matter of enforcing Rule 16, Resignation and Removal of Officers and asked for it to apply to three Committeemen (Jack Lannen, Emil van Rugge and Jack Parr). This led to the Secretary informing the meeting

That Mr. Parr had attended the meeting on Monday June 25th and Mr. Lannen on June 11th, therefore those two were in order. Mr. Van Rugge who was present stated that he had been away from the last meeting through sickness and that he had requested Mr. Lannen to apologise for him on the previous occasion.

The President ruled that he could not take any resolution to declare these seats vacant but that if Mr. Sylvester was prepared to move that such absences be taken from this date he would accept the resolution…..Mr. Sylvester dissented….Mr.Shaw acted as Vice President….Motion carried by 15 to 14.

At that stage in the meeting Bill O’Keeffe moved that

officials sign an appearance book every meeting night, and after a very heated discussion in which Mr. Sylvester was continuously ruling the President out of order, the motion was carried. (Minutes, 9/7/1928)

At a meeting in the following month, O’Keeffe raised the matter of unemployed members rostering for work. His motion was a simple one limited to one yard. The motion stated

That a ballot of members be taken for the purpose of bringing into force the Rotary System of Employment at Mort’s Dock.

In presenting his case, O’Keeffe argued that

Owing to the unfair methods adopted in the selection of men a number were getting a great amount of work and that others were getting practically nothing at all,

Sylvester sought to expand on O’Keeffe’s motion by moving an amendment which changed the words "Mort’s Dock" to "the whole of the Balmain side" and the amendment was seconded by Bill ("Snowy") Davis.

A lengthy debate followed before the motion and amendment were put to a vote and Sylvester’s amendment was carried. After this, the meeting discussed the mechanics of holding the ballot, times, dates, places for voting, etc. (Minutes, 6/8/1928) In the event , the proposal for a Roster System was defeated by a large majority. (Minutes, 3/9/1928)

With a keen desire for the Union and its officials to be respected, Sylvester laid a charge against a member for "using insulting language to the prejudice of the Union". The issue concerned a Union decision obliging members to wear their Union badge in a conspicuous place when seeking work and a chargehand had picked up two or three men who did not have a badge and another had a badge which was not visible. Sylvester stated that he had stopped the men and the chargehand then asked "where did he want the men to wear them and used insulting language". The chargehand admitted using the undoubtedly forceful language, not quoted in the minutes, and was fined five shillings (5/-d.) (Minutes 24/10/1928.)

In the election of officers, on 7th January, 1929, Sylvester was elected as Treasurer, displacing J.Hagen.

Some months later, he sought to stop the practice of men waiting all day at Mort’s Dock in the hope of getting a few hours work, with a proposal that members should not remain in the Paddock after 9 a.m., but should then retire to the Union Rooms and wait if they wished. Swadling, as Chairman, ruled the motion out of order, a ruling which was dissented from but the Chairman’s ruling was upheld. (Minutes, 13/5/1929) However, Sylvester then submitted his proposal as a notice of motion to rescind the decision which allowed men to stay at the Dock until 2 p.m. and when dealt with was carried by the meeting. (Minutes, 27/5/1929)

At the next fortnightly meeting, Sylvester resigned as Treasurer, and Davis, Hagen and E.Murphy resigned as members of the Management Committee, without any reasons being recorded other than

in view of certain decisions arrived at the last meeting, they had no desire to remain on the Management Committee. (Minutes, 6/6/1929)

What decisions upset them are difficult to understand, since Sylvester’s motion concerning Mort’s Dock was carried and no other matters of principle appeared in the minutes, except the Chairman’s refusal to allow a motion for Jack Ryan (of the Labor Council) to be heard on the subject of Arbitration and Strike, which ruling was not challenged. Ryan, at that time, was a member of the Communist Party as well as Research Officer for the Labor Council, but by 1929 was already falling out with the "Trades Hall Reds". Those resigning from official positions in the Ship Painters and Dockers Union would probably have been either members or strong supporters of the Communist Party at that time and therefore may have felt some resentment over the refusal to hear Jack Ryan. The refusal in itself was a strange decision since the Union was generally supportive of the Labor Council under its CPA dominance.

At the next fortnightly meeting, a motion instructing the officials attending a conference with the employers, to agree to a 44 hours week to be worked in 5 days or 6 to meet the convenience of employers was put forward. Sylvester, closed the loophole in the motion by proposing that it should include a condition that work on Saturdays be paid for at double time and this was accepted and carried by the meeting. (Minutes, 26/6/1929)

In April of the following year, as the effects of the Depression began to spread throughout the work force, a meeting debated the advisability of establishing a Distress Fund as a means of assisting members who were unemployed or in distressed circumstances through various causes. Sylvester entered the debate with a declaration that

The unemployed should go to the Government who were responsible for the conditions at present existing and not expect those who are not getting too much work to subscribe to the Fund.

While there was some support for this approach, including Pooley’s view that "we should try and devise some way for the Government to pay some dole to the unemployed", the meeting decided to refer the matter to the Management Committee to consider and propose some way of assisting the unemployed. (Minutes, 28/4/1930)

By this time, Sylvester, being among those who were obtaining the least amount of work, was taking an active part in the formation of the Unemployment Workers Movement, as well as attending Union meetings. At the meeting on 28th April, he advised that, as the Secretary of the Balmain U.W.M., he had written to the Labor Council with a request for the Council to approach the Ship Painters and Dockers Union for the free use of the Union’s hall for meetings of the unemployed.

Arising from this announcement, Bill Feilberg and Harry DeBoos moved "That the Secretary have full power to sanction the use of the Hall if he receives a telephone message from the Trades and Labor Council before correspondence is received". McDonald then reported that he had given the use of the Hall to the unemployed but had informed them that in future any application would have come through the Labor Council. This was done to ensure that someone responsible would be known in case of damage to the Hall. The motion was carried and the Secretary’s action endorsed. At a later meeting advice was received from the Labor Council "trusting the union will see its way clear to grant" use of the hall to the unemployed and McDonald reported that he had agreed to the use of the Hall on Wednesday afternoons. (Minutes, 12/5/1930) These developments were soon to become part of a bigger issue with regard to the U.W.M.

In July, Sylvester was one of 21 men arrested for their attempt to frustrate the police in evicting a large family from their rented home in Clovelly. The hearing of the case was delayed until November, when he was gaoled for six months, although released after two months by a newly-elected Labor Government which arranged for an inquiry to be conducted into the matter. The inquiry found that Sylvester was wrongly arrested.

In a meeting in September, Sylvester was obliged to dissent from the Chairman’s ruling disallowing discussion of a proposal for the Union to affiliate with the U.W.M. His dissent motion was carried and a motion by J.Hagen and W.Murphy was then put and carried

That we …. decide to affiliate with the Unemployed Workers Movement and to stand solidly behind them in all their aims and objects recognising the fact that perfect workingclass unity can only be obtained by the class cooperation of the employed and unemployed workers.

This decision was followed by a further issue arising from a request from the Labor Council for the Union to support the Council’s official organ "The Labor Weekly". A do-nothing motion, that the letter lay on the table, was countered by Sylvester and Hankinson moving, and having carried

That we repudiate the "Labor Weekly" and support the "Workers Weekly" (C.P.A. organ) (Minutes, 1/9/1930)

And thus, Sylvester, as a member of the Communist Party, found support for the Party in the Union.

But, this seemingly uncomplicated leaning towards the CPA was soon to take on a less amenable attitude. At the next fortnightly meeting, a request was received from the Rozelle Branch of the Unemployed Workers Union (formed in opposition to the UWM) to purchase 10 tickets for a dance. Simons and DeBoos moved for the purchase of the tickets, but Swadling and Terry sought

That the matter stand over until we investigate the aims and objects of the UWM and the UWU.

The Chairman, Jim Shaw, ruled the whole business out of order, without any reasons being recorded, and the meeting did not take the matter any further. (Minutes, 15/9/1930.)

A month later, a letter was received from the UWM requesting use of the Union Hall for its weekly meetings, each Tuesday night. Eddy Dean and Albert Fisk moved that the correspondence "lay on the table". "Yargo" Terry asked the Secretary if a previous resolution re letting the Hall to the unemployed on receipt of a letter from the Labor Council, had been rescinded. McDonald replied that the resolution was still on the books together with a further resolution requiring a letter from the organisation applying. The President then ruled that the second decision, having been carried by a Special Meeting cancelled out the first decision. Terry dissented from this ruling but, when put to a vote, Weston’s ruling was upheld.

Following this by-play, E.Hill and E.Cameron then moved an amendment to Dean’s motion, to accede to the UWM’s request. After a lengthy discussion the Secretary stated that a split had taken placed in the UWM and he had been informed that afternoon by Mr. H. DeBoos the secretary of the other section, that Mr. J.Sylvester was not the secretary of the UWM.

Mr. McDonald suggested that the matter should stand over until some finality was reached as there were two conflicting bodies in Balmain. Although Mr. Hill had stated that the UWM was only recognised by very few people he did not agree with that statement as the Trades and Labor Council which represented 70 or 80 organisations had endorsed the UWU. Mr. Sylvester then handed in a letter signed by the State Secretary of the UWM, Mr. R. Shayler, informing the Secretary that there was a bogus outfit in Balmain under the direction of DeBoos and O’Carroll travelling around under the banner of the UWM and that they were not recognised by the State Executive. There was only one Branch of the UWM in Balmain and that Comrade Sylvester was Secretary of same.

Hill’s amendment was then voted on and defeated and Dean’s motion, tantamount to taking no action, was carried. (Minutes, 13/10/1930.)

The division in the UWM in Balmain continued for some time, but Sylvester’s standing as the leader of the UWM was generally recognised as was the fact that he was still at that stage a well-known member of the Communist Party. It was not long after, however, that Sylvester broke with the CPA and became the leading figure in the Left Opposition (to the CPA) group. That group later took up the Trotskyist position with Sylvester at its head for some years. The few who sought to establish the UWU, DeBoos and Sean O’Carroll, still endeavoured to carry on but with little response or support from the community in the Balmain district.

By November, the requests for use of the Union Hall by the UWM were still the subject of argument and a decision was once more made

That owing to there being a faction fight the Hall be not allowed to either body until the parties settle up their grievances. (Minutes, 10/11/1930)

As mentioned earlier, Sylvester was one of 21 men arrested during the Clovelly evictions and, in November, was gaoled for six months but released after two months by a newly-elected State Labor Government. The matter was reported to a Union meeting on 24th November, when the International Class War Prisoners Association wrote seeking Union support for a protest "against the class biassed action, judgment and anti-working class actions in sending members of the working class to gaol", and Ted ("Bolshie") Hill and Hagen moved

That this Branch of the Ship Painters and Dockers Union protests against the imprisonment of Shayler and Huggett and the 21 Clovelly men and that we demand their immediate release…….

The poorer attitude of Pooley and J.Richards found expression in their amendment "that the correspondence lay on the table". The motion was supported by Swadling, Weston and McDonald and was carried after defeat of the Pooley amendment. (Minutes, 24/11/1930)

As mentioned earlier, Sylvester was released after serving two months of the six months sentence. But, some three weeks after his release, the brutality of the police and their hatred for anything which might be construed as anti-status quo, was clearly demonstrated when Sylvester was picked up by a carload of police, bashed and charged with an invented crime which, when it came before a magistrate, was rejected out of hand. (see, Red Hot, by Hall Greenland)

In February, 1931, soon after being released, Sylvester attended the Union meeting at which it required the Chairman (Weston) to give his casting vote for a donation of £2.2.0 to the UWM. Sylvester apparently had nothing to say on this issue and, in fact, is only recorded at the end of the meeting, when he asked the President whether only financial members could move motions, to which Weston replied that this was the case. The minutes note

Mr. Sylvester then handed a motion which he intended to move to Mr. Hagen a financial member who read it. The President ruled that it would have to be a notice of motion.

The motion stated: "That every member of this Union whether financial or unfinancial be given full rights of membership in the Union irrespective of what previous rules may be in existence." Clearly, Sylvester, while expressing an important principle affecting all loyal members of the Union, many of whom were unable to maintain financial standing due to the Depression, also had in mind his own position. For he had not worked for some time and had given his every free moment to the needs of the Unemployed Workers Movement, the Communist Party and the anti-eviction fights as well as suffering imprisonment and police bashing; and he was undoubtedly unfinancial from the start of the Depression.

But, the police bashing came before a Special Meeting of the Branch on 2nd march, 1931, when O’Keeffe and P.Mitchell moved that Standing Orders be suspended "to deal with the question of the assaulting of members of the working class by the Police". When this was carried, O’Keeffe, after an introductory speech moved

That we the members of the Federated Ship Painters and Dockers Union emphatically protest to the Government against the brutal assault by the police on two members of the working class, viz., J.Sylvester and W.Thomas on Monday 23rd February, 1931, and demand that a full open inquiry be made into the case.

While not opposing the motion, Swadling asked for fuller particulars…."as there were so many conflicting rumours going about". However, this aspect was quickly clarified when the Federal Secretary, Bob Mahony, addressed the meeting, stating

that he had been requested to see Mr. Sylvester which he had done and there was no doubt whatever that Sylvester had got a very rough handling. He then read a letter he had received from Mrs. Sylvester and also Dr. Porter’s certificate along with the statement that had been made by Sylvester himself. He had had the whole of the matter typed and had handed the same to a member of the Government who gave him an assurance that an enquiry would be made.

Mr. McDonald also reported having seen Dr.Porter and had been informed that Sylvester had got a very rough knocking about and he was of the opinion that if the Magistrate asked that Sylvester should be examined on the day that the case takes place, viz., 5th March, he would be able to see for himself the extent of the damage done, as the bruises were so extensive that they would not have disappeared by that time.

O’Keeffe’s motion was put and carried unanimously. (Minutes, 2/3/1931.)

At the next fortnightly meeting, the fate of Mahony’s representations and the promise of an inquiry into the bashing of Sylvester were reported on when McDonald read a letter which he had sent to the Chief Secretary (as the Minister responsible for the Police) protesting against the brutal assault on Sylvester and Thomas by police. He also read the memo received from the Minister’s Under Secretary acknowledging receipt of McDonald’s letter and declaring

I am to say that the members of the union possess the same civil rights as every other citizen. If those civil rights are invaded the remedy lies with the Courts not with this Department.

To this arrogant and callous disregard for the blatant misuse of police powers, Swadling and Harry Walke moved a motion which was carried

That the General Secretary and the Secretary along with the member of the Government who had promised Mr Mahony that an inquiry would be made should interview the Chief Secretary. (Minutes, 16/3/1931)

Nothing came of the representations and Sylvester continued with his work with the UWM and the Communist Party, and as an unfinancial member of the Union. But then came the Union’s Stop Work Meeting in October, when the President was obliged to ask whether there was "any person in the room who was not a member of the Union".

On receiving no answer, he stated that his attention had been drawn to the fact that Mr.J.Sylvester was present and he was not a member of the union and he would have to ask him to retire, as he had been struck off the books, owing to him not having paid any contributions since March 1929.

After some discussion Mr.E.Murphy moved "that he be allowed to attend the meeting".

The President ruled the motion out

Mr.O’Keeffe dissented from the Chairman’s ruling.

….The President stated that the Rules of the organisation laid down that if a man was absent for a period of one year or more (Rule 21) and did not make application for cancellation of arrears (Rule 31), the Secretary had no alternative only to strike him off the book. Mr. Sylvester was responsible for his own position. The President also stated that it had been suggested that Mr.Sylvester be allowed to address the meeting in the same category as Mr. Shelley and that could not be done unless a resolution was carried inviting him to do so.

The Vice President then put the motion of dissent against the Chairman’s ruling which resulted in the ruling being "sustained" by 43 votes to 23 against. Sylvester then retired from the meeting. (Minutes, 20/10/1931)

A few months later, in 1932, Sylvester, living on "relief" and the dole began writing, producing and distributing (with the help of the writer and others) a roneoed foolscap paper entitled The Tocsin as the official publication of the UWM. The paper ran for about four years, financed by one shilling (1/-d.) per week advertisements in the paper paid for by local business people. Later, when the Government introduced relief work instead of the dole, he was given road work for three weeks in every five weeks as a married man with children, and he sought to organise the relief workers into a Union. The name of the paper was changed to Red Light (the signal to workers that the Foreman was approaching), but this venture was far from successful.

[NOTE: For further biographical material on Sylvester, dealing with his leadership of the Left Opposition to the Communist Party in Australia, an opposition which, still led by Sylvester, developed into the Trotskyist Fourth International, in opposition to the Third International of the Communist Party, see Red Hot by Hall Greenland.]

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