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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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Thomas Sloan

THOMAS SLOAN raised the proposal of the Union engaging in a co-operative system in order to do away with the middle man

they make a profit out of the workmen that the men might easily have under his system. he said he had interviewed certain persons & they were agreeable to give the Union the work. He also said it was his intention if the Union did not take the matter up to organise a gang & do the work themselves.

He was obliged to give notice of motion, and this was debated at the next meeting, when he stated that his idea was

to take the work direct from the Ship Owners & divide the profits amongst the men…. He referred to the fact that great dissatisfaction existed among the men in reference to the way men were employed at the Dock.

His motion was seconded by H.Tickner and strongly debated. When put to a vote, it was defeated 60 votes to 58. (Minutes, 22/1/1906)

Sloan lost popularity when he supported Creighton’s anti-Union action over accepting an individual contract at Mort’s Dock.

Sloan did not rest on his defeat, but immediately carried out his expressed intention as signalled when he moved his motion. Mahony was thus obliged to report to a meeting

that certain members of the Union had had a meeting on Wednesday January 31st 1906 for the purpose of doing work on the co-operative principle. The Union had at a previous meeting decided against the system. He thought that it was wrong in principle to adopt when members found they could not get a resolution passed at the Union meeting to hold a meeting of their own for that purpose. Each member joining the Union agrees to abide by the Rules , By-laws & Regulations and they should abide by the resolution carried by the Union, otherwise no finality could be reached on any matter.

Mahony’s report was discussed by the meeting, but no decision was made other than to let the matter stand over for the present. (Minutes, 5/2/1906)

Nothing more was heard of the matter and presumably Sloan did not proceed with his scheme.

However, Sloan soon found himself in hot water over the meeting he had called. He was obliged to ask permission of a Union meeting to explain his conduct in advertising the meeting of the "progressive wing" of the Union. His explanation involved exonerating Tickner and others whose names had been added to the notice calling the meeting. Sloan explained that he had added the names without their permission. His explanation was deferred for further consideration. (Minutes, 2/4/1906.)

But Sloan’s conduct in the matter once more was aired when, at the next fortnightly meeting, Mahony reported on a letter he had received which apparently was intended for Sloan and which called for subscriptions

for a strike against competition in Labour etc and signed by Mr. Sloan as Secretary with the words Painters and Dockers Union in brackets. This may give people to understand that the lists were issued by the Union. He therefore thought it necessary to bring the matter before the Union…. It was ultimately decided to let the matter stand over. The Secretary then handed the letter to Mr. Tickner to be given to Mr. Sloan. (Minutes, 18/4/1906)

His views once more got an airing some two years later when the issue of a fair distribution of work was being discussed and Talbot had proposed

That men present themselves for employment at the usual turn to time and after waiting a ¼ of an hour not being required they then leave the establishment until the next turn to time. He said there was a lot of dissatisfaction over the way work was distributed and he considered if the motion was carried it would go a long way to solve the difficulties.

….Mr. Gillies said the Employer has the right to employ whom he pleases and we could not dictate to him whom he shall employ.

Mr. Sloan supported the remarks of Mr.Gillies and further said that until we control our own labour no redress can be made….

Talbot’s motion and an amendment by Scrimshaw, aimed at talking to the company on the problem, were defeated and the existing unsatisfactory conditions under which men were picked up, was allowed to continue. (Minutes, 31/8/1908.) At the same time, Sloan’s somewhat contradictory views seemed to indicate his preference for a system of Union control in the picking up of labour, even though he sided with Gillies on the employer’s right to employ "whom he pleases". It was to be many years before the "bulls", "bosses’ pets", "pink eyes", lost this "employers’ right".

At an earlier meeting, Tom Sloan expressed his opposition to a proposed set of rules being prepared for a Maritime Council, "on the grounds of provision being made therein for conciliation". ) But Talbot’s motion to adopt the proposed rules was carried. (Minutes, 20/7/1908.)

In the matter of seeking work, Sloan supported Talbot’s motion to establish a room and a telephone on the Sydney side, with the eventual shifting of the head office from Balmain. Sloan’s argument was that

There were more breaches of rules committed in Sydney by the Employers than in Balmain

Talbot’s endeavours in this regard, as with other efforts to move from Balmain were defeated. (Minutes, 21/6/1909.)

Indicative of Sloan’s outlook on industrial issues was the dispute at Cockatoo Island, arising from the coal strike and the colliers which required docking. A vessel taken to Cockatoo for docking required the removal of its cargo of coal. Painters and Dockers were asked to do the work and Mahony advised a meeting that "we should refuse to do any work outside our usual occupation. The work in question was Coal Lumpers work and they were on strike". Sloan then moved, seconded by W.Johnson

That this Union emphatically refuse to discharge coal and that the members of our union at present employed at Cockatoo Dock have the fullest support of the Union in the matter.

His motion was carried. (Minutes, 31/1/1910.)

This decision was loyally carried out by the Cockatoo men, but created some ill-feeling with the Ironworkers who then proceeded to do the work. The union decided to place the matter in the hands of the Labor Council which body protested to the Government against the use of employees "to do work that they were not hitherto expected to perform". (Minutes, 14/2/1910.)

At this same Union meeting, Thomas Sloan reported on the case of a number of Painters and Dockers who had been employed on the s.s. Geelong. The WWF members employed on the ship refused to work on her when they learned that the vessel had been coaled by non-union labour.

Our members knocked off in sympathy. after the Wharf Labourers had been off about half an hour they turned too (sic) again. Our members followed them but were told by the officers of the vessel to go ashore and not show their nose on the vessel again. He (Sloan) considered that the Wharf Labourers Union should compensate our members for the loss of time. He would therefore move that the Secretary be instructed to write to the Wharf Labourers Union asking them to compensate the men……After further discussion the motion was put to the meeting and lost.

It is remarkable that on this issue, nothing is recorded by way of condemnation of the Wharf Labourers for failing to refuse to start work unless the victimised Painters and Dockers were reinstated after having joined the Wharfies in the original walk-off! It is even more strange in the light of the action taken over the use of Ironworkers at Cockatoo Island to discharge coal from a ship.

In an incident at Mort’s Dock, a member named Fleming told a ganger that Sloan was loafing on the job, for which action Sloan laid a charge against Edwards. In hearing the charge, the Union’s Management Committee heard from the chargehand, Dulstone.

That he was making the time sheets out when Edwards came out of the tanks. He told Edwards to "shake her up". Edwards turned round and said shake some of the others up. there is Sloan sitting there doing nothing. he then went to the tanks and the first man he saw was Sloan. I said how are you getting on. Sloan said he done 10 spaces….

Thos Sloan said it was his intention to wait on the Foreman himself but when he got up it was too late. He asked the Secretary to go to the Foreman about the matter which was done. The other men forced him in the matter and pointed out that an injury to one is an injury to all.. On principle he then took the case up as he considered it a Union matter….

Mahony reported having spoken to the Foreman who had stated

that all the reports he had were favourable to Sloan and they all showed that he was a good worker……

The Committee then considered the matter and agreed to recommend as follows:

That Edwards publicly apologise to Sloan at the Union meeting and that the President severely censure Edwards from the Chair and that he be cautioned that if a repetition of the offence happens he will be severely dealt with. (Minutes, 29/4/1910.)

At the following meeting, the Committee’s recommendation was adopted after the defeat of a motion to suspend Edwards from membership for six weeks. The President then

called Edwards to the table and censured him…. he then called upon him to apologise to Sloan…. Sloan stated that he accepted the apology. He hoped it would be a lesson to Edwards and would show him that an injury to one is an injury to all. (Minutes, 9/5/1910.)

The same meeting, after condolences to relatives on the death of E.W.O’Sullivan (Minister in non-Labor Government, but with sympathy for many union demands), carried by all standing, Dulstone moved what proved to be a more contentious motion

That the deepest sympathy and condolence of members be extended on the death of the late King. Mr. Ostler opposed the resolution holding that the King had nothing in common with the working class. Mr. Sloan also opposed on the same grounds. Mr. Scrimshaw supported the motion which was then put to the meeting and carried by 49 votes to 23.

A few months later, Sloan took exception to the adoption of the minutes of a previous meeting

he holding that the carrying of the resolution asking for a Wages Board was illegal as it was not on the summons paper issued to members.

His objection, however, was disregarded by the meeting, the first recorded under the name of the "Federated Ship Painters and Dockers Union of Australia, New South Wales Branch". (Minutes, 29/8/1910.)

At this meeting, the issue as to whether the Union should participate in the Eight Hours Demonstration was raised by Talbot, and Sloan moved that the Union withdraw from the Eight Hours Committee. The motion was ruled out of order on the grounds of it requiring a notice of motion to alter the Rule covering the matter. The President’s ruling was upheld by the meeting.

A further issue arose at the meeting, when Mahony reported on the need for the Union to register under the Industrial Disputes Act and apply for a Wages Board. Mahony’s reason for wanting this action taken was the fact that the Painters Society had already registered and placed the Painters and Dockers at a disadvantage, particularly in demarcation disputes. Sloan moved

That we renew our Agreement with the Employers for 12 months. He stated that the wages boards make provision for old and slow workers. We would find that the Employers would avail themselves of the full benefit of this clause. We are not asking for any great concessions. The items we are asking for can be got by men refusing to work at night unless they have proper lighting. They could also refuse to go into water. In reference to the Dockers they were in constant employment and the Court has always held that casual men should be paid more than permanent men. The reason he wanted the old agreement was that there was no great issue at stake.

The argument raged backward and forward, Sloan replied to the debate, and the motion was put to a vote and defeated by 28 votes to 9. (Minutes, 29/10/1910.)

Still endeavouring to turn the Union from its arbitration course, Sloan put forward a proposition for the Union to dispense with the services of the solicitor briefed to represent the Union in arbitration matters. But, on this issue, Talbot disagreed, arguing that

it was bad policy to change horses whilst crossing a stream. He had attended the board meetings and was well satisfied with the way the case was going. (Minutes, 30/1/1911.)

A notice of motion from Sloan was dealt with later in the year, when he moved, concerning picking up for jobs at Mort’s Dock

That we shall not remain in the paddock seeking work after 3 p.m. each day.

He said he had been spoken to by some of his fellow workers about his motion. Some did not like it and others considered 3 p.m. too late….men who lived any distance found that when they came to look for work in the mornings they very often found that a vessel had been started about 4 p.m. the previous day. These men left the paddock sometime between the hours of 2 and 3 and no word was given that there would be any work that day….

Geo.Welsh seconded the motion….

Jos Hopkins opposed…men very often got work through remaining in the paddock.

After support from Talbot, H.A. Smith and Scrimshaw, Ostler proposed that Sloan’s motion be amended by making the limit 2 o’clock instead of 3 and when put to the meeting Ostler’s amendment was carried. (Minutes, 5/6/1911.)

Towards the end of the year, Sloan was involved in further squabbles over whether he worked as hard as others, requiring further investigations by the Management Committee which resulted in a decision

1st. That McCarthy was wrong in charging Sloan with polling (sic), when he based his charge on the fact that Sloan ceased work for 3 minutes. (Minutes, 6/10/1911.)

When a meeting of the Union was advised of the proposal to publish a Labor Daily, together with a request for the Union to take out shares in the proposed company, Sloan’s view was that "the paper would be of no benefit to the worker, it was being run on the wrong basis". Mahony, too, had reservations since the Union was not "in a position at the present time to become shareholders", and no action was taken on the matter. (Minutes, 22/4/1912.)

When it came to the election of delegates to the Labor Council, in July, Sloan sought to ask the candidates questions as to their views "on industrial matters". The Chairman ruled the question out of order, but Sloan’s dissent from this ruling was carried after which he proceeded to ask his questions which "were replied to by the nominees", but the questions and the replies were not recorded. (Minutes, 1/7/1912.)

In the following year, Sloan moved at the Quarterly Meeting "that a hearty welcome be given to a representative of the IWW to deliver an address to a meeting of the Union on Industrial Unionism", which was seconded by Talbot, but defeated when voted on. Later in the meeting, a motion was submitted to donate three pounds (£3) to the Labor Council "for the relief of the Dublin Strike". Sloan then moved an amendment, expressing some strange form of logic in seeking to tie the question of a donation to other unrelated, though serious, matters,

That the sum of sixpence be donated. He stated he did so as a protest against the action of the Secretary of the Labor Council in telling men to go back to their work and also as a protest against Industrial legislation that takes away the right to strike from the workers. After further discussion the amendment lapsed for want of a seconder. The motion was then put to the meeting and carried. (Minutes, 20/10/1913.)

With the declaration of War in 1914, strange decisions were made by the Government, including one for the erection of a special fence around the private property of Mort’s Dock. This caused concern by Painters and Dockers who found themselves unable to attend the usual place for being picked up for work. which led to a motion from Sloan which was carried

That from tomorrow morning no men go into Mort’s Dock paddock seeking employment but men muster at Union Rooms. This action to be taken as a protest against the erection of the fence in the yard. (Minutes, 9/11/1914.)

The General Manager (Franki) responded by stating that "the men could please themselves where they went….it would not be removed". (Minutes, 30/11/1914.)

In the election of officers, in January, 1916, Sloan stood for President. So too, did Swadling, Talbot, Scrimshaw and Anderson. Scrimshaw was elected. It was at this time that Scrimshaw proposed that

an exhaustive ballot be taken for the election of officers

The President ruled the motion out of order as it did not conform to Rule 6.

The President’s ruling was dissented from.

Sloan saw merit in this and seconded Scrimshaw’s motion which was carried by the meeting. (Minutes, 16/1/1916.)

In another case, he seconded a motion from Corless for "the Union rooms to be opened for debates one evening a fortnight for members only and a lecturer". The meeting adopted the proposal. (Minutes, 12/6/1916.) But no records of any debates exist.

In the mid-1922 elections, Tom Sloan was elected with Jack McDonald and Bill Fielberg as the Union’s delegates to the Labor Council. Later in the year, when the delegates reported on Government moves for a reduction in wages and increase in working hours, Sloan submitted his opposition to a proposal to seek a conference with the Government and looked for more concrete action and moved

That this Union although in sympathy with the object do not think there is anything to be gained by a conference…. any suggestion from the Council of Action (Labor Council group) will have our serious consideration. The motion was carried by the meeting. (Minutes, 14/8/1922.)

Still with a militant flavour to his thinking and activity, and with strong support for the socialist Tom Mann, Sloan moved, and the meeting carried

That Tom Mann who is in South Africa be asked to come to Australia and the Council pay the expenses. (Minutes, 23/10/1922.)

In November, the minutes recorded that Sloan had suffered an injury to his leg, but no other details were recorded. (Minutes, 6/11/1922). The injury, however, was not such as to prevent him from attending meetings; so that he was able to be present and move for the Branch to pay an annual salary to Mahony separate from that paid by the Federal body. The meeting agreed. (Minutes, 18/12/1922.)

At the Branch elections in 1923, Tom Sloan defeated Bill Fielberg for the position of President and was also elected once more as a delegate to the Labor Council. (Minutes, 3/1/1923.) As Labor Council delegate, he reported to a meeting that the Council had elected a committee to interview the Prime Minister about granting a passport to Tom Mann. (Minutes, 15/1/1923.)

In May, Sloan tendered his resignation from his positions as President and Labor Council delegate

as he had been appointed to another position in the Balmain Cooperative Society and his time would be fully taken up.

Swadling and Fielberg moved the acceptance of the resignation with regret and expressing thanks for his past services. (Minutes, 21/5/1923.)

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