My Union Right or Wrong.
A history of the Ship Painters and Dockers Union 1900-1932
By Issy Wyner
(see Appendix 5, "Definitions" re some terms used.)
In an article entitled The Toll from Toil Does Matter: Occupational Health and Labour History, Michael Quinlan wrote:
The history of working life in industrial societies is replete with injury, disease, disablement and premature death amongst workers and consequent effects on working class families and communities. From the very beginning of the modern period through the industrial revolution, and right up to the present, hazardous tasks and working conditions have exacted a heavy toll. The threat to health had shaped worker and community attitudes, union organisation and state responses, especially in industries like coal mining marked by instances of mass death and a high incidence of disease…. (Labour History, No.73, November 1997.)
These thoughts apply equally to the industry of ship building and ship repair, and the union whose members were confined to that industry, the Federated Ship Painters and Dockers Union. What follows is not intended to reduce the seriousness of, or in any way denigrate the horrors of those who are confined to their industry in coal mining or other industries, but to simply point to another of the many industries which gave little, if any, sympathy, compassion or assistance to their employees, except when put under pressure to do so.
In the early period of the Union’s formation and reformation, the 1880s to the early 1900s, the painters and dockers, as much as workers in industry generally, lived and worked in a climate of careless disregard for human life, limb and health by employers, courts, governments except when pressured to provide some safeguard, protection, etc. This was the basic period during which the Union still struggled for full and proper recognition so that it might seek improvements in wages and working conditions for its members.
No book can express the reality of dirt and grime and stink, of paint-soaked clothing, paint encrusted boots, hats, shirts and trousers and, worst of all, paint on the body. For part of the basic job of a painter and docker entailed sitting on an old paint drum, semi-crouched in the cold, draughty area under ships whose keel was no more than three feet six inches above the dry dock floor, working with scrapers and brooms to clean off the vile-smelling marine growth (blubber, barnacles, etc.) which then cluttered the dock floor and had to be cleaned up by the docking gang before men would work there after the pumps had done their job (see Appendix 1); or painting upwards with heavy mop-like brushes from which it was impossible to prevent paint running down the hands, wrists, arms (it was many years before employers were obliged to provide gloves) or splashing on the face. The experience of cleaning paint off the skin with pieces of rag or cotton waste dipped in the large buckets of kerosene, is not something to relish, particularly for those with sensitive skin. And the kerosene then to be washed off with "handy jack", a type of abrasive soft soap which left the skin red and sore. The same clothing would be used for any other job the men might be sent to, such as cement-washing in tanks, cleaning coal-fired boilers, cleaning out oil tanks, so that the paint encrustations became mixed with cement, coal, oil, etc. There was a sour form of humour in remarks about stepping out of work clothes and leaving them standing upright until they next had to be donned. There were, of course, "cleaner" types of employment, such as work in the rigging and docking/slipping gangs, but, even in those, the possibility of accidents and ill-health existed. (see Appendix 2, re duties of Docking Gang.)
And this was the industry in which painters and dockers found many hazards: illnesses arising from the general industrial environment of noise, dust, fumes and the variety of dangerous paints and compositions; injuries and deaths from a broad band of causes and accidents; diseases arising from the unhealthy working areas in and around ships, and diseases brought in the holds and other parts of ships arriving from overseas. There is scant record of painters and dockers who suffered from the "white plague" (tuberculosis) and the "black plague" (bubonic, etc.), but cases there were.
Much still needs to be recorded of the causes of workers losing time from their work, and with painters and dockers, note can be taken of
Apart from these conditions which led to so many lung, chest and other ailments, the injuries from the use of poor materials in the construction of staging, resulting in collapsed scaffolding throwing workers onto the dock or slip floor , seemed never to cause employers to change their attitude. It was many years and much campaigning before employers were obliged to provide safe staging materials, to recognise safe working practices and safe working loads for timbers, etc. There were accidents arising from staging being smashed when ship’s engines turned propellers in dry dock, propellers around which staging had been erected for men to work on. And bad lighting led to many accidents in parts of ships where work was done in semi-gloom or where a painter and docker fell through an almost invisible, open manhole. Explosions in boilers also took lives.
Painters and Dockers experienced a wide variety of possibilities for injury and death. Certainly, other manual industries also endangered life and limb to varying degrees and the record of Painters and Dockers in this regard is no subject for competition or even comparison. But, some record is required of the industrial dangers which were added to the burden men were obliged to carry in an environment fraught with challenges by employers to reduce wages and conditions and their attempts to reduce the effectiveness of the Union. As well, as mentioned elsewhere herein, the struggle for adequate financial support through Workmen’s Compensation made comfortable living so much more difficult to attain. The benevolence of the members of the Union, collected from their extremely poor wages, assisted many sick and injured members for a short period, but did little for those off work for months or years.
The ever-present problems associated with a desire to make provision for recognised standards in funeral arrangements added to the many facets of employment which made for stress in the worker’s existence. Many deaths of members in hospitals or on jobs were simply reported to Union meetings, and recorded without giving any details. Undoubtedly, the obnoxious and dangerous conditions of the industry, even more than the sub-standard living conditions, would have been responsible for many of them.
In the early years of the reformed Union, as in the earliest days of the original Union, employers were unconvinced of the need to seek the highest safety standards, except when pressure was applied through strike action or public demonstration, often leading to eventual government legislation and regulation.
In the transcript of a conference between Mahony and employers, on 6th June, 1905, he submitted, with regard to Mort's Dock that
Mr.Mahony: We lime washed a ship here in December last. She was one of these oil steamers, cut up into compartments. The hatchway was divided into four different compartments. The entrance was 3’9" by 3’6", and the hold was subdivided. She had been made for carrying oil. We lime washed all that. She had had kerosene in her, and the effect on the men, when they were lime washing her, was something cruel. Half of them were stupefied from the effects of the kerosene and the lime. What with small entrance, using candles on the job, in this confined space, with about 100 men on the job, some of them had to knock off.
Mr. Christie: That was on account of the very hot weather.
Mr. Franki: You could leave that very well to the option of the employers.
Mr. Mahony: That is the point. If we leave everything to the option of the employers we have no safeguards for ourselves…..
An accident, not described, was reported to a Union meeting, concerning Sydney Carter, who had been admitted to the hospital and "left just as he was admitted for 18 hours without being washed or cleaned". At the first meeting of the Union in 1913, Mahony reported having attended the coronial inquiry into Carter’s death, where the verdict was given as "an accidental death" (Minutes, 13/1/1913) the routine response which, far too often, relieved employers of responsibility and liability to pay compensation.
In 1913, too, Mahony was obliged to report having visited Mr. Stewart in hospital where he was seriously ill and had appealed for financial assistance for his family. But, at the same time, Mahony explained, there was the case of R.Sparkes in hospital for five months and H.Nelson who broke his leg on s.s. Magara. (Minutes, 19/5/1913.) And in June, came the report that
Arthur Clare one of our members had been killed on the s.s. Makura on June 17th. he had been employed by the Union Company getting lifeboats ready for surveyors. he was in No.11 boat on the starboard side when the release gear let go. the boat canted and he fell from the boat deck a distance of about 75 feet to the bottom of Woolwich Dock. He had no relatives here and was buried by the Union on June 18th at Rookwood Cemetery. an inquest was held ….at Hunters Hill Police Court, the Secretary representing the Union and Mr. Clegg the Union Company.
The verdict was the usual relief for the company, "accidental death" (Minutes, 30/6/1913.)
And in November, an appeal for assistance came before the Management Committee from Mrs. Sparkes whose son, her principal support, had been laid up for some twelve months and from
Thomas Locker who met with an accident two months ago and who will be laid up for some time yet. He is a married man with a wife and two children to keep. He is not in any benefit fund
and it was decided
That a picture show be got up for the two cases to be divided equally….
The War years saw no diminution in the number of accidents. At Garden Island, a member, Charles Aubrey, met with an accident which Mahony reported to a Union meeting:
A sling of timber slipped and a piece fell on his leg breaking it. he was taken to the Sydney Hospital. the matter of compensation was dealt with and it was agreed to accept half pay, viz., £1.14.0 per week until he recovered. (Minutes, 19/4/1915.)
The wide possibilities of injury or death were apparent from the case of the member, Alexander James Parnell, who died as the result of poisoning arising from a scratch on the face from a nail. Mahony reported that an inquest was to be held and he would be attending it. (Minutes, 12/11/1919.)
At a later meeting he reported on the Coroner’s Court finding to the effect that Parnell was working on a troopship at the Government Dockyard. He was shifting some wooden gratings on board the ship when a nail stuck in his face which caused blood poisoning from which he died. The verdict was "accidental death due to blood poisoning from a rusty nail". (Minutes, 24/11/1919.)
Often deaths were reported to Union meetings, with no details recorded, as in the case of "one of our members had been killed on the s.s. Bakara, Mr.Winning". Condolences were expressed in the usual manner with all present standing in silence. (Minutes, 24/9/1923.)
In 1924, a Union meeting dealt with a request for financial assistance from Mrs. Bullen, in her claim for workers’ compensation arising from her husband’s death from a fall down the hold of the Australmead. It was decided that she be advised to see Mr. Ritchie who, at that time was the Assistant Secretary of the Labor Council and was later appointed as the Council’s Compensation Officer. He handled thousands of claims from members of unions. (Minutes, 20/10/1924.)
The many difficulties encountered by those seeking workers’ compensation is indicated in the case reported to a Union meeting in 1925, the year when the Lang Labor Government introduced wide improvements to the Compensation Act . The Acting Branch Secretary read a letter he had sent to the Management of Cockatoo Island claiming compensation
For H.Kebblewhite for time lost through an accident to his hand on Jan 14th to Jan 21st. Management claimed accident occurred on 13th January at 11 a.m. and he did not knock off work until January 14th at 11 a.m. and resumed on the 20th January. As the period of disablement was less than one week the Dockyard is not liable for compensation under the New South Wales Workmen’s Compensation Act 1916. Mr.Kebblewhite stated he did not resume work until 7.30 a.m. on 21st January. (Minutes, 9/2/1925.)
Among the variety of accidents experienced by Painters and Dockers was the sudden release of steam from ships’ boilers. One such case was reported concerning W.H.Elley, who wrote to the Union requesting information on his being unfinancial. He enquired as to how he stood on the books
as he had had a nervous breakdown after the severe scalding he had received on one of the P & O boats.
The Secretary was instructed to deal with the matter sympathetically. In another case, T.Clayton suffered an accident on the s.s. Biloela, and it was referred to Ritchie, the Labor Council Compensation Officer. (Minutes, 11/1/1926.)
The half-yearly meeting in 1928, expressed sympathy at the death of Joe Payling, "one of the oldest members, who died through an accident at the Adelaide Company", but no details were given. (Minutes, 9/1/1928.) In another case, later in the year, the standard payment from the Union’s Funeral Fund was passed for a member, Beaman, who had met with a serious accident "some considerable time ago which ultimately resulted in his death". (Minutes, 10/12/1928.)
An unexplained accident to Fred Roberts was reported to a meeting as one
which resulted in the loss of his right arm, they did not think there was any likelihood of him getting compensation
and a proposal to hold a benefit night for him was deferred until the Secretary could ascertain why compensation was not payable. (Minutes, 3/2/1930.) A meeting a fortnight later is recorded with no mention of any report by McDonald, but a decision to elect a committee to organise a benefit for Roberts is noted. (Minutes, 17/2/1928.)
Two deaths were recorded, arising from accidents, in March, T.Edwards, on the s.s. Fordsdale, and Pierce, cause unknown. (Minutes, 17/3/1930.) In the case of Edwards, McDonald reported on attending the inquest where he had been able to get the only witness to admit that Edwards
was carrying out his duty when he fell into the hold. The Coroner brought in a verdict that T.Edwards was killed falling down the hold on the s.s. Fordsdale whilst carrying out his duty at work. (Minutes, 17/3/1930.)
Later in the year, McDonald reported on the death of Joseph McCartney, who was killed on s.s. Katoomba
by a hatch falling down No.1 Hold and striking him on the head. The Secretary had appeared at the inquest on behalf of the Union. After cross-examining a man named Curran, a Waterside Worker, and Mr. J.A.Scotland in charge of the gang, the Coroner returned a verdict of accidental death. (Minutes, 12/10/1930.)
Ritchie, Compensation Officer for the Labor Council, wrote to the Union to advise about Thomas Walker, who had been in hospital since July 1931, due to an accident on board the R.M.A.S. Aorangi, in 1929. He was now suffering from Tubercular Spine and
Mr.Ritchie stated that funds would have to be found to pay the costs of doctors who attended Walker to get them in the Witness Box at the Compensation Court as he had a reasonable chance of recovering compensation
and the Union decided to pay
the initial costs, subscription lists be issued, it being understood that in the event of the case being successful the expenses would be refunded to the Organisation. (Minutes, 7/12/1931.)
In July, the Union Company dismissed two men with the reason given being "defective eyesight". Injuries and injurious effects from various classes of work, such as chipping off rust, with particles flying in every direction, was common among painters and dockers. Compensation for what were regarded as "minor" effects was rare.
An injury (unspecified) to the eyes caused a member named Weinhert to become almost blind and he was granted exemption from payment of union dues, but compensation was not payable. (Minutes, 4/4/1927.)
A charge was laid against a member, A.Cosoletto, of having left his job before it was completed and sought another job elsewhere. In responding to the charge, Cosoletto stated that
He was chipping at Mort’s Dock and the goggles issued by the company did not prevent dust getting into his eyes, the result was that they became very sore and for that reason he left the job. (Minutes, 20/5/1929.)
When the mechanical chipping machine (driven by compressed air) replaced hand-hammers for much of the chipping off of rust and paint, goggles were demanded. The early types of goggles were not fully protective for the eyes; it was some years before more suitable eye protectors were made available. But the first move for goggles came from protests at Mort’s Dock, to which the Company responded by stating that it would supply them free, when required. (Minutes, 18/7/1921.) This did not end the matter, however, and years later, the cheeseparing attitude of employers had to be challenged when goggles and gloves provided for a job had to be handed back to the employer at the end of the job, for the purpose of re-issuing them to other workers. This produced a decision that members were not to wear second-hand gloves or goggles, obviously because of concern with transferring disease. (Minutes, 25/6/1928.)
The "compressed air chippers" were harmful in other respects as well. The dust that billowed from their use made breathing difficult and much of the fine particles of paint and rust were inhaled with serious consequences for lungs and chest. The ear-shattering noise from the use of the machines attacked the ear-drums giving cause for deafness amongst many painters and dockers. As well, the vibration which shook the whole body and stretched the nervous system produced many defects in those who grasped these machines for many hours of many days. While those who used the equipment were aware of the obnoxiousness of such work and would blame a variety of illnesses on them, for many years they went no further than demanding an extra rate of pay for the work.
A more serious approach was adopted towards the first moves to introduce paint spraying into the industry. The Branch Management Committee recommended the carrying of a motion proposed by the Federal body
That in the opinion of the members of this Union the use of the Paint Spray Machine as carried out….on s.s. "Bombala" is most injurious to the health of the men ….and all other employees who are required to work in the vicinity whilst same are being operated. Further we consider the operating of these machines….to be against the health and interests of the members of this Union. (Minutes, 22/7/1926.)
This decision found other unions not only ignoring it, but also doing work covered by the Ship Painters and Dockers Award. Some two years after coming to the decision on banning the use of paint spraying equipment, members of the Operative Painters Union were using it on a seaplane carrier at Cockatoo Island. McDonald took up the matter with the OPU and with "Jock" Garden, Secretary of the Labor Council. Out of the discussions, the Building Trades Group of the Council decided to convene a conference of interested unions. Bob Mahony, Charlie Weston (Branch President) and Jack McDonald (Branch Secretary) were elected to attend. (Minutes, 114/5/1928.) From this conference, Reeves and Meagher of the OPU accompanied McDonald and Weston of the SPD & U for an inspection at Cockatoo Island.
McDonald reported to a meeting of the Union on this inspection where they had seen a man operating the paint spraying machine with new overalls, head gear and mask supplied by Cockatoo Island Management, painting over cork granules attached to the deckhead (ceiling.) The cork was a form of insulation against heat and was painted for decorative purposes so that the deckhead matched other parts of the room.
He had been seen using the machine in the corner of a compartment, painting the cork on the deckhead, there being a suction fan in that corner to take away any spray or fumes. Messrs. Meagher and Weston were later discovered with paint spray on them, Mr.Weston having the greater amount on his hat, clothes and boots; Mr. Meagher a slight spray on his hat.
The man who was spraying the paint had vaseline on his face and when he had sprayed a certain amount, he then took off the mask to show it to the representatives. There did not appear to be any paint on his cheek and nose there was the mark of the paint. We further examined two smaller compartments, one of which had been done a week previous and the other three days previous. Neither compartment in his opinion was fit for a man to work in for any length of time, owing to the fumes…..
Before going on the ship the Secretary had asked where Mr. Swadling the delegate was working and had notified one of the members to tell him to come along. He had also been told, had they gone to the upper deck where the fan was discharging the spray drawn from the machine, they would have seen plenty of paint all around the place and had we seen the man in his ordinary clothes after operating the machine all day we would be surprised at the awful state he was in with paint.
The President stated that when the man was asked how long he had been operating a Paint Spray Machine, he said he had been demonstrating for over two years for Lewis Berger without either mask or fans to take it away and that he had gained two stone weight.
The Secretary..….took Swadling with him to meet the Operative Painters Union Executive to explain why Painters and Dockers refused to use the Paint Spraying Machine…. owing to the injurious effect it would have on their health and that we had claims before the Court for that reason, and that if their members were to use the machine on the shipping it could be used by the employers to our detriment…..where Painters and Dockers were taken off the Machine about eighteen months ago at the Union Steamship Company, the Operative Painters Union officials had instructed their members not to use them, but since that…. permission had been granted to the foreman at Cockatoo Island by their Executive to use the machine. He (McDonald) explained that the construction of a ship was entirely different to garages and large buildings where the machines were in operation as there were facilities there which did not obtain in the shipping.
McDonald finished his report by advising that the matter was to be considered by a general meeting of the Operative Painters Union. (Minutes, 11/6/1928.) At a later meeting, McDonald reported on the outcome and read a letter from the Painters Union setting out
That the agreement previously arranged with the management of Cockatoo to allow the use of the paint spray machine on cork work, provided that certain safety provisions are maintained, is being carried out to the satisfaction of the Union and the union does not feel disposed to alter same, but should any other work than that agreed upon with the spray be proposed then further consideration will have to be given to the matter before such will be allowed. No work customary to be done by members of the Ship Painters and Dockers Union will be done by members of their Union. (Minutes, 9/7/1928.)
While this advice failed to respond to the crucial issue raised by Bill Swadling, namely, that use of the machine would seriously affect the Painters and Dockers claim before the Court based on health concerns, the meeting made no decision on this, although there must have been some harsh words uttered about the Professional Painters. Undoubtedly, it led to some ill-feeling towards the "Pro" Painters which would have been more exacerbated by advice that the employers were seeking a new Award which would include a rate of pay for use of the paint spray, the implication being that men would be expected to use the machine. (Minutes, 18/7/1928.)
A favourable report was received from Jack Kavanagh of the Labor Council in which he advised that he
was in agreement with the Ship Painters and Dockers Union that the Spray should not be used in the painting of the interior of ships and also quoted medical opinion and a bulletin by the Workers Health Bureau of North America. (Minutes, 6/8/1928.)
But this report had to be considered by the Labor Council before a decision was arrived at, so that the Union meeting took the matter no further at that stage. At the same time, conferences were being held between the Union and the employers on the matter of a new Award. Added to the obstacle which prevented the making of a new Award, the continuing demand for 44-hours week, was the employers’ insistence on the Union lifting its ban on the use of the paint spraying machine. In the transcript of these conferences, it was noted that the Commissioner had declared, apparently seeking to browbeat the Union:
You must be aware that the paint spray is being used everywhere and if a small section of workers are going to say "no, we will not permit any innovations that are going to cheapen the work or hasten the work", then it reduces the thing to a farce…. If the use of the spray is dangerous to health then the Court certainly will not permit its use… if the paint spray is going to be used in tanks and places where there is no ventilation…. then that is quite another matter…. You cannot dictate as to how an employer is going to improve his methods….
Mahony: ….we have no objection for the introduction of the machines…. But when a machine is introduced that we think is detrimental to the men’s health then it is necessary for us to step in for their protection….
The transcript then records Mahony’s quotations from two doctors, Dr. Robinsion of the Health Department and Dr.Charles Badham, Medical Officer for Industrial Hygiene, NSW. Both expressed the opinion that the equipment could be used in the open air, such as painting the outside of the hulls of ships, except with lead-based paints. (Minutes, 3/9/1928.)
The issue over use of paint spraying equipment continued into 1929, when a meeting decided
That the Labor Council be requested to convene a conference of all unions in the Painting Industry for the purpose of considering the use of the paint spraying machine in the industry and its effects on the men’s health. (Minutes, 28/1/1929.),
This request was taken up by the Labor Council, and eventually, Jack Kavanagh was able to get a meeting of unions involved in the use of paint sprays, after which he wrote to advise the Union
That this combined meeting is of the opinion that a combined effort should be made to control and regulate the use of the paint spraying machine in the Commonwealth of Australia.
Comrade Reeve said he was having copies of a Bill now being considered in the United States of America concerning safeguards in the painting trade….should be raised in Parliament….It was agreed between the Ship Painters and Dockers Union and the Operative Painters Union that with the exception of cork the Operative Painters Union will consider the use of the paint spraying machine on interiors. Also on any job where Painters and Dockers refuse to use the Operative Painters will refuse except on cork.
Kavanagh’s report also included information on workers at Bunnerong using the equipment and the view expressed that they should be involved in any action to be taken. As well, it was considered that coach builders, who did a lot of painting of vehicles, should be drawn in. Kavanagh’s letter was received without comment. (Minutes, 4/3/1929.)
Dr. Badham, Medical Officer of Industrial Hygiene, wrote to the Union acknowledging receipt of six samples of paints used by members, sent to him by McDonald. In his letter he stated that
He is having them analysed for injurious ingredients. also that he is proceeding with the analysis of the materials from smoke boxes (part of ships’ boilers) and that such analysis is undertaken by the Department free of charge. (Minutes, 15/4/1929.)
The matter of analysis of paints, and of oil used in oil-burning vessels, was a constant source of concern to the Union throughout its history. Attempts by the Union to learn what paints and compositions contained were always met with strong opposition from manufacturers who refused to supply essential information, on the dubious grounds of "industrial secrets". In the case of oil, it was learned after much checking that the oil from some regions contained higher percentages of sulphur than others and produced greater amounts of carbon when burned. Refusal to supply the Union with the information meant that members suffered and died from the constant use of lead, arsenic and other harmful ingredients. The constant experimentation in order to find the most effective substances for destroying the various forms of marine life which attached to vessels and slowed their speed, and which were most protective of the steel hulls from the salt-laden atmosphere and environment, held little regard for the effects on the men employed to apply or remove such substances. Without the information, safeguards could not be imposed.
The additional hardship involved in working in the claustrophobic, extremely cramped, confined areas in submarines, brought claims for extra payments for such work. The Department of the Navy rejected the claims, asserting that there was already sufficient coverage in the Award under the "Special Provisions" clause. This clause applied to confined spaces generally on ships, but did not take into account the restriction on movement in every section of a submarine. When reported to a meeting, it was decided
That this meeting of the Ship Painters and Dockers Union protest against the treatment meted out to men working in submarines and now that the Federal Government have decided to increase their own salaries on which we make no comment they surely will decide to give us our just and moderate claims… (Minutes, 24/5/1920.)
Among the many causes of accidents was the attempt by some foremen to pit worker against worker in a race to see who finished a job first. This rushing caused accidents and was frowned on by the Union and every effort made to stamp out the practice. One of the areas in which racing was attempted was in the work on punts, cleaning and scraping marine growth off the ship’s sides. The men on one punt were set against men on another punt on the other side of the ship, to see who could finish first, so that the pumps could be re-started to take the punts to a lower level. As with most cases in industry, it only required two or three men, regarding themselves as "strong" and "capable of doing more than one man’s work", for the foreman to set the wheels spinning in these "all brawn, no brain" types. But there were also those who recognised the danger in falling into these foreman traps, and thus would have the culprits arraigned before a meeting of the Union to answer a charge of working against the best interests of the Union and its members. One such case was dealt with by the Management Committee in 1921, when a charge was laid against two members, Bransby and Boyle of
chasing men on the Punts one against the other ….
Mr. Dodds said when I was working over Cockatoo on the Punt about three weeks ago they were rushing one against the other to see who would finish first. Boyle said shake it up Bransby we’ll get up there first with Roberts…
On account of the unsatisfactory answers given to the questions asked of Boyle and Bransby and the insufficient evidence we give them the benefit of the doubt but if they are reported again and found guilty we shall be compelled to take Drastic Action and the members asked to back up the Committee in the same. (Minutes, 13/6/1921)
In 1925, the Federal Management Committee felt obliged to send out a recommendation to the Branches which was adopted by the New South Wales Branch
That any ganger or leading hand speeding men up shall be considered as working against the best interests of the Union and shall be dealt with according to Rules. Members speeding up shall also be considered as working against the best interests of the Union and dealt with according to Rules. (Minutes, 6/7/1925)
In the following year a charge of speeding-up was levelled against four members. The charge related to the group of men who were painting the bottom of a ship in dock, where each man had a section of the bottom to do and usually, all the men came out from under the ship at about the same time. Two members attended the Management Committee to answer the charge and one of them, Hall, "thought it was a joke", and the other
explained that another man nicknamed Chain-lightning got out before him on several jobs and he hurried so that he could beat him but that in future he understood that they were not to speed up. (Minutes, 15/12/1926.)
The Committee instructed the men to attend the next meeting of the Union when the Committee’s recommendation would be submitted. When submitted to a meeting, the recommendation, to impose a fine on the men, was changed to one of their being censured. (Minutes, 22/12/1926.)
The Management Committee decided to recommend that L.Williamson be fined £1 for speeding up on a job in January, 1927. He was the chargehand on a job, but details of the case were not recorded. When submitted to a meeting of members, the recommendation was rejected. (Minutes, 7/2/1927.)
Mr. Patterson reported that he had a subscription list for the purpose of sending two orphans of the late Jean Toure home to their relations in France. they were getting a passage on the Messageries Maritime Company steamer as far as Marseilles. they would then have to go from their (sic) to Nantes by rail. This would cost about two or three pounds. The list was for the purpose of raising that amount.
The Secretary stated that this was a most deserving case Foure had been one of the pioneer members of the Union & had died some months ago through lead poisoning. wife some time previous to his becoming ill had been taken to an asylum through the loss of her reason. the little children were then thrown on the world & only for the kindness of the Dockman at Woolwich (Mr. Millard) keeping them they would have been sent to a State Home. (Minutes, 6/8/1906)
This was the first mention of lead poisoning in the Union’s records, but the hazard certainly existed, through lead being regarded as the best killer of marine growth on the hulls of ships. Employers’ lack of concern with seeking safer paints, can be imagined when the writer recalls many years after the Foure case, the case of Andy Nicholls in 1940, whose job at Cockatoo Island, was the constant cleaning of hundreds of paint brushes in tubs of paint-loaded kerosene. He would clean a brush by holding it in the kerosene and ruffling the bristles in the kerosene. It was a long-time before it was accepted that the lead could enter the body through the quicks of the fingers.
A month after the Foure case was reported, a further report was given from Mr. Mallard, the Dockman, to the effect that arrangements had been made
To send the children of the late John Foure to France and requesting that the money raised for that purpose be sent to him. (Minutes, 2/9/1921.)
In 1921, a move was made by the Professional Painters to seek a joint committee "to enquire into the effects of the using of lead paints" and a Union meeting agreed to support the move. (Minutes, 17/1/1921.)
Nothing appeared to develop from this move, and it was not until the following year that the matter was raised again and the New South Wales Branch decided that a demand be made for
Consideration of the effects on the health of employees using Leads, Biturene, Bitumastic or such like compositions…. Resolved that we use our best endeavours to eliminate the use of leads in the Industry, particularly in Special Places. (Minutes, 13/2/1921.)
This decision was adopted by the Federal Council of the Union.
Some years after the Foure case, Mahony reported to a meeting on a matter of vital importance on the question of lead poisoning and the use of compounds which were injurious to health and Bill Swadling then reported
that two members had been overcome in an open tank by the fumes arising from the compound which they were using and that a doctor from Balmain Hospital had been sent for and it was alleged that he had stated that if the men had been a few minutes longer in the tank there would have been no hope for them. (Minutes, 20/9/1926.)
A general concern existed amongst members over the various possibilities of being poisoned or in other ways affected by dust from chipping and/or scraping paints (particularly lead-based paints) and compositions. In 1925, Mahony, still felt compelled to explain to a meeting the effect of dust and lead on members working in confined spaces. (Minutes, 23/2/1925.) A question from a member concerning lead poisoning and use of compositions was raised at a meeting in July, 1925 and was referred by the Branch to the Federal body of the Union for attention. Other references concerning dust arising from the use of chipping machines is noted under Chipping Machines herein.
The ill effects from cleaning oil-fired boilers (chiefly as the result of the sulphur content of the oils used) led to many deaths which were often referred to as TB cases. Jack Lannen reported on the case of a member, F.Jacobs, who]
suffering from the effects of working in oil burners and he was of the opinion that the Union should pay the expenses of sending Mr. Jacobs to a Specialist. Mr. Mahony explained that there were a number of men being affected through the conditions and dust which men worked in and he thought that the matter should be dealt with by the Management Committee as there was every possibility of being able to prove that men were suffering from an occupational (new) disease and we would then get compensation for everyone affected.
However, despite Mahony’s intervention, the meeting decided
That Mr. Jacobs be examined by a Specialist and the Union pay for same. (Minutes, 6/2/1928.)
At its next meeting, McDonald reported to the Union that he had taken Jacobs to the Board of health where they had interviewed Dr.Badham. He had also taken samples of soot from the boilers of the RHMS Botany which he had given to the doctor.
After examining Jacobs, the Doctor said that it would be a hard thing to prove that TB was brought on by the occupation. However, if there were other men suffering from the same complaint, he would be only too pleased to examine them and then might be able to prove that the occupation brought the complaint on. The doctor gave the Secretary a card to take to Dr.Hobson of the Compensation Department to have Jacobs examined and X-rayed.
Bill Swadling spoke on the conditions under which men worked and then moved the motion, which was carried,
That any other member who worked at the occupation and was suffering similarly should also be taken to Dr. Badham. (Minutes, 20/2/1928.)
Midway through the War, a tragic accident occurred at Mort’s Dock, for which the Managing Director, J.P.Franki, wrote to the Union, offering the company’s deepest sympathies at the deaths involved. The occurrence was an explosion on the steamship Wairuna which caused the death of three members, R.Gamble, J.G.Lewis and C.Skogdon. The customary condolences were expressed and adopted by all present at the meeting standing in silence. (Minutes, 16/10/1916.) At the inquest, attended by Mahony, the Chief Officer on the ship claimed that he found a man’s pipe in the area and therefore blamed men smoking as the cause of the explosion. (Minutes, 30/10/1916.) The Union Steamship Company, owner of the vessel, had agreed to pay the funeral expenses, but then questioned why the funeral expenses were different for two of the members. When the adjourned inquest reconvened, Mahony reported that the Union S.S.Company was represented by a barrister, and the Navy Department and the Shipwrights were also represented. The Coroner recorded an open verdict, after which the Company’s barrister
agreed to pay the sum of £400 provided we could find dependants of the deceased members. Enquiries were made when we failed to find any dependants. (Minutes, 11/12/1916.)
At the same meeting, following Mahony’s report, a member, G.Ryan, reported that another explosion had occurred, this time on s.s.Levuka, and he proposed
That while we were considering our new (Log of) Claims provision be made to prevent accidents when men are using highly inflammable compositions.
Among the many disagreeable and unhygienic conditions under which painters and dockers worked was the difficulty in cleaning the hands after some foul job and the Secretary reported on a strike by members at Cockatoo Island. He was called over to the Island and
found that the men had held a meeting during the dinner hour when they decided not to start work unless time was allowed them to clean their hands and kerosene provided.
As a result, he had spoken to senior Management and achieved an agreement to grant five minutes and to provide kerosene. (Minutes, 18/10/1915.) However, later in the day, he was advised that the General Manager, Mr. King Salter, had revoked the agreement which led to a further stoppage. Following this, Mahony had conferred with King Salter who had finally agreed to
allow 5 minutes at dinner time for lead and anti-fouling compositions. They refused to accept. the Minister was then communicated with and decided to accede to the men’s demands pending his arrival in Sydney and this was accepted by the men. (Minutes, 18/10/1915.)
From this humble beginning, the Painters and Dockers, from year to year, pressed for greater consideration in the matter of cleansing themselves, not only at meal times, but also at the end of each working day, when they sought to be able to leave the job in a clean state in their "going home clothes". The demand for kerosene was the first move; later it was extended to a demand for special soap and hot water to remove the generally unpleasant effects of kerosene, foul-smelling paints and compositions. Eventually, large buckets of "Handy Jack" as well as tubs of kerosene, were available at all meal breaks and at the end of a working day.
The death of two members was reported by Mahony to a Union meeting in 1916, but no details were recorded: R.Croft, killed at Cockatoo Island and Thomas Wakeling who died of consumption (tuberculosis) for which he had been hospitalised at the home for consumptives at Waterfall. Any possible connection between the unhygienic conditions of employment and what was referred to as "the white plague", was not considered.
Some months after this case, at the fortnightly meeting in September, a safety issue was raised when
Mr. Liaubon reported the matter of unsufficiency of light on s.s. Roseley on Aug 30th at Woolwich Dock, men having to walk along planks in the dark. (Minutes, 1/9/1902.)
Working from single planks strung around a ship’s hull was a continuing cause for concern throughout the Union’s history. The single plank was about 12 inches wide, 3 inches thick and about 22 feet long, and hung from the ship’s deck by single part wire ropes. This form of staging would hang about 15 or 20 feet above the dock floor and a single manilla rope lifeline was strung from wire to wire as a preventer from falling off the planks. A fall could mean months off with broken limbs or worse. It can be well-imagined that lighting in those early days was in the form of fitful, smoky, extremely poor, carelessly scattered flares along the dockside. The only demand was for more oil-burning flares, which did not greatly improve illumination if granted.
In 1910, the lighting was still an issue when Mort’s Dock wrote to the Union in reply to Mahony’s letters and interviews, stating
That it was their intention to have an exhaustive test to demonstrate what would be the most effective system and stating that regarding the electric light they regretted to say it was not practicable by reason of the constant shifting of the work.
….moved Mr. Tarlington and seconded Mr.Geo Welsh that the Secretary be again instructed to interview Mr.Franki regarding the lights under the bottom of vessels and that two weeks notice be given him to rectify same. (Minutes, 25/4/1910.)
By the time of the next meeting, a new set of Working Rules to be put to employers was adopted. Rule 12 read
The employer shall provide an efficient system of lighting and ventilation on all jobs where necessary. Lamps of the same pattern or similar to that now in use at Mort’s Dock by agreement between the secretary of the claimant union and the manager shall be deemed an efficient system of lighting. (Minutes, 16/5/1910.)
Some of the old members who were still working in 1939-40, told the writer that for a time, carbide lamps were provided for work under ships in dock and, until low wattage electric lamps on long leads were introduced for working in tanks, each man was provided with a candle to take into the section of the tank he was to work in. However, the lamps which Mort’s Dock provided were not for general use on all jobs. Some two years after adopting the Rule, lighting problems persisted, as in the case of two members charged with using "slush lamps" on a night job at Mort’s Dock.
Slush lamps were large, naked flame, oil-burning torches, which blazed and gave off intense smoke, and were used to give light to men scrubbing and painting the sides and bottom of a ship in dock. The deep gloom under a ship was usually illuminated by hurricane lamps (designed to remain alight in strong winds and able to withstand the drafty conditions under a ship.) Usually, the illumination came from a form of calcium carbide which when lit gave off a loud, hissing, acetylene gas-type of light. Slush lamps, or flares, or torches were still occasionally used in the late 1930’s.
Mr.Fisk stated …. He was employed on Mororo under the bottom with Monaghan. had hurricane lamp between them. got round the starboard side. saw Hall and McCarthy right after both using slush lamps. spoke to Scrimshaw and said they were committing a breach of rules. and further said that he would report the matter to the Secretary. Hall was working one yard from the lamp and the lamp was right under next to the keel blocks.
When the Management Committee dealt with the case, McCarthy claimed that there were no more hurricane lamps available. When told at the time that he was committing a breach of the rules, witnesses stated that McCarthy had responded: "what is there to be frightened of. Come on, get under the bottom". This was typical of the occasional bravado-type rule-breaker, unconcerned with conditions which seriously affected health and safety. Many years later, the same arrogantly stupid attitude was expressed by those who refused to accept the dangers inherent in the use of asbestos. (Minutes, 22/2/1912.)
Among the dangers to be encountered in dock and ship work in the early days was one reported by the Secretary
that two of our members, viz., John Cunningham and Fred Lee were at present in the Coast Hospital suffering from plague contracted while employed at Adelaide Company’s works Balmain. They were progressing favourably & would soon be able to get out of bed.
The meeting agreed to send letters of sympathy and hope for a speedy recovery, but the fact that they would lose their earning capacity for weeks, perhaps months, without any form of regular income for their families, was a source of much dissatisfaction. (Minutes, 15/5/1905.)
The bubonic plague had been rampant in Sydney in 1901 and, though action was taken to rid the city of it, there were occasional outbreaks after the worst of the epidemic had passed, and ships (especially rat-infested holds) were one source of contagion.
It was unfortunate, too, that many chest and lung complaints which were surely job-related, were noted as tuberculosis or "white plague" and nothing more was done by way of safeguards, for many years. (See Chapter 13 )
In the transcript of a conference with employers (shipping companies and dockyards), where Mahony was accompanied by E.Tarlington, G. Dulstone and J.Martin, and with Captain Webb, of Huddart Parker’s, as Chairman, on 6th June, 1905, the following exchange occurred
Franki: We have no desire that a man should go without his meals.
Mahony: I think the Company will find it to their advantage to see that the men get their meals.
Franki: we cannot stop the ship in the middle of the work.
Mahony: But say that a ship is shored up at dinner hour, they could stop the pumps for three-quarters of an hour to allow these men to get their meals. There is no trouble in that.
Chairman: Stop the pumps!
Small: With all the fires going, too, and have the engineers and firemen waiting on you?
Chairman: I think Mr.Mahony has the idea that we all have to wait on him.
Franki: Have you any idea of what the expense would be to stop the work in that way?
[NOTE: This issue of stopping the pumps during the work of scrubbing marine growth from a ship’s sides was an issue for many years. Where the company insisted on continuing to pump out the water from the dock during a meal break, the men would return after their meal, to find that so much water had been removed that the area to be next scrubbed and painted was well above their heads, too high for the normal reach of a broom and scraper or a hand-held paint brush. When the men complained, they were told that they should be prepared to work during their official meal break and then they could keep up with the pumps. This was a continuing source of aggravation for many years until the docking companies were eventually obliged, through Union action, to leave control of the pumps with the Paint Shop Foreman once the ship was shored up.]
Other issues received similar disdainful attitudes from employers, as evidenced at the June 1905 conference. Biturene was a hazardous and unpleasant composition for use in various parts of ships, but any concern for the health of men using it was absent among employers,
Franki: Perhaps there are a dozen or a half dozen men putting on the Biturene….
Mahony: And the fumes are going there all the time.
Franki: that is only an exception.
Mahony: Mr. Christie, in his evidence in the Wharf Labourers dispute, stated that "the work was very laborious….very uncomfortable work". That is another reason: the uncomfortable work that we do in the winter. Take a sailing ship, for instance, that has not been docked for a couple of years, to send men down to scrape her amongst that blubber is, I think anyone will acknowledge, worth 1/-.
Capt. Sinclair: I would like to draw your attention to the fact that there is scarcely any winter here, nothing compared with the old country. Yet there wages do not change. Winter or summer it is the same.
Mahony: those men are acclimatised. If they got in to the heat they would feel it. We feel our winter just as acutely as they feel their winter.
Capt. Sinclair: With regard to the fumes, why the wife used to take the children down to the yard where the stuff was stored because the smell is considered good for them.
Mahony: Mr.Watters, or Walters, one of the principals in the Biturene Company, told me that there was no tar in Biturene. But we know that it does contain tar.
Franki: You misunderstood him.
Mahony: We have one of our men in the Sydney Hospital now from the effects of Biturene. The Doctors state that this stuff got on his lungs.
Todd: His lungs must have been in a weak state. The same thing would apply to other things. For instance, take some other compositions. A man with weak lungs gets over a paint pot --- he would get affected. But that sort of` thing does not do your case much good. There may be a percentage affected.
Mahony: A big percentage. Men have been laid up for weeks at a time over the stuff.
Todd: The same thing would apply if a man is working on a wharf and gets wet and is laid up for two or three days.
Chairman: We had Biturene put on the "Zealandia" a week or two ago and I was down the stoke-hold and across the bunkers. And I rather enjoyed the smell.
Mahony: Well, this Company expended a lot of money in respirators and so on for the men, so there must be something in it. Was the stuff hot when you were there?
Chairman: I was not down there while it was hot. It was all nice and cold when I was down there.
Mahony: There is the 5-star composition, which they paint the bottom of ships with. We have several of our men laid up with their eyes over that stuff…..
(see Appendix 6(e))
And in 1909, Biturene was still the subject of demands for safeguards. Mahony reported to a meeting on an interview he had with the manager of Burns Philp about the use of a new composition aboard the s.s. Moresby. The men insisted that it should be treated in a similar manner to Biturene, but the manager
had stated that the ingredients of the composition were coal tar boiled to get the gases out, lime, cement, rosin & tallow…. The Secretary then wrote to the Company for a sample of the composition….(Minutes, 15/3/1909.)
The Secretary was instructed that on receipt of the sample, it should be sent for testing and analysis. This example of the vigilance required for dealing with employers’ innovations and new materials was repeated on many occasions as the members and the Union sought protection from those who saw no reason for checking, examining, testing, etc., before something new was introduced.
Possibly the greatest bone of contention, with regard to working in docks was the company’s insistence on men going into the dock, after the work on the punts ended, to clean the bottoms of vessels. Thus, for years, men went into waist-high water with their brooms and scrapers and began their work while the pumps continued to draw the remaining water out of the dock. The health hazard involved in doing this class of work in the winter months, may well be imagined. With continued agitation, the requirement to work in water was reduced to rolling up the trousers to allow men to go in barefooted when the water was below the knees and, at a later stage, when the water would be around their bare ankles. By 1910, however, the need for greater protection was pressed harder with the adoption of a Working Rule stating
Employees shall not be required to go into the water to scrub the bottom of vessels, nor shall they be required to commence painting on the bottom until the part of the dock on which they are required to stand has been swept. (Minutes, 16/5/1910.)
Working in water continued to be a problem for many years, not through men flouting the rule by working in water, but through the few who insisted in going into the last few inches of water in order to catch the fish which had been trapped when the caisson sealed off the dock from the river.
The only men permitted to work in water were those who entered with wide millet brooms, and wearing rubber boots, in order to sweep the last remaining water into the side drains and thus allow the dock floor to dry off for the scraping and painting gangs. The sweepers, therefore, were able to pick up most of the trapped fish, but there were always the few who would disregard the rules in order to get a meal of some of the fish. Men disregarding the rules were dealt with by Union meetings on the grounds of breaking down hard-won working conditions.
In 1926, cases still arose of men going into the dock before the floor had been swept clear of water and Bill Swadling reported having to speak to men about this as an important provision which the Union had had inserted in the Award. (Minutes, 15/11/1926.)
Keeping the docks in good condition for men to work in them required constant vigilance. There was no knowing how or where accidents might occur. Bill Swadling reported how Jack Lannen had met with an accident at Cockatoo Island through slipping off one of the altars in the dock, "through the same not having been cleaned" and the Secretary was instructed to advise the Management of the "lax way the dock was being cleaned since Mr.Bussell Dock Master retired". (Minutes, 28/6/1926.)
The response by the Management at Cockatoo Island to the complaint about Jack Lannen’s case caused anger when reported to a meeting and
Strong exceptions were taken to the latter portion of the reply in which it stated that "no steps could be taken to prevent accidents of a similar nature occurring unless care is exercised on the part of employees"
and Swadling and Murphy moved for a very strong letter to be sent to the Management aimed at indicating other action if something was not done. (Minutes, 12/7/1926.)
More anger was expressed over another letter from Cockatoo Island which stated that T.Pender, who had suffered an accident
could make application for casual work at the Island subject to him refraining from taking work necessitating the use of ladders or lifting heavy weights. (Minutes, 12/7/1926.)
The Union’s attitude towards this type of action by an employer was due to the fact that it was aimed at taking a man off workers’ compensation payments at a time when he was not completely cured and able to carry out his full duties as a Painter and Docker. Earlier in the year, the Branch Secretary, McDonald, read out a letter which he had forwarded to the Management at Cockatoo Island concerning Thomas Pender
Who had met with an accident some time previous and who had got a lump sum from the Insurance Company to finalise matters, but who was now barred from working unless the Organisation were prepared to indemnify the Commonwealth Shipping Board if Pender met with an accident or any other employee was injured through any action of Penders. He stated in the letter that the Union was governed by an Act of Parliament and that no person could contract outside the Act.
The meeting endorsed McDonald’s letter. (Minutes, 11/1/1926.)
Among the dangers awaiting the unwary Painter and Docker was that expressed in a motion at the same meeting
That no member be allowed to work on the Slip at Mort’s Dock whilst the Slip is in motion.
While no accidents had been reported from such work, it seemed an obvious precaution to adopt without waiting for some serious accident to justify it. That an employer had to be pressed to introduce such a rule simply indicated the careless attitude of some employers. It was of a similar nature to decisions which had to be taken to ban men from working in tanks while a ship was in motion. The very thought of being trapped in a confined space when a collision, or other type of accident occurred, was enough to ensure that precautions should be taken, without waiting for an employer to come to his senses about the underlying dangers after an accident.
Among the many concerns which sat at the back of dockworkers’ minds were the floating gates which when sunk into their slots, held back the harbour or river waters. In 1926, Bill Swadling reported to a meeting what had occasionally arisen, when he stated that "the sluices at Cockatoo Dock were opened whilst members of the Union were still in the dock". On that occasion, it was decided to send a protest to the Management against this dangerous practice. (Minutes, 22/3/1926.)
Some years later, the Management Committee looked at "a matter of urgency", concerning the caisson at Woolwich Dock. A report was given that
On January 25th 1932, the men employed at Woolwich Dock were startled by a very loud noise coming from the caisson and they were afraid that same may carry away at any time. Noise had been heard previously but none so loud as on this occasion.
The Committee instructed Secretary McDonald to take the matter up with the Management. (Minutes, 25/1/1932.) At the following meeting, McDonald reported having spoken to the Manager, King, who had had said
That it was the first intimation of anything of the sort but that he would go into the matter…. He rang the office…. And informed Mr.McDonald that there was no danger whatever to the men working in the dock.
To this somewhat offhanded attitude, the Union meeting responded by instructing McDonald to get the opinion of Government surveyors. (Minutes, 1/2/1932.)
Of equal concern was the over-crowding of the launches used to transport workers from the Balmain dockyard to Mort’s Dock’s other dry dock at Woolwich, or to transport groups of workers from Mort’s Dock or Cockatoo Island to jobs on ships lying at wharves or at anchor in the Harbour.
Mr.Ostler drew attention to the crowded state of the launches when sending men to & from work & he moved that the Secretary write to Mr. Franki drawing his attention to this fact, on being seconded by Mr. Pritchard it was carried. (Minutes, 25/8/1902.)
But despite undertakings by the company, it was once more necessary to complain when over-crowding was reported to the meeting on 1/5/1903.
Some years later, Mahony reported on his attendance at a Trade Union Congress where he had successfully moved
That a clause be inserted in the Act compelling persons using launches or other vessels for carrying men to and from work to be certified as passenger carrying vessels. (Minutes, 26/4/1909.)
But improvements were still rare, and Mahony once more was pressing for action when the Labor Council adopted his proposal on
the necessity of a six months survey clause in the Federal Navigation Act. Also a more stringent system of inspection. The motion had been carried and forwarded to the Minister. (Minutes, 23/10/1911.)
In 1914, a meeting was advised of members’ concern with the problem of overcrowding when Albert Fisk raised the matter of launches taking crowds of men to Woolwich and wanted to know
whether the Launches were registered as to carrying capacity. He was told they were not. (Minutes, 18/5/1914.)
But in the following year, complaints led to a decision instructing the Secretary to take up the matter with Mort’s Dock and
In the event of a refusal to rectify it, to call the attention of the Navigation Department to the matter. (Minutes, 18/10/1915.)
At the next meeting Mahony reported that Mort’s Dock had agreed to provide sufficient accommodation in its launches. However, Bill Swadling was apparently dissatisfied and moved that Mahony be instructed to write to the Navigation Department. This motion was carried with an addition which provided for an approach to the responsible Minister to include all launches on the Harbour in the Regulations. (Minutes, 1/11/1915.)
The war years slipped into post-war years with little achieved and a decision was made by the Union
That we work in conjunction with other unions re the Merchant Service Guild request to refuse to travel on "Eric" and "Our Jack". (Minutes, 8/11/1920.)
In 1921, McDonald reported that at Cockatoo Island a dispute had arisen concerning the "Bustler", one of the large launches used for conveying workers to and from the Island. It had carried 354 men and boys, and only had life buoys and seating for 120. The dispute had simply brought Management assurances for the future. (Minutes, 24/3/1921.)
In 1926, the ever-present concern with the possibility of serious accidents or loss of life from over-crowding, found expression in a motion from Davis and Feilberg
That the Secretary interview the Secretaries of unions and Harbour Trust officials re the overcrowding of launches by employees of the different establishments having work away from the principal places of engagement. (Minutes, 14/6/1926.)
By April of the following year, the position was still far from resolved when the President reported to a meeting that the launch "Wasp" had been overcrowded, with approximately 96 men on board. A motion by Shepherd and Dodds was carried by the meeting, that the Secretary write to Silk, the General Manager
drawing his attention to the overcrowding and further to get in touch with all organisations whose members would be carried on the launches and suggest to them to ask the Government to amend the Harbour Trust Act to bring all launches carrying workmen under the Harbour Trust. (Minutes, 26/4/1927.)
A month later, McDonald reported that he had received letters from the Operative Painters, the Boilermakers and the Plumbers Unions, advising that they had forwarded letters to the Premier on the matter. He had also received a letter from Premier Lang acknowledging the Union’s concern about Mort’s Dock and other firms and "stating that he shall give consideration to the representations" about Harbour Trust control. Despite this assurance, Lang later wrote to the Union to advise that the Navigation Department had no control over the problem, although this was not what the Union had sought and was not in keeping with Lang’s assurance of examining Harbour Trust control. Lang’s second letter resulted in a decision to call on all unions affected to meet in conference and decide on some form of action. (Minutes, 11/7/1927.)
The slow response to the calls for action on the overcrowding of launches received an unhappy impetus when the Secretary advised a Union meeting that a member, Fred Stevens, had lost his life in the "Greycliffe" disaster. The 133-ton vessel, certainly bigger than the launches complained of, was run down by the Union Steamship Company’s "Tahiti", off Bradley’s Head on 3rd November, 1927, with the loss of forty-two lives, many school children. With this catastrophe obviously in mind, the meeting decided once more to demand the attention of the Premier (no longer Lang, who had been defeated in the October elections) and of the Prime Minister on the worrying issue of overcrowding. (Minutes, 15/11/1927.) In early 1928, some two months later, acknowledgement of the letter was received from the Prime Minister’s Department (Minutes, 9/1/1928) and a month after, advice was received that the "Government" was making every effort to prevent the overcrowding of launches. (Minutes, 6/2/1928.)
Gilbert Sinclair, the Secretary of the Boilermakers Society wrote to the Union with a request to participate in a conference "on the unsatisfactory conditions of the survey of shipping". The meeting, in July, 1923, elected McDonald to represent the Union at the proposed conference. Concerns in this field were always around the waterfront, including allegations of bribery in order to get seaworthy certificates as quickly as possible, to allow ships to put to sea as soon as possible. While there was an amount of self-interest in getting ships thoroughly surveyed (ensuring more work for workers in shipyards and dockyards), there was also concern for seamen where jobs were hurried, superficially attended to, and seaworthiness uncertain, creating the possibilities of floating "rust buckets". (Minutes, 2/7/1923.)
McDonald reported on this conference of ship repair unions, at the next meeting of the Union. The conference had carried a resolution demanding that a Royal Commission be appointed to enquire into the loss of the "Sumatra". And, in line with the call by the Boilermakers’ Society re ships’ surveys the unions also decided
That it be an instruction from this Conference to all members of unions here represented to notify their respective secretaries immediately anything of a suspicious nature is observed tending to indicate that a vessel is unseaworthy and that the secretary so notified shall immediately communicate with an official of a maritime union who shall have been mutually agreed upon.
Thus did the seagoing unions and their shore-based fraternity of ship/dock yard unions begin to press more strongly for total safety of vessels putting to sea. The campaign continued for many years, as one case or another was highlighted. (Minutes, 16/7/1923.) In this particular case, following the loss of the "Sumatra", the maritime unions, became impatient and dissatisfied with the little or no progress and decided to institute an independent inquiry embracing all ships. (Minutes, 30/7/1923.)
Mahony reported on an accident in the dock, when a number of members were injured
on s.s. Irish Monarch at Woolwich Dock on Tuesday February 19th 1907, when four of our members were injured, viz., R.Taylor taken to Balmain Hospital, Bert Doolan, Jno Petersen & D Hall. The latter was only slightly injured. He had waited on the agents of the Company in reference to the matter but they repudiated all responsibility. it was pointed out to them that the accident was caused through neglect of the Engineer of the ship causing the propeller to revolve while the ship was in dock. The Agent said he was only the agent for the Docking and Loading of the vessel & on completion of same his interests ceased.
The Secretary then in company with three of the injured men had two interviews with Brown & Brown Solicitors. they at first thinking that we could stop the ship but on taking counsel’s advice they found that it would take nearly two months to do that & by that time the ship would be gone, but Mort's Co were also liable & if one of the men would take a test case they would take the matter up for him…..
The Secretary suggested that the Union should carry a resolution calling on Mort's Dock & Engineering Co to more strictly carry out the Dock regulations in reference to ships while in Dock.
Mahony’s suggestion was adopted. (Minutes, 4/3/1907.) A fortnight later, Mahony reported that Mort’s Dock wanted the injured men to report to the Manager with Doctor’s Certificates. At the next fortnightly meeting, Mahony read the letter from the Company stating that
they had taken legal advice re accident on s.s. Irish Monarch & found that they were not liable & advising us that in future we should make prompt claim on vessel before leaving the port.
The company also asked for the injured men to report at its offices "for the purpose of fixing re Irish Monarch accident". (Minutes, 15/4/1907.) (What "fixing" meant is unknown. But, in August, Mahony reported that the General Manager, Franki, had told him that "a settlement was held over pending a meeting with Petersen".)
In 1908, Mahony reported on an accident which occurred in Woolwich Dock where
one of our members Joseph Thomas had met his death whilst employed on s.s. Woolloura at Woolwich Dock on February 27th. he was employed painting on stages when one of the guys broke & he was thrown into the dock and sustained injuries which resulted in his death. Inquiries were made by the Secretary as to what action the Police would take in the matter and it was found that the Hunters Hill Police had made arrangements for an inquiry. the Secretary protested against the inquiry and interviewed the City Coroner when it was decided to hold an inquest. Arrangements were also made for the burial which took place at Rookwood on Friday 28th, the Union being represented by the president and secretary.
The Secretary also stated that he made application to appear at the inquest on behalf of the Union which was granted by the Coroner. It would therefore be necessary to have witnesses.
Moved & seconded that the Secretary be empowered to make all necessary arrangements for inquest, the conducting of same to be left in his hands. (Minutes, 2/3/1908.)
Two weeks later, Mahony reported to a meeting on his appearance at the inquest and his examination of witnesses
The foreman, W.Armstead swore that the ropes used were condemned by the Naval Authorities….. Some of the other witnesses swore that Thomas was working on the inside of the life line and some stated that he was working on the outside of the life line. The guy was produced in the Court and examined. Mr.Curtis Solicitor appeared on behalf of the Dock Co. Mr.Franki was also present. The Coroner brought in a verdict of accidental death caused by the breaking of a wire guy.
The meeting congratulated Mahony on his handling of the case. (Minutes, 16/3/1908)
Efforts to have adequate regulations to safeguard dockworkers, were made by the Labor Council, and Mahony was part of a delegation from the Council which met the Minister for Works, seeking extension of the Lifts and Scaffolding Act to cover ships, docks and slips. Mahony’s report included that the Minister had stated that "he would give the matter….his favourable consideration". (Minutes, 30/3/1908.) In September, he reported to another meeting that the Act would provide that proper staging be used in docks and on slips. In November, the Works Department had spoken to him about the necessary amendments to the Act, and he had suggested that "flying stages be made of oregon pine not exceeding 14 feet in length and not less than 2 inches thick…" His report was adopted by the meeting.
[NOTE: A flying stage was a form of scaffolding comprising one or more planks suspended by wire or manilla ropes, with lifelines and guy ropes to hold it in close to the ship’s side so that it did not sway about while men worked on it. The single plank staging around the ship in dry dock consisted of a plank which was twenty or more feet long, twelve inches wide and three inches thick, suspended in a doubled, spliced loop to prevent it from canting. Mahony’s proposal to make oregon the basic timber for such purposes was because it was regarded as the safest timber for such purposes, no doubt based on the same principle as that which applied with timbering in mines: unlike hardwood, oregon creaked and groaned before it would snap, thus warning of imminent danger in this regard.]
Further justification for the need to adopt oregon came at the same meeting where the Secretary reported on proposed amendments to the Scaffolding Act, when he also reported
Herbert Bensley one of our members had met with an accident whilst employed on the s.s. Wimmera on Friday October 16th 1908. He was painting one of the bulkheads from a staging when without any warning the plank broke and Bensley was thrown to the bottom of the hold. He has been an inmate of Prince Alfred Hospital suffering from the effects of the injuries. a letter has been sent to the Company acquainting them of the accident and asking for compensation to which no reply has been received. The man’s family are in a bad way and subscription lists was sent round when £2.5.0 was collected and handed to the family. The Secretary suggested that instructions should be given him to put the family in a position to sue if they feel disposed. The position was that the husband was in a semi-conscious state. His wife has no money and if legal action is not given within six weeks they would lose their opportunity to sue later on. (Minutes, 16/11/1908.)
Clearly, any form of automatic compensation to injured workers did not exist at that time, and union officials were, to a large extent, reduced to going cap-in-hand to employers with a request to make some kind of financial payment to such workers. In the Bensley case against the Huddart Parker shipping company, heard in the following year, Mahony reported that it was lost
the case being not-suited (non-suited?)on the grounds that there was no negligence proved. The Judge stated that the company should do something for the man (!) (Minutes, 27/9/1909.)
In another case, Mahony reported on a fatal accident at Mort’s Dock on the s.s. Montoro
She was being painted . a number of men were sent aboard to lower planks on the port side and everything went well until they got aft when one of the men Max Ploss let go the starboard guy. There were two men working on the starboard quarter plank at the time….when through the letting go of the guy James Gallagher was thrown from the plank to the bottom of the dock a distance of about 24 feet and was killed instantly.
Arrangements were made for the funeral which took place on Thursday at Rookwood about 120 men walking. The funeral would cost £11.5.0 and there was £6.13.0 in the funeral fund. It would therefore be necessary to make up the deficit.
….The Secretary stated that he and the President had considered the matter of preventing accidents and desired to suggest that no long handles be used on planks and no planks to be moved whilst men are on the stages. (Minutes, 2/12/1912.)
This accident arose from the need to lower the single plank staging strung around the ship’s hull at a height which allowed the cleaning and painting of the sections which could not be done from the floating punts, after the punts were moored and the remaining water pumped from the dock. As a section of the ship was completed, the staging was lowered to allow a further section to be worked on. While this class of work was generally reasonably safe for the use of a paint brush held in one hand, when men were asked to use broom-length handles, there was great danger in the work. It meant that the old adage for men working at heights, "one hand for the boss and one for yourself", was discarded, for brooms and long handled brushes required two hands, and thus it was not possible to have one hand to hold on to the life line as a safeguard against falling. While the release of the stage wire caused the accident, the man, through using both hands for the long-arm, had no safeguard against falling.
At its next meeting, debate flowed around the need to place a ban on using any form of long handled tools on the single-plank staging. Thus, there were motions and amendments stating
That no long handles, brooms or scrapers be used on swinging stages
and That no handles, brooms or scrapers be used on planks when such work can be done on punts
and That only paint brushes, chipping hammers and scrapers be used on stages.
On that occasion the matter was deferred to a committee to work out the best possible rule. But, in all the discussion, it was accepted that the union would have to make a decision and that the employer would not make any safety decision without pressure from the Union. (Minutes, 16/12/1912.)
1914 saw more accidents and deaths. The Union’s meeting on 15th June, noted two deaths: William Ormond as the result of an accident at Cockatoo Island and John Wright who was working on the s.s. Marloo
when he was struck by something knocking him off the stage and into the water….died four days later from pneumonia.
The Coroner produced the incredible finding of"death by natural causes". The Adelaide Company was later served with a claim under the Workers’ Compensation Act and after a number of approaches by Mahony, the Company agreed to pay £200 to the widow.
In the case of Ormond, the Secretary reported having attended the Coroner’s Court and
The evidence showed that he was employed at Cockatoo Dock rigging stages round the submarine. he was standing on a shore which rested on the dock side and a trestle. two 24 foot planks were being lowered on to the shore. when the shore got the weight it upended and Ormond was thrown into the dock fracturing his skull. he died the next day at the Balmain Hospital.
Mahony’s report included the Coroner’s verdict, relieving the employer of any liability: "accidental death". (Minutes, 13/7/1914.) In September, Mahony reported on his claim for Compensation and that the General Manager at Cockatoo Island "hoped to have the case of the late W.Ormond fixed up as soon as possible". In November, the General manager agreed to pay "the sum of £200 as part payment" and the Government cheque for this amount was handed to the widow by Mahony.
In 1917, further concern with the dangers from using long-handled tools on swinging stages brought a recommendation from the Management Committee
That no men shall use long handled brushes on swinging stages in dock nor shall they be allowed to paint or scrape with ordinary brooms or scrapers or long handled broom or scrapers on vessels in dock when the water is more than 3 feet from the stages. Long handles to mean any handled more than 2 feet in length.
This recommendation was adopted by a meeting , with the addition
Long handles should not be used on swinging stages in holds. (Minutes, 22/1/1917.)
The reference to water in the dock, concerned single plank staging strung around a ship while there was still some water in the dock. A charge had been levelled against some members of using long handles on the single plank staging while there was still water under them. It was then argued that, if the water were no more than three feet below the planking, there was no danger.
The dangers in working on staging, were emphasised in a report on the death of an Italian member:
The Secretary reported on the death of Giuseppe Cordella
The accident occurred at Woolwich Dock….The deceased working on a stage painting the side of the French Transport, El Kantarah. A French seaman was working on a boat and was sitting on the griping spar which suddenly gave way and in falling knocked Cordella off the stage. He fell to the bottom of the dock sustaining injuries from which he never recovered consciousness and died in the Balmain Hospital shortly after admission. The French seaman was killed instantaneously and two of our members (McBeath and R.Gerrard) slightly injured. (Minutes 26/11/1917.)
Branch Secretary McDonald reported to a Union meeting
That Mr. Joe McQueen who had been hurt some time ago by the staging carrying away on s.s. Montoro and had been instructed by the Doctor to report for light duty, had also received Ironworkers’` wages. After some discussion, the Assistant Superintendent admitted that the wages were wrong and that the men would be paid the right money. (Minutes, 23/4/1923.)
A member, D.Hall, was charged with working against the best interests of the Union by "Johnny" Marcelli who stated
I was working on the slip at Mort’s Dock painting on a tressel (sic) the topsides of the Nimbim. The tressel was very weak and there was another man working on it with me. D.Hall wanted to get on it too and I told him that the tressel would not hold three men. He got on but I put his pot off and he told me he was going to see the boss and complain and that I would be sorry after.
The charge was referred to the Management Committee. (Minutes, 15/10/1928.) When dealt with by the Committee, the recommendation was that Hall "be let off with a caution". (Minutes, 24/10/1928.)
The subject of swinging stages was once more before a meeting, when Swadling and Parr moved for discussion on the use of long handles on flying stages. When the motion was carried, Swadling then moved that the clause in the Award, Prevention of Accidents, be amended to read
Long handles shall not be used on swinging stages in holds of vessels or on vessels afloat.
This extended the existing ban on using long handled tools in dry dock or on a slipway, but was essential as a safeguard against working in a precarious position inside a vessel afloat, where the ever-moving waters of the river or harbour could cause men to be thrown off the staging in the hold.
At the last meeting for the year 1912, F.St Clair lodged a complaint about the heat in the engine room and stokehold tanks. At that time, nothing was decided about this important health concern. In fact it was some years before full recognition was given to the extreme heat experienced during work in these and other areas of vessels. (Minutes, 30/12/1912.)
Among hazards confronting Painters and Dockers was the requirement for a "free current of air" for work in tanks and other confined or enclosed spaces. While employers accepted such a provision, they also had their own ideas of what constituted a "free current of air". (See Chapter 8 on The Award and Appendix 5.)
The closest an employer came to showing any consideration for an injured worker was the extremely rare instance of Painter and Docker Henry Voges. He was injured at Mort’s Dock and the Secretary, Bob Mahony, reported to a meeting on his discussion with the Foreman, Armstead.
Mr.Armstead sent for me on May 8th 1902 and wished to know would the Union object to him employing Henry Voges an old employee of the Dock who had met with an accident two years ago while employed at Paint Shop and had been laid up since. He desired to employ him at making pots & working about the yard but could not pay him the Union rate. I told him I would lay it before the Union …
Essentially because he had been deprived of any form of regular income for two years, the meeting decided that Voges be allowed to work, but made provision that he
did not interfere with a Union man & that the Dock authorities give a written agreement to this effect & also his case should not be used as a precedent to prejudge any case that may be brought before the Arbitration Court. (Minutes, 19/5/1902.)
This proviso was aimed at ensuring that Voges would not be used to avoid employing a member of the Union on work covered by the Award or as an argument for Slow Worker Permits.
Worker’s Compensation provisions, though severely limited in their application, had improved somewhat by the time Bob Figucio was injured at Woolwich Dock, and Mort’s Dock agreed to pay him £2 per week plus all medical expenses. (Minutes, 18/2/1918.)
Compensation payments, when obtained, were far from adequate and members still took collection lists around the jobs or organised benefits for injured members. The request by Mrs. Hill for assistance owing to her husband having broken a leg at work, brought the response of authorising collection lists for her. (Minutes, 15/5/1919.)
In the early formative years of the reformed union, workmen's compensation did not exist other than for some few "permanent" employees, although miners had established some little coverage from the non-Labor Lyne Government in 1900, which H.V.Evatt noted in his Australian Labor Leader
Provision was made by the Miners' Accident Relief Act for compensation to persons injured in mining accidents and to their relatives in case of death. The system was based upon contributions from miners from owners, and from the State itself. The scale of allowances was small, but the acceptance of the important principle of employers' liability irrespective of fault was at last recognised although not so broadly as in the English Workmen's Compensation Act of 1897.
There was, however, some provision in law for workers to claim damages for injuries caused by fellow worker's negligence, a difficult, if not impossible claim, which still left the employer free from any liability. The courts, of course, interpreted the question of negligence in a manner which left little hope of achievement for an injured worker, as may be seen from the case reported to a meeting of the Painters and Dockers by their Secretary, Bob Mahony.
Herbert Bensley one of our members had met with an accident whilst employed on the s.s. Wimmera on Friday October 16th 1908. he was painting one of the bulkheads from a staging when without any warning the plank broke and Bensley was thrown to the bottom of the hold. He has been an inmate of Prince Alfred Hospital suffering from the effects of the injuries. A letter had been sent to the Company acquainting them of the accident and asking for compensation to which no reply has been received. The man's family are in a bad way and subscription lists was sent round when £2.5.0 was collected and handed to the family.
The Secretary suggested that instructions should be given him to put the family in a position to sue if they feel disposed. The position is that the husband is in a semi-conscious state. His wife has no money and if legal action is not given within six weeks they would lose their opportunity to sue later on. (Minutes, 30/8/1909.)
Mahony's suggestion was adopted by the meeting. But then, nearly twelve months later, he was obliged to report that the case, against the Huddart Parker shipping company, was lost
the case being not-suited (sic) on the grounds that there was no negligence proved. The Judge stated that the company should do something for the man. (Minutes, 27/9/1909.)
The question of employers' liability was constantly raised by the Labor Council from as early as the 1880s and often promised by the Labor Party, but still did not see the light of day for many years and not in any satisfactory form until the advent of the Lang Labor Government in 1925, when the Act received its biggest advances in providing for injured workers. (see Chapter 8.)
Evatt also notes the failure of the Holman Labor Government, in 1910, to introduce legislation for a Workers' Compensation Act among other promised legislation which did not eventuate.
In fact, as Evatt noted, it was the Wade anti-Labor Government, with pressure and support from the Labor parliamentarians, in 1910, which introduced a limited Workmens' Compensation Act. This Act was greatly improved on by the Holman Government in 1916, when Holman had left the Labor Party and become Premier of an anti-Labor coalition.
At the Trade Union Congress, 21-29th April, 1908, Bob Mahony, on behalf of the Ship Painters and Dockers Union, moved successfully (see Official Report, as printed):
"That this Congress is in favour of a simple scheme of Workmen's Compensation without depriving claimants of their right to sue under any other Act." The present Act, he said, was defective because a worker had to prove negligence and that the man in charge was responsible. All parties in Parliament were in favour of a simpler and fairer scheme of compensation to workmen. In France a workman, in case of total disablement, got 66 per cent of his wages as an annuity, and he had merely to prove that the accident happened. To provide a fund for this purpose the Government should put a small tax on commerce. This would guard against an injured workman losing by an employer or insurance company becoming bankrupt.
But, there were still limitations on a worker's rights to compensation in 1921, as the following report in the Evening News, for 5th November, 1921, shows,
Under the Workmen's Compensation Act it is provided with respect to liability of employers to workmen for injuries that this is not to apply to any person employed whose remuneration exceeds £312 per annum.
In a recent case heard before the Supreme Court on appeal, a miner became affected with an eye disease which incapacitated him from performing his duties. He applied for an award, but it was contended on behalf of the colliery company that the applicant was in receipt of remuneration exceeding £312 per annum and was not therefore a workman within the meaning of the Act.
The Judge, sitting as an arbitrator, in dismissing the application for compensation, found that the applicant's wages during the year preceding his incapacity exceeded the statutory amount. On appeal, the Court, in dismissing the appeal with costs, held that there was evidence that the applicant's remuneration exceeded the statutory amount entitling him to compensation.