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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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Chapter Seven: The Federal Union

Bob Mahony, from the outset of his tenure as Secretary of the Painters and Dockers Union in New South Wales, was a strong advocate of federating with like minded groups in other states. The Rules of the Union, adopted on 14th August, 1900, had contained the provision among its objects

3rd. --- To endeavour to universally Federate Labor

and, for Mahony, this meant federating painters and dockers, as well as other workers federating in their respective industries. He was a constant driving force in this direction.

Early in 1904, with the proposal to establish a Federal Arbitration Court, he submitted his first proposal to a meeting of the NSW Union for

taking steps to amalgamate with unions of our occupation in the different states for the purpose of registering under the Federal Arbitration Act

and the meeting decided that he should write to unions in other states on the matter. (Minutes, 7/3/1904.)

Having written to interested organisations, Mahony reported on the first response which came from the United Trades and Labor Council of South Australia, advising that there was a group performing similar work to the NSW Union. From his report, too, the Union adopted his suggestion (since the Union could not afford to pay for Mahony to travel to Melbourne), for John Travers, the Secretary of the Shipwrights Union, to be given credentials

for the purpose of negotiation with the Victorian Dockyard & Ships Labourers Union. (Minutes, 6/4/1904.)

A month later, a report was given by Travers about his visit to Melbourne (which included work for his own union), advising that the Victorian Union had decided

to let the matter stand in abeyance until the passing of a Federal Arbitration Act.

The meeting decided to extend the best thanks of the Union to Travers for his services. (Minutes, 2/5/1904.)

In a strange change of direction, Bob Mahony reported to the next fortnightly meeting that he had received advice from the Victorian Dockyard & Ship Labourers Union to the effect that they

agreed to a scheme for amalgamation & asking Union to forward the names of other unions following our occupation that agrees to the scheme.

No explanation was given for this somewhat sudden change from what was reported by Travers and the matter was allowed to lie until further developments from the other states.

In the middle of the year, Mahony reported on having discussed federation with "Billy" Hughes (Secretary of the Waterside Workers Union), who was, by then, a Member of the Federal Parliament. Mahony advised

in reference to Federation with the Victorian Dockyard & Ship Labourers Union, Mr. Hughes had consented to bring about the Federation when he went to Melbourne. he also suggested that we should take into consideration the scheme of the Waterside Workers Federation. At the present time there were 10,000 members in the Federation & they consisted of nearly all the Waterside Workers of Australia. It was also suggested that we should take copies of the Waterside Gazette. If we took £1.0.0 worth we could have a column for our own use either to ventilate any grievance or any other matter.

The meeting agreed to subscribe to the Gazette. (Minutes, 26/6/1904.)

[NOTE: William Morris Hughes, who lived and owned a shop in Beattie Street, Balmain, for some years, became the Secretary of the reformed Waterside Workers Federation in 1900. After becoming the Federal Secretary of the Union, he also became a Member of the Federal Parliament in May 1901. In these capacities, he was obliged to spend a great deal of time in Melbourne (where the Federal Parliament met), and thus could assist other unions reaching towards federation. In L.F.Fitzhardinge’s first stage biography of Hughes, he wrote

When Hughes left for Melbourne in May 1901, he had already conceived the idea of a federation to unite all the waterside unions of the Australian ports, and he had secured the authority of his own union to negotiate for such a federation. In Melbourne he got together a provisional committee of Labor members representing waterfront constituencies, and this committee wrote to all the unions to ascertain their attitude to the proposal. Sufficient favourable replies were received to encourage the formation of a federation…..The federation was formally inaugurated at a meeting in Parliament House, Melbourne on 7th February 1902, representing twelve unions with a total membership of about 6300, of which 2800 were in Sydney.

The Union’s records, do not disclose whether the Painters and Dockers became a part of this Federation which did not function for long.

While little was recorded on progress with the desired scheme of federation of painters and dockers, the subject of federation in other directions was considered in those early years, eventually leading to discussion on the One Big Union and its relation with the Union. At the beginning of 1908, Talbot and Pat McDonough submitted to a meeting

That we submit to the Sydney Labor Council to be put on the business sheet of Congress the following

That in the opinion of Congress a comprehensive scheme of Federation should be brought about for the purpose of united action being taken in all cases of industrial disputes and for the general betterment of the condition of the workers. That the foregoing be referred to a Committee for the purpose of drafting a scheme to bring about same. Carried. (Minutes, 3/2/1908.)

In the following year, Talbot once more livened up the issue of federation

Mr. Talbot stated that for the purpose of bringing about a closer unity with kindred unions in other States he would move at Summons Meeting that two delegates be sent to Melbourne for the purpose of bringing about a Federation with the Melbourne union. he simply brought the matter up tonight for the purpose of giving members an opportunity of fully considering the matter. The failure of the strike at Broken Hill shows that steps must be taken to bring about a federation. If we had trouble with the shipping companies they could take their ships to Melbourne and get them done there, but if we were federated we could prevent it. (Minutes, 24/5/1908.)

Talbot’s motion came before the Union’s Half-Yearly Meeting, when he presented his arguments for sending two delegates to Melbourne

For the purpose of bringing about a federation with the Melbourne union….the employers every day were organising. It was therefore necessary for us to federate….the nations of the world adopt the principle of preparing in peace times for all emergencies. We should adopt the same methods and prepare….

P.McDonald seconded the motion….best thing for the Union to federate…

Mr.H.Scrimshaw opposed the motion…. Putting the cart before the horse. The Secretary should correspond with the union first. He moved as an amendment that the Secretary be instructed to write to Melbourne and Brisbane unions….The President ruled the amendment out of order.

The motion was put and carried by 54 votes to 24. A division was demanded which resulted in the vote being 51 votes to 24. Following this decision, argument arose over how the delegates should be paid, with motion, amendment and further amendment, resulting in the amendment being carried for payment at the rate of 15/-d. per day plus traveling expenses. J.Martin was elected to accompany Mahony as the two delegates. (Minutes, 10/6/1909.)

The Management Committee met soon after these decisions were taken and Mahony advised that the Victorian union would meet the delegates on Monday, 5th July. It was then proposed that the Acting Secretary should look after the office in the Secretary’s absence if he could get the time off from work, and if not, someone should be elected as Acting Secretary. In a vote on the matter, the Committee elected McMillan over Talbot. (Minutes, 2/7/1909.)

The delegates sent to Melbourne then reported on their visit to the next fortnightly meeting of the Union.

Mr. Simmons the Treasurer was appointed to show the delegates round. The docks were visited in Melbourne and Williamstown and an opportunity given the delegates of seeing the way work was carried out in Melbourne. it was found that the mode of doing work differed greatly from Sydney, ships being painted from the keel to the rail with long handles, no hand brushes being used whatever. The scaffolding was most dangerous planks being rigged on 24 feet trestles. The trestles having no spread whatever. The Melbourne Docks were Dukes Dock 500 feet long and Wright and Orrs 400 feet. There is also two docks in Williamstown. One a graving dock owned by the government and another a floating dock owned by the Melbourne S.S. Company. The rates of pay was 1/-d. per hour by private companies and 1/6d. per hour overtime. The Melbourne Harbour Trust only paid 6/8d. per day. There was also a number of youths employed at lesser rates. Members of the Wharflaborers, Seamen and Ironworkers Assistants Unions have equal opportunities with the Dock laborers work. The conditions all round do not compare favourably with us, in Sydney. In fact the whole of the waterside is not near as well organised as in Sydney….

They had attended a special meeting of the Melbourne union and had explained the object of their visit, after which, it was decided to hold a further meeting in Melbourne based on a unanimous view that federation was favoured. The matter was then adjourned to a Special Meeting on the following Thursday when the whole night would be devoted to the one subject after which Sydney would be advised. (Minutes, 17/7/1909.)

A fortnight after this meeting, the Union was advised that the Victorian union had agreed to the proposal for federation and Mahony was instructed to write to Melbourne and Brisbane asking for delegates to meet and discuss a constitution for the proposed federation.

In October, the Queensland union advised of its unanimous support for a federation. From this report, the meeting decided that there should be a special summoned meeting on 8th November, when the delegates from Melbourne and Brisbane would be able to attend, and Mahony was authorised to entertain the delegates during their stay in Sydney. (Minutes, 11/10/1909.) At the next meeting Talbot was elected together with Mahony to discuss the federation proposal and the Sydney Union President, Talbot, was told that he should chair the meeting. As well, a Special Meeting was set down for the Workingmen’s Institute to meet the interstate delegates and that "an entertainment be given" on the night. (Minutes, 25/10/1909.) And the Management Committee decided that as many members of the Committee as possible should meet the interstate delegates when they arrived on the Sunday, and "the Secretary provide the necessary refreshments for the Delegates and the Artists for the Concert on Monday night". (Minutes, 5/11/1909.)

A brief report was given to a meeting of the Sydney Union on the outcome of discussions with the interstate delegates and copies of the proposed rules for the federation were handed out to members. Following discussion on these rules they were adopted by the meeting. (Minutes, 6/12/1909.)

Early in the following year, the Victorian Union wrote to advise that it, too, had adopted the draft rules and wished to federate with New South Wales and the Union called on Mahony to "take all necessary steps to complete the Federation", (Minutes, 28/2/1910.)

Then, Mahony reported to another meeting that

the Federation was now complete but it was necessary to carry a resolution changing the name to the Federated Ship Painters and Dockers Union of Australia, New South Wales Branch

and the motion to change the name and to register under the Trade Union Act, was moved by Jenkins and Talbot and carried unanimously. (Minutes, 15/8/1910.)

However, matters did not flow easily for the proposed Federation and in September, Mahony was obliged to report the first snag to a meeting. The Professional Painters Society gave notice that it intended to register under a long-winded name which included the words "Ship Painters" and that it would object to the registration of the Ship Painters and Dockers Union application for registration and

Moved by Mr. E.Talbot and seconded that the Secretary be instructed to procure the necessary witnesses for Registration case.

The Secretary explained the position to the meeting. He stated that if the Painters Society were successful in their objection they would legislate for our class of work and we would be in the position of either joining their society or go out of existence. He stated these people did not assist in any way in the organising of the shipping work but when they found other unions had cleared away the path for them they desired to take work from them.

Mr. Tarlington stated that we should fight the matter out to the bitter end.

Talbot’s motion was then put to a vote and carried without opposition. (Minutes, 26/9/1910.)

The hearing of the application commenced a few days later and Mahony reported to the next meeting of the Union that

The case was heard on Thursday September 29th. the following witnesses were in attendance on our behalf D.Watters, R.J.Hindes, Geo Watt, Geo Dulstone, Jas George and W. Armstead. After taking certain evidence, the case was postponed for a week. On the hearing of the case on that date, the Registrar decided to grant registration provided we met the Painters Society in conference. This was agreed to and registration granted.

….that a letter of thanks be written to Mr. Armstead for his assistance in going as a witness in our case with the Painters Society. Carried.

The Secretary reported that the necessary papers for application for a Wages Board would be filed as soon as possible and the case gone on with. (Minutes, 10/10/1910.)

The Union’s gratitude towards Armstead was expressed because he was not a member of the Union, but a Foreman in charge of the work of Painters and Dockers at Mort’s Dock, and showed his concern for the men he was used to employing.

Establishment of the Federation still did not have a smooth passage, as the other Branches found reasons for delaying it. The year 1911 saw no progress other than Mahony’s efforts to establish a Wages Board for the Port of Sydney, which would then lay the basis for a wider coverage in other ports. This would then be a further incentive for the other Branches to clear away all objections so as to allow for a broad Award for all Painters and Dockers under a Federated umbrella.

In 1912, Mahony was able to report that Brisbane members were now willing to go ahead with the registration of the Federation, although no reasons were given for the delay or for now wishing to proceed. (Minutes, 17/6/1912.) In July, he was able to report the opening of a new Branch of the Union in Newcastle, where he had attended a meeting of some 50 workers who then elected James Walters as President, William Brown as Vice President, Charles Davis as Treasurer and John Morgan as Secretary. (Minutes, 29/7//1912.)

The bedraggled movement towards a Federation still remained in the doldrums, however, until, without any preliminary advice or notice, E.Talbot and Tarlington submitted a motion to a meeting, instructing the Secretary to write to Melbourne and Brisbane

asking if they are in favour of a federation and if so conference to be then held with delegates instructed to bring the federation about. (Minutes, 29/1/1913.)

Mahony read a letter from Brisbane declaring that the establishment of the Federation should proceed with them and "let Melbourne stand over". New South Wales agreed with this approach and instructed Mahony to proceed. No reasons for Melbourne’s dilatoriness were given.

Calls on Mahony’s time, energy and abilities were constantly made, so that he was visiting Melbourne, Brisbane and Newcastle to settle disputes, as well as dealing with the innumerable problems and issues arising in Sydney. It was therefore understandable, that the opportunities to raise the matter of a federation did not come too often. As well, he had not taken any leave for some time when he finally asked for two weeks off in 1915, explaining that "it was his first holiday in 14 years". (Minutes, 25/1/1915.) Nevertheless, in August, it could well be imagined that he would not miss any chance to talk to the other States and eventually be able to report that

after negotiations lasting over eight years the Melbourne Dockyard Labourers decided to federate with us. (Minutes, 30/8/1915.)

Once more the New South Wales Union elected delegates (this time Bob Mahony and E.Talbot) to meet representatives from Brisbane and Melbourne in order to finalise a federation of the ports. Newcastle, at this stage was still not mentioned as a separate Branch, being regarded as a part of the New South Wales Union.

From this meeting of representatives of the three ports, a constitution, rules and regulations were agreed upon, which was reported to the New South Wales Union and adopted on 18th October, 1915. Mahony explained to a later meeting that a temporary Federal Executive was appointed to deal with various organisational matters. Thus midway through the period of the World War, the way was cleared for the Federation to proceed (Minutes, 29/11/1915.) Early in the following year, Mahony lodged an application for registration of the Federal Union. The Federal Industrial Registrar in Melbourne advised of the time and date for hearing objections, but Mahony was able to report to a Branch meeting that the objections had been overcome and the registration was finalised for the Federal Ship Painters and Dockers Union of Australia. (Minutes, 7/2/1916.)

At the Special Meeting of the New South Wales Branch in May, held in the Oddfellows Hall in Darling Street, Balmain, the President, Scrimshaw, welcomed three interstate members of the new Federal Council : H.Moloney (Victorian Branch Secretary), C.Suim (Queensland Branch Secretary) and C.Helen of the Queensland Branch. Indicative of what was expected of the new Federation, the meeting took the opportunity, with the Federal representatives present, of calling on the Federation to "take drastic action to put the log in force", to overcome the employers’ constant stalling of negotiations on the Union’s Log of Claims. (Minutes, 15/5/1916.)

Formation of the Federal organisation brought great satisfaction to Mahony (who was elected its Federal Secretary) in achieving his ambition in that direction. But, its establishment brought an added burden of duties to him, particularly in his next striving, to attain a Federal Award. (see chapter on this subject.) Ever meticulous in his handling of the Union’s funds and the Federation still without funds of its own, Mahony had always travelled in the least expensive form of transport. But, in the handling of the Log of Claims before the Federal Arbitration Court, the New South Wales Branch decided that his frugality in expenditure of its funds should not allow for personal hardship and decided

that the Secretary go to Melbourne on Wednesday in a Sleeping Berth. (Minutes, 3/7/1916.)

In 1917, the Federal Council met in Sydney and the Branch decided that "the usual courtesies be extended to the visiting interstate delegates". (Minutes, 2/4/1917.) But in 1925, when the Branch’s funds were at a low ebb, it was decided that the Branch should be represented by two instead of three delegates at the Federal Council’s Conference when it met in Melbourne. Mahony and McDonald were elected as the delegates and C. Weston, the Branch President was elected to act as Branch Secretary in McDonald’s place. (Minutes, 24/9/1925.)

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