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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 Nine: The Tarpaulin Muster

Now this is the creed from the Book of the Bush ---
Should be simple and plain to a dunce:
‘If a man’s in a hole you must pass round the hat ---
Were he jail-bird or gentleman once.’

(Henry Lawson)

Aboard ship, when financial assistance was called for a distressed member of the crew, arising from an accident or other cause, each crew member was asked to place his contribution on the tarpaulin which covered the timber hatch covers enclosing the top of the ship’s hold. A crew member would stand by to remind the seamen of the need to make a contribution, and when completed the "tarpaulin muster" would be handed to the affected member or his family. In other industries, someone would take round the hat and, in later developments, someone would take up a list, with paper and pencil to record the names and amounts contributed.

The humanitarian spirit which invested the Painters and Dockers Union was to be seen in its unceasing generosity towards any and all who suffered illness, accident, misfortune or involvement in industrial disputes. The official records show the constant flow of requests dealt with at the Union’s weekly (and later, fortnightly) meetings. With the near total lack of workers compensation, with no sickness or unemployment benefits, or pensions, the Union could always be relied on to render some support through collection lists taken around the jobs, or benefit nights such as concerts, "smoke nights", picture shows, etc. Rendering assistance became an established practice and developed into a traditional act, so that, even when later governments introduced various "benefits", collections, etc., continued to be arranged. In many cases, the Union would make a donation from its limited funds.

The Union’s limited financial support extended to members of the Union, members of other unions, workers on strike, and to calls from the Labor Council for donations. Nor did appeals by hospitals, benefit societies, institutions, go unheard or unassisted.

All help rendered to those off work for one reason or another by those in casual employment on meagre, mostly part-time wages, was indicative of an aspect of unionism, of mateship, of genuine compassion, which is totally lost on or ignored by governments, employers, even some union officials, when arguments are thrown up about the uselessness of unions. That simple humanitarianism and compassion that has always been an essential part of unionism, is often scoffed at by those who combine to destroy a fine sentiment that has withstood the attacks, the vilifications, the hatred of the anti-union forces, the selfish, the greedy. It is a sentiment that has been basic to the genuine egalitarianism that has run like a strong, binding thread through Australian culture, thinking, activity, despite the cynics, the "rugged individuals", the profit-seekers.

Of course, there were limitations on the amounts which could be donated, by reason of members’ restricted income and the Union’s paucity of income from members’ contributions. A little more than twelve months after the Union had reformed, Secretary Bob Mahony proposed to a meeting in February 1901, that because of the constant calls on the Union’s benevolence, and because of a desire to be able to more quickly present indigent members with some financial help,

That the time had now arrived when it is necessary for our members to start a Contingent Fund. The object of which is to help any of our members who may be in distress through sickness or other causes the subscription to be voluntary & not to exceed threepence per month & that a Committee be formed to draw up rules to govern the same. carried.

This decision was put into effect, but did not appear to have the desired result, since meetings soon after began to decide on sending lists around the jobs again, with the apparent reason being that "tarpaulin musters" produced larger amounts than the official Fund could afford to pay.

There were differences of opinion on how assistance from the Contingent Fund should apply, raised particularly by Joseph Creighton who, as a member of the Committee elected to draw up rules for the Fund, then found himself in opposition to some of the rules. His argument for a set amount to be given to any member in need was rejected. He claimed, quite properly, that payments from the Fund should not be subject to a vote on each case, since this permitted more popular members to receive a higher amount than less well-known members. In another case, he argued that assistance should be rendered to any sick member, regardless of the cause of the illness: he referred especially to a member who might have a serious complaint arising from over-indulgence in alcohol. His, and other members’, arguments on these two matters were rejected by the meeting which adopted the rules. (Minutes, 9/4/1901.)

In the first decade of its existence, a typical case among members suffering from industry-related causes and given some financial assistance was

A letter received from Mrs. Voges asking for union assistance as her Husband had been a member of this Union & met with an accident while employed at the Dock which made him unfit to follow his usual occupation & that he had been laid up for 16 months through the accident & very likely he would not be able to work again. (Minutes, 26/8/1901.)

As a result of collections at Mort’s Dock, the Secretary reported to a later meeting that he had been able to hand her the sum of eighteen shillings.

Assisting members in personal distress was accompanied by responses to other unions involved in strikes or other forms of industrial action. Regular donations (to unions directly or per medium of the Labor Council) extended throughout the length and breadth of Australia, to miners in Western Australia or New South Wales; to ironworkers in Queensland or Victoria; to tailoresses in South Australia; to British seamen on strike in Australia. Donations were also made to the cause of the twelve IWW men gaoled in 1917 and for men gaoled in Darwin.

Donations were made to hospitals (especially the Balmain Hospital), distressed children (whether strike-related or from other causes), children’s hospitals, benefit societies, testimonials to politicians and others. While some were of a one-off nature (such as testimonials) support for bodies such as the Balmain Hospital were regular. The Union was represented on the Balmain Hospital’s Collection Committee which, on one occasion, arranged for a swimming carnival which raised £41.14.3½ (Minutes, 2/11/1903) and at other times, conducted street and wharf collections in which Union members participated. James Patterson, the Union’s representative on the Committee reported on one occasion that £34.0.1 had been collected at wharves and other places which, he said, "was a fair amount considering the times" (Minutes, 5/3/1906.) The Sydney Benevolent Society also received regular donations from the Union.

Whatever assistance was rendered, came from a small Union of some few hundred membership, the great majority of whom did not have regular employment and all with their own personal difficulties and problems. Yet, when the collection list came round their job, they never failed to contribute their "mite" of threepence of sixpence out of a full week’s pay of less than £2, more often from a day’s pay of some seven shillings. Union meetings rarely passed without financial acknowledgement for some request. Depending on the financial position of the Union, donations ranged from 10/6d. to £3, with major strikes being supported in later years with large amounts of £50 or more.

Financial assistance was rendered to a wide variety of workers involved in industrial disputes regardless of other considerations. So that, there were donations to the professional painters and the shipwrights when on strike, even though they were regarded with hostility for activities at times unsupportive of Painters and Dockers. Tailoresses striking for better conditions in 1901 and again in 1905, received support, as did the newsboys in 1915 when the press barons sought to reduce what little the boys earned. Strikes throughout Australia in a broad band of industries were supported financially whether miners in Boulder in Western Australia or the Victorian Printing Trades; Bakers, Hairdressers, Stovemakers, Timberworkers, Meatworkers, Bread Carters, Tailors, Hatters, Glass Bottle Makers and Brewers --- all received assistance when caught up in the endless disputes with employers over wages and conditions.

The donations often took the form of a weekly levy when it was for strikers in any of a broad band of industries. Often, too, support for strikers was not only financial, but also by direct involvement in the dispute, especially where scabs were used to break a strike. In the financial and physical support rendered there resided the quintessence of mateship: a mateship which knew no boundaries drawn by a union or an industry. Thus genuine mateship was that essential part of unionism which the excresences who temporarily inhabit parliaments constantly seek to legislate out of existence with laws on "secondary boycotts", "sympathy strikes", etc. But what the Painters and Dockers possessed in this grand tradition could not be expunged, any more than a government might hope to remove that general great tradition of giving a helping hand in bushfires, floods, famine, drought, etc. Many, possibly most disasters can be sheeted home to anti-social forces which wreak havoc on the environment in the greedy grasping for greater and greater profits. Those and similar forces with profit-seeking ambition also stand indicted for the cause of industrial turmoil when workers strive to live and work as civilised human beings.

One form of assistance often called for, concerned members who died. A Funeral Fund was established in 1907 with a levy of 6d. per member and a levy of a further 6d. when a payment on death was made. The Fund paid £10 to the next of kin or towards the cost of the funeral where there was no next of kin. The amount held in the Fund was generally at low level so that, in 1910, to replenish the Fund

The meeting then resolved into Committee for the purpose of carrying out the benefit in aid of the funeral fund

It was resolved to hire the Stadium in Mort Street in August and that tickets be printed stating that the benefit was in aid of the funeral fund. Tickets to be sixpence and threepence each. (Minutes,4/7/1910.)

The Secretary, Mahony, was then able to report to a meeting that the function in the Stadium had been successful to the extent that he then had about £14.0.0 in hand from which he had to pay £3.10.0 for the hire of the Stadium and 16/- for printing tickets. (Minutes,15/8 1910.)

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