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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 Fourteen: World War One

The beginning of the First World War in August 1914 and Australia’s participation in it, received no mention in the Union’s minutes for the early months of the War. The sinking of the Lusitania on 7th May, 1915, by a German submarine, when 1195 people drowned, and the storming of Gallipoli by Australian soldiers were unremarked at the time in Union meetings. As the casualty lists grew longer, the horrors of war soon became imbedded in the thinking of people, and especially of workers everywhere. But, it did not find expression in union meetings, and union activity continued on the issues which confronted workers in their daily toil. This changed with Hughes’ conscription endeavours. But, some of the hostility engendered towards "aliens" by the wartime propaganda machine did find effect on one occasion when

Mr. Tarlington desired to know the facts about the employment of a German at Cockatoo Dock.

The Secretary stated that the man in question was a member of the Ironworkers Union and was working as an Ironworker. The dispute was settled by the man leaving the job. (Minutes, 17/5/1915.)

In November, 1915, a body calling itself "Universal League" wrote for permission to address a meeting of the Union and a motion "that the letter be put in the waste paper basket" was carried. That members were alive to the implications of war was apparent from this decision and the reason for the motion was to be found in Jack Lang’s book, I Remember,

After the landing at Gallipoli an agitation started for the introduction of Conscription, although recruiting was at this stage booming. In this State (NSW) it started the formation of a Universal League, Its alleged aim was to compel everyone to serve the war effort.

An interesting commentary on the war, after some sixteen months and with knowledge of the human and material devastation it was already causing, appeared in the AWU weekly, The Worker, on 2nd December, 1915:

German Socialists for Peace

The German Socialists continue their splendid efforts for peace. They have a hard difficult task. Our own war press is loud in its praise of Leibnecht and his friends. It is apparently right in their eyes to talk about peace in Germany and wrong here. We feel our friends who think the war a just and righteous one must agree that, sooner or later, peace will be talked about, and that if men and women like Rosa Luxembourg, Klara Zetkin, Leibnecht, Bernstein and others risk life and liberty in order to stretch out the hand of fellowship to their comrades in other lands, then we ought to look beyond the crimes of Kaisers, Kings and Governments and accept their friendship…..

There was little record in the Union’s Minute Books of those members who had grasped the opportunity of what was regarded to some extent as a free trip overseas in a war which was expected to end before they got there. Despite the fact that by the end of 1915 the news was abysmally depressing of the loss of life and limb, the drive for more and more cannon fodder went on unabated and continued to attract the flower of Australian youth, and it was not until the question of conscription arose that the Union’s records disclosed its active anti-war role. 1916 saw, together with a number of named and un-named rank and file members, officials of the Union joining up: one-time President Scrimshaw and one-time Vice-President Swadling announcing that they had joined the "Expeditionary Forces".

While the war continued to demand a constant flow of human sacrifices, workers on the jobs continued to engage in strike action to preserve what gains had been made and to establish other new improvements, against employers hungry for every shilling they could squeeze out of the golden "war effort" contracts and avid in their desire to reduce the still-limited presence of the unions. Thus, meetings of the Union were predominantly concerned with disputes over wages and conditions, with assistance to members suffering from the effects of the industry by way of sickness and accident, with challenging use of non-member labour and seeking proper recognition of the Union in the industry.

Anti-enemy sentiment found expression early in 1916, when a meeting of the Union, in the Oddfellows Hall considered a letter which a member had received from Captain Henderson

thanking him for information with regard to an application for membership of this Union, viz, W.Read, that he (Read) had sold his seamen’s discharges to a German subject named Vitters.

Mr. Mutton said that he understood that Read had sold his discharges as stated but this Read denied, saying a Coal Lumper at Millers Point was guilty of the act.

It transpired that the Wharf Laborers were going to hold an enquiry into the same matter at their next meeting.

Mr. Carmichael moved and Mr. Wheeler seconded that Read’s admission stand over until the result of the Wharfies’ enquiry be made known. (Minutes, 10/1/1916.)

It transpired that the Wharfies decided to drop the matter and the Union then decided to admit Read as a member at its meeting on 7th February.

Soon after, a letter was received from the President, Scrimshaw, advising that he was in hospital for an operation

with a view to joining the Expeditionary Forces. He wished the Union success. (Minutes, 3/4/1916.)

Bill Swadling and other members also joined up in 1916 and the Union decided to give them a special function in the Oddfellows Hall, in Darling Street, Balmain, as a send-off.

Amongst the many issues arising during the War period was the vexatious demarcation problem with other unions. In one case, where a decision had been made favourable to the Union, at Cockatoo Island, the Secretary stated

In the event of the Professional Painters not agreeing to the Chairman’s decision we do all work on troopships…. (Minutes, 17/4/1916.)

Arising from this decision, the meeting decided to pay the out-of-pocket expenses incurred by Bill Swadling who represented the Union on the Demarcation Board hearing of the case. This was followed by a decision

That before Mr. Swadling’s departure for the front he be tendered a send off by the Union. (Minutes, 17/4/1916.)

When the Management Committee met to deal with the matter of the send-off for Bill Swadling,

it was recommended that he be communicated with, in order to get some idea as to the probable date of his departure for the front. It was also recommended that the next meeting should elect a committee to manage the carrying out of the send off and decide what form it should take. (Minutes, 27/4/1916.)

In May, 1916, Mahony read to a meeting a letter from the Barker Defence Committee which requested that the Union carry a resolution protesting against the sentence imposed on the Editor of the IWW’s Direct Action, (Tom Barker) for his anti-war writings and cartoons. Sloan and Murray then moved that the Minister for Defence be advised that

In the opinion of this meeting the sentence passed on Tom Barker is unjust and not in harmony with our democratic aspiration and we demand the case be quashed in the interest of justice and democracy. (Minutes, 1/5/1916.) (see Appendix 12(ii))

[NOTE: The number of gaolings of IWW men was a matter of serious concern. Ray Markey, in his In Case of Oppression, noted

By March 1915, twenty-four IWW free speech fighters were serving jail sentences and the IWW asked how it could be that a Labor Government, containing members who themselves had stood at street corners in earlier times denouncing the capitalist system, had allowed this to happen….

These numbers grew with Hughes’ Defence Act proclamations during the attempts to introduce conscription.]

The motion was carried after the defeat of an amendment by A.Wheeler to consign the letter to the wastepaper basket.

At the end of May, the Union once more protested at the use of Hughes’ War Precautions Act to gaol a member of the IWW, Louis Klausen, for anti-war utterances. (see Appendix 11(c))

During the year, news from enlisted members came to the Union meetings of occurrences overseas: Private McGregor wrote "an account of his experiences since leaving Australia" but these were not recorded. (Minutes, 7/8/1916.). At the same meeting, it was reported that "the fourth son of one of our oldest members, G.Watts, had been killed in action". The meeting was also informed through a letter from the Victorian Branch that some returned soldiers, who were not members of the Union, had been employed in the place of members in Melbourne and the Federal Secretary was called on to deal with this issue. His representations were responded to by the Department of the Navy which asserted that no member of the Union had been dismissed to make room for returned soldiers. (Minutes, 21/8/1916.)

The meeting was also addressed by "Private Swadling (late Vice President)" who

Wished members goodbye & success to the Union. Received with applause. The President addressing Mr. Swadling voiced the sentiment of the Union, wishing him a safe return. Mr. Swadling in his reply advised members to stand solidly together.

In August, the Ironworkers wrote to ask the Union to join in a congress to decide what action should be taken by the unions "in the event of a bill being introduced for conscription of human life in the Federal Parliament". At that stage, however, the Union declined "owing to the fact that we are represented at a properly constructed organisation & that they have the matter under consideration". But this reference to the Labor Council having the matter in hand was simply the first intimation of the Union’s position on conscription. At a meeting in September, a member, Tom Sawyer (of the IWW), raised the matter of the Union giving expression to its opposition to Hughes’ conscription proposals by calling a special meeting. Talbot, however, argued that there was no need for a special meeting and moved

That this union emphatically protests against conscription.

And the meeting carried this simple declaration. (Minutes, 4/9/1916.)

At the next fortnightly meeting, Mahony read out a decision of the Labor Council to convene a Special Meeting

to consider Government proposals re conscription and requesting subscription to the fund to carry on fight against conscription.

Delegates to the Labor Council reported that the Council’s last meeting had been taken up with discussion on the conscription proposals of the Labor Government under Hughes as Prime Minister. A motion had been submitted calling for a stop work meeting of all unions to consider the situation, which was carried. It had also been decided that the Council "fall into line with the Anti-Conscription League". However, the Council had decided to ask all delegates to get instructions from their unions on the matter of a stop work meeting. From this report, the Union meeting decided "that we instruct our delegates to vote for a one day stop work meeting".

After carrying this motion, a member, now Private Hamilton,

wished farewell to members on the eve of his departure for the front & advised all members to vote for no conscription stating that men encamped with him were solid for no conscription.

On behalf of the Union the President thanked Pte Hamilton wishing him every success & a safe return. Applause. (Minutes, 18/9/1916.)

At the following meeting, after receiving reports on the Anti-Conscription Trade Union Congress where all unions had expressed support for the stop work meeting, and the Labor Council had decided that it would call the meeting, a vote of £3 to the Council was carried.

It was in this period that Mahony presented a report to the Labor Council of the action by a landlord who had forced the wife and children of a member of the Union who had gone to the front, to vacate their premises on the order of a Magistrate in the Balmain Police Court. The Labor Council , on 28th September, 1916, took up the case and instructed the Secretary, Jack Kavanagh

To bring the facts before the Premier with a view to action being taken in the interests of the wife and children and the eviction prevented. The Labor Council also called for use of the "Moratorium" in this and similar cases.

The Union meeting then received a letter from the Secretary of the Queensland Branch (Charles Suim), resigning from the Federal Council and from his position as Branch Secretary "on account of his views on conscription". Mahony then explained to the meeting that the still-fledgling Federation of Painters and Dockers, uniting Victoria, Queensland and New South Wales, had carried a motion of support for the No Conscription campaign and

Mr. Suim being a conscriptionist could not act in the capacity of an office of the Federation. (Minutes, 18/10/1916.)

Since this Union meeting was held after the Labor Council’s stop work meeting, Mahony gave a report on that meeting which he considered

was a fiasco, the whole of our Federation, the waterfront unions, Boilermakers & some Engineers stopped work, other unions turned to. He advised that in future we be not made catspaws. (Minutes, 18/10/1916.)

A special meeting in November had a report on the recent Trade Union Congress which had carried a resolution calling for the compulsory clause in the Defence Act, whereby children are asked to serve, eliminated. (See Appendix 11(b).) And at the following meeting correspondence was received from the Labor Council requesting "affiliated unions to withdraw all delegates from Council who are conscriptionists". The meeting endorsed the Council’s action, though having no such delegates from the Union.

In 1917, with the war still raging and continuing to swallow more and more lives, and with the Governments of the day (now anti-Labor, under expelled Labor men, Hughes, Federally, and Holman in New South Wales), driving fiendishly for conscripting more men for the war’s hungry maw, the Union continued its anti-war, anti-conscription stance as well as following its path of protecting and fostering the best interests of the members and their Union. In that year, added to these various issues came the frame-up and gaoling of the twelve IWW men and the general strike begun by Tramway workers over the introduction of the American Taylor card system, regarded as a blatant speed-up system, and Hughes’ second conscription referendum.

In all these issues, and others which arose, the Union maintained a strong, militant stand. The Federal Government’s first referendum, in 1916, having been defeated, (in N.S.W., a majority of 117,000 was recorded), Hughes plunged in with a second referendum in 1917, and once more, the Union joined in the campaign.

In the business of meetings, there were reports such as "John McKay killed in action" and a decision made to take up a collection for his widow. (Minutes, 9/7/1917.)

A Special Meeting in the Workingmen’s Institute in November, gave an airing to the second referendum with, at the outset, an apology from the President for his absence from the meeting

he being engaged in the No-conscription Campaign a matter of vital interest to all unionists

following which correspondence was received from the Labor Council on the campaign, arising from which two decisions were made:

That members of this Union throw in their lot with the No-Conscription Committee and that the Union contribute £3.0.0 to the Anti-Conscription League; and

That the Union Hall be available to the Balmain Anti-Conscription League free of charge. (Minutes, 12/11/1917.)

At the same meeting, requests for financial assistance were received from the Benevolent Society and the Women’s Hospital and it was decided

That the Secretary be instructed to refer both applicants to the "Win the War League".

From which it may be assumed that both these bodies had expressed some sympathy for the Governments’ conscription cause.

For the next meeting on 26th November, the President was once more "unavoidably absent". This was a few weeks before the second referendum was voted on to produce a second defeat for Hughes and Holman. But, in this case, there was a firm rejection of conscription by the army overseas. Two important events accompanied this referendum: news that about 100 members of the IWW had been imprisoned under Hughes’ War Precautions Act and the scarcely reported second Russian Revolution, following the March 1917 uprising.

The Union’s Summons Meeting, held in the Oddfellows Hall in December, was opened by the President who

on behalf of officers and members…. welcomed Mr. H.Scrimshaw (who had been severely wounded) back from the front.

Mr. Scrimshaw who was received with the heartiest applause in a few well chosen words thanked members for his reception. (Minutes, 10/12/1917.)

Later in the meeting, Scrimshaw was permitted to address the meeting at some length and

Mr. Scrimshaw, ex-President of the Union, who had been to the front for about 18 months and returned seriously wounded recently then addressed the members as to the attitude of the soldiers on the question of conscription. The opinion he formed after coming into contact with soldiers both in the trenches and hospitals they were against conscription. He also related the experience he had gone through, the nature of his wounds and his hospital experience.

A hearty vote of thanks was carried by acclamation. (Minutes 10/12/1917.)

Arising from a conference with the Management (including the General Manager, Mr. King Salter) at Cockatoo Island, agreement was reached on the picking up of labour for the Island. This agreement included

That returned soldier members of the Union shall have preference of employment. (Minutes, 4/2/1918.)

At the following meeting, a letter was received from the Returned Soldiers and Sailors League seeking "cooperation in the direction of dealing with the war problem". No explanation of "the war problem" was given, but it could be assumed that it concerned a drive for more recruits for the Army, and it was decided that the letter "lay on the table", in other, words that no action be taken. (Minutes, 18/2/1918.)

The Secretary, Bob Mahony, who had been President of the Balmain Branch of the ALP when Billy Hughes joined the Labor Party, reported having attempted to meet Hughes on the Federal proclamation which took away the union’s preference in employment. Apparently, Hughes had brushed Mahony aside with the remark

that he did not have the time to discuss the matter as he had several deputations to meet. (Minutes 4/3/1918.)

A pamphlet was received at a Union meeting, dealing with the calling up of Italian subjects, and the Union’s attitude towards racial discrimination was expressed in a motion moved by H.Ostler, seconded Carter, and carried

That we enter our most emphatic protest against the introduction of conscription under any circumstances and protest against the deportation of Italian residents of Australia and that the fullest publicity be given to the deportation of neutral subjects. (Minutes, 29/4/1918.)

A later meeting gave further consideration to the subject of the deportation of people of Italian origin, when Jack McDonald moved, and James Pauley seconded

That the question of deportation of Italians and the question of conscription contained therein be referred to the Member for Dalley for the purpose of making representations to the Government.

However, Sloan opposed the motion, asserting that

The only logical conclusion was to withdraw from the war.

But Mahony rose to announce that the case was before the Labor Council at its last meeting when it was decided to enter their protest and render all assistance possible in the matter. After this, the motion was put and carried. (Minutes, 13/5/1918.) In June, the Labor Council decided to appoint a committee

to deal with the deportation of the Italians. A meeting was held in the Domain when trouble was caused by the returned soldiers. However, the next meeting on the following Sunday was successful. The President of the AMA (Miners) Broken Hill (Mr. Kerr) addressed the Council on the Italian question in Broken Hill. The Council had taken action in placing the case for the workers before the Board of Trade. The delegates also reported that a deputation had been sent to Holman before the Domain meeting but he refused to meet them. The Sydney papers were all that week inviting breaches of the peace by the returned soldiers.

It was further reported that public meetings would be held when speakers from the Joint Committee would explain the Italian deportation scheme. (Minutes, 25/6/1918.)

Mahony also reported that the Labor Council had given consideration to the subject of war recruitment and a motion submitted by the Council President, Morley.

Morley (a delegate from another union), had moved a resolution pledging the movement to assist in any recruitment campaign and that we call on the workers of this and all other belligerent countries to urge their governments to immediately secure an armistice on all fronts and initiate negotiations for peace.

The discussion is still proceeding and it would be necessary to instruct delegates how to vote on such an important matter.

Mr. J.McDonald moved and it was seconded that the delegates to the Labor Council be instructed to vote against the motion moved by Mr. Morley

The motion was put and carried by the meeting. (Minutes, 13/5/1918) see Appendix (11(h) - War and Militarism. At a subsequent meeting, the Union’s delegates to the Labor Council were instructed, by a motion from H.Ostler to vote for a resolution from E. Judd which clearly rejected any support for recruitment for overseas services. (Minutes, 27/5/1918.)

The next meeting received correspondence from the Third Australian Peace Conference asking the Union to carry a protest resolution against Australia being represented at the Allied and Imperial Conference by W.M.Hughes and Jos. Clark. Pauley and Tarlington’s motion to concur with this request was carried. (Minutes, 27/5/1918.)

With the war still raging, McDonald reported that at Cockatoo Island a number of single men (Iron workers) were put off.

it was presumed because they were of military age. Returned soldiers were employed in their places.

Mr. Ostler stated that the employers were doing their utmost at the present time to disorganise the workers. he advised members to stand together now as this was the most critical time in the history of unionism.

A general discussion then took place on the position in general. The question of profiteering and the price of meat were also discussed. (Minutes, 10/6/1918.)

The Union agreed to support financially an appeal by the Labor Council to assist

towards the legal expenses to defend Mr. Judd who has been charged with breaches of the War Precautions Act. This being a matter when freedom of speech is being curtailed and public speakers are being terrorised. Council considers it a duty to provide all possible assistance. (Minutes, 22/7/1918.)

Later in the meeting, a report was given on other decisions made by the Labor Council, including

Consideration also was given to enrolment cards issued by the Government for the purpose of conducting a ballot for recruits. Council urged all workers not to sign ballot papers.

Moved by Mr. H.Ostler and seconded that the people of Australia having on two occasions carried no conscription and that the Labor Council representatives of the Industrial movement having carried Peace proposals by a substantial majority we urge the workers to ignore the voluntary recruiting card issued by the Government.

The motion was carried.

Still persisting in its terrorist activities against anti-war speakers and activists, the Government ensured the gaoling of Vince Marshall a Labor Council delegate from the Miscellaneous Workers Union. The Free Speech Committee called for all unions to sign a resolution of protest which it had prepared, expressing opposition of the sentence of six months gaol imposed on Marshall. The President and Secretary were authorised to sign on behalf of the Union. (Minutes, 14/10/1918.)

The meeting on 11th November, 1918, made no mention of the Armistice signed "at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month" of 1918, and simply proceeded to deal with a variety of union affairs.

In December, McDonald reported to a meeting on business transacted at the Labor Council meeting including

a decision asking for the liberation of the Internees in the concentration camps. It was stated that the majority were married and had Australian wives and families. Cases were cited where the families were in dire distress. The Council had adopted a motion by Ernie Judd which called for all enemy subjects interned in Australia on no other grounds than that of nationality be immediately released.

The meeting endorsed the Council’s decision. (Minutes, 23/12/1918.)

It was after the War’s end that Bill Swadling returned to the industry and

The President at this stage welcomed Mr. W.Swadling on his return from the front after 3½ years active service…. (Minutes, 12/11/1919.)

He was no sooner back in the Union, and elected as a co-delegate to Jack McDonald at Cockatoo Island, than he felt obliged to move at a meeting soon after, that the Secretary be instructed to write to the Management of Naval establishments (including Cockatoo Island) "protesting against the undue preference to soldiers". Coming from a veteran returned soldier, this sentiment was adopted by the meeting. (Minutes, 24/11/1919.)

This view was held by the Union for some period of years. In 1928, Branch Secretary Jack McDonald reported having spoken to the Federal Civil Secretary, Mr. Watt, about the employment of returned men as casuals on the "Biloela", who were not Painters and Dockers. He had told the Civil Secretary that he could supply Returned men (soldiers, sailors and ex-naval men) who were more capable of carrying out the work than men who had never been in the industry. Watt had asked for a list of such men with a promise that "he would give instructions that the Painters and Dockers list would have to be exhausted before sending other men". The meeting decided that the list should be supplied to Watt. (Minutes, 16/4/1928.)

However, at a later stage, with the Great Depression now opening up, the Union decided to call for the withdrawal of the Naval Board regulations which gave preference to Returned Soldiers and Sailors. (Minutes, 11/11/1929.)

One of the influences on the Union’s attitude towards Returned men was undoubtedly the actions of some Returned men towards people holding views different to theirs, particularly those who attacked union and political speakers in the domain and elsewhere. In 1921, the President, Jack McDonald, reporting as a delegate to the Labor Council, advised of a decision to send a deputation to the Minister responsible concerning

Magistrate Gale fining a returned soldier for assaulting a man who wore a red carnation when he said no doubt he had provocation as he thought he was a red ragger.

The Labor Council had also decided

to circularise all affiliated and unaffiliated unions, Labor Leagues and all Political Parties asking them to send men to form a bodyguard to protect workers and platform and speakers in the Domain and Elsewhere.

To which the meeting responded that

The Union send a bodyguard to protect the Platform. (Minutes, 9/5/1921.)

The anti-conscription attitude of the Union was as strong and as enduring as its hostility towards scabs during the 1917 general strike. Thus, when advice came concerning a number of applicants for membership in the ALP, a motion by Swadling and Hagen was carried by a union meeting, instructing the Union’s delegate to the ALP conference

That the delegate be instructed to vote against any of ten applicants who stood for conscription. (Minutes, 3/2/1930.)

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