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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 Seventeen: The One Big Union (OBU)

On 21st August, 1916, the Union dealt with the matter of the OBU, when it elected the Branch Secretary (Mahony) and Grant to represent the Union at a meeting in the Trades Hall, "to consider the formation of One Big Union". Mahony reported to the next meeting on 4th September, that he and Grant had attended the meeting and voted for the proposal and for a committee elected to draw up a "workable scheme".

In these early stages of consideration of the OBU, Mahony and the Union generally favoured the establishment of such an organisation, but still waited for a detailed proposition.

For almost two years after this initial move, nothing was recorded of the Union’s interest in the matter. But Mahony still retained among his few remaining effects, a brief press report, in which Ernie Judd (of the Australian Socialist Party) sought to dissociate himself from some of the OBU’s, activities:

Mr. E. Judd, referring to Mr.Storey’s (the Premier’s) statement regarding the OBU, writes stating whatever Messrs. Garden, Rutherford, and other members of the OBU do in connection with the ALP Conference they do as members of the ALP, and not as representatives of the OBU. He (Mr.Judd) had opposed and would continue to oppose the idea of the OBU affiliating with any political party. The OBU must be self-sufficient, self-reliant, and, when sufficiently powerful, reflect its own political party...(SMH, 24/3/1917)

In March, 1918, the Labor Council, over the name of its Secretary, Jack Kavanagh, put out a 4-page pamphlet, entitled "Reorganisation --- Report of Committee appointed to draft a scheme for the re-organisation of the Trade Union Movement". This document, which the Labor Council offered for sale at 7/6d. per 100 copies, explained the essential aim as being for "an industrial organisation as against the craft system". Prior to setting out the detailed application of six industrial departments (Building and Construction, Manufacture and General Production, Transportation and Communication, Agricultural Land and Fisheries, Civil Service and Public Utilities, and Mining), it gave a Preamble, thus

First.--- We hold that there is a class struggle in society, and that the struggle is caused by economic conditions.

Second. --- We affirm the economic condition of the producer to be that he is exploited of the wealth which he producers, being allowed to retain barely sufficient for his elementary necessities.

Third. --- We hold that the class struggle will continue until the producer is recognised as the sole master of his products.

Fourth. --- We assert that the working class, and it alone, can and must achieve its own emancipation.

Fifth. --- We hold, finally, that an industrial union and the concerted political action of all wage workers, is the only method of attaining this end.

At the Union’s July half-yearly meeting in 1918, it was reported to a meeting that the Labor Council was considering "reorganisation" generally related to One Big Union proposals and McDonald and Byrnes moved that the Labor Council be asked to send delegates to address the Union on the scheme. However, Joselyn moved an amendment, which was carried, for the matter to "stand over until after the Congress".

The scheme, under the headline "Workers' Industrial Union of Australia" was adopted by the Trades Union Congress, held in Sydney, on 6th August, 1918, and was published over the name of ` J.S.Garden, as Secretary of the Organising and Propaganda Committee. In adopting the document, however, the Preamble was changed to provide

(1) We hold that there is a class struggle in society, and that the struggle is caused by the capitalist class owning the means of production, to which the working class must have access in order to live. The working class produce all value. The greater the share which the capitalist class appropriates, the less remains for the working class, therefore the interests of these two classes are in constant conflict. by deleting the last words, "by economic conditions" in the First paragraph and inserting in lieu thereof the words, "by the capitalist class owning the means of production, to which the working class must have access in order to live".

(2) There can be no peace as long as want and hunger are found among the millions of working people, and the few who constitute the employing class have all the good things of life.

(3) Between these two classes the struggle must continue until Capitalism is abolished. Capitalism can only be abolished by the workers uniting in one class-conscious economic organisation to take and hold the means of production by revolutionary industrial and political action. "Revolutionary action" means action to secure a complete change, namely, the abolition of capitalistic ownership of the means of production --- whether privately or through the State --- and the establishment in its place of social ownership by the whole community. Long experience has proved the hopeless futility of existing political and industrial methods, which aim at ending and rendering tolerable, and thereby perpetuating, Capitalism --- instead of ending it.

(4) The rapid accumulation of wealth and concentration of the ownership of industries into fewer and fewer hands make the Trade Unions unable to cope with the ever-growing power of the employing class, because craft unionism fosters conditions which allow the employer to pit one set of workers against another set of workers in the same industry, thereby defeating each in turn.

(5) These conditions can be changed, and the interests of the working class advanced, only by an organisation so constituted that all its members in any one industry, or in all industries, shall take concerted action when deemed necessary, thereby making an injury to one the concern of all.

(6) We hold that as the working class creates and operates the socially-operated machinery of production, it should direct production and determine working conditions.

At a Union meeting on 2nd September, 1918, a request was received from "Jock" Garden, Secretary of the Labor Council Workers’ Industrial Union of Australia and thus, chief proponent of the One Big Union, asking the Union to contribute ten shillings (10/-d.) per hundred members or part thereof, to constitute a fund for the immediate advocacy of the OBU scheme, and for the Union to hear a speaker on the subject. It was decided that that request be stood over until a special meeting could deal with the whole OBU matter. (Minutes, 2/9/1918.) But nothing more was recorded until the meeting of 28th October, when it was decided to send delegates to a conference on the One Big Union and, on 11th November, it was decided to comply with a Labor Council request to conduct a ballot of the membership to determine support for the OBU. (It was business as usual at this meeting after the "eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month" saw the end of the "war to end all wars".)

Towards the end of 1918, a meeting of the Union referred a request from the Secretary of the OBU for £1 per 100 members to create a propaganda fund, to the Federal Council of the Union with a recommendation of support.

The matter was taken a step further in January, 1919, when the Workers Industrial Union of Australia asked the Union to purchase copies of the OBU paper. McBeath and Ostler moved that 200 copies be purchased and an amendment to leave the purchase to individual members was first defeated before the motion was carried.

After this, there was no meeting of the Union until March, the reason being found in a report at that meeting to the effect that the proposed OBU conference had to be postponed owing to the Influenza Restrictions.

[NOTE: The serious influenza epidemic caused emergency arrangements to be put in place throughout the State of New South Wales from the end of January, 1919, when the first cases were discovered. All theatres and other public places for entertainment, conferences, meetings, etc., and schools, were closed until further notice. Municipal councils were required to set up inoculation depots. Movement about the city called for use of` masks which many people objected to, but found essential as the number of deaths mounted with each fresh report and it soon became fashionable to be seen in public with a face mask.]

The Union then meeting on 3rd March elected delegates to the OBU conference but "it shall be understood that this in no way binds us to the scheme". (Minutes, 3/3/1919)

A fortnight later, a Special Meeting was held in the Temperance Hall in Montague Street , Balmain, to consider the OBU issue. and the Secretary, Bob Mahony, opened by reporting that

He had wrote to Mr. Garden on March 4th asking him to send a speaker….up to the present there was no reply.

But the President had told him that Mr.Judd was coming while Mr. Wheeler stated that Mr. Garden was coming….It was now 8.30 and neither of the speakers were present.

From this report, it was decided that the meeting should proceed to discuss the OBU scheme and Wheeler and Talbot proposed

That this Union turn down the OBU scheme. He (Wheeler) stated that he favoured the system of Arbitration as against the direct action method. We had means in Australia of expressing our views and recording our opinion on any matter.

Mr Jos. Hennessy opposed the motion. He favoured the scheme as in it lies the emancipation of the workers

Mr. Joselyn supported the motion. He said we had the power by constitutional means in Australia to do anything we desire.

Mr. Tarlington supported the motion.

Mr. Ostler opposed. He said what we wanted to decided was whether we were in favour of One Big Union or one small union. What the workers are trying to do is to liberate themselves from the shackles of slavery. What the OBU is driving at is to take over the whole of Industry and work them for the people. We must not be content, we must try to make the world a better place to live in.

The Secretary stated that as none of the speakers from the OBU had turned up he would read the rules of the organisation. The members would then know what they were voting for he stating the whole scheme was based on the fact of the class war. the workers desiring control of Industry and for that reason it was proposed to organise on Industrial lines. There would be six Industry Departments from which a governing body would be elected. each of the Departments would be cut up into divisions to meet the circumstances. There would also be provision for sections and mixed sections in places where there were not sufficient members to form a division. The contribution would be £1 per annum payable in advance.

Mr. Wheeler in reply stated that scab unions were very much in evidence today and if the OBU started the bosses would start further scab unions and refuse to employ members of the OBU. He further stated that the OBU would take the whole of our funds and Hall and would use them for organising purposes. If the scheme failed we would lose all. (Minutes, 17/3/1919)

The motion, on being put to a vote, was defeated by 80 votes to 70, and the Federal/Branch Secretary (Mahony) explained that this vote was not decisive in that it had to be debated and voted on in each Branch and the final decision would be made by the Federation as a whole. A letter was received from J.S.Garden explaining why a speaker was not present at the meeting but nothing further was recorded.

Some three months later, at its meeting on 10th June, a letter from the OBU asked the Union to take a ballot "on the question whether members favoured joining the Workers Industrial Union of Australia commonly known as the OBU, and the matter was deferred for consideration at a stop work meeting (no work after 5 p.m.) (Minutes, 10/6/1919.) A month later, the Branch was advised that the Federal Council had decided to conduct a ballot of the Federal membership on the question of the OBU. In September, 1919, the OBU wrote with a request that the New South Wales Branch hold a ballot on whether it would join the OBU and advising that, if such a ballot should be taken, the ballot papers should conform with the pattern shown in its letter, failing which, "the ballot will be declared bogus". It was decided to conform with the request, and, at the next meeting, the Secretary reported that the ballot was in progress and

The ballot would be open for a week and would close on Saturday next. The Assistant Secretary would be at the following places for the purpose of giving members the opportunity of recording their vote: Interstate companies – Monday & Tuesday; Cockatoo – Wednesday; Adelaide Co. – Thursday; Deep Sea – Friday; Sydney side – Saturday. The office would also be opened for voting all the week between the hours of 9 a.m. and 5.45 p.m. (Minutes, 29/9/1919)

Eventually, a report was given to a meeting on the results of the ballot

Branch YES NO
Queensland 24 60
Newcastle 24 28
Victoria 117 55
NSW 105 2200
Totals 270 363
(Minutes, 27/10/1919)

From this general rejection (with only Victoria favouring it) when a request was received from the OBU for a levy of £1 per 100 members, Thomas and Swadling moved that the Union

Notify the OBU that our delegates only attended the inaugural meetings of the OBU and were not bound by subsequent resolutions.

This was carried by the meeting after first defeating an amendment "that no correspondence from the OBU be read up at meetings" (Minutes, 24/11/1919)

In August of the following year, a request was received from the OBU for the Union to take a fresh ballot, but no decision was made. In fact, while there were rare reports to meetings on efforts to form an OBU, little arose at meetings. A proposal by the WWF to form a Transport and Communications Department of the OBU was reported to a meeting in October, 1925, together with advice that the Federal Council was sending delegates to a conference on the matter. While the ACTU adopted some of the features of the OBU scheme and the NSW Labor Council still sought ways of implementing it, the Union went no further than attending conferences and agreeing in principle with the essential notion of One Big union.

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