My Union Right or Wrong.
A history of the Ship Painters and Dockers Union 1900-1932
By Issy Wyner
Among the many influences on the political and industrial thinking of the painters and dockers and their union officials, was the Industrial Workers of the World, an organisation seeking to convince unionists of the need for wider and broader forms of union organisation based on its essential anti-capitalist concept. There were members of this organisation within the Union and they were not backward in pressing their views. E.Talbot (a professed socialist) was strongly sympathetic to, and George Collett was probably a member of, the IWW. One who was an IWW man, was H.Ostler, Talbot proposed inviting Mr. Scott Bennett to explain the objects of the IWW to the Union and Tickner and Ostler moved for a member of the IWW Club to address the Union which was carried. (see under "Labor Council" re Council refusal to hear Scott Bennett) (Minutes, 25/11/1907) By the time of the next meeting, the Secretary had already advised the IWW of the Union’s invitation and the IWW had responded that Mr.H. Ostler "had been appointed to attend the meeting and deliver address as requested on Industrial Unionism.
Ostler was called on to address the meeting on behalf of the Industrial Workers of the World Club "explaining the meaning and objects of Industrial Unionism", and
At the termination of the address it was moved by Mr.E.Talbot and seconded That a hearty vote of thanks be tendered to Mr.Ostler for his very able and lucid address. Carried by acclamation. (Minutes, 9/12/1907)
The IWW Club was first formed in Australia in October 1907 by the Socialist Labor Party, a group which issued a paper entitled The People, whose front page always carried a quotation from Karl Marx:
In every civilised epoch the prevailing mode of economic production and exchange and the social organisation necessarily flowing from it form the basis from which is built up and from which alone can be explained the political and intellectual history of the epoch.
Based on the American experience, under the leadership of De Leon and Eugene Debs, the essence of the IWW philosophy was that workers’ problems could only be solved by the workers themselves in properly organised unions. Thus, for example, the coal industry union would cover all skilled, semi-skilled and non-skilled workers in the coal industry, and, as Tony Laffan noted,
This new union would with a socialist electoral victory, take over capitalist property. Organised on an industrial basis it would then proceed to create the future socialist society. (Good Work at Westy, A.Laffan)
In 1908, the Union considered the Agenda for the forthcoming Trades Union Congress and Ostler moved
That delegates to Congress be instructed to vote for resolution by Newcastle Labor Council and No.13 on agenda paper. He stated that that was the only resolution that had any substance in it and its objects were clearly defined. He explained the preamble of the IWW and pointed out the fact that we could not have anything in common with the Capitalist class, and we would never have peace until the workers took control of the whole of the machinery of production and worked them for their own benefit.
An amendment from Scrimshaw and Green proposed
That delegates be instructed to vote for item No.20 on agenda paper by the Barrier Branch AMA, Broken Hill. Mr.Scrimshaw considered this was the wisest course to adopt as by adopting No.13 we would be doing away with competition. There would therefore be no incentive, no energy and it would cause indolence. The world would not progress under the system.
Mr.Talbot stated as a delegate to Congress he did not desire to enter into the debate, but he considered the preamble to the IWW would be bettered by the elimination of all reference to politics.
The Secretary stated that the preamble suited American ideas. But did not suit Australian conditions when it asked the unions to co-operate on the political as well as the Industrial field. Politics was most corrupt in America and they did not have the liberal franchise which we had, and from his point of view the Federation should be an Industrial federation only. Sufficient organisations existed outside of unions for the political aspect to be considered in.
The mover having replied the motion was put and carried. (Minutes, 13/4/1908) (For IWW preamble, etc., see Appendix 3(a))
Mahony and Talbot reported as delegates on proceedings at the Trade Union Conference. They reported that they had voted "in favour of Federation based on the preamble to the IWW which resolution was lost by 55 votes to 23" and the Barrier Branch of the Amalgamated Miners Association motion was carried advocating the "federation of the whole of the labour organisations of Australia, with a view to ensuring industrial peace through united action". (see J.E.Sutcliffe, in his History of Trade Unionism in Australia (1921)) (Minutes, 27/4/1908.)
When the Union gave consideration to the draft rules proposed for the Maritime Council, which unions were asked to express a view on
Mr. Thos Sloan opposed the objects on the grounds of provision being made therein for conciliation.
Mr. Ostler opposed the Objects on the grounds of their vagueness. He said the only correct objective was as contained in the objects of the IWW.
Mr. Brennan and Mr.Talbot supported the objects. After discussion the motion that the objects be adopted as submitted was carried. (Minutes, 20/7/1908.)
When considering agenda items for the Trades Union Congress in 1909, Talbot once more proposed, and it was seconded by Welsh and carried for submission as an Agenda Item
That in the opinion of Congress the time has arrived for the organisation of the workers upon the principle of Industrial Unionism. (Minutes, 18/1/1909)
Still keeping the Union’s attitude towards the IWW somewhat ambivalent was the position some years later when Sloan and Talbot moved
That a hearty welcome be given to a representative of the IWW to deliver an address to a meeting of the Union on Industrial Unionism.
and the motion was defeated. (Minutes, 20/10/1913)
In the midst of the war, a Union meeting was addressed by speakers from the striking shearers, seeking financial support, and were advised that amongst assistance already received was a collection by the IWW amounting to £32.4.4. Also, because the Trades Hall had refused the strikers a meeting place, the IWW had made its hall available. Following this information, the meeting decided to make a donation of`£3 to the Strike Committee. (Minutes, 7/8/1916.)
The IWW assistance was given to the shearers at a time when it was under serious attack by the Government. While the Union heard speakers on various issues involving the "Wobblies" (IWW), it refused to discuss a letter from the Workers Defence Committee concerning the persecution of members of the IWW, the President ruling it out of order to discuss the matter. When his ruling was dissented from, it was upheld by the narrow margin of 23 votes to 26 against. (Minutes, 30/10/1916)
The number of gaolings of IWW men was outrageous in its extent and as Ray Markey noted about the previous year
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. (In Case of Oppression, R.Markey)
These numbers grew with Prime Minister Hughes’ proclamations under the Defence Act, in his attempts to gain support for his conscription referendums in 1916 and 1917.
The most notable of the gaolings, of course, were the twelve IWW members (See Photo) arrested under the War Precautions Act Regulations (see Appendix 3(d)) When a letter from the Workers Defence Committee sought financial assistance to defend the twelve, the President ruled the correspondence out of order "as it was against the constitution of the Union". But on this occasion, a member, Harley, dissented from the ruling, declaring
That every man in jail were members of the working class. That the President was an autocrat. These men had done everything for the benefit of the workingclass.
The dissent was carried by 50 votes to 35, after which the President, A.Wheeler, closed the meeting "on account of repeated interruptions" (Minutes, 27/11/1916)
The President’s action came under fire at the first meeting in December, when H.J.Standen attacked the President, stating that he had
entirely ignored parliamentary principles and majority rule in refusing to allow business matters to come up for discussion.
and the IWW issue, unresolved from the previous meeting, then came up for discussion. Standen then moved to have the subject of the IWW discussed stating that
he had no brief for the IWW but that the communication from the defence committee was the property of the Union and as such should be discussed.
On being put to a vote, the motion was defeated by 194 to 39. In view of later developments, the attitude displayed at this meeting was not an indication of hostility towards the IWW. This was evidenced in the following year when, at the half-yearly meeting, a letter from the Metropolitan Water and Sewerage Employees Association was read out.
The Association was represented on the Labor Council by Ernie Judd, a prominent member of the Labor Council’s committee set up to investigate the charges laid against the twelve IWW men. Judd was also prominent in anti-conscription fights and was a leader of the Socialist Labor Party. The letter called for
a combined effort by all industrial organisations with the object to bring about the release or at least a new trial of those members of the IWW who have been sentenced to long terms of imprisonment.
On this occasion, the President, Wheeler, gave no ruling on dealing with the matter, and on a motion by Ostler, the meeting decided
That this Union whilst declaring its entire opposition to all acts of arson and destruction of life and property desires to enter its emphatic protest against the unfairness of the manner of conducting the trials of the members of the IWW and demands in the interests of justice and fair play a new trial. (Minutes, 8/1/1917)
The motion was carried and a further decision was made to send a copy of it to the Daily Telegraph and the Evening News.
Scrimshaw, as one the Union’s delegates to the Labor Council, reported on the formation of the Release and Defence Committee by the Labor Council to deal with the IWW case, and Ostler stated
that our Union should take a prominent part in the matter as four of our members were concerned. He would be pleased to render any assistance possible. (Minutes, 21/1/1918)
It is uncertain which four members of the Union were "concerned", or in what way they were "concerned", other than the fact that Hughes’ use of the War Precautions Act against anti-conscriptionists, netted a large number of unionists and others as "subversives", many of whom were gaoled. Certainly, some members of the Union were members of the IWW, and the Union and the IWW were staunchly anti-war and anti-conscription, making them clear targets for victimisation.
The Defence and Release Committee was established chiefly at the behest of Henry Boote, Editor of the AWU weekly paper, The Worker, and of Ernest Judd, who were calling for the re-opening of the case against the twelve men, a case which they were convinced was a frame-up. Judd, as a delegate to the Labor Council was appointed as investigator to examine the evidence in the case. He was successful in being able to prove that one of the chief witnesses, Scully, had concocted evidence which he gave at the trial, discovering Scully’s plea for a bigger payment than the £2000 he received for his roguery.
In March, the Labor Council sought financial support for the IWW appeal against the sentences imposed on its twelve members and on a motion from Joselyn, voted £3 to the cause. (Minutes, 5/3/1917). And, in the following month the Union decided to attend a conference convened by the Defence and Release Committee "to discuss ways and means of securing the release of the 12 IWW men".
During 1917, the IWW was active in support of the General Strike which started on 2nd August with a walkout by the 1100 tramway men at the Randwick workshops, over the attempt by the Government to introduce a time card system based on the American Taylor system of time-and-motion checking. Before the strike ended in September, 1917, almost every unionist in New South Wales was affected. The Union’s strong support for the strikers was apparent in its many donations to the strike committee and in the Federal Secretary (Bob Mahony) being elected as President of the Strike Committee. The Union was among the last to resume work when the strike ended. In all the Union’s activities, the IWW was a prominent participant as well as being engrossed in the second anti-conscription campaign, in pressing for the release of the Twelve and in being strongly supportive of the drive for One Big Union.
In October, the Union supported a Labor Council petition calling for the release of "Mr. Mooney of California". Thomas J.Mooney, a member of the American IWW, was sentenced to death in the USA under legislation similar to the draconic Hughes Government’s War Precautions Act. The protests from Australia would have combined with demands from other countries, resulting in the death sentence being commuted to life imprisonment.
Towards the end of 1918, after the War was ended, an inquiry into the case of the twelve IWW men was conducted by Judge Street and his findings were an incredible indictment of all who were involved in pillorying the twelve men. Arising from these findings, H.Ostler (IWW) put forward a motion, which Jack McDonald, seconded:
That this Branch is of the opinion that the finding of Judge Street in connection with the inquiry into the allegation of corruption re the conviction of the 12 IWW prisoners is an astounding contradiction to the facts elicited at the enquiry and as the judge himself was compelled to admit that the three chief witnesses for the Crown upon whose evidence the 12 men were convicted are men who are unscrupulous, unprincipled, criminal-minded and absolute liars. Therefore we urge in the interests of Justice the early release of the twelve men. (Minutes, 23/12/1918)
In considering the motion and the information available, the meeting took into account the report by Ernie Judd, supported by Henry Boote, to the Labor council on 11th July, 1918, which was a remarkably detailed research into the IWW case, fully substantiated by Judge Street’s findings. Ostler’s motion was carried without opposition.
Twelve months later, there was still no move for release and an almost desperate decision was made by the Labor Council to make a request to the British Government for the release of the twelve men, including J.B.King. In what way the British Government was expected to intervene was not indicated in the report to the Union. (Minutes, 28/7/1919.) The special mention of J.B.King, an engine driver, in the report was because he had been given a separate sentence of three years for forgery on top of the five years imposed for "seditious conspiracy" as one of the twelve.
The request was of no avail and in February of the following year, the Union was advised of the Labor Council’s continuing campaign when it requested funds "to carry on a vigorous propaganda for the release of the Twelve IWW men". A donation of £3 was made.
Later in the year, Sinclair of the Labor Council, addressed a Union meeting on the IWW Men Release Committee
he did not want men to go on strike but he wanted the Union to voice a united opinion demanding the release of the men. It was a question of public policy and the united demands would have an effect on the Government and the Commission (appointed by the State Labor Government to inquire into the gaolings). (Minutes, 7/6/1920)
Following Sinclair’s address, Ostler moved, and Thorljonsen seconded, that
This meeting of the Ship Painters and Dockers Union having given full consideration to the cases of the 12 IWW men is fully convinced that they are victims of a conspiracy carried out by the Fuller-Beeby-Holman Government and demands in the interests of justice their immediate liberation.
The motion was carried as well as a further motion for a copy of it to be sent to the Press and to the Government.
At the following meeting, the Union agreed to a Labor Council request to join the Sydney Domain public meeting on 27th June, and appoint speakers, to protest against the non-liberation of the Twelve.
By August, 1920, the Storey State Labor Government had considered a report from Judge N. Ewing and ordered the release of ten of the Twelve. King and Reeves were not released immediately.
In the following year, in March, the Union learned of the shooting death of Percy Brookfield, the member of Parliament who was the one of the strongest campaigners, especially in the State Parliament, for the release of the Twelve and in April, carried a motion from Swadling calling for the release of the remaining two men. (Minutes, 11/4/1921). During the next few months, King was released (30th August), but Reeves was still behind bars and his continued incarceration was the subject of a motion of support for the Labor Council’s protest and it was decided to also forward a request to the State Government "to consider the matter of his release as extremely urgent". (Minutes, 1/8/1921)
On 21st November, J.B.King addressed a meeting of the Union to explain the "workings of the Labor College" where he held a position after his release. The purpose of the College was, he stated
to instruct the workers in economics and working class ideals. He pointed out the position of the workers today under capitalism and said the only solution was for the workers to take over the means of production and distribution.
Apparently he was not aware that Reeves was released late in November, 1921. Ed Murphy, delegate to the Labor Council, announced to the meeting on 5th December, 1921, that Charlie Reeves had been released "last Sunday week".