My Union Right or Wrong.
A history of the Ship Painters and Dockers Union 1900-1932
By Issy Wyner
With interest in the new Soviet Union to be found in the union movement generally in Australia, it was to be expected that such interest would also be found in the Ship Painters and Dockers Union. In 1918, some twelve months after the Russian Revolution, the Labor Council showed its interest, as indicated by John McDonald, Secretary of the Union, who reported that
Peter Simonoff had delivered a lecture to the Labor Council on Bolshevism in Russia and the action of the White Guards re same. (Minutes, 28/10/1918)
This was the first time that the Union’s records showed awareness of the Russian Revolution, and the records do not indicate whether the meeting discussed revolution and Simonoff’s lecture. No doubt McDonald would have reported that Simonoff was the first Consul from the new USSR to Australia, bringing credentials signed by Leon Trotsky, which the Hughes Government refused to recognise. (see Appendix 8 (8). He was gaoled during 1919 for having engaged in anti-war propaganda. He would undoubtedly have had some influence in the early discussions in 1919, on forming an organisation sympathetic to and supportive of the Communist Party in Russia but also holding to a true Australian flavour. Joe Harris notes that after his return to Russia in 1921,
It is thought that he was shot with many other old Bolsheviks in the purges in the 1930s. (The Bitter Fight, Joe Harris, p.264.)
Activists in the general labor movement became the driving force in the formation of the Communist Party of Australia in October 1920. Members of Socialist groups, of the I.W.W., of the One Big Union group, feeling the need for a more solid, left-wing formation, for a party presenting Marxism and Communism as the answer to all the capitalist ills, took their lead from the events in Russia, to establish a centralised organisation. There were many differences in the founding period, groups joining and then departing. There were such cases as the whole Balmain Branch of the Socialist Labor Party which defected to the Communist Party. (see Industrial Labor and Politics, Ian Turner.)
A Branch of the CPA was formed in Balmain and met every Tuesday in what was known as the "Old Pioneers Hall" on the corner of Darling Street and Nelson Street in Rozelle. Number 505 Darling Street, Balmain became a florist for many years with the Communist Party Branch holding its meetings and conferences in the upstairs section. Its honorary secretary was Norman Jeffrey, who arranged for an advertisement of the meeting to be placed in the Party’s paper, The Workers Weekly, each week. Members of the Union who joined the CPA would have attended these local meetings.
The Union’s attitude towards the Communist Party was generally favourable in the early period of the Party, but changes in the Party line, from time to time, eventually caused the Union to view it with disfavour.
The Labor Council, which was generally supported by the Union, was well under the control of members of the Communist Party in the early years of the CPA’s formation. In 1921, the Union meeting passed a donation of £3 towards the Labor Council’s appeal for assistance to finance the visit of J.Howie, President of the Labor Council, to England. It would have been known that he would visit Moscow for the founding of the Red International of Labor Unions (RILU) which, on his return to Australia, he convinced the Labor Council to affiliate with.
The association of the Labor Council with the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) at this time was very close. Apart from Garden’s position of dual leadership, most of the remainder of the Council’s officers were communists, or close sympathisers, including H.L.’Snowy’ Denford, W.Gibb (vice president), 1923-25), J.Howie (president, 1919-22), J.Kilburn, A.McKenzie (vice president, 1918-19), and A.Rutherford. From 1920, the term ‘trades hall reds’ became a common description for this executive. (In Case of Oppression, Ray Markey)
The CPA still held on to its demand that its members should belong to the ALP as well. In 1922, Jack McDonald, Secretary, reported to a Union meeting on the expulsion from the Labor Council of A.S.Reardon, secretary of the fledgling Communist Party, for working and voting against the Labor Party at a time when the Labor Council was still somewhat in favour with the ALP. (Minutes, 13/3/1922)
In June 1923, the Union received a request for the purchase of tickets for a benefit being organised for Tom Glynn, one of the Twelve IWW men. In agreeing to purchase the tickets, at a time when Glynn had joined the Communist Party, it was indicative of the attitude of the union towards the CPA, for it was only in the previous month that the Union had decided to affiliate with the ALP. Glynn was for a time the editor of the CPA’s weekly paper.
By October, 1923, the Communist Party was out of favour with the ALP, and any known members of the CPA were expelled, which produced a reaction from the Painters and Dockers Union, when Swadling and Murphy moved and had carried
That the Branch enter its emphatic protest against the executive of the Australian Labor Party expelling the members of the Communist Party and that the Assistant Secretary write on the same to the Labor Council. (Minutes, 22/10/1923)
Within a matter of weeks, the ALP Head Office had responded to the protest by stating that the Party’s Rules and constitution provided for such action against members of other groups; to which the meeting carried a motion from Crowe and Guilfoyle
That we are still of the opinion that the expulsion of the Communist party was not justified. (Minutes, 5/11/1923)
At its next meeting, the Union adopted the motion from Swadling and Thomas, coupling the CPA issue with that of ballot-box rigging:
That this Branch ask the Labor Council for the co-operation of other affiliated unions to call a conference in January re faked ballot boxes and expulsion of the Communist Party. (Minutes, 19/11/1923)
[Information on ballot-box rigging may be seen in chapter on the ALP.]
McDonald and Swadling reported on business transacted at the ALP Conference in 1924, none of which was taken down by the minutes secretary. Strangely, this failure to take note of what had occurred at the State ALP Conference left unremarked the fact that this conference made the final decision on removing members of the Communist Party from the ALP. Bearing in mind the motions by Swadling, which the Union had adopted, for joining with other unions and some branches of the ALP, to condemn the Party for its action in 1923, it was to be expected that the delegates’ report would include this subject as dealt with in 1924. Yet, a decision to place the Communist Party outside the ALP, apparently passed without demur from the Union’s delegates.
Making the subject more interesting for those opposed to the expulsions, was the fact that the ALP’s Federal Conference, in October, 1924, adopted a motion declaring:
That Conference declares itself against the Communist Party as it exists in Australia today, with its idea of sudden revolution and foreign methods, that are not necessary in Australia: and that Conference declares itself in favour of practical Socialism through Federal and State Governments and Municipal and District Councils, and in favour of Pools and Co-operation to help the producers.
(As quoted in A Documentary History of the Australian Labor Movement, 1850-1975, by Brian McKinlay)
The Trades Hall Reds continued their fight for CPA members to remain in the Labor Party and attacked those bent on keeping them out. Involved in the fight was the Party Executive decision to cancel a Special Conference at which the CPA would have taken up the issue. From the Labor Council, a call went out to all unions, which came before the Union meeting in September, to support a motion from the Boilermakers Society which declaimed
That this Union views with disgust the EXCUSES put forward by the Executive of the New South Wales Branch of the Australian Labor Party as to why they have changed their minds re the holding of a Special Conference which they agreed should be held on 30th August 1924.
Further we publicly charge them with corruptly using their positions as custodians of the ALP Rules, in the interests of a few self-seekers to the detriment of the whole working class movement.
We are further of the opinion that the statement issued by them doubting the validity of the petitions forwarded from the various leagues and unions is an insult to every affiliated unionist and fully bears out the contention that the cleansing of the movement attempted at the last conference has been a dismal failure. (Minutes, 22/9/1924)
A motion from Swadling and Thomas to comply with the Labor Council request was carried by the Union meeting.
The unions had maintained certain important rights within the Labor Party, rights which, tacitly at least, indicated that the Party was a creation of the unions. But, with the fight against the Communist Party and its adherents, the ALP began to take on a different aspect, to indicate that the Party was not under the thumb of the unions and, according to the parliamentary representatives, was a party of all the people, not only unionists. Of course, an important feature of the moves to alter the Rules was to deny unionists, and especially CPA members, the right to vote in pre-selection ballots for parliamentary seats.
While the Ship Painters and Dockers Union, NSW Branch, was supportive of members belonging to both the ALP and the CPA, the Communist Party was soon committing acts which alienated many of its supporters. Thus, in 1925, Bob Mahony reported to a branch meeting concerning the CPA’s weekly paper
That on his return to Sydney it had been pointed out to him that a scurrilous attack had been made on him in a paper called the "Workers Weekly". He stated the men concerned knew exactly what he was doing and the tactics he was adopting and a mean and cowardly advantage was taken of him while he was absent in Melbourne. He acted strictly in accordance with the wishes of the Federation (Minutes, 4/5/1925)
When the Union’s Management Committee met some weeks later, Swadling proposed that a statement be issued to "repudiate the statements that are appearing in the ‘Workers Weekly’ against Mr. Mahony our General Secretary." (Minutes, 13/6/1925)
Despite the CPA’s attack on Mahony, the Management Committee decided to recommend that the Union concur with a Labor Council request to purchase 10 tickets sent to it by the Communist Party "for the formation of a workingclass band". (Minutes, 10/8/1925.)
A Special Summons meeting of the Union, later in the year, received a report from its delegates to the Labor Council which included that the Council had discussed "at great length" the matter of representation in the ALP of affiliated unions and had decided
That any union affiliated to the Australian Labor Party should have the right of sending whom they think should represent them at any conference no matter what school of thought they belonged to as long as that school was in the interest of the workingclass. (Minutes, 24/11/1925)
1926 saw the fight within the ALP over rejection of the Communist Party continuing. A call from the Labor Council to adopt a condemnatory motion, found sympathy in the Union and was adopted:
That we the members of the Ship Painters and Dockers Union enter our emphatic protest against the action of the ALP Executive…… in the persons of Messrs.J.Beasley, J.Kilburn, C.K.Tannock and A.E.Bennett to show cause why they should not be penalised, whose only offence is in participating in a Trade Union Congress representative of all working class organisations in the State, the object of which was to eliminate the existing gulf between the industrial and Political Movements. The cablegram referred to was not of a political nature but greetings from one representative body of workers to another for the improvement of material conditions. (Minutes, 22\3\1926)
The meeting adopted the motion. Later in the same meeting, the widening gap between the two parties once more found expression when a decision by the ALP Executive was debated
That consistent with the decisions of Federal and State Conferences, Unions and Electorate Councils be informed that members of the Communist Party will be ineligible to represent any Union or Electorate Council at the forthcoming State Conference.
The meeting carried a motion from O’Keeffe and Murphy
That we the members of the Ship Painters and Dockers Union are quite competent to elect our own delegates who would have the confidence of the Union. (Minutes, 22/3/1926)
Some twelve months later, the Union meeting carried a motion by E.Johnson and E.Murphy
That this organisation views with disgust the spineless attitude of the Labor Conference in excluding from the Party bona fide members of the working class. (Minutes 26/4/1927)
But while the motion was carried, it invited later objection at another Union meeting, when Swadling and Feilberg moved for its rescission which was carried by 22 votes to 12. While no record was made of the arguments for or against, the rescission was a strange apparent change of attitude for Bill Swadling in view of his earlier condemnations of the ALP expulsions of CPA members.
The same meeting also expressed its support for Jack Lang who, for a time, had been supportive of "Jock" Garden and the Trades Hall reds, when it carried a motion from O’Keeffe and Spence:
That we the members of the Ship Painters and Dockers Union congratulate the premier Mr. J.T.Lang upon his action in reforming his Cabinet and so completely thwarting the efforts of those who were bent on repudiating the Easter Conference and displacing him as leader. (Minutes, 30/5/1927)
In 1930, despite the differences between Bob Mahony and the Communist Party in its weekly paper, the Union carried a motion moved by Jack Sylvester
That we repudiate the "Labor Weekly" and support the "Workers Weekly". (Minutes, 1/9/1930)
In the following year, with evictions proceeding with regularity and brutality, Ted ("Bolshie") Hill, a member of the CPA, sought to move a motion on the matter of evictions occurring under the Lang State Labor Government
That this Union protest against the police brutality at Redfern, Bankstown and Newtown and that we condemn the action of the Social Fascist Labor Government in allowing their police thugs being used against members of the working class who were protecting unemployed workers from being evicted.
Hill’s motion was opposed by Swadling, Dodds and Terry, and supported by O’Keeffe. Bob Mahony, Federal Secretary, addressed the meeting, clearly opposed to the CPA branding the Labor Party as "Social Fascist" and other
fundamental principles and suggested that the resolution might be altered to protesting against the evictions
And the meeting took up this suggestion and adopted it with the addition that it be forwarded to the Chief Secretary (whose Department covered the Police) and to the Labor Daily. (Minutes, 22/6/1931)
Early in 1932, a decision to hear a speaker from the Friends of the Soviet Union was scheduled when
The Secretary reported that he had just received a telephone ring from Mr. E.A.Hill, informing him that Mr. E.Tripp, the delegate from the F.O.S.U. who should have addressed the meeting would not be able to attend before 10 p.m. as he was addressing some other meeting. On being informed by Mr. McDonald that there were not many members present, just barely a quorum, he suggested another meeting should be called later.
It was then moved by Nash and Hagen that the next meeting be declared a Special Meeting to hear Mr. Tripp, but when put to a vote it was defeated by 14 votes to 15 against. (Minutes, 1/2/1932)
[NOTE. Ted Tripp was a highly capable and effective speaker and organiser for the Communist Party who a few years later fell foul of the CPA leadership over the Moscow Trials and other Stalinist issues, and joined forces with the anti-Stalinist Trotskyist organisation.]
Having refused to hear Tripp, the meeting then considered a letter from the Central Executive of the ALP advising that
The Executive had ruled that the following organisations were auxiliaries of the Communist Party and members of such organisations were not eligible to act as delegates at an ALP Conference
International Class War Prisoners Association (ICWPA), Friends of the Soviet Union (FOSU), LAI, Unemployed Workers Movement (UWM), Young Communist League (YCL), Workers Defence Corps (WDC), UFAF, WIR, AEL and the August 1st Demonstration Committee.
The reaction to this advice indicated that the refusal to hear Tripp was not necessarily politically motivated. O’Keeffe moved, Hagen seconded and the meeting carried
That this Organisation reserves to itself the right to affiliate with whatever working class body they wish.