My Union Right or Wrong.
A history of the Ship Painters and Dockers Union 1900-1932
By Issy Wyner
The Co-operator, a weekly newspaper, whose Managing Editor was James Howard Catts, Member of Federal Parliament, ran approximately from October 1910 to August 1917. The paper appeared regularly on Wednesdays, carrying on its masthead, below its title:
Union is Strength --- The Unity of Labor is the Hope of the World ---Industrial Unionism is Impregnable ---Circulating amongst the unionists and Labor Supporters of New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, South Australia, Western Australia, Tasmania.
On Monday, 7th October, 1912, a special Eight Hours Day Souvenir Edition of the paper was issued, carrying brief histories of some 47 unions in its 24 pages. On the front page was an editorial on the history of Eight Hours Day, asserting
The iron heel of oppression has a far more disastrous effect than merely blocking progress of its victims. It grinds. It is an inexorable invader of existing rights.
On page 14 is the five columns of history of the Federated Ship Painters and Dockers Union, in New South Wales, stating in the heading:
President --- H.Scrimshaw
Secretary --- R. Mahony
Total membership --- 1599
After some preliminary history on the reformation of the Union in 1900, beginning with the public meeting in the Balmain Town Hall attended by Mr. Sam Smith and other dignitaries, it proceeds
.... Mr. R.Wilson held the position of secretary for the first three months and then resigned. Mr. R.Mahony was elected in his place and has held the position ever since.
After being in existence for about four months, the first fight of the newly-formed union was put up. Realising that the best means to improve their position was to get everyone in the industry to join the Union, it was unanimously decided to make a stand in the preference to unionists rule. The employers were notified of the decision. The fight was entered upon in real earnest by the Union on December 12th 1900. Representations were made to the then Minister of Works, the late Hon. E.W.O’Sullivan, by the employers for the supply of men from the Labor Bureau. Before coming to a decision, the Minister sent for a representative of the Union. After hearing their case, he said in his characteristic style, "Not one damn man shall be sent from the Labor Bureau. I'll see to that."
The matter therefore resulted in a tussle between the employers and the Union in a clear cut issue. The Domain was searched and forty scabs unearthed and brought up to work on board the s.s. "Oak Branch". The Union pickets hearing that blacklegs were on board, set out in a small boat and boarded the vessel. One of the pickets, a lusty young fellow, now in the railway department, went to the group of scabs huddled together on the hatch, and explained the position to them, one rather more nervous than the rest, jumped over the side and got a bath, perhaps the first he had had for some time.
The vessel was docked, and as the scabs in question were proceeding to do the painting, a stronger protest came from an unexpected quarter. The women living in the immediate district, congregated round the street at the head of the dock, and showered decayed vegetables, etc. at the would-be strike-breakers. The apprentices then took a hand, and within an hour or so, there was not a scab on the ship. The strike terminated in three and a half days, the point being won by the Union and held up to the present.
Steps were then taken to improve the working conditions, the rates of pay at the time being 38s. per week for painters and 34s. for dockers, with an overtime rate of one penny per hour extra. Conferences were held, and an increase of two shillings per week, and time and a quarter and time and a half for overtime were gained. The newly-formed union affiliated with the Sydney Labor Council in 1900. The following were the first delegates:- Jos. Creighton, R.Mahony and Art. Mott, who were welcomed by the then President, Tom Thrower, the Secretary, Jack Cochran and Dinny Quinn, Vice-President.
Things went along smoothly until June, 1900, the Ironworkers' Assistants then made a demand on the employers for seven shillings per day. A strike took place, which lasted over two months. It was decided to "knock off" in sympathy with the Ironworkers' Assistants. Through this action the docking of the port was held up. The then Minister of Works, the late Hon. E.W.O'Sullivan, offered the use of Cockatoo Dock if the members would do the work of the shipping companies. This offer was accepted, and several ships were attended to at the Dock, the work being given to the men in rotation. This action had the effect of bringing the employers and employees in the iron trade together in conference, the result of which was that they decided to submit the matter to Arbitration and the Ironworkers succeeded in getting an increase of sixpence per day. In December, 1901, the Union made a demand for a guarantee of three hours when ordered in at night. The custom hitherto had been to order men in, and very often send them home without a start. After several conferences, the Union was successful in securing the guarantee demanded. This was a great concession, as it meant that the men must at least receive three hours' pay if told to go into work at night.
The strike cost the Union about £260. A couple of cwt. of tea was given to the Union during the strike, and was distributed in ¼ and ½ lb. packets to members, single men ¼ lb., married men ½ lb. Tobacco and pipes were also supplied by local shopkeepers, so the members were well supplied with tea and baccy. The strike terminated on July 11th, 1901, the result being that the Ironworkers (sic) got an increase of 6d. per day.
An important conference was held with the employers in April, 1903, in which this Union took part, indeed the whole of the shipping interests of the port being represented. An agreement was arrived at, giving a small advance in wages, but fixing up a mass of detail. An application to make the agreement a common rule was made with success, but unfortunately it was afterwards upset by a High Court decision.
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Owing to the continued absence of Sam Smith from the bench of the Arbitration Court through ill-health, it became necessary to appoint someone in his place. G.Dulstone and R.Mahony were appointed in September, 1905, to attend a meeting called for the purpose of electing a substitute, with the result that Mr. E.Riley was elected to the position.
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On November 6, 1909, the Northern Miners ceased work as a protest against the conditions under which they were then working. A special meeting of the Union was held, on December 8th, when it was decided not to work on any vessel carrying scab coal, whether local or foreign. It was also decide to strike a levy of 5 per cent on the members.
The "Stratfillcan" was taken to Cockatoo dock to discharge a cargo of foreign coal. The employees at Fitzroy Dock were asked to discharge the vessel, but all members of the Union refused to touch the vessel, although some of them had been in the service for a great number of years.
In November, 1909, an inter-state conference was held in Sydney for the purpose of bringing into existence the projected Federation
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The rules were submitted to the three different unions and adopted by Queensland and New South Wales. A hitch occurred over the Victorian Union, through them favouring the method of strike as against Arbitration.
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On August 15th, 1910, the name of the Union was changed to the Federated Ship Painters and Dockers Union of Australia, N.S.W.Branch....
Application was made to register under the Industrial Disputes Act of 1908, during 1910. The Union being one of the last to stick to the resolution carried by the Labor Council, ignoring the Industrial Disputes Act. Our application was opposed by the Sydney Trades Union of Painters. However, an understanding was arrived at, and registration granted.
The numerical strength is at present 1,054 in Sydney, 65 in Newcastle, 180 in Brisbane and 290 in Melbourne. Total 1599.
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At the present time the rates of pay (are)..... an advance of ten shillings per week for painters and twelve shillings per week for dockers since the formation of the Union.
At the present time, a Board is sitting considering an application for an increase to one shilling and sixpence per hour.
The above article in the Co-operator Eight-Hour Souvenir is accompanied by photos of the President, H.Scrimshaw and the Secretary, R.Mahony