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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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Appendix 13: British seamens' strike 1925, unemployment 1921, workmans' compensation, assault case at Cockatoo Island, the Socialist Objective, Sacco and Vanzetti, Timber Workers strike 1929, Maritime Unions Conference 1930

  1. British seamens' strike 1925
  2. unemployment 1921
  3. workmans' compensation
  4. assault case at Cockatoo Island
  5. the Socialist Objective
  6. Sacco and Vanzetti
  7. Timber Workers strike 1929
  8. Maritime Unions Conference 1930

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(a) British seamen's strike

TheLabor Daily, gave lengthy and almost daily reports on the British seamen's strike, the arrests, the gaolings, the number of ships tied up around Australia and in New Zealand. Among the reports were

9th September, 1925: ...It was ascertained today that further summonses against British seamen on strike have been issued.

A search is being made for several members of the crews of the Port Kembla, Cornwell and Euripides.

It is understood that the shipowners are contemplating the engagement of non-union crews to take the place of the strikers.

This afternoon Albert Spencer, 21, seaman, and Albert Dean, 21, seaman, were arrested on charges of continued wilful disobedience to lawful commands.

8th September, 1925: The Balmain Labor League has by resolution congratulated the Premier Mr Lang, on the attitude taken by him towards the Deportation Bill.

10th September, 1925: Sixty-four members of the crew of the Blue Funnel steamer, Aquarius now held up in Outer Harbour, were each ordered fourteen days' imprisonment at the Port Adelaide Police Court this morning for,having refused duty.

11th September, 1925: List of ships held up in Sydney during the strike: Otara, Tairoa, Port Darwin Port Macquarie, Aeneas, Themistocles, Hurunui, Orama, Beltana, Port Denison. This number soon began to increase. Throughout Australasia, it was claimed some hundreds of vessels owned or chartered by British companies were tied up before the strike ended.

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(b) Unemployment - 1921

1921 was a year of high unemployment on the waterfront. There was great of activity on the issue and a sourness with the State Labor Government was discernible amongst unionists. During the month of March, there were occurrences such as some of those reported in the Evening News:

* 4th March, 1921: It was reported that about 500 unemployed workers marched to the Trades Hall where a meeting was held, chaired by the President of the Labor Council, J.Howie, and addressed by Jack Kilburn of the Bricklayers' Union, but

As soon as the meeting was declared open a motion was passed that the Press and the police, "even the representatives of alleged Labor papers" be asked to leave the room....

When Joe Warren was elected as the leader of the unemployed movement, it was reported that the Minister for Labour, Cann, in the Labor Government, raised objections to him, and this did not endear the unionists or their unemployed members to Labor.

* On 9th March, the paper reported on an approach by the Balmain and Rozelle Branches of the A.L.P. to the Balmain Municipal Council, for permission to hold a public meeting in Gladstone Park, presumably to deal with unemployment in the district, but a motion to grant permission was defeated by 8 votes to 4.

* On 10th March, 1921, theEvening News reported on 1500 workers being paid off at Cockatoo Island and Garden Island. A few days later, on 14th March, the paper reported a statement issued by the Cockatoo Island Vigilance Committee, stating, among other things:

If the dismissals are only temporary it is a strange thing that they have been going on for the past three months during which time over 2500 men have been put off.

* A report on 19th March, noted that a large number of men were sleeping out in the cold at the Domain, and they had decided that it would be warmer at the Trades Hall and...

A number of unemployed who took possession of a room at the Trades Hall last night were ejected, the police being called to assist. The men, about 40 in number marched from the Domain to the Trades Hall.

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(c) Workman's Compensation

Indicative of the difficulties confronting workers in seeking to obtain some form of income when injury prevented continuing with their occupation, is this report in the Evening News, of 5th November, 1921:

Under the Workmen's Compensation Act it is provided with respect to liability of employers to workmen for injuries that this is not to apply to any person employed whose remuneration exceeds £312 per annum.

In a recent case heard before the Supreme Court on appeal, a miner became affected with an eye disease which incapacitated him from performing his duties. He applied for an award, but it was contended on behalf of the colliery company that the applicant was in receipt of remuneration exceeding £312 per annum and was not therefore a workman within the meaning of the Act.

The Judge, sitting as an arbitrator, in dismissing the application for compensation, found that the applicant's wages during the year preceding his incapacity exceeded the statutory amount. On appeal, the Court, in dismissing the appeal with costs, held that there was evidence that the applicant's remuneration exceeded the statutory amount entitling him to compensation.

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(d) Assault Case at Cockatoo Island

In a lengthy report, on 12th October, 1923, the Evening News dealt with the case:

"We humbly request that your Honour will bring under the notice of the authorities at Cockatoo Dock the abominable language carried on by some of the employees, and that we deem it, in our humble opinion, not fit for any respectable child to learn a trade there."

That rider was added by a jury at the Darlinghurst sessions yesterday, when returning a verdict of not guilty against James Boart Houghton, 16, a blacksmith's striker, who had been charged with indecent assault.

....In acquitting Houghton, the foreman said that the jury had not the slightest hesitation in saying that the accused was innocent....

....Over 1000 employees of Cockatoo Island met at lunch hour today and carried the following resolution:

"This meeting of workmen employed on Cockatoo Island enters a most emphatic protest against the sweeping statements of Judge Rolin of indecent citizenship of the workmen, and also against the rider of the jury in relation to the charge of abominable language. We urge the Federal Board of Control to set up an open inquiry, the employees to have representation thereon. (My emphasis) We demand a withdrawal of the statement regarding indecent citizenship to be given in the Court presided over by Judge Rolin."

....said Mr J.P.Dunn. "As citizens who know the rights of citizenship, we repudiate this charge and we demand that the libel be withdrawn .... When the delegates of the combined trade unions met a week ago, a resolution was moved that the time was ripe for the institution of your vigilance committee, and it is within the province of the workmen of Cockatoo to call that committee into being......"

A further resolution that a vigilance committee be brought into existence was also carried unanimously.

"The language is no worse than anywhere else", said one official. Some of the men have been employed here for years, and they look upon it as a model place.....We sometimes get 250 cleaners and painters for a docking job and, not being permanent employees, perhaps they feel somewhat irresponsible, and their language careless, but that does not hold for the regular employees."

The following day, the Evening News wrote briefly

Mr. McDonald, secretary of the Ship Painters and Dockers Union stated today that a resolution had been carried at a meeting on Cockatoo Island, protesting against the scandal contained in the remarks of an official of the dockyard and printed in the Evening News yesterday, against the painters and dockers employed there.

The men claim that their moral standard is as high as that of any other worker employed on the island, he added, and further, that they are as great an asset to the dockyard as any other employee.

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(e) The Socialist Objective

The influence of the Russian Revolution and the early years of activity and news emanating from the still-fledgling Soviet Union and the formation of the Communist Party towards the end of 1920, gave impetus to the push to radicalise the Labor Party's programme and platform. In this, the union movement played an important role. In June-July, 1921, an All-Australian Trades Union Congress, convened "by the Federal Executive A.L.P. to bring the unions closer to the Party, in the name of unity", adopted a socialist objective

The objective was the 'socialisation of industry, production, distribution and exchange', which the Congress sought to install as the ALP's fighting platform. (In Case of Oppression, Ray Markey, p.236)

This direct objective was watered down by the Maurice Blackburn amendment adopted by the Federal ALP Conference in October, 1921. The amendment declared

(a) That the Australian Labor Party proposes collective ownership for the purpose of preventing exploitation and to whatever extent may be necessary for that purpose.

That wherever private ownership is a means of exploitation it is opposed by the party, but

(c) that the party does not seek to abolish private ownership even of any instruments of production where such instruments are utilised by their owners in a socially useful manner and without exploitation. (As quoted fromThe Age, 15 October, 1921, by Brian McKinley in his Documentary History of the Australian Labor Movement, 1850-1975, p.91-2)

In the context of all the manoeuvrings to radicalise the ALP, at least in its programme and platform, with the union movement under left wing influence and control, the Painters and Dockers Union would have given its support through its delegates at union conferences and congresses to the socialist objective in whatever form it was presented.

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(f) Sacco and Vanzetti

The frame-up of the two anarchists, tried, condemned and executed for a hold-up and double murder, later proved to have been carried out by a number of criminals, reverberated around the world. As Sinclair described it in his powerful indicting novel, Boston:

A hundred million toilers knew that two comrades had died for them. Black men, brown men, yellow men --- men of a hundred nations and a thousand tribes --- the prisoners of starvation, the wretched of the earth --- experienced a thrill of awe. It was the mystic process of blood-sacrifice, by which through the ages salvation has been brought to mankind.

A hundred million workers, shackled and blind, groping in a poison fog manufactured by their masters, learned tat two of their fellows had been put to death for lifting the banner of freedom. In spite of al the wrangling of radical sects, that was a fact the meaning of which could never be obscured; a fact which shone like a pillar of fire in the workers’ night. Bart (Vanzetti) had succeeded in the purpose he had declared, to give a meaning to`his name. "It will mean joostice, it mean freedom, it cannot mean nothing but!"!" To a hundred million groping, and ten times as many still in slumber, the names of Sacco and Vanzetti would be the eternal symbols of a dream, identical with civilisation itself, of a human society in which wealth belongs to the producers of wealth, and the rewards of labour are to the labourers. In the words of the prophet Isaiah:

"And they shall build houses, and inhabit them; and they shall plant vineyards, and eat the fruit of them. They shall not build, and another inhabit; they shall not plant, and another eat; for as the days of a tree are the days of my people, and mine elect shall long enjoy the work of their hands."

Sinclair quotes the speech of Mary Donovan, "a frail Irish girl, a reformed of humanity":

Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti,. You came to America seeking freedom., In the strong idealism of youth you came as workers searching for that liberty and equality of opportunity heralded as the particular gift of this country to all newcomers. You centred your labours in Massachusetts the very birthplace of American ideals. And now Massachusetts and America have killed you --- murdered you because you were anarchists.

Two hundred and thirty-five years ago the ruling people of this State hanged women in Salem charging them with witch-craft. The shame of those old acts of barbarism can never be wiped out. But they are as nothing beside this murder which modern Massachusetts has committed upon you. The witch-hangers were motivated by the superstitious fear of an emotional religion. Their minds were blinded by their selfish passion to reach heaven.

The minds of those who have killed you were not blinded. They have committed the act in cold blood. For more than seven years they had every chance to know the truth about you. Not once did they even dare the quality of your characters --- a quality so noble and shining that millions have come to be guided by it. They refused to look. They allowed the bitter prejudice of class, position and self-interest to close their eyes. They cared more for wealth, comfort and institutions than they did for truth. You, Sacco and Vanzetti, are the victims of the crassest plutocracy the world has known since ancient Rome.

Your long years of torture ad your last hours of supreme agony are the living banner under which we and our descendants for generations to come will march to accomplish that better world based on the brotherhood for which you have died.

In your martyrdom we will fight on and conquer.

Remember Justice Crucified. August 22. Remember.

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(g) Timber Workers' Strike, 1929

Miriam Dixson notes that

Three bitter industrial defeats heralded the coming of the 1929 depression.... in September 1928, an officially denounced rank and file strike amongst waterside workers against the Beeby award; in January 1929, a strike by timberworkers against the Lukin timber award; in March 1929, a lockout of coal miners on the Northern field in N.S.W.

Yet to hear Labor's spokesmen, it might be thought that there was only one, so absorbed were they with the timber strike. Their obsession is understandable enough: for one thing, the timber strike was fought in the midst of the main cities; the coal lockout took place in semi-isolated coal communities.....Mr. Justice Lukin's award of January 1929 put an end to a 44-hour week city timber workers had enjoyed since its universal loss in 1922 and 1923. Consequently the award was seen as a well-chosen first step in a general attack on the shorter working week wherever it had been introduced during the Lang regime, 1925-1927. (M.Dixson, The Timber Strike of 1929, in Historical Studies, Vol.10, No.40, 1963.)

Miriam Dixson's article traces the essentials of the strike through the various States (Lukin's was a Federal Award), indicating the weaknesses in the various parts of leadership (the State Labor Councils, ACTU, Timber Workers officials), the failure of the Western Australia Branch of the Timber Workers' Federation, the collapse of the strike in Tasmania and, in South Australia, acceptance of the Lukin Award on the advice of the S.A.Disputes Committee. Particularly, she is able to point to the dithering of the union officialdom on the vital ingredient for a prospect of success on a major issue: expansion of the strike to other areas of industry. The insistence on confining the strike was possibly the main cause for the eventual defeat of the Timber Workers.

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(h) Maritime Unions Conference 1930

Maritime Unions' Conference re one union, etc. The minutes of the three-days conference, attended by most maritime unions on 29th, 30th June and 1st July, 1930, at which each union was entitled to three voting delegates, showed the following points before adjourning without any decision:

....Mr. Tudehope outlined the position of his union which was favourable to the proposition and hoped that something would be done on this occasion.

....Mr. Raeburn (Seamen) had a mandate from his union in favour of a Water Transport Union.

Messrs. McDonald and Weston (Painters and Dockers) reported that their union had taken a ballot which was favourable to the proposal.

.... Mr.Moate (Stewards) said he had no mandate

.... Mr. Shearer (Shipwrights) said his Federal Council favoured it.

....Mr. Turley (W.W.F.) said that the agenda paper explained the attitude of his union.

Comrade Tudehope proposed the adoption of the agenda as submitted by the Waterside Workers.

Comrade Williams (Clerks) was opposed, as it would perpetuate craft unionism.

Mr. Walsh moved to amalgamate all Australian Maritime Unions into a Maritime Transport Alliance with a Commonwealth Council comprising a delegate or delegates elected by and from each component part or section of the Union or Alliance together with a State and local authority elected on the same lines and pending the consummation of the above objective each Maritime Union retain its separate entity; but there shall be a common policy arrived at for the purpose of conducting and/or controlling industrial disputes. Seconded O'Connell (Clerks)

Amendment, Williams (Clerks) That this conference of Waterside and Maritime Unions agree to go back to the Unions they represent and urge each union to take a ballot on the question of the following:

  1. The scheme as set up by the Waterside Workers Federation (the motion)
  2. Are you in favour of the immediate abolition of craft organisation on the Waterfront and Maritime Unions and the immediate formation of one Union of Waterfront and Maritime Unions.

That if the ballot is decided in the affirmative, steps be immediately taken to constitute the one union. (Note: "immediate" to mean before December 31st 1931)

Basset (Coal Lumpers) seconded
Mahony (Painters and Dockers) supported.
Tudehope opposed both motion and amendment
Raeburn read resolution carried by his State Branch and then withdrew.
Conference adjourned.

Attached to the Minutes of the Conference is the following document entitled


  1. Experience has proved the hopeless futility of existing political and industrial methods, which aim at mending and rendering tolerable and thereby perpetuating Capitalism, instead of ending it.
  2. The rapid accumulation of wealth and concentration of ownership of industries in 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.
  3. These conditions can be changed and the interests of the working class advanced, only by an organisation so coinstituted 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.

That the policy and objective of the Waterside Workers Federation is the creation of a Maritime Transport Workers Industrial Union on the lines laid down by W.Trautmann and having for its membership all persons engaged in the industry, irrespective of trade or calling.

To bring about the above policy and objective we agree as a first step to:-


The policy of the Maritime Transport Union shalk be the abolition of the Arbitration Court and the setting up in its stead of Conciliation Committees, composed of representatives of employers and employees for the purpose of determining wages and conditions in the industry.

That in the event of Parliament validating Sections 33 and 34 of the Amendments to the Act, the General Secretary be authorised to bring all cases now in hand before the Commissioner and to do all possible to prevent any important matter going before the Court in the ordinary way and further that the Committee is of the opinion that the Maritime Industry warrants the appointment of a separate Commissioner and that he take the necesary steps by cooperation with other Maritime Organisatins to petition the Government to this effect.....

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