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Thursday, 2 September 1920

Mr FENTON (Maribyrnong) . - I regard the action of the Ministry in bringing forward this' amendment as being the most direct challenge offered to unionism in recent times. Any honorable member who has taken the trouble to keep himself acquainted with industrial happenings in recent times knows that Mr. Justice Higgins is now engaged in hearing evidence from employers, employees, and the general public as to the number of hours that should constitute a standard working week. In the middle of those proceedings the Government have brought down at the eleventh hour this revolutionary proposal. It would- be wise for Parliament, at any rate for the time being, to keep its hands off this matter; otherwise the whole of the unionists will regard the action of the Government as a direct effort to thwart them in their endeavour to get from the recognised tribunal a determination upon this question. This is a very serious position. Would it not be better to drop this amendment for the time being, and allow Mr. Justice Higgins to continue his investigation, and make his report? Then Parliament will be in a better position to consider the matter. Do honorable members desire the mighty host of unionists to drop tools, and cause a cessation of industry? If theMinistry proceed with this proposal, they will be challenging the unionists to adopt that attitude, and if as a result the whole Commonwealth is thrown into industrial turmoil, the responsibility will lie with the Ministry and those who support them.

Mr McWilliams - Men who speak in those terms have a certain amount of responsibility, too.

Mr FENTON - Yes, and I believe that honorable members on this side, who have been unionists all their lives, will adopt a different attitude towards conciliation and arbitration if proposals of this kind areto be submitted to Parliament. I desire to read to the Committee an extract from the half-yearly report of the Victorian Typographical Society, of which I am a member. That organization recently emerged from a three months' strike in connexion with an endeavour to obtain a working week of forty-four hours. I admit that additional wages also were claimed, but this report shows that the main reason for the cessation of work was tha demand for a forty-four-hour week. The half-yearly meeting was held on the 34th August, but the report was in my hands at least a fortnight before that date, showing that even then members of the organization in Victoria and New South Wales were arranging for Mr. Justice Higgins to hear evidence from all parties upon the subject of reduced working hours. The report states -

Notwithstanding the fine stand made by this and other societies to attain a forty-four-hour week, the result was not entirely successful. A fair addition to the weekly wages was obtained, and much is said by critics in this regard about what might have been attained without a strike. It is true that if the only object had been the increase of wages by a few shillings per week, this might have been secured without a cessation of work. But the main object was a shorter working week.

Men and women were out of work for nearly three months, and the union was involved in an expenditure of nearly £20,000. The contributions from unions of this and other States amounted to only about £2,000 ; the balance came from the internal funds of the union. That sacrifice was made in order to try to obtain in the printing trade a forty-four-hour week. The report continued -

Valuable reforms are not got for the asking by the workers in any country, nor at any time in history. They are only attained by yeare of persistent agitation and self-sacrifice. The splendid front presented by our rank and file stands to their everlasting credit, and will assuredly bear good fruit - not only in this trade, but throughout the industries.

I ask honorable members to pay particular regard to this passage -

The settlement made with the employing printers secured a revision of the wages and conditions of work after six months. Meanwhile, Mr. Justice Higgins has agreed to hear representatives of employers, employees, and the general community on the great question which brought about this strike. The conference of representatives of affiliated unions held in Melbourne to discuss ihe matter of the Judge's inquiry decided to be represented by a layman, who will be appointed at a conference of representatives from the Inter-State Trades Councils, all of which are vitally interested in the inquiry. The Printing Industry Employees Union of Australia is being represented by the counsel who is also engaged by the Timber Workers Union. A request will be made that His Honour make a specific pronouncement with reference to this industry. It is not clear that the learned Judge will deal with any particular industry outside that of the Timber workers; it may be that he will prefer to deal with the problem generally. Failing a specific pronouncement dealing with our trade, and only general guidance being given, then the Wages Board chairman will deal with the question ; and without doubt Mr. Justice Higgins' direction will be the controlling factor in the final issue.

While that inquiry is proceeding before Mr. Justice Higgins this Parliament will be ill-advised to interfere. The investigation was mooted long before this legislation was thought of. Honorable members must see the danger in this proposed new clause. Other honorable members have argued well the case againstthe amendment, and I believeI can truthfully say that neither honorable members on this side of the House nor trade unionists generally desire an industrial upheaval at the present time. But the passing of this legislation will be a direct challenge to them when they are trying to obtain by .peaceful methods a pronouncement from the Court in regard to working hours. Why should Parliament interfere? Mr. 'Holloway, who is appearing for the trade unions, has supplied the Court with information -showing that a forty-four-hour week is no innovation in this country or elsewhere. It is already in operation in a number of industries, and some of the most peaceful leaders of unionism have .come to the conclusion that reduced working hours are necessary if the general health of the community is to be maintained. As the honorable member for Cowper (Dr. Earle . Page) said, the number of hours to be worked by men depends upon the industry in which they are engaged. Some men work in the sunlight, and in congenial conditions; others work underground, and in circumstances that are distinctly inimical to health. Surely no employer is desirous of shortening the lives of his employees. Masters must look ahead, and realize that if men and women work under conditions which are inimical to health they ' will render inefficient service, and for a shorter period. Lord Leverhulme. and other large employers, have come to the conclusion that shorter hours, congenial . working conditions, good housing, and healthy recreation are conducive to employees rendering longer and more valuable service. I remember the Minister for the Navy (Mr. Laird Smith) telling me that on a visit to the Old World he had inspected the large works and model village controlled by Lord Leverhulme. He saw near the works some young ladies, who were endeavouring to copy some of the world's master paintings, which had been purchased by their employer at a cost of many hundreds of pounds. When the Minister for the Navy inquired as to the reason for this, his cicerone replied, " If I allow the young ladies in my employment to cultivate the artistic taste, they will never wrap a baT of soap untidily." This cultivation of the artistic taste in the employees was costing Lord Leverhulme a large amount of money, but he regarded it, from a commercial standpoint, as a profitable investment. Honorable members on this side speak on behalf of nearly 700,000 unionists, and every one of them, men and women, will construe the passing of this amendment as an onslaught upon them when they are endeavouring to have this question of . working hours peacefully adjusted by Mr! Justice Higgins. Therefore, I ask honorable members to think calmly and to weigh well the consequences before they cast a vote which will mean a direct challenge to Australian unionists. Parliament set up a tribunal for the settlement of industrial questions, and at the very time when unionists generally are seeking the adjudication of the Court upon one phase of their working conditions, this Parliament is stepping in to take the matter out of the hands of the Court. Parliament will be establishing a dangerous precedent, and looking into the future I, without being over pessimistic, see big trouble ahead. Already large batches of men are working forty-four hours a week, or less, conceded, in many cases, by the employers as a desirable reform. Other unionists are asking for the same privilege -and benefit by peaceful means provided by this Parliament, and yet it is now sought to alter the constitution of the Tribunal. That can only be regarded as a challenge to unionists and Democracy generally, and I have no doubt that the challenge will be taken up with what may prove disastrous results.

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