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Tuesday, 29 November 1927

Senator Sir GEORGE PEARCE (Western Australia) (Vice President of the Executive Council) [3.27]. - I hope that the action taken by Senator Ogden to-day will not be interpreted by those who are bringing unemployment and distress upon the workers of this country, as an attempt to bring pressure to bear on the Government to move the Arbitration Court to hear the case of those who are deliberately defying the court; because that is an attitude which the Government has not the slightest intention of adopting. Nothing would please those who are on strike more than that Parliament or the Government should be used to bring pressure to bear in that direction. By a species of terrorism the waterside workers are aiming to compel the Arbitration Court to bow the knee at their dictation. Let us look at the history of the case. I have it here, as prepared by the Registrar of the Arbitration Court. On 24th March, 1927, his Honour Judge Beeby, in declining to proceed with the hearing of the Waterside Workers' Federation's claims, said -

I have given a great deal of thought and consideration to this matter, and I have considered the rule-books and the affidavits. I desire to make a considered statement in regard to this case so that the union will know exactly what its position is as far as this court is concerned.

During the hearing on 15th January last and subsequent dates of the application by the Waterside Workers' Federation for a reconsideration of overtime rates and for an award granting preference of employment to its members, allegations were made by various employers that different branches of the federation had adopted and were enforcing local rules in conflict with the then operating wards and agreements. I' then asked the federation to consider what steps it was prepared to take to ensure observance of awards and to prevent branches imposing local rules and issuing orders to members to demand conditions of employment not incorporated in awards or agreements.

Acting on the assumption that some respect would be paid to this request, I made an interim award increasing overtime rates, and stated that the court would proceed at an earlydate to reconsider carefully wage rates and. conditions of employment and would further assist the parties in an effort to establish an industrial council formed for the purpose of periodic revision of waterside labour conditions.

Since that date the Melbourne brandies of the union have continued circulating sets of rules containing clauses which set up workingconditions not authorized by any award oiincluded in any agreement. Affidavits havealso been filed by various employers, complaining that breaches of awards have been, continued and that new conditions not included in agreements or awards, and contrary to prevailing customs, have been imposed in different ports. Up to the present the material allegations contained in these affidavits havenot been denied.

In the port of Melbourne, the vigilance officer of the union has, by interfering with men at work and by threats or fines, persuaded them, to insist that not more than ten bags of bagstuffs shall be put into a sling, in place ofthecustomary twelve bags. Similar limitationsof output of cased kerosene, and, in Adelaide,, of railway sleepers, have been insisted on. In. New South Wales, the local branch of theunion, for the purpose of compelling . employers to pay a special rate for wheat, hasseriously interfered with shipping by placing a limitation on the number of bags of wheat, loaded per gang per hour; and by refusing towork overtime.

Several other complaints relating to actionsof local branches in different ports were alleged, and remain unanswered. The secretary of the federation filed one affidavit as towheat loading in Sydney, in which the allegation' of limitation of output was not denied.

I am reluctantly and regretfully forced tothe conclusion that the union's present policy is to permit local branches to set up and enforce rules, and to act even without rules, in defiance of awards of. this court, of their own agreements, and of the established customs of ports.

The desire of the union to secure a reconsideration of working conditions is perfectly legitimate, and the court intended to enter on the hearing of the pending disputes on Tuesday last. It has always been a rule of this court that while a case is pending, none of theparties involved shall disturb the existing conditions and customs, or enforce claims under the court's consideration by direct action. Where small local troubles beyond the control - of the executive have occurred, breaches of this rule have been overlooked. In this instance, however, the breaches are serious, and involve efforts to arbitrarily limit production. Whether or not waterside workers' conditions should be altered to increase the numbers of men working in gangs, or to limit the weight of slings, or to provide increased rates when handling wheat, and whether revision of conditions relating to matters referred to in the affidavits were issues raised in the plaints before the court. The actions of branches of the federation in trying to force adoption of their claims while a case is pending cannot be tolerated, and until the branches are prepared to observe the conditions prevailing at the time of the filing of their plaint, the court cannot proceed further with the hearing.

As the court cannot of its own motion vary atn award, I will not at present say anything as to the cancellation of the interim award of the 1st February. That matter will be considered if application is made by one or more of the parties bound by an award. I understand that the Federal executive of the Employees' Federation will shortly meet in Melbourne. If they can give the court satisfactory guarantees on the matters referred to, the hearing of the case will be immediately resumed.

I make "that statement after very careful reflection. I regret exceedingly that I am not permitted to go into this matter. I believed it was possible, perhaps, to bring about a better relationship on the waterfront, but that cannot be done while the union claims the' right to dictate working conditions. If they are to have arbitration then those conditions must be settled by this court. While I pay the respect that is due to the affidavits filed in reply, they amount to an admission that these rules have been adopted deliberately, and that the union intends to try to enforce them. Some of the things they ask may be perfectly just; I cannot say at present. Those matters have to bc investigated. But I cannot go on and fix wages and overtime, and then leave it to the union to say how much work they are going to do, or under what conditions they are going to do the work. I leave the matter over for the present. I ask the Waterside Workers' Federation to give serious consideration to what I have said when they hold their conferences, and if they can give me sufficient assurance to enable me to go on with the case I shall proceed with it.

The reply to that very conciliatory statement from the court is contained in the following telegram from Brisbane, published in the Argus on 22nd October, 1927:-

Retention of One " Pick-up."

Brisbane, Friday. - A special " stop-work " meeting of members of the Brisbane branch of the Waterside Workers' Federation was held this morning, and attended by about 800 persons. The following resolution was passed with two dissentients: - " That this federation approach the court to see if it will hear its plaint without withdrawing the one ' pick-up '; that if refused the federation adopt a policy of Irritation along the lines laid down previously by the committee of management in refusing to work overtime to bring about preference to members of the federation and one ' pick-up ' a day to nil branches who desire it; the said irritation policy shall be varied to suit various branches if required."

The president (Mr. A. Hankinson) said that the meeting had been called in accordance with the instructions of the Federal committee of management. Similar meetings were being held in other States for the purpose of receiving the report of the recent conference of the federation held in Melbourne, and to consider and vote on the resolution quoted.

A motion was unanimously agreed to protesting against the Sydney branch, or any other branch, accepting new members while the federation was overmanned.

Fancy such an attitude being adopted by those who suggest that they are loyal to the principle of arbitration. Their actions are absolutely hostile to arbitration. They are saying that the court must do as they wish and that they will penalize the industries of the country and the workers generally unless they ger, their own way. The attitude of the Government is that it will not bring the slightest pressure to bear upon the Arbitration Court or interfere with it in any way. The duty of the members of the Waterside Workers' Federation is to obey the law as laid down by Judge Beeby in this very conciliatory recommendation. This Government will go to any extent necessary to see that the law of the country is observed, and in order to ensure that the industries of the country are carried on. The undertaking it gave on a previous occasion that communication between Tasmania and the mainland would be maintained is repeated. The Government's attitude will, I am sure, receive the overwhelming support of every law abiding person in the community.

Senator Ogden - Who can apply for deregistration of the union? Could the Government do so?

Senator Sir GEORGE PEARCE - The employers are entitled to do so. The Government are not parties to the dispute. The present industrial trouble provides another illustration of the pitiable position in which the Commonwealth Parliament "stands under the Constitution in' regard to interstate disputes.

Senator Kingsmill - And . which, it sought to avoid.

Senator Sir GEORGE PEARCE (WESTERN AUSTRALIA) -GEORGE PEARCE. - Yes. We asked that in regard to interstate disputes the Commonwealth Parliament should have the same powers as a State parliament. Honorable senators are aware, however, that our powers in relation to interstate industrial disputes are severely limited by the Constitution. Nevertheless, the Commonwealth Government will, with the powers it possesses, do all that it can ; but it will not endeavour in the slightest degree to bring pressure to bear upon the Arbitration Court.

I hope that nothing will be said on either side of the chamber during this debate to encourage those who are defying the law, and who believe that they can bring, directly or indirectly, parliamentary, political or any other pressure to bear on the court, to encourage them to defy the Arbitration Court. I join with Senator Ogden in his contention that there is an obligation on the part of the Opposition to declare themselves in this matter. If honorable senators opposite believe in arbitration, as they say they do, they should tell the members of this organisation that they are in the wrong, that their action is bringing about unemployment 'and distress in this country and that the right thing for them to do is to declare the strike off. That having been done, the Arbitration Court would then be able to adjudicate. I trust there will be no division of opinion on this matter in this Parliament. If there is not, I venture to say that public opinion against the strikers will be so strong that it will do more than can anything else to settle the dispute. The present dispute could not have arisen at a worse time. The wheat and fruit harvests as well as the tourist season arc rapidly approaching, and from the point of view of the public a more inopportune time for a strike could not have been chosen. Where is this going to lead us? Can Australia, with a light harvest and the lack of employment which must necessarily follow, countenance such a position ? It may be " the last straw " and lead to financial disaster. These men are courting industrial destruction. Their action in threatening to tie up the whole of our shipping should not be countenanced 'by anyone either inside or outside this Parliament, and honorable senators of the Labour party should certainly tell these people point blank that they are in the wrong.

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