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Tuesday, 29 November 1927

Senator REID (Queensland) . - I have listened attentively to all that has been said, and I fail to see what good purpose can be served by this debate. If we study the history of the Labour movement we must be forced to the conclusion that in industrial disputes such as the one now engaging our attention blame is not attachable so much to the leaders or organizers of labour as to the rank and file - those members of unions who do not take sufficient interest in the business of the organizations to attend their meetings. The power of the unions has been built up by the influence of the Arbitration Court. I doubt- if there were a half-dozen trade union organizations in existence before we established our present system of conciliation and arbitration for the settlement of industrial disputes. Under that law a man is forced by the operation of the principle of preference to unionists to join a trade union if he wishes to earn a living. The system has placed power in the hands of inexperienced Labour leaders who have not shown a deep sense of responsibility. But after all they are not so much to blame as the indifferent trade unionist who is not sufficiently interested in the doings of his union to attend its meetings and thereby safeguard benefits which have come to trade unionism generally through awards of the Arbitration Court. We cannot hope for a marked improvement in our industrial affairs until trade unionists generally realize their individual responsibilities by attending the meetings of their unions.

Senator Sir George Pearce - Even if they did attend they might not be allowed to express an opinion.

Senator REID - I think I can claim a wider experience of trade unionism than even the Leader of the Senate, and I say definitely that under present conditions, but largely owing to their own indifference, the majority of trade unionists are inarticulate. The position is not likely to improve until the majority of unionists regularly attend the meetings of their organizations and use their influence against any attempt by the minority to tyrannize the movement. In this debate we have an illustration of what I mean. Honorable senators opposite are silent when they know they should speak. I am wondering if their silence is due to their belief that the dispute is in a sense sub judice. .

Senator Sir George Pearce - That has not deterred them before.

Senator REID - The right honorable the Minister is right. Let me recall what happened recently in New South Wales. Prior to the last general election there was a meeting of the Federal Labour Conference in Canberra. That body passed certain resolutions and laid down a definite course of action in respect of the pending New South Wales State election. But what happened? The opposing section of the movement snapped its figures at the federal conference and, defying the executive, supported Mr. Lang. Actually it did more than that- -it brought a number of Federal Labour members behind Mr. Lang. The present situation of Australian shipping is really serious, but most, of the blame is attachable to the great body of trade unionists themselves.

Senator Sir George Pearce - Does not the honorable senator believe that the leaders should tell the rank and file when they are wrong?

Senator REID - I question if the leaders really believe that they arc in the wrong. We must not forget that many of them lack experience and when placed in a position of responsibility they do not know how to use their power. Few know how to use power when it is placed in their hands. I include myself, lest it be suggested that I am unfairly criticizing other people. The leaders of trade unions, as we have seen, are not leaders in the true sense of the word; many are little better than tinpot gods suddenly raised to a position of responsibility and have no idea how to control a difficult situation. It is deplorable that there appears to be a disposition in certain quarters to undervalue the privileges which the working class are now enjoying as a result of our system of arbitration. I hope that wiser councils will soon prevail. At present the great majority of the workers seem to be completely out of hand, and they are forcing their leaders along a course which they must know to be wrong. I know that many of them defy the Arbitration Court despite the fact that nearly all the judges of the court have been exceedingly favorable to the unions. Judge Beeby is apparently as favorable to them as any one could wish him to be, and not one of the past judges of the court could be accused of bias against the unions. Hence, if the workers continue in their refusal to obey the awards given by judges in their favour, arbitration will be abolished and preference to unionists will be knocked on the head. When that happens, the unions of Australia will be scattered to the winds. Within two years nine-tenths of them will not be enjoying the privileges that they have to-day, and which they would not be enjoying but for the Arbitration Court. With the abolition of the court, competition between employers will bring back once more the bread and butter line, and the unions will be smashed. The best thing the waterside' workers can, do is t'o carry' 'out their award. There is one grievance they havewhich I think justified. They have to wait too long before they can get their claims heard by the court.

Senator Sir George Pearce - There is no difficulty in that respect now with the appointment of additional judges.

Senator REID - According to the newspapers, the wharf labourers have been from nine to twelve months trying to get some matters remedied by the court.

Senator Sir George Pearce - The court was ready to hear their claim if they would only obey an order of the court. Judge Beeby adjourned the hearing of their claim to enable them to obey a previous award.

Senator REID - I quite endorse the action of Judge Beeby. I think he did right to tell the union to fulfil an award of the court before he would listen to their further claims, but I understood from the newspapers that previously the hearing of their claim had been delayed. It is of no use repeating that the situation is critical. We should all try to instil into the minds of sensible unionists, who must be in the majority, that they have everything to lose and nothing to gain by this eternal turmoil, and that they ought to enforce their decisions at the union meetings. If that were done, I think there would be more co-operation than there is at present. I do not know what can be gained by this debate, and I do not know that I have added anything by speaking, but it seemed to me that the case was so serious that one was entitled to express an opinion upon the situation.

The PRESIDENT - The honorable senator has exhausted his time.

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