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Wednesday, 29 June 1904

Mr THOMAS (Barrier) - The proposal which is now under consideration is intended to strike a serious blow at the principle of granting a preference to unionists. It has been said, during the course of this debate, that the members of the Labour Party desire to secure that preference so that they may compel men to join trades unions for political purposes. I say that that is not the reason we ask for it. We are riot asking those organizations to become political machines. Personally, I believe in allowing unions to take an active part in politics, and I shall deal with that aspect of the question presently. But the chief reason why the Labour Party urge that a preference should be extended to unionists is because the latter are compelled to bear the cost of bringing disputes before the Court. Surely they ought not to be penalized or boycotted after gaining an award? Let me state a concrete case. A short time ago the New South Wales Arbitration Court met at Broken Hill, and made an award. On that occasion the unionists who took their case into Court were required to pay about ,£800 in legal and other expenses. Not a single penny of that amount was contributed by men outside of the Amalgamated Miners' Association. I hold that it is only fair that those who incur the expense involved in getting their disputes determined by the Arbitration .Court should be granted the preference sought.

Mr McColl - How does the honorable member account for the expenses aggregating such a large sum?

Mr THOMAS - In the first place, we had to obtain the services of a barrister from Sydney. He did not charge an excessive amount; but owing to the legal union which exists, we were unable 'to secure a barrister from Adelaide. Then there were other expenses involved. I understand that the action cost the Proprietary Company more than £1,000. I venture" to say that the members of the organizations which are required to bear this expenditure should receive some consideration. I further claim that it is possible for employers to boycott men who have taken an active part in bringing any dispute before the Court. I am aware that the Bill provides that employes must not be dismissed because of any action which they may have taken in that respect; but that provision can be easily evaded. For instance, at Broken Hill there is a miner named George Dale, who is an active member of the Amalgamated Miners' Association. He took a very prominent part in bringing the recent dispute before the Court, and tendered a considerable amount of evidence. Yet, although he was previously engaged in the mines at Broken Hill, he is now unable to gain employment there, and when I saw him last he was acting as a sewing-machine agent. The general manager of the Proprietary Company, who is chiefly responsible for carrying out the terms of the award from the stand-point of the employers, is Mr. Delprat. He is an entirely fair and honorable man. The secretary of the Miners' Association told me, upon my last visit to Broken Hill, that Mr. Delprat was honorably observing the terms of the award. He further informed me that he had brought the case of the miner Dale before Mr. Delprat, who replied that he had been dismissed, not because of any action of his in bringing the dispute before the Arbitration. Court, but because he had been insubordinate to 'one of the shift bosses. Assuming that the reason offered is. the true one, the fact remains that the man is unable to obtain employment in the mines of Broken Hill, where he was previously engaged. It is easy to conceive, therefore, that, if the manager of the Proprietary Company were not so willing to observe the terms of the award as is Mr. Delprat, he could penalize men because of .their actions before the Arbitration Court, despite any statutory provision to the contrary that we might choose to make. It is well known that men have been boycotted in Broken Hill. A few years ago a man named Williams had a contract with the Proprietary- Mine. The contract was broken by the company, and Williams successfully applied to the Court for redress. As the result of that action, however, he was dismissed from the mine, and a circular giving the name, approximate age, and a general description of the man, was sent to the manager of every mine along the line of lode, with a request that he should not be employed. One of these documents was lost by a mine manager, and. was picked up by a representative of the workers. It furnishes an example of what has been done and may again occur in connexion with mining operations. We do not ask that men shall be compelled to join unions for political purposes. A union consisting of a few men who have voluntarily joined is for all practical purposes of much greater value than a union consisting of a large number of men who have been forced to join it. That has been our experience on the Barrier. Years ago it was not a question of whether a preference should be given to unionists in the Broken Hill mines. The unionists had a monopoly. Under an agreement made between the miners and the mine-owners no man was allowed to work in the mines unless he was a unionist ; a man refused to work with a non-unionist.

Mr Crouch - Why was that practice discontinued ?

Mr THOMAS - The honorable member for Kooyong said that it was discontinued because unionists abused their power. That is the contention of the employers, but miners do not agree with it. In those days every miner had to join the union, and was, therefore, nominally a unionist ; but we have found that for all practical purposes the union, consisting as it now does of men who have voluntarily joined, is much stronger than it was when every man was really compelled to join. All our unions are to-day more alert and more effective than they were when every man was absolutely compelled to be a unionist if he desired to secure work in the mines. I am strongly in favour of unionists taking part in politics. If trades unions could not take an active part in politics they would not be so strong for all practical purposes as they are. If this Bill declared in effect that trades unions, as such, should have nothing whatever to do with politics, I should prefer to do without it. I would sooner have unions taking part in politics than an Arbitration Act which prevented them from doing so. Some honorable members say that it would be veryunjust to debar a man from earning a living unless he joined a union. The Bill does not provide anything to that effect. It is merely proposed by the Government that the Court shall have power to grant a preference to unionists. It" is not said that, after men have obtained work, they shall continue to be members of unions. The New South Wales Arbitration Court, in an award applying to the miners at the Barrier, gave a preference to unionists, and, from information I have received from the secretaries of the unions there, I am able -to say that the mine managers are honestly observing that part of the award. When workers arrive at Broken Hill they realize that it is better for them to join a union than to go direct to the offices of the mining companies to seek employment. A list of the unemployed unionists has to be sent every week to the mine managers, and strangers therefore find it desirable to become members of these unions. On joining the Amalgamated Miners' Association they pay a subscription of 4s., and work is found for them. I am sorry to say, however, that at least 50 per cent, of the men cease to remain unionists. If those men cease to be unionists after they have been engaged, they are not dismissed, and the mine managers could not be compelled to dismiss them under the terms of the award. Even if the clause were carried as it stands, unionists who had obtained work would be able to leave the unions. If the union to which a man belonged took any political action of which he disapproved he' could cease to belong to it without running any risk. If it is decided to give the Court power to grant a preference to unionists, care should be taken to see that any man who desires to join a union shall not be prevented from doing so. I would support any amendment, no matter how drastic it might be, to insure to every man a reasonable opportunity to join, a union. When a man joins the Amalgamated Miners' Association at Broken Hill, he pays a subscription of 4s., and that money goes into the general fund, out of which the costs, amounting to ,£800, incurred in connexion with the application for the recent award, had to be paid. The award is a most remarkable one, since it pleases the workers, the mine-owners and residents of the town generally. Each party seems to think that it has the best of the deal. If we could always have such an award, it would be a very good thing.

Mr Johnson - It would have a most soothing effect on all parties concerned.

Mr THOMAS - I admit that I do not think all awards would have that effect. In the case of the Broken Hill mines neither the mine-owners nor the men got all they desired, but what is considered a fair compromise was arrived at. If, as a result of this award, the relations between the mineowners arid the men have been improved, while the stability of the town has been increased, it is only fair that those w;ho have been benefited should pay something towards the cost of securing the award.

Mr Lonsdale - No one objects to that.

Mr THOMAS - Once a man joins a union, the chance of securing his adherence to the principles of unionism is improved. Even if 50 per cent, of those who join a union leave, the result is not unsatisfactory. When 50 per cent, can leave within a day it must be seen that every member of a union could' leave it, if he desired to do so, with equal facility. If we had to-day in Broken Hill some of the mine managers of the past men would still be boycotted there. If the award made by the Court had not been as satisfactory as it is there might have been a temptation to deal perhaps harshly with the men who had been responsible for the application to the Court. The employers, however, do not entertain any feeling of bitterness towards the men who brought the matter before the Court. They say that under the award they will have peace for the next two years, and that that is worth the expenditure of the ^r.000 which the Court proceedings compelled them to incur. The award is probably worth £000 to the men, and we contend that every man benefited by it should contribute to the cost.

Mr Kelly - Does not the honorable member see that, under the proposed new scheme, all persons in an industry would be members of an organization and would contribute to its funds?

Mr THOMAS - Why not allow the organizations at work at the present time to continue ? The work of carrying on some of these organizations entails a considerable expenditure of time and money. I believe that I am right in saying that the Amalgamated Miners' Association of Broken Hill pays £j 1 os. or £0 a week by way of secretarial and office expenses.

Mr Kelly - I should be prepared to allow the existing unions to do' this work, provided their rules were framed in accordance with this amendment.

Mr THOMAS - Why not allow the existing organizations to carry on the work ? The New South Wales Arbitration Court disallowed certain rules in the case of the Australian Workers' Union, and if the rules of any of the existing unions provide that members shall take part in politics, they can be varied. I should be quite prepared to trust the men when they joined the unions. At the ballot-box every man is free to vote for whomsoever he wishes to see elected.

Mr Kelly - The honorable member appears to be with us in spirit.

Mr THOMAS - The existing unions can do all that is necessary to carry into effect the 'provisions of the Bill, and something more, and therefore I ask why should fresh organizations be required? Any man wishing to do so can join any of the existing unions; but no man is bound to join them. If the rules by which the unions are now governed are, in the opinion of the Court, objectionable, they can be expunged. That has been done in the case of a New South Wales union by a Judge of the State Court. I feel very strongly . upon the principle of preference to unionists. I would rather have no Arbitration Bill at all than not see effect given to that principle. I was connected with one big strike, and I do not wish to have any more to do with such occurrences. One big strike is quite enough for most people. But, although I favour arbitration, I would rather trust to strikes than to an Arbitration Court, if the Bill is so amended as to seriously interfere with the application of the principle of preference to unionists. We have had many strikes in the past, but the workers have never yet had the Administration on their side. If, during the progress of two or three strikes, those in office were on the side of the strikers, the employers would tell a different story from that which they are telling to-day. If no police had been sent to Broken Hill, and the New South Wales Government had not taken the side of the employers, but had let us fight it out amongst ourselves, the employes would have won fairly easily. Some time ago, the Sydney ferry men threatened to strike for higher wages and shorter hours, because they were being very poorly paid, and were working very long hours. Those in control, however, retorted that they would lock them out. The Honorable E. W. O'sullivan was at that time Minister of Works, and he told the managers of the ferry steamers that if they took extreme steps he would employ Government steamers to compete with them. They, therefore, withdrew their threat of a lock-out, and the men won the contest. If the amendment is carried, and the application of the principle of preference . to unionists is seriously interfered with, I hope that the Ministry will drop the Bill. Personally, I would rather trust to strikes than to an arbitration measure which did not recognise that principle..

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