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Wednesday, 6 June 1928

Mr MCGRATH (Ballarat) .- 1 have listened carefully to the debate, and it must be obvious to every one that the argument is all on one side. Many honorable members on this side have spent practically the whole of their lives in industrial organizations, and their desire is not to prevent industrial disorder, but to secure industrial peace. One after the other, leaders of the industrialists have risen in their places in this chamber and pointed out that this clause instead of promoting peace will bring about industrial disturbances. Their warnings have had little effect upon . the AttorneyGeneral or his colleagues. The Government seems to be determined to give effect to the secret promises that it made to the organizations of employers prior to the last elections. We know full well that throughout Australia there are certain persons continually stating that the wages of the workers must be reduced and their conditions broken down. The Go vernment, under the pretence of securing industrial peace, has introduced this legislation with the sincere hope that the employers will take advantage of it by declaring lockouts, in defiance of industrial awards. The Attorney-General may deny the accuracy of that statement, but as I read the clause, should any employer be dissatisfied with any award, he has only to persuade a few men in one section of his establishment to engage in an industrial dispute and he can then, through the court, declare a lockout. In that case the determinations of wages boards and the awards of the Arbitration Court go by the board. The employer can then engage free labour at any wages and under any conditions that he may stipulate. An instance of this was brought under my notice last week. Three young girls were brought out as experts from England by the proprietors of a certain mill in Victoria. The agreement entered into by these girls provided that they should be paid 48s. a week ; actually they are receiving only 30s. a week. If the rest of the operators in that mill, resenting the unfair treatment meted out to these girls, went out on strike, their employers could, through the agency of the Arbitration Court, declare a general lockout of the whole of the industry throughout Australia. The clause is absurd. For 35 years I have been associated with the Labour party, fighting for the settlement of disputes by conciliation, by bringing the two parties in industry together and allowing them to discuss the matters at issue. If this clause aimed at conciliation, it would meet with my enthusiastic support.

Mr Latham - There are several such provisions in the bill.

Mr McGRATH - If those provisions can be pointed out to me, I shall have much pleasure in supporting them.

Mr Latham - I shall point them out to the honorable member later.

Mr McGRATH - The bill is not designed to bring the two parties in industry together with a view to settling disputes. What will happen when a lockout is declared under this provision? Apparently the employer will engage nonunionists, and work them under conditions contrary to those laid down under the awards of the Arbitration Court. If this provision were in operation to-day, what effect would it have upon the marine cooks' dispute? In what way could it influence that dispute? We do not want these sectional strikes, but we know it is impossible to prevent them. I have been connected with the Tramway Union, and I know that on occasions a few men, who are perfectly satisfied with their award, will refuse to work simply because they have had a quarrel with their foreman?

Mr Yates - The Adelaide tramway men held a meeting on Saturday night under somewhat similar circumstances.

Mr McGRATH - Because thes'e men go on strike the whole of the members of the union may be penalized.

Mr Parkhill - Not necessarily. The court may not agree to declare a sectional dispute to be a strike.

Mr McGRATH - In that case there is no necessity for this clause. Mr. Scullin. - The only defence that the Government has made is that the clause may not be used.

Mr McGRATH - Let me give another instance. A section of the members of the Australian Workers Union employed at the Yallourn Electricity Works, went out on strike, and the dispute threatened to be serious. The union officials journeyed to Yallourn and told the strikers that they should have consulted the union before taking action. The officials refused to allow strike pay, and within a week or two the dispute was settled. Had this clause been in operation, the employers could have approached the court to declare the dispute to be a strike, and a lockout could have been declared, throwing some thousands of men out of employment. I recognize that many employers wish to do what is right, but there are always a few employers in every industry who resent any new award that increases wages and reduces hours of work. These unscrupulous employers will be able, under this clause, to foment a sectional dispute, and ultimately to declare a lockout of the whole of the industry, thus enabling them for the next two or three years to carry on with non-union labour, working long hours at low wages. The Government when inserting this provision in the bill could have had no other objective in mind. I feel very strongly on this subject, because I do not wish to prolong industrial disputes. I desire the wheels of industry to run smoothly, if possible. It has taken us 25 years to build up the trade union movement. Its officials are keenly desirous of promoting industrial peace; yet the Government has now introduced legislation to undo in a few moments the work of many years. During the last 25 years we have had practically no industrial conflicts. We have had a few sectional strikes, and they have been principally confined to the waterside workers and the seamen. In all other industries strikes have been few and of short duration. The great body of unionists in Australia to-day is honestly obeying the awards of the Arbitration Court. Yet this Government is placing the control of these men in the hands of unscrupulous employers, and they will use this legislation, if possible, to enrich themselves at the expense of their competitors. If, under this clause, a judge of the Arbitration Court may not grant an order to declare a sectional dispute to be a strike, then I ask for what purpose has it been inserted in the bill? In what way could it be applied to prevent strikes? It is impossible to compel men to work if they do not choose to do so.

Mr Watkins - The clause is meant to extend strikes.

Mr McGRATH - Apparently, that is its object. There are others, besides the workers who go on strike. There are certain sections of the community that adopt tactics that may easily be likened to strikes. A man produces a commodity, and if he does not obtain for it the price that he asks, he refuses to sell it. In other words, he goes on strike. I do not blame him/but he is in the same category as the man who offers his labour for sale, and refuses to work unless he receives his price. Surely a worker has the right to say whether he will work one day or two days, and to demand a fair wage for his services. He has his rights, but in this measure he is being legislated against; yet there are other organizations in the community, the wealthy trading combines, which are making enormous profits, and do not hesitate to go on strike at any time when they feel they have a chance of extracting still greater profits from the consuming public. They are growing wealthy by such means, but no legislation has been directed against them. I know of instances in which the stock of trading companies has been watered to such an extent, that although they started with 20,000 shares, issue after issue was made until the number was brought up to 130,000. When such companies go before the Arbitration Court they * claim that they should make 6 per cent, profit . on the whole issue of 130,000 shares, although probably not more than 20,000 have been paid for. I strongly protest against the passage of this clause. If the Attorney-General, because of his lack of industrial experience, insists that it shall be passed, it will be a sorry day for the industrial peace of the country. I ask him to listen to those whose lives have been devoted to promoting industrial peace. The honorable member for Hunter (Mr. Charlton) pointed out what might happen in the coal mining industry in the event of a small section of men going on strike. He knows what he is talking about, and he has told the committee that even a small sectional dispute might, and could, be made the excuse for tying up the whole industry. If the Attorney-General will not listen to those who have had practical experience in these matters, it indicates that he has come here determined to carry out the commands of those who at the last election found the money to put the Gvernment in power. They poured our their money freely to put the present Government into power, and they did it, I have no doubt, with the object of reducing the workers' standard of living. Those who are supporting the Government have repeatedly declared that Australia can make no progress until wages and living conditions are reduced. This bill has been introduced to enable that to be done. If the Minister persists in retaining the clauses to which we have objected, I cannot help thinking that those who are really controlling the Ministry do not wish Australia to progress, politically or industrially. They care nothing for the welfare of the men and women of Australia; nothing for the physique or mental development of our people, but think only in terms of profits and dividends. They are the power behind the Government, and it is their determination to reduce the standard of living in this country to that which obtains in the older countries of the world. They fear that the advanced legislation which has been passed by progressive Australian Governments, will prove a menace to the privileged classes in the older communities. I can assure the Attorney-General that, even with the help of this measure, he will not be able to crush out 'trade unionism in Australia. The movement has grown because of the way in which it has been crucified in the past. The more the privileged classes sought to suppress it, the stronger it became, and although this bill will cause much suffering and industrial disorder, it will not achieve the purpose which its supporters have in view. If the Minister persists in his intention to break the trade unions, and give unscrupulous employers the power to reduce the basic wage and depress the standard of living, he will meet with unwavering hostility from this party, and when we succeed in seizing the reins of Government this measure will be one of the first we shall repeal.

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