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Wednesday, 14 May 1930

Wharf Union's Arrogance

A specially keen public interest centres in the waterfront. The community is anxious to see whether the influence of the Federal Labour Government will effectively favour those who defied the arbitration law at the expense of those who observed it. If our federal lawgivers persevere in that direction, all their amendments to the Arbitration Act, and their proposals to transfer industrial powers to the Commonwealth, will be a mockery, for at any time a Government may take sides with those who spurn its laws and defy its administration.

During the third quarter of 1923 a conference of waterside workers ordered members of the union to repudiate an award of the Arbitration Court made by Judge Beeby in respect to places for " picking up " labour. The union took up the stand that the law must not be obeyed unless it suited unionist opinions. There was a strike, and an almost ruinous dislocation of sea-borne trade. Great numbers of workers in other trades dependent upon the maintenance of coastal and 'oversea communications were thrown out of work and there were grievous losses to many Australian interests. The community was faced with the duty of deciding whether defiance of the law by the waterside unions was to be allowed to cause ruin and privation unchecked, or whether an effort was to be made to keep industry going.

There was no doubt about the public will. Men who were willing to obey the law were invited to enlist for waterfront service and there was an immediate response. These volunteers were guaranteed a permanent preference for waterside work and that obligation has to be honorably fulfilled. The union strikers were beaten.

At the chief ports some of the union strikers resorted to violence. They defied the men to obey the labour law at the risk of life and limb. There were riots, bomb outrages, brutal assaults, and an almost general terrorism. In order to try and secure a peaceful settlement the Federal Government passed the Transport Workers Act, which enabled both unionists and volunteers to take out licences as waterside workers. The unionists at first refused to become licensed - in certain cases. against the advice of their own leaders. Since then work on the waterfront has proceeded satisfactorily and, it is claimed, with more regular efficiency.

The election of a Federal Labour Government filled the defeated strikers with now hope. They looked to the Government to take up their cause - to make industrial regulation the political interests of the party that happened to be in power. Evidently Labour Ministers realized the difficulties and dangers of interference, but after hesitation they went as far as to order an arrangement of picking-up places that was likely to pacify the unionists. Unionists and volunteers were to be " picked up " under a system that permitted of no distinction. Clearly the object was to squeeze out the volunteers who had obeyed the law and kept industry going in favour of those who had defied the law and thus caused extensive loss and unemployment.

The ship-owners, who arc bound in honour to fulfil their pledges to the volunteers, have given those mcn the promised preference. Unionists have raised another outcry, and there is a suggestion that again there may be riotous conduct. Meantime the public is waiting to see whether the Federal Government will itself become victim to the intimidation, and interfere mischievously for the sake of those who flouted the law in arrogant scorn of the community's well-being.

This regulation will have the effect of bringing two elements into conflict. It is not a political matter. In the ranks of the volunteers there are unionists. I am assured that the members of the volunteer organization at Port Adelaide are members of a trade union; they have subscribed their union fees and have their union registration. But between the two (bodies of waterside workers there is an- agonism, a and this country is asked to choose between the two. On the one hand we have the members of the Waterside Workers Federation, who for years kept the waterfront of Australia in a state of perpetual turmoil and strife; and on the other hand, volunteers, who for almost two years now have carried out their duties with satisfaction to the shipowners, and with freedom from stoppages and trouble. Through their efforts the sea carriage of goods on our coast has been allowed to proceed without interruption and with a particular freedom from pillaging. I am afraid that if we have these two elements picked up indiscriminately at this wonderfully interesting place called Hogan's Flat it will immediately lead to civil strife, a condition of affairs which the Minister has assured us he deplores.

Senator Dalyought to be thankful that the Leader of the Opposition has moved his motion. At Port Adelaide, on the 21st March last, on the eve of a State election, Mr. Brennan, the Attorney-General, talked about administering " poetic justice " to the volunteers by an alteration of the law and by dealing with the Transport Workers Act through Parliament, apparently indicating that he proposed to pass an act or promulgate a regulation which would place the volunteers in an invidious position. Mr. Brennan could not have paused to think what he was doing, when he allowed this regulation tq go. He is the chief upholder of the law! Are these volunteers to be bludgeoned by superior numbers into complying with the policy of the Waterside Workers Federation? Or are they to be deprived of that preference that they have at the hands of the ship-owners? Are men who have given loyal service to the people of Australia to be placed at the mercy of the overwhelming numbers of the waterside workers, particularly in Melbourne ? We know something of history. The future is not likely to be filled with peace if these two sections are brought together. The volunteers are fully aware of the position. They will take means to protect themselves from personal violence should any clash unhappily occur; but, apparently, so far, the good sense of Mr. Hogan has prevailed. He is keeping the police on the spot to sec that no violence occurs. As a matter of fact, I should not have anticipated the possibility of violence until the regulation was considered by Parliament. But let it become the law of the land and we shall see a state of turmoil at Port Melbourne. We had evidence in South Australia of the lengths to which members of the Waterside Workers Federation are prepared to go. I was absent overseas at the time, but I 'understand that because the volunteers were hounded from pillar to post, and, at times, tossed off the ships into the river, and subjected to all kinds of violence, a special constabulary, armed by the State authorities with assistance from the federal authorities, had to be enrolled to restore order. It is quite easy to see what is likely to happen if this regulation should come into play. I have no doubt other honorable senators have had addressed to them a summary of the position as it appears to' the men in Port Adelaide. It is contained in a letter dated 24th April, which reads as follows: -

The regulations proposed to be made by the Commonwealth Government under the Transport Workers Act are, I know, a matter of deep concern to you. They are of vital concern to the body of men known as volunteers, who are now. giving honest and honorable service to the community on the wharfs. It is at the request of and on behalf of those men in South Australia that I am' taking the liberty of writing to you as a member of the Senate, a body in whose power it lies to prevent a very grievous wrong to a body of men whose only offence is the desire to work in accordance with the award of the Arbitration Court.

I pause here to 'say that the award may or may not be binding on these men, but they have lived up to it; they have accepted the conditions under 'it; they have complied with the law of the land as it stands to-day. The letter continues -

I desire first of all to recall to your mind briefly the- history of what led up to the coming into existence in South Australia of this body of volunteer wharf labourers. You will recollect that trouble upon the waterfront - which had been simmering for a long time - came to a head over what is now known as the Beeby award. Whether one agreed with the terms of that award or not, the fact remains that it stood as the law of the land, proscribing conditions binding both upon those interested in the engagement of labour upon the waterfront and those desirous of doing that labour. As s result of that award the members of the Waterside Workers Federation in Port Adelaide - as in other parts of Australia- went out on strike, paralyzing the shipping and commerce oi Australia. In other words, these men, because they disagreed with the decision of the body created by the people of Australia to decide wages conditions of work, &c, defied the law of the land, and in effect said : " We do not like this law and so we refuse to obey it." The ship-owners thereupon issued a plain warning to the waterside workers that if they persisted in their attempt to coerce Australia, volunteers would be called for, who were willing to abide by the award of the court. In spite of this warning the members of the Waterside Workers Federation continued to defy the award. The ship-owners then carried their threat into effect and called for volunteers, accompanying that call with the promise thai men volunteering would be given preference of work on the wharfs, even if and when the waterside workers desired to return to work. This promise was approved publicly by the Commonwealth and State Governments of the day, and, I venture to say, by every rightthinking and law-respecting citizen in Australia. The volunteers were also guaranteed adequate protection by the government of the day. In response to the ship-owners' call hundreds of men volunteered - volunteered to work, it will be noted, not under conditions prescribed by the ship-owners, but under conditions laid down by the law of the land, the Arbitration' Court. The waterside workers made no move to recognize their mistake or to return to work, but on the contrary disgraced Australia in general, and South Australia in particular by organized violence against the nien who had thus volunteered to obey the award of the court. It is unnecessary to remind you of the doings of that day when waterside workers, out-numbering the volunteers three or four to one- not even with the elemental spark of decency required to fight man- to man - violently drove the volunteers from their work. Protection was soon forthcoming from the citizens of South Australia in overwhelming numbers and the volunteers returned, to work. Only then did the waterside workers realize that they were beaten and asked for terms. They were informed that they could return to work under the Beeby Award, but that the promise of preference made to the volunteers would be honoured. Even then they quibbled about the terms of work, but ultimately gave in. Since then the ship-owners have abided by their promise and given the volunteers preference and the waterside workers the balance df work available. The best proof of the desire of the ship-owners in South Australia to give work' to the members of the Waterside Workers Federation whilst honoring their promise to the volunteers is provided by the attached summary of proposals made to the Waterside Workers Federation by the ship-owners. Those proposals were absolutely rejected by the Waterside Workers Federation. One result of the employment of these volunteers has been a period of industrial peace upon the waterfront at Port Adelaide, which has not been equalled for many years. Occasional incidents, however, showed that there was, as was inevitable, a strong undercurrent of feeling against the volunteers, and ithas been abundantly clear ever since the strike, which brought them as a body into being, that they were marked men throughout Australia in trade union circles. The proof of this is in the fact that an industrial newspaper widely circulated in South Australia published the names of every volunteer under the heading : " Look, Read and Remember." The volunteers immediately formed a union of their own and have been, since the end of 1928, registered as a trade union in the Commonwealth Arbitration Court as a branch of the Permanent and Casual Wharf Labourers Union of Australia. They are thus in every sense of the word unionists.

It is now proposed by regulations under the Transport Workers Act to wipe out their preference and do to them what the Federal AttorneyGeneral, in an address at Port Adelaide recently described as " poetic justice " - the "justice " part of which can well be imagined. The idea apparently of the Federal Government - incredible as it seems in a responsible government - is to penalize the men who obeyed the law in order to reward those who defied the law. The Argus newspaper, in a leading article on 22nd instant, under the heading of " Preference to Lawbreakers," summarizes the proposed action of the Commonwealth Government in a manner that is surely expressing only the bare truth and facts of the position. The ship-owners of South Australia, having carefully considered the attitude of the Commonwealth Government, decided, so that they might keep the promises made to the volunteers, to engage them as permanent hands and this was carried into effect on 16th April, 1930, by a written contract of service with each volunteer.

Apart from the aspect of the personal injustice which will be meted out to the individual if the Commonwealth Government achieves its purpose, I would draw your attention to another serious aspect of the position. The history of the industrial position on the waterfront during the last few years is not such as to encourage the belief that smooth working will result if the waterside workers again have a monopoly. It is not a fanciful prophecy to suggest that if the volunteers are driven off the wharf, the troubles which in the past have so seriously handicapped Australian industry will revive within a very short time. It will not be easy, however, to again get good volunteers to work on the wharf if a strike occurs. It can scarcely be expected that men will again volunteer, whatever promises are made to them, if government legislation and interference are to be permitted to nullify those promises.

So far as the volunteers themselves are concerned, any fair inquiry or examination will prove conclusively that as a body they are a very hard-working and competent body of men. Many of them are returned soldiers, and in very many cases they are married men with children. The allegations that there are a preponderance of Italians and Southern Europeans amongst them is absolutely untrue. I have examined very thoroughly the names, nationalities, &c, of the volunteers in South Australia and can definitely assure you that only 12 per cent. of them are Italians or Southern Europeans.

In conclusion, therefore, on behalf of these volunteers, I appeal to you, as a representative of the people of Australia, as a guardian of the liberties of the people, and as a believer in justice and right, to use all the influence in your power to disallow any regulations under the Transport Workers Act which are designed or may be used prejudicially to the volunteers. The only crime those men have committed is to work in accordance with the law of the land, to come to the help of the country when a small section of the community had defied constituted authority and law and order and to give a fair and full day's work for a day's pay.

It will, as I feel sure you will agree, be a sorry day in the public life of Australia if these men are now to be punished by having their livelihood - and their only livelihood, for they are marked men - taken away.

I make no apology for the length of this letter. The importance of the subject matter is its justification and with confidence I leave the fate of these men in your hands.

That communication is signed by Mr. Arthur S. Blackburn, V.C., who, I believe, organized the special constabulary in South Australia. The important points in the communication cannot be ignored.


Senator Rae - It is only one side of the case.







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