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Industrial Trouble on Melbourne Wharfs - Report of Royal Commission (Mr. Geo. J. Dethridge)

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Presented by Command; ordered to be printed, 19th November, 1920.

[Cod of Paper.-Preparatlon, not given; 775 copies; approximate cost of printing and publishing, £6.)

.Printed and .Published for the GOVERNMENT of the CCMMONWEAL'l'H of AUSTRALIA by ALBERT J . MULLE'l"f, Government Printer for the State of Victoria. No. 77.-F.19538.-PRICE, 3D.

To His Excellency the Right Honorable SIR RoNALD CRAUFURD MuNRO FERGUSON, a Member of Our Most Honorable Privy Council, Knight Grand Cross of Our Most Distinguished Order of Saint Michael .and Saint George, Our Governor-General and Commander-in-Chief in and over Our Commonwealth of A ustmlia.


I have the honour to submit herewith my report in accordance with the terms of the Commission issued to me on the 7th June, 1919, to inquire into the follow­ ing matters, namely:-

(1) The cause of the industrial trouble'S now existing on the, Melbourne wharfs; (2) Whether the Yarra Stevedoring Company has discriminated against members of the Melbourne brancJ. of the Waterside Workers' Federation' in the selection

of men r equired for wharf work from time to time, other than by giving preference to-( a) returned soldiers who, previous to joining the Australian Imperial Forces, had been em­

ployed on the Inter-State wharfs; and (b) men who registered with the Yarra Stevedor­ ing Company between the thirteenth day of August, 1917, and the third day ·of Decem­

ber, 1917, and to whom promises had been made by the Government as regards em­ ployment if they desired to continue such wo-rk. ( 3) Whether preference of employment has been given by the Yarra Stevedoring Company to any men,

other than those mentioned in sub-paragraphs (a) and (b) of the last preceding paragraph, while members of the Waterside Workers' Federation were available and offered to work.

( 4) Whether, having regard to-( a) any pledges given by employers to returned soldiers and by the Government to men who registered with the Yarra Stevedoring

Oompany prior to the third day of Decem­ ber, 1917; (b) the proceedings of the conference convened by His Excellency the Governor-General at

Melbourne in April, 1918; (c) the award of the Commonwealth Court o£ and Arbitration of 28th J unc,

1918 (No. 73 of 1917) ; and (d) any other relevant facts,, any alteration-and, if so, what-in the present system of engaging labour for work on the Melbourne wharfs is desirable, in order to avoid the friction at present existing.

The first sitting of the OommiS'sion was held at the office of the Inter-State Commission, Melbourne, on the 11th June, 1919, and continued on the 12 th, 13th, 16th, 17th, 18th, 19th, and 20th of the same month.

Mr. J. W. Cadden was present as representative of the Melbourne Branch of the Waterside Wor'kers1 Federation; Mr. H. M. Adams, as representative of the Steam-·ship Owners' Federation; Mr. G. V. Baker, as representative of the Australian Ship, Wharf, and Association; and Mr. J. Bland, as represen­

tative of the Timber Discharging Company, Melbourne. In August, 1917, a widely-spread industrial disturbance occurred in the Commonwealth, and incidentally thereto on the 13th of that month the members of the Melbourne Branch of the Waterside Workers' Federation struck.

In order to carry on as far as possible the necessar.r work of the community, the Commonwealth Govern­ ment publicly invited persons disposed to do such work

to proffer their services, and established National Sel'­ vice Bureaux in ll:'l:elbourne and elsewhere for the regis­ tratiori· of such persons and the distribution of their services. A number of such persons were subsequently, by means of theN ational Servic-e Bureau in Melbourne, engaged by the ship-owners to do work upon the Mel­ bourne wharfs which had previously been done by mem­ bers of the Melbourne Branch of the Waterside

Workers' Federation. About the end of September, 1917, the National Service Bureau in Melbourne was closed. The preference of employment which the members

of the Waterside Workers' Federation had previously enjoyed under agreement with the ship-owners was can­ celled early in September, 1917. During the same month of September, 1917, seven

shipping companies, namely: Adelaide Steam-ship Company Limited, Australian Steam-ships Limited, Australian United .Steam Navigation Company Limited, Huddart Parker Limited, Mcllwraith, 1fcEacharn'>S Line Proprietary Limited, Melbourne Steam-ship Company Limited; and Union Steam-ship Company of New Zealand Limited, established a bureau

for the registration of men desirous of doing on the Melbourne wharfs, in connexion with Inter-State cargo trade (other than the coal and timber trade), the work which previously had been done by the members of the Melbourne Branch of the Waterside Workers' Federa­

tion, for the engaging of such men, and for the dis­ tribution of their services among the seven shipping companies. This Inter-State trade was almost wholly in the hands of these companies. ThE? seven shipping companies having established the bureau formed a com­ pany-the Yarra Stevedoring Company-of which they were, ,and are, the only members. This latter com­ pany, after its formation in J'anuary, 1918, carried on the bureau until tbB present time. The bureau i.R", therefore, wholly within the control of these seven com­ panies, except in so far as ·such control is modified by

certain provisions of the award of the Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration of the 28th June, 1918 (No. 73 of 1917). They engaged all therr waterside workers for the Inter-1State cargo trade through the bureau, the engagements being made there by its superintendent, to vvhom was almost invariably l e.ft the selection of the individual workers, subject,

ostensibly at any rate, to preference being given only to men who registered at the bureau on or before the 3rd December, 1917, and to returned soldiers who, before enlisting, had been employed upon the Inter-State wharfs, and who, after returning, had become registered

at any time. Preference was actually given to the men in these two classes, but it was contended before me that the preference was extended to others as against the members of the Waterside W·orkers' Federation.

The register of the bureau was opened on the 28th September, 1917. Some, if not all, of the men who had been engaged through the Melbourne National Service Bureau registered, but the number of such men do es not appear. Registration continued until on and

before the 3rd December, 1917, 2,133 men had been registered. Among them were a considerable numbor of men-afterwards called "white wings of the Melbourne Branch of the Waterside Workers' Federation, who had struck on the 13th August, 1917 . .

On the 3rd December, 1917, the Melbourne Branch of the Waterside Workers' F ederation passed a r es o­ lution to the effect that their members present

themselves in a body next day for registration at the bureau. On the 4th December, and subsequent day.s, the bulk of the members were registered, but some de­ clined to apply for registration for reasons of principle or otherwise. In March, 1918, the register was closed, except as to returned soldiers, on the ground that there were a sufficient number of men registered to do all the work required to be done. There were then 3,497 men on the register. The Melbourne Branch of the Water­ side Workers' Federation later in that year, with the object of giving such of their members as had not yet been registered an opportunity of r egistering, re­

quested that the register should be re-opened, and suc­ ceeded, against the wishes of the directors of the Yarra Company, in having it re-opened for a

period of three months by means of the Board of feren ce appointed under the award of the Court of Arbitration and Conciliation already referred to. It was re-opened from the 2nd January to the 31st March, 1919, and 355 more men were registered, including a number of members of the Melbourne Branch who had previously declined to apply for registration.

During the year 1918 the amount of work on the wharfs at Melbourne, in the Inter-State ·trade, appears to have been less than under normal conditions, such ·as prevailed before the war, and appears not to have

been sufficient to provide a fair living wage for the whole of the men r egistered, who comprised, as h as been indicated, both the new men who had been regis­ tered during and after the strike of 19f7, and nearly all the Waterside Workers' Federation men who had been employed in that · trade prior to the strike. The situation was aggravated in the following way. The new men had during the strike, and for some time afte'·­ wards, been employed to some extent apart from the bureau in connexion with overseas shipping and with

coal and timber ships. But in course of time these

branches of work reverted more and more to the origi­ nal Waterside Workers' Federation men, and the new men tended to concentrate upon the Inter-State cargo work done through the bureau. This was partly com­ pensated by men drifting away from the bureau work, but the net result seems to have been an inflation ,)f the number of men seeking work through that ,institu­ tion. This inflation was increased in 1919, when the register was re-opened at the request of the Waterside Workers' Federation-a request inspired by rather :fiu e feelings for their fellow unionists, but which in the conditions that arose thereafter tended to the d etri­ ment of the non-preferred men previously In addition, returned soldiers were continually being registered. ·

In February, 1919, the influenza epidemic began to have an adverse effect, directly or indirectly, upon the Inter-State shipping, and consequently the work to be done on the wharfs diminished. The amount of wag•.;s paid through the bureau, during the months of J anu­ ary, F ebruary, March, and April, of 1919, as com­ pared with the corresponding months of 1918, clearly sets out the position:-

January February March April


1918. 12,738 13,326 14,950 15,239


1919. 11,732 8,418 11,083


The increase of registered men and the decrease of work to be done operated simultaneously to intensify the struggle for employment among the men. Many of them failed to ·secure anythmg ap-


proaching to ·a living wage. Whether or not their con­ cli tion was to be regarded as only the natural result of their own actions-as a just retribution for their faults in the past-they and their families suffered priva­ tions greater probably than any one anticipated in 1917.

In the co-existence of preference for men registered on or before the 3rd of December, 1917, ·and of this shortage of employment is to be found the main cause of the industrial troubles now existing on the Mel­ bourne wharfs, so far as these. troubles are due to any cause not common to the whole industrial world. If fairly exercised, the method of picking up at the

bureau, although, in some respects, perhaps, inevitably a source of irritation to the members of the Waterside Workers' Federation, would probably not of itself have led to any serious trouble, prov.ided there had been sufficient work no go round amongst the preferred and non-preferred men. The members of the Waterside Workers' F ederation ask that the former system of picking up at the ship side by the foremen of the r e­ spective ships should be restored . But if preference is to be effectively maintained, and if the shortage of employment continues to the same extent a-s of late, the likelihood of disturbances upon the wharfs would probably be greater than under the bureau system. So long as that shortage continues, the casual nature of the employment will involve the constantly recurring engagement of preferred men in the actual presenee of considerable numbers of workless competitors­ member s of the Waterside Workers' Federation, who before the strike of 1917 had a monopoly of the work now given to their rivals. Amongst these workless men there will certainly be more than a few easily

provoked to unlawful violence, unless there is available a sufficient police force to maintain order. If condi­ tions improve so that there will be sufficient work for substantially all the men registered, the continuance \)f the preference, although it would occasion sorene3s, would probably not lead to grave disturbances. Such a:fi improvement .does not appear likely to occur for a considerable time, and therefore the danger of serious friction is .inevitable until the men who now seek em­ ployment upon the wharfs are largely diminished in number. The abolition of preference would unques­ tionably lead to that diminution, for without prefer­ ence the greater part of the men who now enjoy it

(other than returned soldiers) would from various causes soon disappear from the wharfs. I am of opinion for the reasons given .her eafter that that abolition would involve a breach of faith with the preferred men. I do not think that the terms of my Commission permit me to consider whether such a breach of faith is to be r egarded as expedient, but even if my Commission were wide enough to call for my opinion upon that matter, I would not in the circumstances recommend a depar­ ture from the pledges given in 1917 referred to herein­ after. Apart from the abolition of preference there appears to be no practical way of effecting a more rapid r eduction in the numbers of men seeking employment at the wharfs than would ensue in the ordinary way from failure to obtain employment. The casual nature of the employment there is responsible for many of the difficulties that arise, ·but both employers and em­ ployees ag-ree that to substitute regular employment is impracticable.

I have indicated what, in my judgment, is the main cause of the present trouble upon the wharfs. But

there are subsidiary matters which tend to ag-gravate this trouble. The great majority of the wharf workers in the Inter-State cargo trade have now no avenue to employmel}t in 'that 'trad!e other t'han through bureau. The selection and engagement of these men

concentrated in the superintendent. The Yarra Steve­ doring Company by its power of de-registration which ii uses for disciplinary purposes may · practically ex­ clude men from employment upon the wharfs. That power has already been extended, in my opinion, un­ wisely, and probably with an undue harshness to acts such as assault. Obviously, even without, recourse to

de-registration, the bureau is . a very convenient instru­ ment for the victimization of marked men, and for tho preference of one set of men over another, if its con­ trollers should choose to use it for these purposes, and this is so, notwithstanding certain safeguards imposed under the arbitration award already mentioned.

Amidst the members of the Waterside Workers' Fede­ ration-alrerady inclined to attribute, to the machinations hostile to their -union-the bureau from its V·ery nature must become a fertile bree ding ground

of suspicion and unrest. The growth of these is aided by the existence of the Australian Ship Wharf and Workers' Association, a body comprising a number of men who came forward to work during the strike of

1917, but also many others who have resorted· to the wharfs for employment since that time. This asso­ ciation is competing with the Waterside Workers' Fede­ ration in efforts to induce new comers to join its ranks. It was fostered at its inception by one or more em­ ployers, and although none of the companies connected with the Yarra Stevedoring Oompany appear to have had any part in its formation or in maintaining it,

there is a strong belief amongst the members of the Waterside Workers' Federation that the bureau has been used to discriminate in favour of members of the association, whether or not they are entitled to the benefit of the pledge given in 1917. This belief has been encouraged by the very frequent presence of the

secretary of the association at the and by some

of his actions in connexion with the registration of new comers. Annoyance has arisen through certain methods of making and announcing the selection of men, which have been forced upon the managers of the bureau, be­ cause of the influenza epidemic, but as the managers state that they intend to discontinue these methods, they do not call for further attention.

The' foregoing fa·cts afford some · material for argu­ ment in 'support of the claim of theW aterside Workers' Federation for the abolition of the bureau, but, in my opinion, that claim is really made, not for such rea­ sons, but because the members of the Watersile

Workers' F ederation believe that if the bureau is

abolished, preference in pursuance of the pledges given in 1917 cannot be effectively maintained. I am driven to concur in that belief. In my opinion, it would be impossible to effectively preserve that preference in the absence of the 1bureau, and therefore, although, because

of its possibilities of abuse, it may become exceedingly objectionable, its continuance is necessary if prefer­ ence is to be maintained. I am directed in paragraphs No. 2 and No. 3 of my Commission to inquire whether the Yarra Stevedoring

Company has discriminated against members of the Waterside Workers' Federation,_ or has given prefer­ ence otherwise than to men who were registered on or before the 3rd December, 1917, or to returned soldiers. Evidence was adduced before ·me upon these issues. It

appeared that, in one case, a man not within the pre­ ferred elasses in fact recejved preference in employment to which he was not entitled, but that he received such preference by reason of his having been put in the pre­ ferential list of returned soldiers by mistake. This mistake was induced by his producing a certificate .)f discharge which he had received from the Defence D e­

partment his discharge from the Army on the


ground of ill-health, without 4aving left Australia. The clerk who registered him appears to have mistaken this for a returned soldier's discharge, and wrongly placed his name in the preferential list. I am satisfied that there was no intention in this case to improperly prefer, that the preference actually given was the result of this mistake. In no other case was it esta·b­

lished to my satisfaction that any person not entitled to preference . received it. It was suggested that the hooks of the bureau would show that such improper . preference had been given, but a close examination of

these books gave no support to this allegation. It was not proved to my satisfaction that there had been dis­ erimination of any kind against the members of the Waterside Workers' Federation, otherwise than by giv­ ing the permitted preference under the pledges of 1917

and to returned soldiers.

By paragraph No. 4 of my Commission I have to inquire whether an alteration in the present mode of engaging labour ,for work upon the wharfs is desirable having regard to certain matters. Of these matters the first to be considered are pledges given by employers to returned soldiers, and by the Government to men who registered with the Yarra Stevedoring Company prior to the 3rd December, 1917. The only pledge

given by the ship-owners to returned soldiers appears to have been one of absolute preference given in April, or May, of this year. No specific pledge has been given by the Government, especially to men who registered with the Yarra Stevedoring Company prior to the 3rd

of December, 1917, but a public statement was made by :Th!Ir. Hughes, the Prime Minister, which appeared in

the press of the 6th of September, 1917, the terms of which are as follows:-"The Government will protect all those who · enrol through the National .Service Bureaux; it

will protect them while the strike lasts and when the strike is over. Those men who come to the aid of their country now by doing work which the strikers refuse· to do have a claim on their coun­ try, and the, Government. will see that their r:ght

to future employment is fully protected. If any man thinks he can desert his post of duty at this critical hour and return when he thinks fit, sup­ planting the man who has taken up his duty, he will find himself greviously mistaken. There wjll

be no victimization of loyal workers. And those who d efy and injure the country must pay the

penalty of their action."

The words do not of themselves create any right employment, but they do emphatically state that rights to future employment which may be gained by men shall he protected by the Government. On the:r

part the ship-owners made p11.blic announcements in the press of the 12th and the 26th September, 1917. Read-ing them as a whole their only reasonable inter­ pretation is that so long as work should be available the ship-owners would continue during and after the strike to keep employed th.e men who applied for work during the strike. The suggestion was made to me on behalf of the Waterside Workers' Federation that the pledge contained in these announcements should be construed as if given only for the period of the strike, or only to men obta-ined through the National Service Bureau, or, at any rate, only to men registered before the 28th O ctober, 1917, when, according to the argu­ ment, the W atersjde Workers' Federation members having notified their willingness to go back on pre­ strike conditions thereby termi_ nated the strike. In my opinion, the facts do not support this A

similar contention was raised in the Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration in proceeding

. 6

No. 69, of 1917, in which the Waterside Workers' Fede­ ration was claimant, and was r ejected. The Court by its award, which by the terms of my Commission I must have regard to, construed the 'pledge as having been given for the bene:fit of all who were registered and worked through the bureau on or before the 3rd of December, 1917. This issue has, therefore, already been de termined by that Court against the Waterside Workers' F ederation in a proceeding to whi ch the Fede­ ration was a party. It was urged before me that the preference so gi ve1i has in the result operated for the

bene:fit of many men who were not "loyalists" in -any proper sense of the word, but only came forward to work in November, 1917, when the failure of the strike was seen to be inevitable. About 900 men of those re­ gister ed on or befor e the 3rd of December, 1917, we re still seeking employment through the bureau when the r ecent disturb ELnces upon the wharfs began. An exami­

nation of the pay-sheets and vouchers of the shipping companies for the strike period in 1917, while showing that these men actually did work during that period, indicates also that probably considerably more than half of them did not offer their services until N ovem­

ber, 1917. Con ceding that men who came so late int o the :field were not actuated by very keen "loyalism," they never theless were probably influenced by the pro­ mise of prefer ence and are entitled to its ful:film ent.

Under paragraph No.4 of my Commission I am also to h ave to the proceedings of the Conference

convened by Your E xcellency, at Melbourne, in April, 1918, on the subjec t of the securing of reinforcements under the voluntary system for the Australian Imperial F or ce serving abroad, and also to any other r elevant facts. It was con tended before me that, during the Conference , the Prime Minister (Mr. Hughes ), and the Premier of N ew South W ales (Mr. H olman), speaking on behalf of the F eder al and State Govern­ men ts in eff ect, promised that the preference given t.o men who worked during the strike of 1917 should be

abolished, and that the Yarra Stevedoring Bureau should no t be continued in existence if it ope­ rated to maintain that pref ei·ence. Standing by them­ selves some of the utter anc es of the Prime Minister

and of the Premier of New South Wales unquestion­ ably look like promises of this kind, but the con text and the manner in which the Conference subsequently dealt with these utterances show, in my opinion, tha t they we r e regarded as conditional upon cer tain under­ takings being give n by the members of the Conferenc0 who represen ted the Labour party. The Prime Min­ ister, on pages 70-71, and page 98, of th e r eport of the proceedings, expressly says that there would have to be r eciproci ty from these latter members of the Confer­ ence in respect of any such promise, and it is clear from the r eport th at 1:eciprocity of the .kind required by him was not given. Further, on pages 138 and 141 it appears that the proposal embodying the subject­ matter of this suggested promise was postponed for further conSiideration. The Co nfe rence clo sed without

that further consideration hav ing been given, and the proposal ther efore lapsed. It was further contended before me that Senator Fairbairn, on behalf of the employers, wh en speaking upon the proposal, made a somewh at similar promise at the Confer ence. I think

this also was condi tional in the same sense, but, in any case, it was recognised at the Conference itself that he was not representing the ship-owners. At mos t, all that Senator F ai rbairn said in respect of the ship­ own ers was, in eff ect, that he believed they would come into line with other employers upon the proposal. Until the recen.t outbreak upon the wharfs no on e seems to have suggested that the G?vernment or the ship-owners

had made such a promise, and certainly no one -at­ tempted to procure its ful:filrn ent. This in - is

sufficient, in my opinion, to show that what was said a t the Conference was not r egarded by any one as being more than a mere subject to conditions which were never complied with by the persons to whom it was made.

It was suggested that another promise of a similar nature was made about October, 1917, by Mr. Watt, then Minister for Works and Railways, to some repre­ sentatives of Labour who interviewed him privately. In my opinion, no such promise or statement of the kind was made by Mr. Watt. I think the suggestion is ba sed upon a misunderstanding of some remark by Mr. W att concerning the attempt made by ship-owners

to compel for employment to withdraw

from the Waterside Workers' Federation. It is in the highest degr ee improbable that Mr. Watt should have made any statement of the kind, in view of the public ann ouncement of the Prime Minister upon the matter made almost immediately before, the effect of which I have already discussed. ·

I summarize my conclusions on the matters inquired into by me as follows:-P ARAGRAPH No. 1 oF CoM:tlussioN. ,The substantial cause of the industrial troubles now existing on the Melbourne wh arfs is the great insufli­ ciency of work for the total number of men seeking ; t, combined with the preference given at the bureau •lf the Yarra S tevedoring Company to men who were there on or before the 3rd of December,


P ARAGRAPH No. 2 OF CoMllnssioN. It has not been proved that the Yarra Stevedoring Company has • dis criminated against members of the Melbourne Branch of the Waterside Workers' F eder a­ tion in the selection of men r equired for wh arf work from time to time, other than by giving preference to the classes of men referred to in sub-parag-raphs (a) and (b) of paragraph No. -2 of my Commission.

PARAGRAPH No. 3 OF CoMl\HSSION. Excep t in one accidental case already r eferred to it t•as not been proved that preference of employment h as been given by th e Yarra Stevedoring Company to any men other than those mentioned in sub-paragraphs (a)

and (b) of paragraph No. 2 of my Commission.

PARAGRA PH No.4 OF CoMMISSION. Having regard to the pledges given to men who r e­ gis te red with the Yarra Stevedoring Company on Jr before the 3rd of December, 1917, and to the impos;;i­

bility (in my opinion) of the fulfilment of those pledges otherwi se than through the bureau, I am unable to say that any alteration in the presen t system of engag­ ing labour for work on the Melbourne wharfs is desir­

able. I

r ecommend, however, that so soon as the pre­ servation of the health of the public permits, th <:J

methods of working the bureau made necessary by the influenz a epidemic should be discontinued.

I have the honour to be, Your Excellency's most obedient servant, (Sgd.) GEO. J. DETHRIDGE. 27th June, 1919.

Transmitted to the Acting Prime Minister.

30th June, 1919.


----------------------- t'nnted and Published for the GOVERNMENT of the CoMniONWEALTH of AUSTRALIA by ALBERT J. MULLI'Il'T; Government Printer for the State of Victoria.