“J. HARRY COYNE, President. J. A. MOIR, Secretary.
“TRADES HALL, BRISBANE,
“January 28th, 1912.”
This proclamation created considerable alarm among the business community, but left Badger unmoved. Accordingly on the appointed day the General Strike began. Next day the shops and warehouses remained closed and the waterfront was deserted. There was a general rush to the Trades Hall for permits to handle perishable goods. The strikers held a mass meeting, when Coyne emphasised the necessity for preserving order and obeying the law, and then marched in procession round the city. The trams had ceased running, but the hold-up of a non-union carter provided a lively incident.
On this fatal day the Strike Committee made the really decisive blunder. They called upon the railwaymen, or, at least, allowed them, to come out. Up to this point the Government, for all its real hostility, had been preserving an attitude of almost benevolent neutrality. So far had they gone, indeed, that the Railway Commissioner had agreed not to ask railwaymen to sacrifice their union principles by handling the coal belonging to the tramway company stacked at Normanby. That almost meant joining in the boycott of Badger’s firm. Moreover, they had exerted pressure on the manager to meet the men, and had even managed to get Badger and the union officials into the same ministerial office. But when the Queensland Railway Employees’ Association withdrew the porters, shunters, and signalmen, the Ministry saw that public support would be lost to the strikers, and so came out into the open.
Announcing their intention of preserving order, the Government brought in mounted police from the country districts and enrolled special constables from among the ranks of the infuriated bourgeoisie and the farmers who were cut off from their markets by the transport hold-up. Public houses were closed and police patrolled the streets. A few trains were kept running during the day, but at night the service was entirely suspended. The strikers, on their part, preserved excellent order. A Vigilance Corps was organised by the Committee to prevent pillaging or disorder. The permit system was extended and improved, and the Courier foamed at the mouth over the spectacle “of respectable business men craving permission from a surly boot-maker to carry out certain necessary operations.” The delivery of victuals was, of course, entirely suspended, but suitable provision was made by the Strike Committee for the supply of necessaries – e.g., 40,000 loaves “baked under strictly union conditions.”
On Thursday the Strike Committee decided to call out unionists in the country. On the same day the Police Commissioner informed the Committee that no further processions of strikers would be allowed, but that the Traffic Act would be enforced. So next day, when the strikers assembled as usual, the leaders, in accordance with their policy of keeping within the law, discouraged any attempts at a march. Still a clash between the police and the huge crowd was not to be averted, and the former found some excuse for a baton charge. Some damage, both moral and physical, was inflicted upon the crowd.
Encouraged by the success of the proceedings of “Black Friday,” as the day of the baton charge was named, the Government decided to put a stop to all public gatherings of strikers, and issued a proclamation on February 5th prohibiting “unlawful assemblies.” With regard to the Vigilance Corps the Police Commissioner informed Mr. Coyne that the police were the proper guardians of order and would tolerate no interference in these duties from other bodies. The railway shopmen at Ipswich, who had been called out on the 2nd, were given till the 5th to return or else forfeit all their rights as civil servants. Meanwhile the Employers’ Federation had been busy and had got together sufficient scabs to overcome the total paralysis of the city’s life that had been achieved during the first days. On Monday at noon, welcomed by cheers from the disgruntled professional c asses, the trams started once more to run over the rusting rails.
The strike was now in reality defeated. On Wednesday, February 5th, the shopmen at Ipswich decided to return to work while the Strike Committee told the country unionists to go back and earn money for the support of the strikers. But it was not until the 16th that the Strike Committee ventured to make overtures for a conference with the employers. In the Strike Bulletin they then announced that they were actuated by the following considerations:
“(1) The vital principle around which the whole battle has been waged, viz., the recognition of the union, has been practically secured.
“(2) A proper respect for the Arbitration Court.
“(3) An earnest desire to see business operating once more in all directions.”
These “reasons” were so palpably false that it is not surprising that the Employers’ Federation recognised in the Committee’s overtures a confession of defeat, and flatly refused to meet the men. After that nothing could stem the rout. On the 18th the Typographical Society and the hotel and café employees returned to work in a body, and on March 4th even the miners voted to abandon the struggle. Next day the strike was formally declared “ off.” The nett result of the General Strike, therefore, was the crippling of unionism in Brisbane, and the defeat of Labour at the next elections. The tramway unionists were indeed awarded absolute preference, and the right to wear the union badge by justice Higgins, but by that time Badger had eliminated all unionists from his system, and the union had died in Brisbane.
Historically it is more significant that the A.L.F. was discredited by this disaster, and the unions so weakened that they could no longer afford to pay the Federation dues. This indirectly gave a filip to the negotiations between the A.W.U. and the A.W.A. These negotiations had already resulted in the adoption of a resolution at the instance of Bowman for a plebiscite of the A.W.U. on the question of “enlarging our field of operations by embracing all kinds of organisations.” The mover cited to the 1912 Convention the success of the Railway Workers and General Labourers’ Union in N.S.W. and Victoria and the United Labourers’ Union in South Australia. Another delegate complained that at present he had to join as many as four unions in earning his living through the “off” season. Lambert, too, wanted the whole of the bush workers in one solid organisation. Blakeley and others, however, desired to restrict the amalgamation to primary producers and exclude bodies like the A.W.A. and the UX.U., which included navvies and such classes of labour.
The A.W.U. consulted eminent counsel, and were advised that the amalgamation was now quite possible without endangering their legal status before the Arbitration Court, thanks to an amendment of the Act passed by the Fisher Government. Accordingly a conference of unions was summoned to meet in the Trades Hall, Sydney, on July 6th, 1912. The bodies represented were the A.W.U., A.W.A., Rural Workers’ Union, Carriers, and Rabbiters. The last three were struggling organisations, and the vested interests of their officials did not amount to much. On the other hand, the A.W.A. chiefs, Theodore and McCormack, were already provided with safe seats in the Legislature, and were devoting themselves to the pursuit of political rather than industrial ambitions. Thus the most formidable obstacle to any amalgamation, the vested interests of paid officials, did not stand in the way of this particular plan. But it soon became evident that the A.W.U. delegates were terrified lest they should endanger the position of that union under the Commonwealth Arbitration Act and imperil the pastoral award. They were indeed satisfied that they could safely include other pastoral and rural workers, but boggled at miners and navvies. But Theodore was determined that the A.W.A. must be taken in as a whole. He denied that the latter would want to go for an award covering all its sections. “The miners in Queensland,” he went on, “have no desire to go to the Court for an award. They are entering into this amalgamation to assist in closer unity, and more to make for industrial solidarity than for any particular gain through legislation.” The A.W.U. delegates continued to harp on the arbitration question. “Unless,” said Barnes, “there was something to safeguard the interests of those working under an award, it would be unwise for the A.W.U. in any way to jeopardise what they had won from the Court.” Grayndler pointed out that outside Queensland the miners and meat workers had already separate organisations, and a departure from the principle of only bringing in allied callings might lead to complications. A conflict with the southern unions might lead to the cancellation of their award. At last McCormack declared:
“While arbitrations might be good, it was not entirely great, and that position should be considered. He would not decry wages boards or arbitration, but the Arbitration Act had not done such a vast amount of good that they should block the organisation of certain workers because. on account of technicalities, these workers could not come within the limits of the Act. With the exception of the sugar workers, he did not know any section of the A.W.A. that contemplated an appeal to the Court. They must consider the general labourer, or some other body would. If the three sections were not included, the A.W.A. would have to drop out.”
“Lundie, too, argued that while the miners might not be immediately allied with the A.W.U., they were all fellow wage- slaves, and there was a community of interest right away. Many shearers work at mining during the off season. He had no false ideas about the Court, and if the workers could get what they wanted without its aid, good luck to them.”
“Grayndler admitted that all workers had identity of interests, but feared that the time had not yet come for the beautiful scheme of the I.W.W. First group workers in allied industries into amalgamations; if allied industries were departed from, it was open for registered organisations to object.”
A further difficulty was in respect of organisation. All were agreed that a uniform ticket, giving admission to all industries at one price, would be an irresistible attraction and a real boon. But as to details there were wide divergencies. President Spence wanted as little alteration as possible. Theodore, on the other hand, was convinced that an alteration of the A.W.U. methods was essential. “Finance was the vital matter. The A.W.U. branches had control of finances and only paid a capitation fee to head office. The A.W.A. branches merely retained a small amount and paid the bulk into the Executive.” He and McCormack had worked out a hierarchical scheme of General Conference, General Executive, State Boards of Management, District Branch Committees and Industrial Branch Committees. Conference would consist of the General Secretary and President, both paid and elected by plebiscite of the whole membership, one delegate appointed by each State Board of Management and delegates elected by each District on a basis of one to every 2,500 members. The Central Executive would consist of the paid officers and the representatives of the State Boards of Management. The latter would be composed of a Chairman, appointed by Conference, the State Secretary, elected by plebiscite, and the Branch Secretaries, who would in turn be elected by plebiscite within the branch. The novelty lies in the industrial branch which would have jurisdiction over all members of the union employed in a particular trade or industry. Such branches would not be local, but were to work in harmony with the district branches. Financially 20 per cent. of the revenue from the sale of tickets was to be retained by the sub-branch in any centre. The balance to be handed over to the branch. Of this sum a district would retain 5 per cent., an industrial branch 25 per cent. The surplus would go to the State Board which must hand over quarterly to the General Executive 5 per cent. of the gross revenue from the sale of tickets within that State.
The whole scheme, as worked out by Theodore and illustrated by circular diagrams, clearly betrayed I.W.W. influence. Still it was a hybrid between the established system of geographical divisions and the industrial departments of the I.W.W. Its details came in for much criticism, but in principle the A.W.A. won all along the line. Conference eventually disbanded without settling anything, but after agreeing to take a plebiscite of the members of the unions concerned on the general question of amalgamating on the basis of a uniform ticket.
The Conference reassembled on January 6th, 1913. The ballot had resulted as follows:
The new Conference was enlarged and included the following bodies:
|Union.||No. of Delegates||Members|
|Fell, Wool and Basil||1||1,800|
In his opening address President Spence traced the history of the A.W.U., and explained how the recent amendment of the Federal Arbitration Act enabled them to expand their organisation. How far they could go he did not yet know, but he wanted to interfere as little as possible with the working machinery of the A.W.U.
Theodore complained that the President believed in the maximum of local autonomy. His experience in the A.W.A. led him to believe that the more power in the hands of the central body the greater the general success. He then referred again to finance and went on. The A.W.A. had organised the employees of the Chillagoe Railway, but it would have been absurd to give such a group full autonomy. The A.W.A. had organised many callings – e.g., the shop assistants and carters – who were organised separately in other States. The advantage they were able to offer was the backing of a solid union operating on the spot, though in other industries. This had given the unionists confidence and power in enforcing their demands. He agreed to autonomy for a body like the A.M.I.E.U., but not for all organisations. On that basis the cooks and the shed hands in the A.W.U might want autonomy as separate bodies.
The carriers, however, demanded autonomy, pointing out that they were not always purely wage-earners as in many cases they provided their own plant. So, too, the timber workers’ delegates stressed the difference in circumstances between the several States. Lundie, on the other hand, objected that the industrial spirit of the age was in favour of the broader expression of unionism, the rank and file were in favour of it, but there were officials who kept them back. That was the case in South Australia. Still McCormack probably came closer to the mark when he said that “the great appealing force” would be the “uniform ticket.”
The details were left to a sub-committee, and their report was a clear win for the A.W.A. The latter was allowed in practically intact, and merely augmented by the pastoral workers of Queensland. The three A.W.U branches previously working in that State were fused into one, sub-divided into five districts as in the old A.W.A. Unlike other branches of the A.W.U, it was to have a complete set of officers of its own and a separate branch executive, while instead of the annual general meeting of the branch, provision was made for a delegate meeting in Queensland. So the whole framework of the A.W.A. organisation was embodied in the constitution of the A.W.U as far as Queensland was concerned. In the other States the old machinery was retained.
Thus the first step was taken towards the creation of a pan-Australian amalgamation of unions. The A.W.A. had launched the A.W.U on a course of practical One Big Unionism. The President expressed the opinion that the amalgamation would lessen the risk of industrial troubles since employers would be more circumspect in dealing with a vast body of 100,000 organised workers than they would be with isolated organisations. He told the A.W.U Convention, which met immediately thereafter on the 22nd, that the importance of the step just taken could not be over-estimated, for it showed that the union had a good idea of the true position and of what would in the near future have to be faced by organised labour. “Powerful organisations must displace the craft unionism that had prevailed in the past. The huge combinations that were now arrayed against the people must be met by powerful organisations on the part of the workers. Combine must be met with combine. All talk about ‘the old good relations between employer and employee’ was bunkum. Just as there could be no harmony between good and evil, so there could be no actual harmony between people whose interests were in conflict and who were therefore utterly opposed to one another. The worker had nothing in common with Capitalism, and the fight, begun long ago, would continue until Capitalism as an institution was overthrown.” He went on to forecast the absorption of other unions in the A.W.U.
All of which looks as if even Spence had discovered the I.W.W. Theodore, too, told the winding-up conference of the A.W.A., that the new amalgamation would not be governed by the Arbitration Court.
As there was some jealousy among the officials of both unions in Queensland, Dunstan had to be brought from South Australia to take the Queensland Secretaryship.
Once launched on its career as the One Big Union, the A.W.U. forged ahead rapidly. The timid and conservative officials soon found that their forebodings about the Court were unfounded, and that their jobs were not imperilled, but their prestige and power increased. Next year the butchers made overtures. The Queensland Branch at the January meeting approved the step. Crampton urged amalgamation in a lengthy report. After dwelling on the dangers to the workers from the approach of the beef trust, he continued:
“I do not ask that you should organise to prevent the development of the combine-that is impossible. But I ask you to span the gulf that separates one industry from another and assist industrial democracy to march stride for stride with the ever-conquering and irresistible combine. My idea of organisation is that a man should unceasingly strive to break down craft barriers, embrace every opportunity to link up the forces of labour, and pay no attention to the industrial humbug who raves about a union losing ‘prestige’ through being swallowed up in a larger whole. . . . Skilled workmen should not clamour for the cream of industry and compel the unskilful to bear the burdens.”
In this spirit the branch rejected a proposed agreement with the federated engine-drivers for common action, and recommended the latter to join the A.W.U. The Federal Conference of the butchers endorsed the amalgamation plan and ordered a ballot of the members. Meanwhile a conference was held between the A.M.I.E.U. and the A.W.U. on May 15th, and drew up a draft scheme of organisation. Practically the plan outlined by Theodore in 1912 was adopted-the creation of an industrial branch. It was proposed within each local (State) branch to set up a Meat Industry Section governed by a sectional Council, and an independent Secretary. The Section would also be separately represented on the branch executive, but not on the Annual Convention. Sections were to enjoy local autonomy, subject to the supervision of the branch executives. At the Annual Conference of the meat workers (A.M.I.E.U.) in June, 1915, it was found that the voting had been as follows:
Conference decided to permit those branches which had voted in the affirmative to join the A.W.U. But at the last moment Crampton and his colleagues stopped the Queensland branch from entering the amalgamation which they had energetically advocated eighteen months before. They had discovered that the A.W.U. was merely a machine for getting officials into Parliament.
However, the timber workers, bakers, and shop-assistants in Queensland actually did link up with the A.W.U in that year. In igi5 the great union included among its aims: “To strive for One Big Union of the Australian workers.” In 1916 the Federated Mining Employees’ Union proposed to amalgamate. This union had replaced the old Amalgamated Miners’ Association in the southern and western States, except at Broken Hill-and, of course, on the coal-fields. The first agreement prepared by the officials provided for the formation of a Mining Industry Branch with the right to hold independent conferences, make its own bye-laws, and secede, after a ballot, upon three months’ notice. The A.W.U. Convention, however, refused to ratify this scheme, delegates complaining that the miners wanted to retain all their present powers in a kind of federation with the right to draw out. The A.W.U stood for amalgamation, not federation. On the other hand, the Railway Workers and General Labourers’ Association in N.S.W. was admitted with the status of an industrial branch. Even this meant a considerable modification of the existing geographical structure of the A.W.U. You now had an industrial division cutting across the established regional branches, and separately represented at Convention and on the Executive. The navvies were given just those privileges as had been enjoyed by a territorial branch, and so got rather less than the miners had demanded. But even so some delegates objected that this was federation rather than amalgamation. But they had to agree to the argument that you had to give away something in order to get the O.B.U.
Some time later the F.M.E.A. came in, not, however, as an industrial branch, but as an industrial section within the branches on the same terms as had been offered to the A.M.I.E.U. But dark rumours of corruption hang about this amalgamation. At any rate the Barrier A.M.A. refused to accompany the other metalliferous miners, but decided instead to link up with the coal-miners in the C. & S.E.F.
The year 1916 marks the culminating point of that phase of the amalgamation movement which was headed by the A.W.U The last big union to come in was the F.M.E.A. Thereafter the movement, which in 1914 had looked as if it would quickly absorb the majority of the unions in the continent, was abruptly arrested. The cheek was due to the very same force which had given its initial impetus to the amalgamation-the I.W.W. The impulse to One Big Unionism in the years 1908-16 was increasingly due to the doctrines of industrial solidarity associated with the American organisation. Coming actually into Australia, that body exerted a still stronger influence, for instance, over members of the R. W. & G.L.A. in N.S.W. But after the 1916 Conference of the A.W.U the Australian organisation of the I.W.W. openly threw its whole weight against the Big Union. To understand this we must go back a few years and trace the events which dictated this hostility and which gave it such weight.