Job control for workers’ health
Introduction: NSW labourers’ unions, the Australian arbitration system, syndicalism, and the development of the labour movement in the early 20th century
On October 10-12, 2003, the anarcho-syndicalists of Jura Books, in Sydney, and the trade-union-oriented autonomist grouping, Love and Rage, sponsored and organised a successful Workers Control conference, held mainly at the Markets Campus of the University of Technology, Sydney.
One of the better papers at the conference was Peter Sheldon’s about the Sydney rockchoppers’ strike in 1908, which won the six-hour day, an unprecedented industrial achievement anywhere in the world at that time.
Peter Sheldon is an academic of broadly anarcho-syndicalist sympathies who now teaches industrial relations at the University of NSW. He did his postgraduate thesis on the history of the NSW Water, Sewerage and Drainage Employees Union up to the late 1970s, and he is the acknowledged specialist on the history of labourer’s unions in NSW.
In the late 1980s he published two very important articles in the Australian journal Labor History, one on the 1908 rockchoppers’ strike and the other on the complex history of the labourers unions, often led by Chicago or Detroit socialists and industrial union syndicalists, which battled to establish a certain amount of job control in the working lives of their members, and to establish their unions as powerful entities in the developing industrial situation in Australia, which rapidly came to involve state-sponsored and organised arbitration structures, the Commonwealth and state industrial commissions.
The successful rockshoppers’ strike, which achieved the extraordinary victory on working hours (which was maintained for the next 15 years or so) is an exciting and interesting story in itself. All forms of sewer and waterworks construction in the Sydney basin were, in the early 20th century, extremely hazardous and life-threatening for the workers involved, because the Sydney basin includes big areas of sandstone, which produces a fine dust when cut. The industry required robust youngish workers, in the Sydney instance many of them hard-drinking Irishmen, but the job rapidly caused lung diseases, and the workers tended to die young. This situation produced an early proletarian resistance to the hazards of the job, and constant informal pressure for shorter spells in the excavation trenches, even before the development of trade unionism on a major scale.
After 1901, when unions got going, and rapidly became influenced by syndicalist ideology emanating from the United States, there developed a potent brew of syndicalist labourers’ unionism, driven by the terrible hazards of the job. This unionism threw up capable leaders out of the workforce, broadly influenced by syndicalism.
A political circumstance that helped the unions in getting organised at this time was the fact that a capable politician who had origins in the labour movement and had been president of the NSW Labour Council, the Irish Catholic printer, E.W. O’Sullivan, was the minister for works in the Protectionist NSW government of George Reid from 1899-1904.
At this moment a kind of Australian nationalism and vaguely statist ideology, of which O’Sullivan was the best representative, favoured the extensive expansion of public works and infrastructure, and the energetic O’Sullivan was a political vehicle for this expansion.
At the same time, the emerging Labor Party had the balance of power in the NSW parliament between Reid’s Protectionists and the Free Traders, and Labor used the balance of power to squeeze many improvements out of Reid’s government.
As public works minister and a serious trade unionist, O’Sullivan strongly enforced preference for unionists in the public works department and strongly encouraged the expansion of trade unionism in this previously relatively unorganised sector.
His proactive attitude to unionism irritated the Sydney bourgeoisie, but this did not faze O’Sullivan. His co-operative and even initiating attitude to trade union development in the areas covered by his public works department was important in helping the unions get organised. After he was thrown out of office in 1904 union organising got a lot harder.
In the last two years of his life, from 1908-10, O’Sullivan crossed over from the declining Protectionist party to the Labor Party. His interesting life is well-covered in a biography, Australian Democrat, by Bruce Mansfield, Sydney University Press, 1965.
Coincident with this, the new institution of arbitration was finding its feet in Australian conditions, in particular, the NSW Industrial Commission, the institutional form of the new arbitration structure, was just getting organised. Several leftist academics are in the process of completing the 100-year history of the NSW industrial commission, and it will be an extremely interesting book. It is due for release soon.
The first boss of the commission, and the man who did most to mould its subsequent development, was Justice Heydon. He belonged to a large and diverse Catholic family, a number of whom became prominent in the law. Very briefly, right at the start of his role in the commission, he had some slightly radical Rerum Novarum type notions, but he rapidly shed them, and became a brutally class-conscious instrument of the bourgeoisie in trying to mould the new system.
In particular, Heydon rapidly became expert in moulding and expanding the legal notion of union coverage, and manipulating it in the interests of more conservative trade unions.
Heydon had a moment of reactionary notoriety in another context. In 1916 and 1917, when the very leftist Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne, the Tipperary Irishman, Daniel Mannix, led the successful battle to defeat conscription during the First World War, Heydon organised a lobby of “loyalist” Catholic laymen professionals in Sydney to denounce Mannix and support the jingo government of Billy Hughes. This group included a member of another influential reactionary Catholic family in Australia, the Hughes family (no relation to Billy). The clash between Mannix and the Catholic reactionaries in Sydney was notable for Mannix’s beautifully dismissive remark about Heydon being an undistinguished judge in some court or other. (For more on this episode see Race, nationality and religion in Australia. The Irish Catholics, the labour movement and the working class in the 19th and 20th centuries.) By a further curious twist of history, the latest reactionary appointment by Tory prime minister Howard to the Australian High Court, Dyson Heydon, also belongs to this conservative Catholic professional tribe.
When you know the social and cultural and religious context, the sharp interplay in the Industrial Commission between Heydon, the reactionary Catholic stooge of the ruling class, and Hogan, the tough and courageous Irish Catholic syndicalist union leader of a brutally oppressed section of the working class, has dramatic overtones.
Peter Sheldon describes the complex manoeuvres, mainly in the Industrial Commission of NSW but driven by movements of the rank and file, which influenced union development and coverage. What is striking about this, from the socialist point of view, is the speed with which the more leftist syndicalist and militant trade union currents developed a kind of dual approach, encouraging job control and militant industrial action, but also inevitably, exploiting whatever legal opportunities were opened up by structural elements such as union coverage, while at the same time trying to evade reactionary restraints imposed by the new system. Those problems have been dominant issues, from a leftist point of view, in the class struggle in Australia ever since. Sheldon’s work gives a unique insight into these problems and developments at their birth.
Job control for workers’ health: the 1908 Sydney rockchoppers’ strike
“Of course, rebellion is a crime, and a very serious one, but it seems to me … looking at the deliberate, and ostentatious, and defiant character of it, to be more like an act of rebellion, a resolution on the part of the body that they will defy and set at naught the law. The union was put above the State … I will not say criminal, because it is a nasty word, but is not that the attitude of rebels?”
“The Rockchoppers have resolved! … Let the other Unions march their battalions right up to the firing line where the legal smoke gathers and the cannon of the law roars against the Rockchoppers.”
In such terms did two opposed protagonists view the strike of Sydney rockchoppers during October-November 1908. This was not only one of the most eventful strikes during that year of rising industrial conflict, but also one of the most significant in the first decade of the 20th century. Remarkably, labour historians have ignored it. There was a major tramway strike in the middle of the year and, from October and extending into 1909, metal miners were engaged in a bitterly fought struggle at Broken Hill. From 1909, Newcastle coal miners also entered into prolonged and open conflict with the mineowners. All these other disputes have received varying degrees of attention from historians of the broader sweep of labour history in Australia.3 The rockchoppers’ strike has received virtually none. Yet, in 1914, the New South Wales Industrial Gazette included it as one of the “Principal Dislocations” in the period since 1907, devoting to it a similar amount of space as it did to the tramway strike.4 Nor does it figure in studies which more closely examine the other major strikes.5 This is even more surprising as it was concurrent with the first, intense stages of the Broken Hill strike and the Barrier unions sent very public expressions of support.6 In fact, the contemporary press, whether capitalist or socialist, prominently featured the two struggles together as touchstones of the mood of industrial politics of the time.7 The strike caused a great deal of excitement among Labour Council delegates and in the daily press, and much hot air in the NSW Parliament. Finally, biographies of two contemporary labour movement protagonists mention the strike, at least in passing.8
Why then has these been such a consistent neglect of the strike? Certainly, not for any lack of success on the part of the rockchoppers. Among those strikes mentioned above, theirs was the only union to have won, and they won well. The others all went down in glorious or ignominious, but always bitter, defeat. There was still more to the rockchoppers’ victory. They not only defeated the concerted action of hostile employers, they also won against the strongly anti-union government of G.C. Wade and his repressive 1908 Industrial Disputes Act. For these reasons alone, the strike deserves attention. The strike grew out of the work experiences and industrial traditions of these workers over the previous two decades. Therefore, the first section of this article deals with the strike in that context. Central to the strike and the traditions which fed it was the notion of workers’ self-activity and its connection to the question of workers’ health. This provides the starting point for subsequent suggestions as to why historians have neglected the rockchoppers.
Rockchoppers and the kindred rock miners were important sections of the large labouring workforce which played such a prominent role in the economic development of New South Wales.9 Rockchoppers (or rockgutterers), as the name implies, chopped trenches through rock. Rock miners cut the tunnels. Both used a rock pick as well as a “gad”, a handheld metal spike which they hit with a hammer to break up the rock. After 1880, rock miners gradually gave up “guttering and gadding” for the use of explosives, which they strategically placed in holes drilled with a ratchet. Both the old and the new tunnelling technologies left a jagged finish. Miners then “scabbled” back the walls and ceiling of the tunnel to the required dimensions with a pick. With the need to understand explosives, many rock miners came from the ranks of coal or metal miners. While there was a certain overlap between the two groups, rockchoppers were more usually labourers. Not all construction labourers could become rockchoppers and it always took some time to learn. Theirs was hard, heavy work, which nevertheless had a vital element of skill.
Rockchoppers and rock miners worked on railway buildings, on water supply works, in quarries, in the construction of telephone tunnels and on large city building sites, but the roots of their distinct unionism, and of the 1908 strike, lay in the construction of Sydney’s sewerage system after 1880. Until then, a rapidly growing metropolis had brought forth only official neglect of the need for an adequate supply of water and system of sanitation. The results, especially from the mid-seventies, were terrible rates of sickness and infant mortality from infectious diseases among the growing and more densely settled working class population. In the end, it was only the real threat of a major catastrophe from epidemic which prompted the NSW Government to provide the finance and institutional framework necessary to alleviate the situation.10
The chosen systems for sewerage relied largely on gravitating effluent through tunnels to outfalls emptying into the Pacific Ocean or connected waterways in and around the city. From 1880, major construction became the responsibility of the Public Works Department (PWD). Nine years later, construction of the smaller reticulation works and maintenance and administration of completed sections of the system came under the authority of the newly established Metropolitan Board of Water Supply and Sewerage, a mixed state government municipal statutory authority. Both bodies largely used contract labour for construction work during the final years of the century, although there were occasions when they opted for direct hiring (day labour).11
The rock miners and rockchoppers on water and sewerage works were the victims of a savage irony. Their work was essential for providing the city’s sorely needed water supply and sewerage systems but their reward was an excruciating and early death. The overwhelming danger was the fine dust they raised cutting through the sandstone rock lying under most of Sydney. When inhaled, this dust lodged in their lungs, causing silicosis, then popularly known as “sewer miners’ disease”. The effects of certain explosives, damp and poor ventilation compounded the risk. Understandably, industrial safety became the workers’ central concern. Around it they developed their other industrial demands and their approach to unionism. It is therefore useful to look further at the industrial hazards they faced before looking at their responses.
In late 1901, a contractor, S. Butcher, reckoned that three out of four sewer miners died from tunnel work, Between 60 per cent and 70 per cent of his best hands had died this way: “Real good men. Mostly young men between 30 and 40; some between 40 and 50.12 Another contractor, G. Maddison, spoke of men who continued to work as they “pine away to almost nothing”, until they could not work anymore.13 Physique was not a factor, as the work demanded and got the strongest and hardiest of labourers. Yet two years would finish the strongest of them.14 It was the job and its location. After nearly 15 years of unsuccessfully trying to treat this epidemic, three eminent doctors corroborated these accounts. Hospitals usually misstated the cause of death as tuberculosis, a relatively common disease at the time. This allowed the real nature of the problem to escape proper public attention and also the awareness of the miners themselves.15
The effects of blasting, although less devastating to the miners’ health than dust, were nonetheless more immediate, Contractors and state employers had miners use explosives, such as dynamite and rack-a-rock, which should never have been used in the cramped sewer drives. The fumes caused the miners violent headaches, nausea and fainting upon re-entering the drives.16 Various forms of ventilation were supposed to remove the fumes and heat following the explosions. With contractors refusing to spend money for the safety of their employees, the reality was very different.17
In the early years, the rockminers responded to these horrific conditions through individual resistance and spontaneous combinations. There is evidence that the introduction of explosives after the l880s was partly due to their refusal to do pick work, other than scabbling. because of awareness of the dangers of dust.18 In the same way, during the early years of blasting, some miners rebelled against using rack-a-rock; others left their jobs rather than work with it.19 Problems with ventilation caused miners and contractors to clash over the length of time between blasting and re-entry. With piecework the norm for much of this period, the miners exerted a strong measure of control over these decisions. The time was in some sense theirs. When time payment was the rule, re-entry time depended, to some extent, on the ruthlessness of the contractor and some miners lost their jobs rather than compromise. To control the length and pace of the job, under time payment the miners also tended to limit output, similar to the “darg” in coal mining. Butcher admitted that, against his wishes, miners working for him limited the length of tunnel they cut to about six and a half feet per week: “We found that … the men drove the usual thing and no more … they would do that in the early part of the day, and take it easy later on.20 This was not collective bargaining. Nor was it even the traditional unilateral regulation, which forced employers to endorse workers’ chosen way of working. Rather, it was a measure of job control which did not refer at all to the employers’ presence.21
Combination did not always remain at an informal level. In late 1892, with the slide into depression well under way, some of the miners realised that their lot was to become still tougher. Thus, during a strike on the Darling Point sewer works they agreed that: “the union should be immediately formed so that if the men were compelled to go back under the old system they would do so as an organised body”.22 The Sewer Miners’ Union formalised their spontaneous resistance to near-starvation wages and employer arrogance. The new union, with some 60 members, immediately won a strike against attempts to cut rates for rock removed.23 While improved earnings were always a feature of their demands, they soon turned to struggling to lessen the hazards of their working lives. The principal demands became reduced hours and safer working conditions but, a year after its birth, heavy cuts to sewer construction and the interference of another union contributed to the union’s disbanding.24
A few miners got work cutting the shafts of the Balmain coal mine from 1897 and participated in the struggles of their tiny but combative Balmain Sinkers’ Union the following year.25 Nevertheless, as for other construction labourers, the rest of the nineties were brutally difficult for rockchoppers and sewer miners. There was no union to cover the few who still found employment on Sydney’s sewerage construction works and job control in these conditions was virtually impossible. However, with the upturn in construction work after 1899, their chances improved markedly. At the same time, the old and highly respected United Laborers’ Protective Society (ULPS) was opening its membership rolls to construction labourers including rockchoppers and sewer miners. Until then, it had confined itself to trades assistants on building sites.26 Prior to the depression, the ULPS had a strong tradition of job control, unilateral regulation and internal democracy.27 By 1900, this too had changed. It now increasingly relied upon a sympathetic Public Works Minister, E.W. O’Sullivan. During his period of office between 1899 and 1904, O’Sullivan greatly expanded public works spending for Sydney, extended day labour in place of contractors and applied union rates on public works.28
In 1901, O’Sullivan set up a Board of Inquiry into the dangers of rock work and had ULPS members invited to give evidence. Sewer miners and rockchoppers finally had a public platform from which to launch their complaints and collective demands. The exhaustive evidence of contractors and specialist doctors, some of which appears above, confirmed the workers’ case and sheeted home the responsibility. The contractors, for all their pious expressions of concern over the fate of the miners, made their priorities clear.
W.H. Gilliver, one of the largest, had rejected using water jets for ventilation due to the expense. His defence remains a gruesome classic of the spirit of capitalism: “A contractor does not take a job to slaughter men; but at the same time he has to make a living like other people.”29 Gilliver employed between 60 and 80 sewer miners. Trying to get their living, they were to die making Gilliver his. E.M. Gummow, another large contractor, assuaged his conscience in a similar vein: “I think that the sewer miners are greatly to be pitied in the work they have to do … If the men do not complain I shut my eyes to the facts, because, in competition you cannot afford to incur any greater expense than is necessary.”30
Yet the miners all spoke of contractors ignoring complaints, of their never making any effort to supply good air or any other improvements called for. Dust, fumes, bad air; yet while PWD engineers and inspectors had the right to enforce pure air on contract jobs, they obviously did not see it as a duty. The miners found equal fault with these officials as with the contractors when it came to acting on complaints.31 Overall, the PWD and Water Board officials who gave evidence showed an abysmal ignorance of the health risks and causes of illness of the sewer miners. Their lack of concern was also palpable.32
The consistent lack of response from contractors and government officials was one reason why, on the whole, sewer miners did not make individual complaints on a scale which reflected the dramatic urgency of their situation. It got them nowhere. Another was the fear of victimisation.33 Finally, there was a tradition of tough, stoic forbearance, a dislike of complaining or making a fuss. To what extent this expressed a sense of “manly” endurance or was rather a case of pride covering for powerlessness was not clear. A response from Cornelius (Con) Hogan, a very active unionist, suggests an alternative explanation.34 With individual responses largely unsuccessful, the dangers of their work forged a strong group identity and solidarity. Sewer miners thus developed pervasive collective norms and activity whether they were in formal unions or not. For most of the period, they used informal and ad hoc responses to grievances on particular jobs. Their control over re-entering when on piece-work, the limiting of production and the struggle against pick and gad work were examples.
The Report of the 1901-2 Board of Inquiry noted that it had arrived a little late to be of greatest benefit. There had already been a marked decrease in the prevalence of dust in sewer mining, and ventilation had improved somewhat, especially under O’Sullivan’s day labour system. Nevertheless, the Board of Inquiry advanced a number of detailed, practical proposals to quicken and strengthen the improvements already under way. Elimination of dust, particularly through mechanisation of tunnelling, was the highest priority. In the meantime, given the inherently dangerous nature of mining in sandstone, the miners should only work six hours each day without any reduction in their daily wage rate.35 At the time, many workers in Australia had still not won the eight-hour day.
These recommendations had little practical result. By mid-1909, ventilation had not improved and there was no mechanical mining.36 O’Sullivan enforced the introduction of the six-hour day on PWD day labour works but this major improvement only extended as far and as long as he held power. When he recommended that the Water Board also adopt these reforms, the Board at first stalled and then refused.37 However, the development of the industry was restructuring the type of work available and, with it, the organisation of its work hazards.
After the turn of the century, the PWD’s larger trunk mains were nearing completion. The next stage was the construction of submains and reticulation for the Water Board. As the mains terminated in shallow ground, the Board’s works involved many fewer, shallower and shorter tunnels. Instead, most of the work involved trenchcutting. Therefore, as the focus of sewerage construction moved from the PWD to the Water Board, there was a consequent shift in employment from sewer miners to rockchoppers.38 While changing technology had reduced the danger of “dusting” for miners, nothing had changed in the trenches.39 For these reasons, the 1902 Report marked a turning point in public attention from the silicosis problems of sewer miners to those of the rockchoppers.
Contractors and the PWD and Water Board still placed lines of rockchoppers in trenches as close together as possible. Some of these trenches went to depths of 20 feet yet were only two feet wide. It was impossible for the rockchoppers not to envelop themselves and their closest fellow workers in thick clouds of dust.40 Gilliver had “watched men chipping rock, and looking down the trench you could see nothing of them, only a cloud of dust that was coming from their picks”.41
Here, too, the Report looked to mechanisation to remove the dust problem but there was no mention of reduced hours for rockchoppers.42 Unlike the sewer miners whose work required increasing judgment and less concerted muscle, the rockchoppers had to toil continuously during their eight-hour working day. Nor did they have any control over their time at work. Young nippers would continually pass down new picks, sharpened on site by a topman or tool sharpener. In hard rock, a rockchopper might use five or six picks an hour.43 There was no let-up, and workers had to achieve daily quotas, for gangers prowled the works weeding out those unable to keep up. As employers made very few improvements in technology or work practices for most of the decade, working continued to kill young rockchoppers in large numbers. The NSW Labour Council and sympathetic newspapers made periodic references to an epidemic of silicosis among these workers due to the “sweating” conditions under the Water Board and its contractors.44 In 1909, the Lone Hand carried a long article significantly entitled Drains Built with Young Men’s Lives. Again, both contractors and workers agreed for rockchoppers what they had agreed for sewer miners eight years earlier. The article pointed out how, in making Sydney a safer place to live, these “young, brawny, Australian men” suffered a mortality which was “enormous and swift”.45
After years of agitation and the 1902 Report, rockchoppers and sewer miners knew much more about the dangers. When possible, many interspersed the work with less dangerous labour. Still, large numbers remained and succumbed to disease. The reason was money. In contrast to the constant broken time and itinerant work of much other labouring, rock work was more regular. It also came to pay more, as a result of the workers’ successful militancy. This in turn drew strength from a greater awareness of the difficulties and dangers of rock work and, consequently, a growing reluctance to do the job. However, the higher pay and constant employment for trench and tunnel work especially attracted married men with large dependent families. Frequently, within a short space of time, after a period of choking incapacitation, deaths left their young families destitute.46 Rockchoppers also faced problems when it came to alternative employment. Theirs was skilled labouring and, in the mastering of it, workers often contracted silicosis. This made them unfit for many other labouring jobs.
After the demise of O’Sullivan, the ULPS’s pressure group strategy came unstuck. While great numbers of rockchoppers and miners continued to die young, the union did little more than protest to a sympathetic Labour Council. The Water Board continued to refuse requests for the six-hour day and better wages. Despite a shortage of these workers throughout 1907, the union would not enforce their demands. The Board finally made concessions after the visit of a high level Labour Council delegation but then reneged on its promises.47 Time was running out for the slow, indirect methods of the ULPS.
In January 1908, just one year after Labour Council Secretary J.P Cochran (ULPS) urged Council to “fight for these men who were unable to fight for themselves”,48 these same workers acted decisively to take matters into their own hands. From within a union, the ULPS, which offered little resistance, they faced the cold-hearted intransigence and unscrupulousness of the Water Board and its contractors. As a way forward, a number of rockchoppers and miners convened a meeting in Sydney to form their own union. They enrolled 90 members and, within a very short time, the new Rockchoppers and Sewer Miners’ Union of NSW (RSMU) had organised almost all the 500 or so workers in their “calling” on Water Board sewerage jobs.49 With the return to contract labour and a decline of PWD metropolitan sewerage work after 1904, contractors avoided improvements by reducing daily rates to those of ordinary labourers.50 On the other hand, neither the Board nor its contractors had ever accepted the six-hour day or implemented the other recommendations of the 1902 Report. It was here that the struggle had to begin. Strong and cohesive, using to the full their complete coverage in a tight labour market, the rockchoppers and sewer miners moved swiftly, forcing their employers to concede step by step. The change from informal to formal organisation signalled a parallel change from a simple form of job control to unilateral regulation. Rockchoppers and sewer miners still won their demands on the job; they now extracted formal employer acknowledgement to their union.
The Board approved 10 shillings (10/-) for a six-hour day for tunnelling. While most construction labourers were getting between 7/- and 8/- for their eight hours, “first class” rockchoppers at least joined sewer miners on 10/- for a six-hour day.51 With their next push, they forced the elevation of “second class” rockchoppers to the same level. Thus within a question of months, the Board had had to comply with the union’s interpretations of classifications, wages and safe working. Picked off and beaten one by one, the contractors also had to agree to the new regime of wages, hours and safety and to the banning of rack-a-rock, outlawed under the union’s rules.52 The union then began to expand its activities to agitate for higher wages for the other labourers on sewerage construction and for the later starting time specified in its rules.
The successful militancy of the union either tended to discourage contractors from taking on Water Board work or it inflated the costs of their tenders. To get the work done, the Board reintroduced day labour on a wide scale. The union’s attentions therefore began to focus more directly on an ever less complacent although consistently arrogant Board. Chief Engineer J.M. Smail had to admit the circumstances now ran against the Board:
- As a matter of expediency the Board granted the increases in order to push on the works in the interests of public health, as this class of labour outside the union was very scarce.I regret to say that, notwithstanding the concessions granted, trouble did not cease, as further demands were made.54
The anti-union majority on the Board was outraged that the union was not content to sit back and enjoy the benefits of the Board’s “concessions”. The antipathy to claims for even modest improvements in the working lives of construction labourers could not have been clearer.55 After years of ignoring all evidence as to the plight of these workers, the Board now pompously talked of having treated the rockchoppers fairly, even “liberally”. When forced to make improvements, the Board spoke of doing so on “humanitarian grounds”.56 But the evidence showed otherwise. Although quibbling about formal recognition, within a very short period of time the Board had to accept the content of the union’s rules as to wages, hours of work and the manner of working on its jobs.57 Such unilateral regulation was, as the union later claimed, “a good example of what militant unionism can do”.58 Six years after the 1902 Board of Inquiry Report, this union, in the space of a few months, had finally forced the Water Board to concede the Report’s recommendations and more.
The introduction of more repressive industrial legislation soon complicated the union’s struggle. Wade’s 1908 Industrial Disputes Act imposed heavy penalties for strikes. Resentment towards the Act, the rising cost of living and the growing influence of direct action ideas increased industrial tensions. During 1908, there were a number of major and at times bitter strikes with others threatening to erupt in the new year. From January, groups of RSMU members were taking direct action over grievances on many single jobs.59 As a result of their successes, confidence and organisational ability were rising. This upsurge peaked when, for some three and a half weeks from late October, the whole union declared itself on a “general strike”. As a result, the RSMU became the only union to defeat decisively their employers and the new, more repressive legislation.
The strike grew out of a festering dispute within the union. Matters came to a head on 20 October as a result of the Water Board’s refusal to recognise and act on workers’ demands which sought to enforce their union’s internal disciplinary procedures. Charles Withers, a prominent but idiosyncratic member working at the Willoughby day labour sewerage works, had used rack-a-rock in violation of one of the union’s most sacrosant rules. The union then fined him and he stubbornly refused to pay. Tension grew between Withers and the other 50 rockchoppers on the job and they finally demanded that the Board transfer him to another site. When the Board refused, they walked off and then picketed. The Board publicly offered to pay his fine and privately offered him full backing.60 At a well-attended meeting the day after the strike began, RSMU members unanimously voted for a “general strike” in their industry unless the Board moved Withers. The Herald reported that “The general opinion of the meeting was that the union might as well not be in existence if it is to be flouted as alleged, by this man.”61 The job site walkout spread immediately to shut down all Water Board jobs, whether day labour or contract. Over 500 strikers went out, leaving Withers the only rockchopper to blackleg.62
It was clear that the Board had been waiting for a chance to take on this most insubordinate group of workers. It had always placed the interests of ratepayers and contractors above those of its construction workforce. The RSMU threatened the prosperity of the contractors and the ability of the Board to deliver public works without raising rates. It was already undermining the Board’s traditionally strong control over its labour force. With a more repressive government at its back, the Board now had an excellent chance to break the union for good. The new President, W. J. Millner, advised the other Board members that “matters be allowed to take their course, as … the Government is instituting proceedings to prosecute the men for an infringement of the Industrial Disputes Act”.63 It was equally clear that the contractors, grouped in the Public Works Contractors’ Association of NSW (PWCA), were eager to assist in the kill. The Association notified the Board of a complete lockout on all its members’ jobs until the Board had resolved the dispute. In recognition, they asked for compensation for the extra costs incurred and, with an eye to the future, the transfer of the Willoughby job from day labour to contract.64
Nevertheless, public and private employers did not reckon with the response of the rank and file rockchoppers, who realised they had very little to lose. One unionist even commented that a three month strike would do the rockchoppers and sewer miners’ health a lot of good by taking them away from the dust.68 It was, as the Herald at first grudgingly acknowledged, a fight over union principle and these unionists were going to defend their principles to the end.66 In their favour was a marked shortage of their specialised labour in city and country providing the chance to go off elsewhere looking for work. Five days after the strike began, the first contingent of 50 members left for the North-Western railway construction works. There was even talk that, if the strike lasted more than a week, there would be almost no-one left to risk their lives providing Sydney with its sewers.67
Through the intervention of Premier Wade, the dispute escalated into a direct confrontation with his government and his Act. The instrument of repression was to be Judge Heydon of the NSW Industrial Court.68 The level of rank and file support for the strike intensified commensurately. The government successfully prosecuted four leading members of the union for incitement to strike and Heydon jailed them for refusing to pay the resulting heavy fines. Wade then moved to charge 118 others. The rockchoppers did not flinch but filled the vacant positions, withdrew their union’s meagre funds from the bank and waited for the next round.69 The persecution of their fellow unionists raised their passions even further. Until then they had picketed enthusiastically, attended the constant union meetings in great strength and, when not so occupied, they gathered at Trades Hall to pass the time “in revelry and song”.70 Once the trials began, they massed in and around Darlinghurst Court. Harry Holland commented: “it is safe to say that Judge Heydon has never previously shown to a fuller house”.71 From descriptions of their “participation” it is also obvious that Heydon had never faced such a spirited and determined public. When Heydon admonished them for being rebels, they shouted, “We won’t pay a shilling!” and “You’ll have to jail the lot of us!”72 Clearly they agreed with Heydon that they were putting their union rules above the laws of the state. The large crowd then marched to the prison, where they again demonstrated loudly. The RSMU took up the challenge by making the freeing of all jailed members a precondition for any negotiations, “no matter what concessions were offered by the Water and Sewerage Board”.73 It was a case of solidarity and of insisting on the enforcement of union principles. On the other hand, while Wade’s intervention caused an essentially narrow industrial dispute to outgrow its original context, many rockchoppers wanted their strike to have a larger and more powerful meaning. At public meetings, some of their militants made this broader challenge clear. One declared that the union was going to “bust up” Wade’s Government which was “more than the electors could do”.74 Another saw the flouting of the hated legislation in the pursuit of union principle as a signal the other unionists in NSW were waiting for. In this, they had the full support of the International Socialists and in particular of that group’s journalist-orators, Harry Holland and Harry Scott Bennett.75 Overall, the rockchoppers clearly saw the importance of their struggle for the broader union movement. Because of this, the union was hoping for solidarity but, in support of its principles, was ready to go it alone.76
The attitude of the parliamentary Labor Party was at best ambivalent. The Herald, which was ceaselessly trying to foster both a split within the party and the political isolation of the rockchoppers, accurately remarked: “It is beyond question that no happening — not even the notorious tramway strike — has ever caused such perturbation in the ranks of labour as the present situation”.77 A pathetic Labor Party Leader, J.S. McGowen, tried to juggle union support and his eagerness for bourgeois respectability.78 As in the tramway strike, the behaviour of Deputy Leader, W.A. Holman, was openly treacherous. He was bitterly hostile to the strike, which he blamed on a few Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) activists leading stupid and duped unionists. According to Holman, the IWW were hoping to lose the strike to increase frustration and rebelliousness among the workers. He fed a hostile capitalist press with false information as to his reception at an angry RSMU meeting and broke his subsequent promise to make a public retraction.79 The Herald seized on his paranoid accusations of IWW incitement to call on the state to meet the challenge with force; the strikers had to realise that they were “face to face with the state”.80
The RSMU had wished to avoid any Labor Party involvement but it appealed for support from the Labour Council. Within the union movement, the imprisonment of the four caused an immediate sentiment of outrage. The Sydney Coal Lumpers’ Union, in particular, displayed great solidarity.81 After much debate, Council decided to involve itself but little financial assistance for the unaffiliated union followed. Following an agreement between the RSMU and Council, from 6 November, more than halfway into the strike, the executives of the two bodies nominally shared control of the strike. However, much to the irritation of some union officers on Council, it was clear that the rank and file of the RSMU made all the important decisions. Thus, for example, the jointly agreed ban on the involvement of Labor Party politicians stuck.82 Given the enthusiastic support of the rockchoppers by the International Socialists, a similar ban on them did not. Against intense pressure, the resoluteness of this rank and file in control of their strike won the day. Employers could find no strikebreakers, as members preferred to go labouring on country jobs rather than weaken the strike. This further tightened the union’s control over a very specialised labour market. It was the contractors who were the first to buckle. They had to continue paying for pumping water out of the wet ground, for lighting and watchmen. With the Board showing no signs of compensating them for the effects of the strike, they were finding the dispute an increasing financial strain with no end in sight. By 5 November, a conservative MLA, speaking on behalf of the PWCA, requested Wade to stay further prosecutions if the contractors paid the fines for the imprisoned unionists. Wade, still intent on the fight, refused.83 Gulliver, as President of the PWCA, then sued for peace and persuaded the government to wait. After some haggling, the contractors’ association paid the fines of the imprisoned unionists and the four left prison. The PWCA expected the union to agree to a proposed two-year no-strike agreement and a disputes settling body. To Gilliver’s consternation, the strike continued and the union refused to sign the agreement so as to be free to fight Wade’s Act alongside other unions.84 By 10 November, the strikers’ victory was complete as the contractors and then the Board backed down on every point.85 In a final attempt to create a disorderly rush back to work and to ban the union from their jobs, contractors used grotesque disinformation as to the arrival of blackleg labour from interstate. The ruse failed miserably. The rockchoppers returned to work on the day they had chosen (16 November), financially troubled but spirited and compact.86 When those working at Willoughby found Charles Withers still on the job, they immediately walked off. As the dispute threatened to flare up again, Withers immediately resigned. The strike was over and The Truth’s “Redoubtable Rockchoppers” were back at work the following day.87
What can we make of this strike and the struggles of rockchoppers and sewer miners which preceded it? At the level of narrow unionism, these workers made major gains in wages and even began to determine the categories of their employment. The winning and extension of the six hour day was even more remarkable. So was the enforcement of the workers’ own safety codes. This was not mere corporatism, the seeking for a select few of achievable gains within capitalism. With each victory, the initial, better placed core group broadened its struggle to adjacent groupings. As they looked outwards, so at each turn they sought to equalise upwards. As part of the wider political arena, they sought to destroy Wade and his Act, were extremely distrustful of Labor politicians and would not relinquish control of their struggle to the officials of other unions sitting on Labour Council. It was a militant rank-and-file controlled strike which built upon the experience of hard job control over a number of years. There is no evidence of their having publicly enunciated a program which took their industrial struggles into the higher plane of conscious revolutionary politics. This, of course, does not mean that some, at least did not, but rank and file unionists leave few records. There is certainly evidence of a growing sympathy among some members for the International Socialists.88 What stands out was a determination to enforce a political perspective which placed their most immediate interests as workers first. The intense self-activity of rockchoppers and sewer miners arose every few years, notwithstanding the constant loss of militants through disease and death. Its aims and organisation pose a number of interesting questions. Did it represent merely an extension of Stuart McIntyre’s formulation of “laborism”, that most typical ideology and practice of Australian trade unions?89 Certainly, the rockchoppers’ lack of enthusiasm for the Labor Party set it apart. Of more central importance, did the “Withers strike”, preceding conflicts and their general class consciousness come with a world view which accepted “the economic relations of the capitalist mode of production, and the legitimacy of the capitalist state”?90
Without being able to fully answer these questions, I would argue that the story of the rockchoppers tells us something more about the currents of working class consciousness in the early years of the century. Their solidarity with nearby groups and with other unions in struggle are evidence of a non-corporatist militancy and something more than militant unionism. Their aims and methods and the form and content of their struggles suggest a conscious and consistent placing of their industrial interests before those of capital and the state. Their demands had that element of universalism which is at the core of revolutionary socialism. Faced with the most horrific health risks, they did not price their health in terms of capitalist cost accounting, at so many pence per level of danger-hour. Nor was it a question of demanding tighter government regulation of working conditions, that other traditional laborist approach to health hazards at work. Human life was too important to leave to the proven and callous disregard of capitalists and state officials. Instead, capitalist production had to adjust to workers’ demands. If it could not accommodate them, they were not going to cut any more sewerage works for Sydney.
If they were not entirely won over to one of the existing varieties of socialism, there were a number of good reasons. The more important socialist groups targeted certain unions or districts as most amenable to their propaganda and tended to leave the smaller sectional unions alone. The International Socialists, among others, concentrated on Broken Hill and the miners around Newcastle. In fact, because of their intense interest in Broken Hill, the International Socialists arrived late during the rockchoppers’ strike.91 Beyond an analysis which explained some of the ills of capitalism, these groups had very little to offer in the way of practical ideas for militant unionists in struggle. Holland accepted the possibility of revolutionary violence and the need for one big union as part of the industrial struggle for socialism. However, his passion for continuing the strike after the rockchoppers had won their demands and when it was obvious that other unions were not going to join was misplaced.92 His was an apocalyptic vision in which each small, if intense, dispute could be the spark of a general strike for the overthrow of capitalism. The Sydney IWW Club offered even less. Dedicated to propaganda work for the restructuring of the union movement, it was desperately keen to avoid any connection with industrial direct action.93
The media immediately enmeshed the strike with the much more “politicised” events at Broken Hill. Holman, Holland and others linked the strike to the major struggles for control within the labour movement. Yet the decision to strike and its conduct remained in the hands of rank and file rockchoppers who managed to maintain their struggle outside the constant attempts to dominate or challenge the Labor Party through the unions. Historians’ neglect of this strike is related to the absence of this party political context but is also symbolic in other ways. First, there is the question of focus. In developing a tragic-heroic theme for their historic vision of Australian unionism, Brian Fitzpatrick. Robin Gollan and Ian Turner concentrated on certain groupings of the unionised working class.94 The story of the mass or industrial unions of miners. shearers and transport workers not only fitted this rather romanticised pattern, but also followed Fitzpatrick’s interpretation of the economic history of Australia. Fitzpatrick stressed primary and particularly export industries to illustrate Australia’s position within the British Empire’s division of labour. As Noel Butlin later pointed out, this ignored the crucial role of city building and public works construction.95 The labour historians who have followed in Fitzpatrick’s footsteps have similarly ignored the workers, largely labourers, in these labour-intensive industries.
So there is yet “another labour history” in this case, one which includes, for example, the history of railway navvies, of builders’ labourers and the other groups which made up the enormous building-construction workforce. Union membership figures make the extent of this omission very obvious. None of these authors mentions the United Laborers’ Protective Society in any detail, if at all. Yet this union was one of the largest, most active and prominent affiliates of the NSW Trades and Labour Council prior to 1890 and again during the early years of the new century. In 1912, with 5655 members, it was one of the largest of the Sydney unions roughly equivalent in size to that of wharf labourers. At the end of 1916, its 8002 members made it the third largest union in NSW. The Railway Workers and General Labourers’ Association, another union of construction labourers, had an active and informed rank and file. It has received similarly scant attention although, prior to its entry into the Australian Workers’ Union in 1916, its nearly 19,000 members made it the largest union in NSW.96
Thus it is perhaps not surprising that a strike of some 500 Sydney rockchoppers has escaped the attention of these historians. It occurred in the wrong sector of the economy and did not concern a mass union with a major involvement in the Labor Party. Rather, it was the outcome of the actions of a tightly knit rank and file in their sectional labourers’ union behaving like militant craft unionists. Further, the outcome of the strike, complete victory, stands in stark contrast to the traditional interpretation of the period, that of employers and the state combining to decisively crush an upsurge of militant unionism.
By emphasising the interrelationship between unions and political parties, these historians have concentrated on conflicting tendencies towards unity as a basis for the larger clashes with capital or for parliamentary involvement. Those urban workers who figure in these histories are largely building workers using unilateral regulation in tight labour markets to win the eight-hour day.97 By 1890, they have disappeared as the “armies of the unskilled”, gathered in their “new unions”, go down fighting before capital and state. Chastened, they then “turn to politics” and the dynamic becomes one of containment or rebellion of the organised working class within the embrace of the Labor Party. Other parties move across the stage to compete for leadership positions within unions. Or they challenge the Labor Party’s ideological stranglehold in attempting to gain the allegiance of the working class. Verity Burgmann has added another level of analysis by concentrating on the important role of working class intellectuals and socialist agitators in the process of class mobilisation.98
These analyses tend to ignore industrial organisation in its own terms. This is particularly true for those workers and their economic organisations which remained on the margins of struggles for the “political” soul of the working class. Further, the concept of workers’ organisation outside unions does not arise at all except as pre-history. Rank and file militancy within formal unions only emerges when trade union bureaucracies, the Labor Party and arbitration fail to satisfy growing demands arising out of changing economic conditions. There is no concept of continuous low level struggle, of traditions of working class self-activity. Rather, militant workers appear at crucial moments as ahistorical objects of economic forces over which they have no control. Jeremy Brecher has made a parallel criticism of mainstream labour history in the United States. There, historians also ignored workers’ self-activity outside formal unions, as well as crucial struggles which had no immediate bearing on the prevailing obsession with the development of collective bargaining.99
Ian Turner’s complete omission of the rockchoppers’ strike is the most serious, as the strike occurred almost midway through the period he examined in Industrial Labour and Politics.100 In responding to critical reviews of the original edition, Turner admitted his overemphasis on mass unions to the detriment of urban craft unions and on labour leaders to the detriment of the rank and file. This came within a general renunciation of his previous Leninist theorising as to the crucial role of left-wing “political” minorities as catalysts for profound change in the labour movement.101 In this schema, unions existed mainly as strategic vantage points to be captured for the important battle elsewhere. So keen was Turner to unravel the threads of a revolutionary “political” culture, that he ignored a pervasive and mounting workplace culture of self-activity towards job control. His revised views, while pointing to a greater interest in the rank and file, do not appear to have accepted workers’ industrial experience and struggles as important in themselves.
Turner therefore had no historical way of understanding the growing direct action wing of the IWW during World War One and its influence in a number of key disputes. This is particularly the case for those militant rank and files who seized control of their struggles from the most left-wing union leaderships in Australia at the time.102 It is true that the Wobblies recruited in reaction to unemployment, declining real wages and Labor Party sell-outs. They provided a tellingly attractive and revolutionary analysis and practice opposed to capitalism, the state and reformism. At its core was a strong belief in the primacy of human beings over material objects, one aspect of which was the need to put workers’ health ahead of the dictates of capitalist production. But there were other concepts, less obviously “political”, which found ready acceptance among workers who had first hand experience of their worth. These related to the methods of social change: the necessity of worker self-activity and, in particular, job control in opposition to the rule of the labour “fakirs”; the belief that the working class could impose solutions for all the important problems at the point of production. These elements were already present within certain sections of the working class, particularly among miners, shearers and construction workers. It is in this light that the rockchoppers’ strike of 1908 takes on added meaning. It was an important example of that current of working class consciousness and self activity which was to be the basis of the IWW’s bold but abortive attempt to turn the working class in Australia towards revolutionary syndicalism from below.
Department of history,
University of Wollongong
3. B, Fitzpatrick, A Short History of the Australian Labor Movement, Melbourne. 1968; R. Gollan, Radical and Working Class Politics. A Study of Eastern Australia, 1850-1910. Melbourne, 1967; I. Turner, Industrial Labour and Politics. The Dynamics of the Labour Movement in Eastern Australia 1900-1921. Sydney, 1979, do not mention the strike. V.G. Childe, How Labour Governs, Melbourne, 1964, 93, does, but only briefly.
5. Eg R. Gollan, The Coalminers of NSW A History of the Union, 1860-1960, Melbourne, 1963; G. Osborne, Town and Company, in J. Iremonger, J. Merritt and G. Osborne (eds), Strikes: Studies in Twentieth Century Australian History, Sydney, 1973.
10. D. Clarke, Worse than Physic: Sydney’s Water Supply 1788-1888, in M. Kelly (ed), Nineteenth Century Sydney, Sydney, 1979; A.J C. Mayne, Fever, Squalor and Vice: Sanitation and Social Policy in Victorian Sydney, St Lucia, 1982.
21. During the October-November 1908 strike, rockchoppers union delegates described how “the custom for many years past had been to cease work without notice”. Labour Council Executive Committee (TLC Exec.) Minutes, 27 November 1908.
26. ULPS Minutes. 9 July 1900, 15 April 1901; ULPS Rules Committee Minutes, 20 September 1900. (George Waite Papers, ML. Mss. 262 Boxes 4-4A, 5); ULPS, Amended Rules and Regulations. 1902. (ML 331.88 U).
28. For O’Sullivan, see B. E. Mansfield, Australian Democrat, Sydney, 1965, 174, 180; The State as Employer. An Early Twentieth Century Discussion, Australian Journal of Politics and History, vol. 3, no. 2, May 1958. 183, Re the ULPS, ULPS Minutes 1900-1904, eg 19 September 1902, 14 April 1903, 2 December 1903; Public Service Board, Report into the Prince Alfred Hospital [and the Day Labour System], NSWLAVP Session of 1904, 660 and passim.
32. Ibid 1071-3, 1075-9, 1079-83. Thomas Griffiths, the Water Board’s Engineer for Sewerage, admitted to having no personal knowledge of miners getting silicosis or being overcome by fumes or bad air. He even admitted that he would not have known if 90 per cent of sewer workers died. Ibid, 1095.
51. According to Peter Macarthy, labourers on the NSW railways received an average 7/1 per day in 1908-9. P. G. Macarthy, Wages for Unskilled Work, and Margins for Skill, Australia, 1901-21, Australian Economic History Review, vol. 12, no. 2, September 1972, 151. Builders’ labourers and pick and shovel men received 8/- in 1910 under the ULPS’s first award. NSW Government Gazette, 1910, vol. 2, 2621.
55. Board President T.W. Keele spoke of postponing works rather than having to grant rockchoppers a 1/- per day increase to 10/-. Board Member Jacob Garrard thought it unfair to the gas companies, the Harbour Trust and PWD to concede the workers’ demands. Another Board member muttered darkly about replacing them with Italian labourers, Australian Star, 20 February 1908.
68. Heydon discussed his role in a legalistic version of these terms. See Bradley vs Ryan, op cit, 31, 35-6; Bradley vs Garraway, op cit, 42. For Wade’s views. New South Wales Parliamentary Debates (NSWPD, vol. 31. 2nd Session 1908. 229.
69. SMH, 28 and 29 October 1908. The union’s total receipts for the year were £374 and its final balance £64. Report of the Registrar for Friendly Societies, New South Wales Parliamentary Papers, 1909, vol. 5, 371.
72. SMH. 3 and 4 November 1908. Holland’s account of the sentencing of RSMU Secretary Ryan is particularly passionate. After a shocked and indignant silence over the heavy sentences, there were three cheers for Ryan and: “the crowd rose to a man, and made the rotten old courthouse ring and ring again … Then they hooted the Judge. You’ll have to send 500 of us after him, they told the man on the bench. The Judge went ghastly white. Men swarmed over the seats, refused to take their hats off, and poured into the aisle to shake the secretary by the hand, and to tell him to watch for their coming”. ISR, op cit
75. The International Socialists were tireless propagandists of the rockchoppers’ struggle, turning over their journal to the strike and their public meetings to speakers from the RSMU. They also spoke at a number of the union’s own public meetings. At the end of the strike the IS entertained the released unionists at their club, ISR, 31 October 1908, 7, 14 and 21 November 1908.
76. SMH, 31 October 1908. NB. The ULPS successfully blocked the attempts of the RSMU and other labourers’ unions to affiliate with Labour Council. The grounds for rejection were that an existing affiliate, the ULPS, already covered those categories the competing unions represented. Nonetheless, the RSMU, a small and financially weak body, contributed generously to the Labour Council’s collections on behalf of unions in struggle. TLC Minutes, 3 and 24 September 1908; TLC Exec Minutes, 12 May 1908, 7 July 1908.
79. SMH, 4 and 11 November 1908; ISR, 7 and 14 November 1908; Truth, 8 November 1908. As Holland pointed out, there was no IWW involvement and Holman was trying to criminalise and thereby marginalise the rising International Socialists. For union hostility to Holman over his role in the tramway strike, TLC Minutes, 27 August 1908.
81. ISR, 7 and 21 November 1908. Holland and the International Socialists (IS) had gained support among the coal lumpers through their efforts during the lumpers’ successful strike in mid-1907. O’Farrell, op cit, 23, 27.
88 Ibid, eg 11 November 1908. Holland and other International Socialists had some sort of revolutionary perspective but provided no analysis of how a strike of 500 rockchoppers, even if it spread, was going to overthrow Australian capitalism. See ISR, October-December 1908.
93. Ibid see also Minutes of IWW Club. ML, Mss 262, Box I. At this rime. it was very much the feature of the Socialist Labor Party aligned to Daniel De Leon’s political wing of the IWW in the United States.
100. The omission is repeated in I. Turner and L. Sandercock, In Union is Strength, Melbourne, 1983. At p.60 they claim that the first major industrial confrontation with the 1908 Act was the Broken Hill lockout in January 1909.
102. Ibid, 84-93. Miriam Dixon, in her review of Turner’s Syney’s Burning, briefly raised similar questions. To explain the influence of the IWW, she advanced a general ethnic socio-historical hypothesis, the convict-Irish-unskilled heritage at the core of Australian working class self-identity. Although interesting, it does not account for strong IWW influence among groups such as coal miners who brought norms and values derived from their native, non-Irish parts of Britain. In general. then, Dixon fails to ground her hypothesis in workers’ industrial experience. See Australian Journal of Politics and History, vol 14, 3, December 1968, 481-2.