Daphne Gollan, Nick Origlass and the history of the ironworkers’ union, an introduction by Bob Gould
These two articles on the Balmain ironworkers’ struggle were published in Labour History in May and November 1972. Another article by Daphne Gollan, The Memoirs of Cleopatra Sweatfigure, written in 1980, is a mature autobiographical piece that had great influence, particularly among feminists, in the 1980s. Daphne Gollan, who died a few years ago, was the former wife of Robin Gollan (the labour historian), lover of the late Nick Origlass (the long-lived and stubborn pioneer Australian Trotskyist) and herself a very capable labour historian.
The battles in the Balmain branch of the ironworkers’ union, and in the ironworkers’ union in general, have been recounted very thoroughly in Hall Greenland’s biography of Nick Origlass, Red Hot, Susanna Short’s biography of her father, Laurie Short: A Political Life, and Bob Murray and Kate White’s The Ironworkers: A History of the Federated Ironworkers’ Association of Australia (Sydney, Hale and Iremonger, 1982).
Amy McGrath, the wife of Frank McGrath, one of the key figures in the oppostion in the Balmain branch of the ironworkers’ union, who later became a judge, has written an account, called The Frauding of Votes, about the Balmain branch battle from the angle of her husband and the law firm that represented him. Tom Brislan, the key figure in the Communist Party faction in the Balmain branch, wrote an unpublished autobiographical account of the struggle from his point of view.
In these articles, Daphne Gollan makes bald assertions suggesting direct knowledge of Communist Party ballot rigging in several ironworkers’ union ballots. Her assertions have considerable weight, as she worked in the union’s office during the Balmain ironworkers’struggle.
At an October 1, 1994, conference on the great Labor split in NSW, the following three-way exchange, which speaks for itself, took place between Jim McClelland, Jack McPhillips and myself. The transcript was published in The Great Labour Movement Split: Inside Stories, published by the Australian Society for Labour History.
The first session prompted many comments and exchanges, some of which — with the permission of the speakers — we print below. In the following exchange between Jim McClelland, who was on Laurie Short’s legal team from late 1951, Jack McPhillips and Bob Gould, the question of ballot-rigging raised its head again.
Jim McClelland: Like Clyde Cameron I have never overestimated the role of ethics in political life. But I think that to go from there to a proposition that any means are justified by ends takes the matter into the realm of totalitarian politics, which I think everybody here is opposed to. Now Mr McPhihips admitted that everybody had made some errors, so I expect that he includes among those who made errors the Communist Party, to which he belonged, and perhaps even himself. Now I wonder if he will admit that one of their greatest errors was in cooking the 1949 Ironworkers ballot. Now in case there is any doubt that it was cooked, I’d like to relate a little incident that happened to me in my later life. Mr McPhillips, I suppose you would remember a man named Roderick Shaw. Do you, Mr McPhillips?
Jack McPhillips: Yes.
McClelland: Well, Roderick Shaw was a man who had been a member of the Communist Party and whom I met late in his life as I’ve met a lot of other ex-Communists, because ex-communists are very thick on the ground these days. And Rod was a very personable man; he was a good painter among other things. But he was a partner in a firm of printers called Edwards and Shaw. Now it was alleged in the Ironworkers Ballot Case that the union officials, of whom Mr McPhillips was a prominent one, had up their sleeve an extra 2000 ballot papers, which they were able to ring in, voting for themselves, and so defeat the expressed opinion of their members in the ballot. I don’t know that Mr McPhillips has ever admitted that he was a party to that.
McPhillips: He doesn’t admit it now either. (Laughter.)
McClelland: No, well, Mr Roderick Shaw, who was a printer whose firm printed the ballot papers for that election, and who unlike Mr McPhillips, ultimately recovered from his adherence to Communism, admitted in his closing years that his firm printed an extra 2000 ballot papers and didn’t hand them to the Returning Officer but had handed them personally to Mr McPhillips.
McPhillips: He’s a liar and so are you. (Laughter.)
McClelland: Well, I chose to believe him and I don’t bring that story forward in order to traduce Mr McPhillips because I believe that, no matter how wrong he may have been, he acted according to a false view of what was good for his fellow human beings. He acted fanatically and he would have believed, I think, that the end (that is, what he would have called progressive candidates, meaning members of the Communist Party remaining in office in the Ironworkers Union) justified the use of fraudulent ballot papers. So I don’t say that’s a blot on Mr McPhillips. I think it’s totally in accordance with his political philosophy. But that philosophy is one that I hope would never take root in this country and that’s why I think that the contest waged by the Industrial Groups to oust the Communists from control of the union movement in Australia was, despite some mistakes made by the Groupers, a progressive thing for the history of Australia. After that, the formation of the Democratic Labor Party, I think, was a disaster and I, of course, had nothing to do with the Democratic Labor Party. But I think that the vilification of the Industrial Groups that we’ve heard here today from Mr McPhillips is totally unjustified in the light of Australian political history.
Bob Gould: I belong to the Jim Macken faction in these matters. On that matter, I also believe that the ballot in the Ironworkers in 1949 was rigged on the basis of the evidence in the Court and the indentations on the ballot papers. But I had a discussion with Rod Shaw a few months before he died when he came into my shop and I asked him point blank did he, as the printer, know anything about it and he denied it, so I think you have to be careful about a bloke who’s dead … ascribing things to him. My experience of asking him direct questions about the business — Rod Shaw denied it. I don’t know whether he said different things to McClelland but he certainly denied it to me. I think that the circumstantial evidence is that it was rigged but Rod Shaw certainly denied it in my experience.
This exchange speaks for itself about the 1949 ironworker’s ballot. We are unlikely ever to know much more about what Rod Shaw said to Jim McCelland, as Jim McClelland has now also passed away.
New information has now, however popped out of the woodwork about the rigging of the ballot in the Balmain branch of the ironworkers union during the war period. A great survivor of leftism and modernism in Australian art, the accomplished, affable and knowledgeable Bernard Smith, recently published the second volume of his autobiography, Pavane for Another Time1 (McMillan, Australia, 2002). Bernard Smith was in the 1940s and 1950s a member of the Communist Party, and generally looks back on that experience favourably in his two volumes of autobiography. Nevertheless, on page 93 of the recent second volume, he writes:
It was about this time that the District Committee of the Party decided to abolish occupational branches such as those for teachers and journalists, instead directing their members to suburban branches. Individuals in the same family were often told to enrol in different branches, especially if they were considered by the Party bureaucrats to be “bourgeois intellectuals”. So Kate was transferred to the Kings Cross branch and I to the North Shore branch. I resented this. It meant I must take the trolley bus to Town Hall Station, then the train to North Shore to attend. The only people I knew in the branch were Bob and Daphne Gollan. Shortly after, Bob joined the Air Force. Split up in this way, my political ardour began to cool. The Teachers’ Branch had been a kind of social club for me after the isolation of Murraguldrie, a friendly group of activists I admired. But now we both began to feel a little of the heavy hand of the Party bureaucracy. Shortly afterwards Kate came back from the Kings Cross branch in a highly disturbed state of mind. “Well,” she said, “you can stay in the Party, Peach, if you want to, but I’m finished”. It appears that one of the branch members had come to the meeting armed with vacant voting tickets for a current Ironworkers’ Union election. One of the activities of the meeting was to mark up the cards he brought with him in favour of Ernie Thornton, the communist secretary of the Ironworkers’ Union. Thornton’s position was under threat from the right-wing led by Laurie Short. The Kings Cross branch was apparently helping to fake the election. I had no problem with Kate’s decision to leave the party. In the circumstances it was the only thing to do. A day or so later I went up and saw J.B. Miles, the Party Secretary; and told him what had occurred. He replied to the effect that he knew that kind of thing happened, and left it at that. I had admired Miles and reluctantly accepted the fact that there were problems in all political parties, but began to realise that the ACP was more pragmatic than most parties when it came to justifying means to ends.
This extract from Bernard Smith’s autobiography is pretty powerful direct evidence. The Gollans and the Smiths were close personal friends; they stayed with each other in Britain and Australia, they travelled together to Britain by ship, and it’s pretty clear to me that one of the sources for Daphne Gollan’s assertions that ironworkers elections were rigged was Kate Smith. The truth often comes out in the wash, even if 45 years later. I knew both Daphne Gollan and Nick Origlass. Daphne was a feisty, intelligent and courageous woman and her late-in-life love affair with Nick Origlass, one of the main protagonists in all those battles, was a warm, human sidelight on both their lives and times. They’re both now dead. Both their funerals and wakes were large diverse gatherings of many people, mainly of the left, who had known them and been influenced by them. We put these articles up on Ozleft as a tribute to Daphne and Nick.
We may never see their like again.
The Balmain ironworkers’ strike of 1945
In 1945 an unprecedented strike of rank and file ironworkers against their union leaders took place on the Balmain waterfront in Sydney. The bitterness of the dispute and the stubbornness with which both sides defended their positions reflected an antagonism which sprang from totally opposed political and organisational perspectives. Whether seen primarily as a collision between rank and file democracy and the authoritarianism of a centralising union leadership, or as a revolt against the class collaboration of the war policy of the Communist Party, or again, as an upsurge of political backwardness against progressive leadership, the Balmain strike of 1945 is one of the most political and, indeed, ideologically charged disputes in the history of Australian trade unions.Why did the Communist-led executive of the Balmain branch of the Federated Ironworkers’ Association, which normally commanded a majority at branch meetings, find it necessary to try to silence rank and file opposition in one of the largest waterfront shops? Why did the National Council intervene irrevocably in support of the branch executive’s suspension of the shop delegate, Origlass? Was it thought that by removing Origlass from a position of mass influence at Mort’s Dock, discontent among the rank and file with the union’s policy and organisational changes would be silenced? Why did the union leadership feel threatened by a man who occupied a position at the lowest level of the union hierarchy, had no voice in the union press and could not win substantial support among those who usually attended branch meetings? How important was it for Communist unionists to stamp out Trotskyist influence among waterfront workers? To answer these questions one must look at events in the years before 1945. How important was it for Communist unionists to stamp out Trotskyist influence among waterfront workers? To answer these questions one must look at events in the years before 1945.
When war broke out in Europe in 1939 and Australia’s Prime Minister, R.G. Menzies, announced the consequent involvement of the Australian people by the side of the British, spokesmen of the trade unions pledged the support of the labour movement for the government’s war effort. Since there was a large reservoir of unemployed the major concern of the government in regard to labour was not to conserve the available supply of manpower but to make the best use of the limited numbers of skilled men. The slow development of land fighting meant that the services’ demand was mainly for skilled tradesmen. It was 18 months before the pool of unskilled and semi-skilled labour dried up, and the question of industrial conscription did not become a major one until the war moved close to Australia’s shores late in 1941. The main concern of the trade unions when war began was with the rise in unemployment due to disruption of markets. There was no question but that the labour movement intended to defend its normal interests, including the right to strike. A government attempt to set up a trade union advisory panel was met with suspicion, and refusal by the Australasian Council of Trade Unions to be represented on the panel when it came into existence in July 1940. The government, however, did proceed with the creation of machinery for the regulation of labour and the Department of Labour and National Service was established in October 1940, responsible for setting up an employment service and for industrial training and dilution and restriction of competition for sources of labour. In 1941 a Manpower Priorities Board was created, which was succeeded in 1942 by the Manpower Directorate with power to conscript and direct labour. Although almost all the powers and administrative machinery to control the allocation of resources and manpower were established in the first two years of the war it was not until the entry of Japan opened up a theatre of war in the Pacific that these controls were brought into full operation.
While the general attitude of Australians was one of support for the government’s war effort, that support until the middle of 1941 was qualified by a strong disinclination to see disturbance to normal life. It was assumed that since the main theatre of the war would be in Europe, Australia’s role would be similar to what it had been in 1914-18, that of supplying troops and raw materials to far-off places. But the Second World War, to begin with, in no way followed the brisk and bloody pace of the first. The months of the “phoney” war followed by the fall of France, the immobilisation of Britain, and the apparently inconsequential but costly fighting on the perimeter of Europe all gave rise to uncertainty about the direction and purpose of the distant conflict without doing anything to shake the idea that it was business as usual in Australia, at least for the time being.
The greater part of the labour movement shared the general attitude to the war. Its left wing, however, in particular the Communist-led trade unions, opposed Australia’s participation in the war. The Communist Party after some weeks’ confusion had declared it to be a conflict between imperialist powers in which neither side could he supported by the workers. In May 1940 the party was made illegal and its press closed down. Since it took some time for an underground press to function effectively, the legal journals of the Communist-led unions and the radical breakaway NSW State Labor Party were the only widely circulated publications to put forward a viewpoint on the war which challenged that of the government and daily press. Neither the Federated Ironworkers’ Association nor any other of the Communist-led unions ever adopted a position of open opposition to the war, which would have involved the risk of punishment and closure of their press and, as well, of isolation from general working-class feeling. They did put themselves forward as active defenders of working-class interests against the attempts of government and employers to use the war as an excuse to break down conditions. Their energetic rejection of encroachments upon trade union rights and their demands for wage increases found a response in the many Australian workers whose feelings towards the war were too skeptical or ambivalent for them to listen kindly to calls for sacrifice in the name of patriotism. As late as June 1941 a strongly worded ironworkers’ resolution was adopted by the ACTU Congress, asserting inter alia that the most important democratic rights of the working class were the rights to organise, bargain collectively and to strike, and that in wartime, more than any other period, the right to strike had to be preserved in order to defend the working class against employers’ action to smash trade union standards and organisation.organisation.1
By 1941 the FIA was benefiting in membership and income from increased employment and the expansion of industry due to the war. The drive of the general secretary, Ernest Thornton, to build a strong, centralised organisation had been accompanied by more efficient office management, and the publication, from October 1939, of a monthly all-union journal, The Ironworker. After a change in rules had given the Federal Committee of Management power to close branches and offices a number of branches had been reorganised and brought into activity. The most drastic remodelling had been visited on the Newcastle branch, which had suffered for years from faction fights. Its office had been occupied by the general secretary, its committee of management suspended by the Federal Council and a new executive elected under the supervision of the general secretary. All branches, by 1941, with one exception, were led by Communists. The exception was Balmain.
With the German invasion of the USSR on June 22, 1941, Communist opposition to the imperialist war changed abruptly into wholehearted support for the “anti-fascist” struggle. However, deep hostility to the Menzies Government continued and the Communist trade union leaders called for the “Chamberlains” to be discarded. An alternative, Labor, government was needed to carry out the left’s new objective of winning the full backing of the workers for the war effort, that is, of getting them to work harder, produce more and refrain from stoppages. This came about in October 1941 when the Curtin Labor administration took office.
The German invasion of the Soviet Union marked the critical change in the nature of the war for Communists (the turning point of the world as the British Communist, Palme Dutt, described it in a well-known article). Five months later the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour provided the justification for the United States to enter the war and now the struggles in Europe, Africa, China and the Pacific were seen as linked in one global conflict — the struggle of progressive mankind against fascism. For Communists the battlefields of Europe, where the USSR was defending its very existence, overrode in importance all other theatres of war. As soon as the Russian call for a second front in Western Europe was made, pressure for this became the most urgent political campaign undertaken by the Communists and carried on with unflagging energy. For most Australians, however, what was much more important in changing an uneasy involvement into energetic support of the Labor Government’s overall war plans was the rapid unchecked advance of the Japanese in the direction of Australia in the first half of 1942.
The Communist Party switch evoked criticism or cynical comment from those who identified the war effort the Communists supported as that of the Soviet Union, but in the threatening days of 1942 the by no means identical attitudes of the Communist Party and the majority of Australian workers converged in a massive backing of the Labor Government. When by 1943 what had been seen as an imminent threat of invasion was removed, the stimulus of fear in the war effort disappeared and all that lay ahead was, for the troops, a long hard trail from island to island northward in the wake of the Americans, and for civilians, an increased demand for the production of supplies for allied troops in the Pacific, with acceptance of food and clothing rationing in addition to petrol rationing (in operation since October 1940). The movement of the arena of war away from Australia naturally brought a lessening of tension, the beginning of war weariness, resentment at restrictions and controls and the re-emergence of sectional interests to be defended. But for the Communist Party the need for unstinting effort in the prosecution of the war and for maximum production was greater than ever in 1943, because the second front had not yet been opened to lift the pressure from the Russians. It was in 1943 that the diverging attitudes to the war of Communists and most other Australian workers became apparent and resulted in the isolation of Communists from the rank and file in some areas of war industry. And it was not only the Communists in leading positions but also those on the job who suffered.
In the Ironworkers’ Union the consequences of total support for the war, declared by the Federal Committee of Management in October 1941, was for the union to accept its share of responsibility for increasing production and by all possible means to prevent interruptions to production caused by stoppages of work. The pledge of support for the Labor Government also involved acceptance of the government’s emergency measures enforcing direction of labour, wage pegging, compulsory overtime and cancellation of some public holidays as paid days of leisure. The contrast that this policy presented with that followed in the first 20 months of the war was not lost on the union leaders. They presented an eloquent case for the changed nature of the war, but in the end all arguments had to assert or imply that total support of the allied war effort to ensure the defeat of fascism was the precondition of the defence of working-class interests. The corollary of this proposition, namely, that defence of working-class interests was the precondition of a successful struggle against fascism (particularly if it was recognised that the aim of employers at all times was to combine profit-making with prosecution of the war) presented difficulties, because it raised the crucial question of the place of the class struggle in a united front national struggle. In February 1942 The Ironworker assured its readers that the union was not abandoning the class struggle, but in implicit contradiction of this, stated that the union’s attitude to production and strikes was determined by its attitude to the war, and further, “Our policy . . . demands of us the use of every means to avoid stoppages. Our boast is not that we maintain peace in industry, but that we further the fight against fascism and for socialism, and thus serve the best interests of the workers.”
The equating of the fight against fascism — which for many industrial employees meant hard work, long hours and pegged wages — with the best interests of the workers was not a self-evident truth to the average worker, but rather depended for credence at the very least upon vigorous day-to-day defence of conditions on the job and confrontations with the employers. But it soon became clear that in any conflict between the demands for maximum and continuous production and the defence of working-class conditions, the union movement was under severe pressure from the state as well as employers to put production first. The unions were narrowly limited by emergency regulations in the areas in which they could bargain, and their members came under threat of punishment if they resorted to direct action. And for politically minded Communist trade unionists a further factor inhibiting disruptive industrial action was the belief that the survival of the Soviet Union could depend upon the assistance it received from its Western allies.
In January 1942 Thornton was arguing that there should be an all-round increase of 10 shillings in the basic wage and this demand was repeated in May. (The wage pegging regulations allowed for wage rises in the case of applications brought before the Arbitration Court before February 1942.) On May 29, however, Mr Justice O’Mara, finalising a Metal Trades Award judgement, rejected the ironworkers’ application for an all-round increase of 3/- in margins. Thornton, who believed that the union had a strong case, wrote an indignant article on the decision and in the course of it made a significant admission. “I believe that not one of the reasons given for refusing an increase is the real one. I believe that the real one is that our claim is just, but if granted would have resulted in some repercussions from unions which cannot see beyond the pay envelope.
“Our union, on the other hand, has shown that it puts the fight against fascism above all other questions. So it was, apparently, but quite wrongly, considered safer to wipe us off than deal with the others.”2
He went on to say that perhaps the union would have to divert some of its forces from the main offensive to deal with the snipers in the rear, but there was silence thereafter on the O’Mara award. The union’s commitment to the anti-fascist cause, taking the form of collaboration with state institutions, made it difficult for it to attack what in earlier days would have been denounced as anti-working-class discrimination.
At a meeting of the Federal Council in June 1942, which reviewed the progress of the war and the fortunes of the union since the adoption of the new war policy, Thornton gave a picture of a rapidly growing organisation, enjoying the confidence of the government and in a position of leadership within the trade union movement. The main task for the union was that of getting the workers to accept their part in increasing production. He admitted that there were difficulties in this but quickly retreated, leaving the problem unresolved. He said that to get the utmost enthusiasm for the war the union would have to improve workers’ conditions, but, on the other hand, “we cannot demand concessions for our organisation that will result in a weakening of the war effort”. He flayed workers responsible for the high rate of absenteeism and declared that the union was “no funk hole for shirkers of military service”. He saw the answer to the production problem essentially in better understanding by the rank and file of the union’s policy.3
The Council passed a resolution calling for the utmost discipline from union members in supporting the policy of the union and also demanding that branches take disciplinary action to prevent unauthorised and irresponsible strikes and to reduce the high percentage of absenteeism.4 Thornton pointed out at this meeting that of all the industries in the union, the difficulties of getting union policy put into effect were greatest on the waterfront, and in particular in the area covered by the Balmain branch. He observed that repair work on the waterfront stank and that men and employers “were mutually in one of the biggest rackets possible for anyone to imagine”.5
Balmain had been the union’s founding branch at the turn of the century. It covered mainly waterfront industries, particularly ship building and repair. The area was one of old working-class suburbs close to, but isolated from, the city. A large number of the branch members lived and worked in Balmain or neighbouring suburbs. During the Second World War Balmain became the largest ship-repairing centre in Australia. Cockatoo Island Dockyard and Mort’s Dock employed respectively almost 3000 and 2000 men at the height of wartime activity. Mort’s Dock, founded by T.S. Mort in 1854, had had its capacity greatly enlarged early in the 20th century and further extensions and additions were made in the 1930s, but some of the workshops were still antiquated, while the general layout of the dock complex did not lend itself to efficient production. The great increase in the numbers employed during the war was not matched by improvements in facilities. There was not only no canteen at the dock but for many of the workers nowhere to eat but on the job. Changing, washing, toilet facilities varied from inadequate to very bad and were the source of constant complaints from the employees.
Some of the difficulties encountered in disciplining waterfront labour sprang from the traditions of the industry. The labour force had a long history of direct action, of stopping first and informing their officials later. This was contrary to union policy, which now was to make the fullest use of conciliation to settle industrial disputes. In March 1942, in a report notably lacking in personal commitment, Joe Brown, the Balmain secretary, had informed branch delegates that Federal Council instructions were that no strike or stopwork meeting was to be held without the branch office being notified beforehand.6 Linked with the long-established practice of deciding action on the job was another feature of industrial organisation in the waterfront shops, that of co-operation and joint action between members of different unions, particularly ironworkers and boilermakers. A dispute involving boilermakers would, if continued, frequently bring in ironworkers and members of other metal trades unions. At Mort’s Dock these relations were reflected in the existence of a boilershop committee (of ironworkers and boilermakers) and a metal trades committee, as well as a combined shop committee.
In order to get union policy accepted by a less than enthusiastic membership the Federal leaders saw it as essential to have dedicated branch officials, and here again Balmain stood out. With not one Communist amongst them, the strongly Langite, and to some extent Masonic, old Balmainers* had a consistent record of opposition to any encroachments on branch authority and claims to centralised leadership by the Federal Council. In 1940 there had been a number of clashes, with Balmain challenging the right of the Federal Council to increase contributions without submitting the proposal to referendum,7 ignoring the Federal Council resolution that all negotiations with Commonwealth ministers were to be conducted through the Federal Office,8 and withdrawing its delegates to the ACTU Congress in Sydney in protest against the Federal Secretary’s “dictatorial attitude” in instructing branch delegates on the way they should vote.9
While the 1942 Committee of Management did not have any objection in principle to support of the war, its members were noticeably reluctant to enforce any aspect of policy laid down by the Communist-dominated Federal Council which proved to be unpopular with the rank and file. At the time of the June 1942 meeting men at Cockatoo had decided to refuse to work on King’s Birthday because they were not to receive double time for shift work, part of which was worked on the holiday. The refusal to work was a rank and file decision and unauthorised. In addition, as Thornton observed disgustedly, it had been impossible to convince the Balmain executive that it should do anything but support the men on the job.10
Thornton’s approach to the Balmain branch at the June meeting was half threat and half appeal, asking for a more conscious acceptance of union policy by the branch.
While 1942 was a year of high production and relatively few working days lost, even by the turbulent coal miners and there were no major stoppages on the waterfront, the Balmain men showed no sign of abandoning their habits of direct action and bypassing of union authority. Ignoring the negotiating efforts of their unions the engineers and ironworkers at Cockatoo struck in June-July when their claims for payment of penalty rates for shift work performed on holidays were refused.
The dissatisfaction of the Federal officials with the Balmain secretary grew in September when there were dismissals at Cockatoo of employees, including two Communists, Brislan and Lynch. Since men anxious to get a clearance from the dock were passed over, the dismissals suggested victimisation. Brown was slow in taking up the complaints of the dismissed men and Brislan demanded an investigation by the Federal Committee of Management. This was made and, as well as recommending that the branch see to it that the dismissed men were the first to be re-employed when work offered, the FCOM also censured Brown for making irresponsible and disruptive statements about the Federal officers, which were untrue and unjustified.11
In December 1942 there was a complaint to the Federal Council that the Balmain branch ballot had not been conducted according to the rules. The council investigated, found that irregularities had occurred, declared the ballot null and void and ordered a new one to be held by the same returning officer under the supervision of the General President, Pat McHenry. It also resolved that the General President or General Secretary and the Federal Councilor, J. Leehy, a member of the Balmain branch, should attend all meetings of the branch and executive to ensure the proper conduct of the affairs of the branch.12
While the Federal Council decision to have its officials at Balmain meetings formed part of the resolution on the branch ballot, it is clear from Thornton’s speech to the council that he was primarily concerned with the Balmain officials’ continued failure to co-operate in carrying out union policy. He saw the state of the shipbuilding and repair industry as still unsatisfactory and stoppages as too frequent. He spoke of the problems of convincing the workers that, having accepted union policy they had to apply it to themselves. With obvious reference to Balmain he spoke of the obligation of responsible branch officers to put the policy into effect, not merely in words and not with reservations and qualifications perfectly obvious to workers. He went on to indicate how he thought democratic centralism in the union should work, that is to say, once policy was laid down by the council and endorsed by the branches, it then became the policy of every officer, who was responsible for carrying it out with enthusiasm.13
The old Balmainers were now on the defensive, under constant sniping attacks from the Communist faction within the branch and periodic heavy bombardment from the FCOM and Federal Council. General anti-communism and branch particularism made Brown and the executive strong defenders of Balmain rights against the intrusions of the Communist central leadership but did not provide them with any clear alternative policy. Brown was an unusually incoherent speaker and it was not difficult to defeat or ridicule him in argument. But he looked at things in the way the rank and file did, he was one of them, reflecting attitudes common in that environment and time. And so he retained the loyalty of a considerable majority of the rank and file.
In the branch elections for 1943, held at the beginning of that year, the communist faction led by Brislan ran a full ticket, but the sitting officials under Brown won all places by an almost two-to-one majority. The Communists vigorously defended all actions of the Federal leadership and were highly critical of the conduct of branch affairs. They had come into the branch in some strength during the war and found their main support in the small shops and land shops. At Cockatoo and Mort’s their following was small.
The conflict in the Balmain branch, however, was not a simple power struggle between the incumbent old Balmainers and the Communist challengers. An articulate opposition to Communist strategy and tactics based on princip1e and policy had begun to emerge by the end of 1942. Its orientation was Trotskyist and its principal spokesmen N. Origlass at Morts Dock, and later L. Short at Cockatoo.
Even before June 1941 when the Communist Party and the Trotskyists had opposed the war, their reasons had in no way been identical. After initially characterising the war as a struggle against fascism and supporting the Western democracies in September 1939, the Australian party had then, with prompting from the Comintern, concluded that the war was a conflict between imperialist powers and that the working classes owed no allegiance to their respective governments. But since the main preoccupation of Communists was, and had long been, defence of the Soviet Union, party policy as long as the German-Soviet non-aggression pact lasted was equivocal in its anti-fascism and essentially directed towards containing the war in order to prevent a diversion of the German attack against the Soviet Union. The Trotskyists, who had held a consistently anti-fascist position throughout the 1930s, maintained their anti-fascism during the war, but regarded the latter as a conflict brought about by rivalries between the declining imperialist powers, Britain and France, and predatory newcomers led by Germany. The kind of regime found necessary for the capitalist class in any country arose from the particular conditions there, and, whether it was bourgeois democratic or fascist, its essentially imperialist character remained unchanged. Thus they saw no case for defending the democracies against the assaults of German fascism, nor did they admit that the war aims of the democracies were anti-fascist. They asserted that the fundamental struggle of the proletariat was against war and imperialism, giving rise to the principles that the chief enemy was in one’s own country, and in war the defeat of one’s own imperialist government was the lesser evil.
On the question of national defence, the program of transitional demands of the congress of the Fourth International of 1938 stated that defence of the fatherland could be accepted “only if we first bind our own capitalists hand and foot and hinder them from attacking foreign fatherlands; if the workers and the farmers of our country become its real masters; if the wealth of the country be transferred from the hands of a tiny minority to the hands of the people; if the army becomes a weapon of the exploited instead of the exploiters”.14
When both groups were in opposition to the war, certain tactics of non-co-operation with the government in the form of resistance to conscription and maintenance of the right to strike were not widely divergent, yet the methods of putting these into effect were entirely different. The Trotskyists at all times tried to draw essential industrial decisions into the hands of mass meetings in the workshops and out of the hands of union officials and committees. They, of course, opposed the centralising tendencies of the ironworkers’ leaders as bureaucratic and undemocratic. An example of the Trotskyist approach to the question of mass control over industrial action appeared in February 1941 in one of Origlass’s first recorded interventions in the branch minutes. A boilermakers’ and ironworkers’ ban on overtime of more than 16 hours a week was about to be lifted by the executives of the Sydney branches of the two unions and the Balmain branch was following suit, reluctantly, in view of the decision of a recent mass meeting of ironworkers and boilermakers, which had been to continue the ban. Origlass’s amendment to the motion lifting the ban was that “we call on the Boilermakers’ and City Ironworkers ‘ Unions to honour the principle understood by the rank and file, that is: what a combined mass meeting puts on, only a combined mass meeting can take off”.15 It was ruled out of order.
When the Communist Party line changed, the Trotskyists did not see the imperialist character of the war as altered. Admitting the need to defend the USSR, they nevertheless did not believe that the proletariat of an imperialist country could do this through its own government. In a temporary and unstable alliance between the USSR and capitalist democracies, the workers in the latter countries remained in class opposition to their own governments and supported the non-imperialist ally in their own way, that is, through the international class struggle. Furthermore they did not identify themselves in any way with the “Thermidorian bureaucracy” that ruled the USSR.16
After June 22, 1941, the policies of the Trotskyists and Communists diverged completely, the Trotskyists continuing to claim the need to carry on a defence of the class interests of the workers in opposition to employers, government and the Communist Party. The totally opposed approach of the two groups can be seen in the matter of the dismissals of Brislan and others from Cockatoo. The Communist-sponsored motion at the branch meeting in September 1942, an implied censure of Brown, was that the FCOM be asked to investigate the circumstances of the dismissals. An addendum was moved that the FCOM be required to go into all cases of dismissals under manpower regulations and that anomalies be taken up with the Minister of Labour. Origlass moved that because of the anti-working-class nature of the regulations the FCOM alter its policy so that it opposed the regulations. Not surprisingly, this was ruled out of order.17
By 1942, Origlass, employed at Mort’s Dock since 1940, was sufficiently well established to be elected as union delegate for the boilershop, where most of the ironworkers at the dock were employed. He and the small group around him began to issue a roneoed sheet, The Socialist, in June, which called for nationalisation of major industries under workers’ control, an end to the stunting of consumer industry caused by depriving it of labour in the interests of war production, creation of a people’s militia and opposition to the extension of conscription for overseas service to the Citizen Military Forces. This program was linked with vigorous attacks upon the Communist Party for acting as an agent of the capitalist class and the Curtin Government. The authors of The Socialist, without directly opposing the war, attempted to put forward a transitional program, which would lead the workers, within the context of the war, to defend their own interests in confrontation with employers and the government. Nationalisation under workers’ control and the arming and training of workers to form a defensive militia service, which would be combined with work in civilian production, was a policy for asserting workers’ initiative, which ran entirely counter to the Communist Party’s support of the war. This at times verged on unconditional acceptance of the war effort of the government and employers, as, for example, when the party dropped the slogan of nationalisation as ultraleftist in a period when it believed it to be essential to win the co-operation of the capitalist class.
Thornton, a fiercely compelling working-class orator, who at the height of the united struggle against fascism often expressed in forceful and unguarded language sentiments that other Communists forebore to voice, summed up in a single sentence the blanket justification for the change in the party line. Pledging support at the Federal Council meeting in December 1942 for the government’s proposal to extend the area of service for the militia into the Pacific, he dealt with the charge that until June 1941 the Communist Party had worked actively in anti-conscription committees and had opposed any proposals for conscription for overseas service. He said simply, “In supporting this war, it is as if one stopped and another started, there are different sights, different combatants and different issues involved.”18
The workshop sheets published by Communist Party branches in the waterfront shops (the most important being the Rivet, later Dock News at Mort’s and Codock News at Cockatoo, both beginning in 1942) met a different need from that of The Socialist. Major political questions for party members were dealt with in the Tribune and the Communist Review. The workshop bulletins contained job pars about bad working conditions and criticisms of production inefficiencies, together with reports of fighting on the Russian front, general support for the war effort, news of dock football teams and results of raffles. In the early issues there was seldom any attempt to answer Trotskyist arguments, although The Rivet published an article obviously in reply to The Socialist, on nationalisation of industry, which said that the call was ill-timed.19 By 1943, however, there were sharp attacks on the Trotskyists as saboteurs and bogus militants.
In the atmosphere of the intense political passions of those years, members of the Communist Party regarded Trotskyism as a sinister combination of anti-Soviet treason and anarchism, while for the Trotskyists the “Stalinists” had committed the worst counter-revolutionary crimes of betraying the class interests of the workers and of colluding with the capitalist class, and, in addition, their methods of work faithfully reflected the bureaucratic degeneration and anti-democratic practices of Stalin’s Soviet Union.
1943 began with a widespread 24-hour stoppage by metalworkers in the Sydney area. The Commonwealth Government, using the National Security Regulations, had cancelled New Year’s Day as a public holiday on the grounds that a holiday on Monday, December 28, had been added to the Christmas break in lieu of New Year’s Day. But workers argued that since Boxing Day had fallen on a Saturday, the Monday holiday should be regarded as being in lieu of Boxing Day. There were demands on the job for assurances that double time would be paid for working on New Year’s Day. When this was refused many metal trades workers announced their intention of taking the day off in spite of their unions’ official policy of working the day and trying to get assurances from the government that there would be consultation with the trade unions before any more public holidays were cancelled as paid days of leisure. Delegate Origlass notified the Balmain branch secretary on December 21 that ironworkers and boilermakers at Mort’s boilershop had decided not to work on New Year’s Day if they were not to be paid double time.20
The Federal officers’ view of the unofficial stoppage was vigorously stated in the February Ironworker21in an article headlined New Year Strikers Defied Union. Why Stoppage Was Wrong. Answering their own question what had been achieved by the strike, they replied, “Some workers have quite unnecessarily lost a day’s pay, no strength has been added to our claim for variation of the award, a day’s production has been lost and the trade union movement has been held up to ridicule for lack of discipline. No gain of any form whatsoever will flow from this stoppage.”
The article went on to repeat that the defeat of fascism was the most important task facing the working class and that the stoppage had shown a lack of union discipline and failure to understand the seriousness of this task.
The FCOM came out with a sharply worded resolution stating that it could not tolerate the position where shop committees decided to cease work in opposition to union policy and it instructed branches to prevent such occurrences in future. It directed branches to ensure that office-bearers carried out union policy and when difficult situations developed, special branch or special executive meetings were to be convened and once they had arrived at a decision, all members without exception were to abide by it.21
In spite of the demand for observance of union policy on strikes, the New Year stoppage was followed by others. It was the first of a number of disputes caused by the government’s cancellation of public holidays and by the presence of anomalies in the Metal Trades Award provisions for payment of public holidays. The stoppage was a symptom of war weariness among workers, particularly those engaged in some forms of war production. Long working hours in jobs to which they were tied bred a desire for leisure. Time off was valued all the more since the effect of rationing, shortage of goods and increased taxation was to reduce the value of wages. But Communists saw no possibility of relaxing the drive for maximum production. Although Australians were involved only on the periphery of the worldwide conflict and neither their troops nor their war production gave direct assistance to the Russians, Communist support for an energetic prosecution of the war was linked with, and used to, reinforce continuous political pressure for the opening of a second front in Western Europe for the cementing of relations between the allies. This vision was far removed from that of the average worker, whose responses to the war were influenced by the general improvement in the allies’ position both in the Pacific and in Europe. By 1943, unceasing exhortations to maintain production and to refrain from direct action except as a last resort were being ignored where they were not deeply resented on the waterfront. The misinterpretation and ignoring by Communists in the Ironworkers’ Union of the significance of the workers’ lack of response widened the gap between them.
The holiday issue came up again at Easter 1943. This time Anzac Day and Easter Sunday fell on the same day. No extra holiday was granted in lieu of Anzac Day. The ironworkers had applied in the Arbitration Court for a variation of the Metal Trades Award to provide that whenever a paid public holiday fell on a non-working day and no other day was provided in lieu, the holiday would be observed on the next working day. But the court rejected the application for compensation for the loss of Anzac Day. The Ironworker reported that the court’s decision was the last straw, causing the union to call a mass meeting of all Sydney and Balmain members at the Leichhardt Stadium on April 21, which resolved to support a decision by a conference of metal trades unions that all workshops under the Metal Trades Award should take a day’s holiday in lieu of Anzac Day and that industrial action would be taken to prevent penalising of members involved in the stoppage.22
The official one-day stoppage which took place on May 3, like the unofficial one on New Year’s Day, was action in defiance of the court and the government, and also lost the workers a day’s pay. Part of the reason for the union’s sponsoring of an action in May that they had condemned in January may be found in a comment in the Tribune. “The union executives concerned were faced with the prospects of an unorganised, anarchistic outbreak fomented and inspired by the sabotaging elements, Langites, Trotskyites and the like. It was better, in the interests of the war effort, that a one-day stoppage, led by the unions, should take place, from this standpoint, than a series of unorganised strikes lasting much longer.”23
The industrial experience of the union leaders might have been expected to have helped them to recognise symptoms of malaise in the obvious exasperation of the workers over the denial of holidays. Wartime full employment imposed severe strains on the workforce. Regulation of wages and industrial conscription largely neutralised the bargaining power given by a shortage of labour. Conscription of manpower prevented a free flow of employees out of those essential industries where working conditions were unpleasant or hours very long. On the waterfront conditions varied considerably between firms but in general it was the large enterprises which were the toughest in enforcing wartime regulations.
The Tribune, which could not have been unaware of the importance attached by the workers to holidays, nevertheless explained the industrial action taken in the same terms (of workers being misled by groups with ulterior motives) as those usually employed by spokesmen of the employers.
The divergence between the preoccupation of Communists in industry and the Balmain rank and file was revealed in a number of ways in 1943. At Mort’s Dock there was au incident which led to the banning of the party bulletin. On February 10 The Rivet published an article On the Production Front in which a young labourer assisting an elderly tradesman complained of his slowness and suggested that more care be taken in the allotment of labour to enable better production to he maintained.
The reaction on the job was so angry that at a mass meeting it was decided to boycott the paper and halt the collection of money for its publication. This action was regarded as sufficiently serious for Sharkey, the party’s general president, to publish a leaflet disavowing the article. Sharkey denied that it represented party policy, which, he said, always aimed at ensuring security of employment for workers. It was in calling for a vigorous struggle against the “fascist monsters” that the party supported greater production of the necessary weapons of war and supplies for the troops.24 Sharkey explained The Rivet‘s lapse as being due to publication by the party of hundreds of similar bulletins and to it not being possible for all of them to be supervised by party executives.
The Rivet went out of existence and in June reappeared as Dock News. The first issue reprinted a statement from the Tribune which blamed disruptive activities of employers for industrial stoppages and asserted the right to strike but also pinpointed sources of disruption within the labour movement as Langites, Trotskyists and bogus militants. Dock News expressed its support for the war effort in somewhat more muted terms than The Rivet and more space was devoted to reports of conditions on the job.
The Trotskyists, as the increasing attacks on them by the Communists indicated, were gaining influence on the Balmain waterfront in 1943. While their arcane views on the nature of the war, giving rise to proposals for workers’ control of nationalised industry and arming of the proletariat would have been shared by few workers, their constant defence of a class position stood in clear contrast with that of the Communist Party. They made considerable capital of The Rivet incident, reprinting the offending article in The Socialist, together with an account of the banning of the bulletin.
But friction between Communists and other members of the union in Balmain was not confined to the job. 1943 saw a violent collision between the Federal leadership and the Balmain branch executive and branch members. The union, which had begun the protracted process of amalgamation with the Munition Workers’ Union, had set up a National Executive Council to act as a committee of management for the combined unions. At the NEC meeting of May 11-12 at which Brown and Steele (Branch President) and Leehy (Federal Councilor from Balmain) were present by invitation, the General President McHenry submitted a report on behalf of Leehy and himself on the working of the branch and proposed that a national officer continue to attend meetings for the next three months.25 Improvement in the work of the branch was noted in discussion, but at the NEC on July 7 McHenry was complaining that events at a recent branch meeting had caused him concern and indicated an unsatisfactory state of affairs. Brown, Steele and Harold Johnson (the Assistant Secretary) were invited to attend the meeting on the next day and were questioned. The answers clearly did not satisfy the council because it concluded that the report on Balmain showed unsatisfactory features, but in order to get more information about the branch and its working the council would conduct inquiry.26 This would be carried out by NE officers and the branch was invited to elect four representatives at the next general meeting to take part in the inquiry. It is difficult to find out what were the exact points of McHenry’s criticism. The council minutes are quite uninformative. A later account of the dispute in Labor News (formerly The Ironworker) claimed that there had been interference by branch officials with the rights of members to elect their own shop stewards and also that Steele as branch president had not chaired meetings impartially.27 The question of financial malpractice, which figured so largely in the retrospective charges against the Balmain officers after their deposition, does not seem to have been raised. The minutes of the branch meeting that had caused McHenry’s concern reveal the marked unwillingness of branch leaders to accept either Federal office directives (on how delegates to the ALP conference were to vote), or advice (on an industrial claim made by Origlass on behalf of men at Mort’s).28
The branch executive meeting following the threatened Federal intervention had to deal with the actions of the intractable Bro. Origlass. Origlass, who had been elected as an alternate delegate from the branch to the NSW Labor Council, had urged at the council (in opposition to the Sydney branch motion) an extension of the Duly and Hansford strike in order, he claimed, to bring it to a successful conclusion. It was this policy of class confrontation which, consistent as it was with the Trotskyist view of the nature of the war, was calculated to confirm the Communists’ deepest convictions that the Trotskyists were the most cunning and dangerous disrupters and saboteurs in the labour movement. The Duly and Hansford strike had broken out over the refusal of 11 workers (among them the wife of Cassidy, K.C.) at the firm’s munition annexe to join the Ironworkers’ Union. The rest of the 800 workers, many of them women, belonging to various unions, refused to work with non-unionists and a bitter 10-weeks’ strike began. Features of the strike were the elements of provocation in its origins and the vilification of the Ironworkers’ Union in the daily press, particularly the Sydney Daily Telegraph, but, in addition, there was the unexpected solidarity of the consistently under-rated women unionists. In supporting the strike the union was torn between its reluctance to see any interruption to war production and the inescapable need to defend the principle of the closed shop where the workers were solidly in support of direct action. The malevolence (or perspicacity) of the press in mounting a great attack on the “Communist dictatorship” in the union, while ignoring Communist services to the war effort, also led the union leaders to wish the strike to be ended as quickly as possible. Whatever tactical advantages there might have been in Origlass’s proposal, its intention of extending the stoppage was utterly opposed to the policy of the union.
The Balmain executive heard Bro Origlass’s defence and mildly concluded that he had been wrong in opposing the resolution of the Sydney branch. Under attack itself from the Federal leaders it was in no mood to castigate a consistent opponent of Communist Party policies29
At special meeting of the Balmain branch on July 27, summoned amid considerable disorder, the first of the open clashes between the Federal office and the branch executive occurred. In the discussion on the minutes of the NEC, which had expressed dissatisfaction with the branch officials, the latter vehemently defended themselves. A resolution was carried by 83 to 69 stating that the branch admitted no jurisdiction from the NEC, refused to allow the council to conduct an inquiry into the affairs of the branch, refused to elect four representatives to take part in the inquiry and decided to resist any attempt to hold such an inquiry30
Widely differing accounts of the meeting were given by protagonists of the opposing sides. The two Federal officers, McPhillips and McHenry, in reporting to the FCOM charged the chairman with being blatantly partial, and branch officers with failing to defend the NEC or the Federal Council against unjustified and dishonest criticism.31
In The Socialist the Trotskyists claimed that the Balmain branch had struck a blow for liberty in revolting against the dictatorship of the Communist Party clique which controlled the NEC. Because the Communists had failed to get anyone elected to office they had decided to conduct an investigation into the branch, and, Origlass prophesied, they would bring clown a hostile report and install a Balmain quisling. The branch officers, in relying on legal redress, that is, on challenging the legal standing of the NEC, could not win. They would have to mobilise the membership to fight for independence from dictatorial control32
Immediately after the meeting of July 27 the executive decided to refuse to take instructions from the NEC and to seek legal advice.33 But at the following executive meeting on August 3, Joe Brown abandoned the fight. In spite of the undoubted rank and file support he commanded he apparently believed that there was no future for him in the union, since the Federal leaders were determined to get rid of him because his policies did not suit them. So he resigned from the secretaryship, with effect from August 13.34 The organising secretary, Burt Johnston, also resigned.
The remaining members of the executive were summoned before the FCOM on August 17 and questioned about events in the branch, whether the secretary had in fact resigned, whether they supported the views in The Socialist, which was held to be advocating a breakaway, and about the conduct of the meeting of July 27. They were informed that there would be an inquiry into the affairs of the branch, whether the executive co-operated or not.35 Wilting under this attack the executive then decided by seven votes to six that an investigation by a Federal officer would he welcomed so long as two branch members chosen by the executive were appointed with him.36
But at the next general meeting, on August 24, uproar greeted the capitulating branch leaders and their first recommendation, that Harold Johnson be appointed acting secretary, was rejected by 144 to 122). 144 to 122).37 The branch president then closed the meeting without attempting to have any more acting officials elected. The failure to get acting officers elected by the general meeting opened the way immediately for the FCOM to take over the running of the branch on the grounds that there had been no election of officers and the interests of members were suffering from the disruption. The FCOM decided that McHenry would be the officer in charge of branch affairs and would preside at all meetings, that Harold Johnson was appointed officer to assist the general president and, finally, that an inquiry into the reasons for the resignation of branch officers would be held.38
The branch executive met on August 25, with the general president as a most unwelcome attender. It instructed the branch president and Harold Johnson to oppose the decision of the FCOM by legal and other action. The general president ruled this out of order and retired. A special meeting of the branch was called by the executive for Sunday, August 29, at the Balmain Town Hall, instead of a stopwork meeting proposed for Thursday, August 26.39
The meeting took place in spite of efforts by Federal officers to cancel it. At this point the dispute came into the daily press. According to the newspapers, 600-700 men were present, who shouted down the general president and then elected officers to replace the secretary and assistant secretary. The meeting also carried resolutions which approved the action of the branch executive in applying for a court injunction to restrain the Federal body from taking control of the branch, asked the Commonwealth Government to inquire into the Federal administration of the Ironworkers’ Union, and, finally, expressed full confidence in the executive.40
The next day the Equity Court refused the injunction on the grounds that the dispute was an intra-union one, which did not endanger union funds. The FCOM secured its position by moving into the Balmain office, changing the locks and appointing its own man, Brislan, to assist the general president in the place of Harold Johnson who had first been appointed but had resigned. The FCOM also suspended all members of the branch executive.41 The Federal office was now securely in possession of the Balmain office and its assets.
The dispossessed executive called another general meeting in the Balmain Town Hall for the following Sunday, September 5. There was again a large attendance, of 400 or so, and the meeting decided to appeal to the Commonwealth Attorney-General and the Minister for Supply and Shipping for an inquiry into the affairs of the union and the encroachment of the Communist Party into the union.
A deputation saw the two ministers on September 9 and were greeted with a promise and a threat — a promise that their complaints of increasing Communist domination would be considered, and a threat that there was to be no stopwork meeting until the charges were investigated. That was as far as the Commonwealth Government’s intervention went, apart from behind the scenes pressure on Thornton by the Attorney-General.
The executive was now coming to the end of ways of opposition short of direct action. This spectre, of a mass waterfront stoppage had, of course, been raised by the Trotskyists at the Town Hall meeting on September 9, but had been decisively rejected on a show of hands. The executive next turned to the Arbitration Court, applying for disallowance of certain rules of the union. This challenge was also unsuccessful.
The Trotskyist group was very active, issuing a series of leaflets under the name of the Balmain Members’ Rights Defence Committee, which provided a running commentary on events and attempted to rally the rank and file against the Federal leaders. The Trotskyists repeatedly pointed out the weakness of legal action and called for a general strike of ironworkers to demand the handing back of branch affairs to the executive. They argued that decisive action was necessary because members would not go on attending Sunday meetings indefinitely if some progress were not made, and in any case the business of the branch had to be carried on.
At the ordinary general branch meeting on September 28, Thornton presented a report on the result of the FCOM investigation of the branch’s affairs. The report was a curious one, in that it dealt at length with the unsatisfactory financial dealings of the branch and inefficiencies in its management. The whole burden, however, of the repeated accusations against Balmain in the past had been that its officers did not carry out union policy. The eight months’ supervision by the Federal officers might have been expected to uncover and remedy some at least of the mismanagement with which the executive was now charged. Thornton’s report, with its emphasis on precise instances of financial malpractice, seems like an ex post facto justification of the intervention. A summary of the section on the financial affairs was circulated to all branch members after the meeting. Most of the time had been occupied with Thornton’s speech and no vote had been taken, but the sense of the meeting had clearly been against the general secretary.42 At the adjourned meeting on October 5, after a heated discussion, the report was rejected by 169 to 130.169 to 130.43
The members’ rejection of the report did not affect the control of the branch by the Federal officers, as an article in Labor News pointed out. In any case at the next branch meeting on October 20, a special meeting called to elect a returning officer for the annual elections, the supporters of the FCOM at last won a majority. By 188 to 154 McHenry was elected returning
officer.44 This meeting was the sixth in less than two months to which Balmain ironworkers had been summoned. The executive in that time had recorded no victories either in its legal actions or in its attempts to get the Commonwealth Government to intervene and had drawn back from extending the dispute to job action. The Federal officers were in possession of the office and had installed their nominees as acting officials. A sense of the futility of resistance led to apathy among the majority who supported the executive and they stopped coming to meetings. At the same time massive organising boosted the number of Communist Party supporters to 188, their highest figure to date. The Balmain Ironworkers’ Members’ Rights Defence Committee questioned the bona fides of some of the 188, observing that the doorkeepers had belonged to the Communist faction.45 This meeting, of October 20, marked the end of effective resistance from the old Balmainers. From now on, apart front Harold Johnson, the only one of the old Balmain leaders to remain active, opposition at meetings was confined mainly to Origlass and Short, supported by Lynne, Curran and Burnett.
The enmity between branch and Federal office supporters was intense on the job. At one of the branch meetings Origlass had been rushed by a number of his opponents and knocked down. When Brislan, acting as branch organiser, later made a lunch-hour visit to Mort’s, Origlass inquired if he felt as game now as he had done with a gang. Brislan removed his coat and false teeth. The contenders moved to a paddock outside the gates opposite the Forth and Clyde Hotel. The fight lasted until the start-work whistle and was declared a no-decision bout.
In the ballot at the end of 1943 there were two factions. The opposition had united to present a single ticket of old Balmainers and Trotskyists — for President Steele, Vice-President Origlass, Secretary Harold Johnson, Minute Secretary Curran, Management Committee Burnett, Lockhart, Papps, Short, Whittaker and McKenzie. The poll was a smaller one than in the previous year, about 1600 voting. The Communist ticket made a clean sweep, winning all positions, on an average by about 200 votes.46
For the victory of the Federal office supporters to have been genuinely won, a large-scale organising effort by the Communist faction would not have been enough. There would also have had to have been a decisive swing in opinion amongst the rank and file against the old Balmainers. But the entire progress of the dispute from July to October indicated that the embattled executive had the branch members behind it. The larger the meetings were, the larger its majorities. In the Town Hall mass meetings the supporters of the Federal office appeared to be outnumbered by at least two to one.
A win by the old Balmainers in the branch ballot would have been a resounding repudiation of Federal office intervention and an implied rejection of the union’s war policy. A thoroughly hostile branch executive (now including the two dangerous Trotskyists) could only have meant increased friction with the Federal leadership and more frequent work stoppages. One may conclude that this was an election the Federal office had no intention of losing. Aware of the aptness of Tannock’s47 aphorism in their case (a faction that has the returning officer and can’t win an election, doesn’t deserve to), the supporters of the Federal office organised to the utmost of their ability and the results may well have been close, but in the opposite (direction to that indicated by the published figures).
The main sources used in the writing of this article have been the records of the Federated Ironworkers’ Association housed in the Australian National University Archives and material from the collection of papers, letters and documents belonging to Alderman N. Origlass, presently Mayor of Leichhardt.
From Labour History, May 1972
It was only through drastic intervention in the affairs of the Balmain branch by the Ironworkers’ Federal Committee of Management that the long-established branch officials were dislodged and replaced with men whose policies and attitudes were acceptable to the union’s national leaders. At the Federal Council meeting in January 1944 Thornton justified the drastic steps taken, declaring that “the whole union was faced with the position in Balmain where it had to fight a collection of the worst and most dangerous people ever collected together in the Labor movement in this this country”.1 Federal Council restated the policy of co-operation with the government, support for the war effort and minimising of strikes.
The new executive, with Brislan as secretary, K. McKeon as assistant secretary and W. Oliver as president, took office determined to make it clear that it could run the branch with a policy more in accord with the interests of members than that of its displaced rivals. An energetic program of action on infringements of industrial awards by employers, prompt attention to compensation cases, pressure in conjunction with the Factory Welfare Board on employers to improve canteens and other facilities, and efficient office management were all designed to show that the new branch leaders could conduct the union’s affairs much better than the old ones had done. But dereliction in the carrying out of day-to-day union business had not been the reason for bundling out the old Balmainers. The real source of conflict had been made clear once again by Thornton in his speech in January 1944, when describing Joe Brown, “whose habit was to go on to a job where a difficult situation existed and say ‘I have got to carry out my duty to the Federal Council and tell you Federal Council policy is that you must not come out on strike, but I have my own opinion and if you do come out I will be with you’”.2
The cardinal sins of the old Balmainers had been, in the first place, that they had not been prepared to try to enforce that part of union policy concerned with maximum production and avoidance of strikes, which was unpopular on the waterfront. In the second place they had carried on their essentially parochial defence of branch independence in terms of resistance to “dictatorial” communist control. Thornton professed to see in Brown’s sabotage of union directives an anti-working-class attitude and malevolence towards the union leadership, but what was also reflected in Brown’s attitude were the reservations the workers on the job had towards the union’s war policy as it applied to them. Thus the new executive, having won power by borrowing votes, was loaded with the task of carrying out a policy on strikes and production which was unpopular and becoming more so the longer the war lasted. But if it was not to be faced with the necessity of further borrowing in the next election it had also to make itself sufficiently highly regarded to win a genuine majority. An intermittent perception of the contradictory position that this placed the executive in can be detected in the muffled language of the branch and executive minutes. The way out in 1944, as was stressed again and again in the minutes, was seen as lying in a sustained effort to convince the men with influence on the job, the union delegates, of the validity of union policy. Three meetings for delegates were held during the year.
The first branch meeting on January 11 was a special meeting, at which the draft rules of the amalgamated ironworkers’ and munition workers’ union were discussed. Origlass spoke of the power the proposed National Council (the successor of the old FCOM) would have in disciplining members, which he considered not to be in their interest. Brislan defended the right of the National Council to discipline rank and file and officers. The rules were adopted by 64 to six.3
There was recognition of hostility on the job. Brislan mentioned the distribution of leaflets attacking branch officials. At the general meeting on January 25, 1944, assistant secretary McKeon’s report on shops visited and disputes handled drew acclamation,4 but the central problem of rank-and-file resistance to the policy of avoiding production delays remained. At Christmas the Commonwealth Government had followed the recommendation of the trade unions in requiring only the most urgent work to be carried on, but for Anniversary Day had ordered all ship repair establishments to work. Many workers stayed away and were penalised with forfeiture of the day’s pay. In reply, ironworkers, boilermakers and blacksmiths at Mort’s, Cockatoo and Adelaide Steamship Company placed an embargo on overtime and shift work until they were paid for the holiday. Labor News in March accused the Government of bungling in imposing the blanket order to work but also criticised the workers for refusing to report for work and for imposing the embargo.
The Metal Trades Federation, having taken up the dispute and obtained an assurance from the Government that future holidays would not cause trouble, requested workers in the Balmain establishments to lift the embargo. But while the Federation felt confident that there would be no further cancelling of public holidays as days of leisure, all it could say on the question of payment for Anniversary Day was that it would continue to press the Government to see that workers who were absent on the holiday were paid. The Ironworkers’ executive tried hard to get the members to lift the ban. At a delegates’ meeting on February 8, 1944, those present were urged to support the lifting of the ban and to leave negotiations to the MTF.5 A majority at a special meeting of the branch on February 29 endorsed the MTF request,6 but when this was put to a mass meeting of metal trades unionists at Cockatoo, where most overtime was worked, by an imposing array of officials of the unions involved, including the Ironworkers’ Assistant National Secretary, L.J. McPhillips, the men refused to lift the embargo and compounded the insult by electing a committee of six to co-operate with the Mort’s Dock men in carrying on the fight.7
There was a large attendance at the next branch meeting on March 28, 1944, in anticipation that charges against members of the executive would be dealt with. In the event these were deferred, since the findings were not complete. But the overtime ban was discussed and the motion for the adoption of the executive minutes in which the development of a “breakaway movement” at Cockatoo and Mort’s was deplored and the committee set up to take action “independently of the unions” repudiated, was carried by only one vote (81-80)8. The embargo on overtime and shift work, which was regarded as being instigated by Trotskyists in a number of the waterfront unions, was not lifted until the middle of July, having lasted five-and-a-half months.
When the charges against eight of the previous office holders were finally drawn up, they were concerned exclusively with financial and organisational mismangement. Joe Brown was expelled, two others suspended and the rest severely reprimanded. Four other branch members, including Short, were also severely reprimanded for having circulated leaflets attacking the union officials.9
Clashes between Communists and Trotskyists became more frequent during 1944. At a delegates’ meeting on June 13, 1944, where it was reported that Brislan had had his right of entry to jobs revoked by the Arbitration Court, McKeon moved that if managements refused to allow Brislan right of entry, members should be called upon to attend meetings outside the gates. Origlass’s amendment was that failing satisfactory settlement, the engineering unions be approached for co-operation in withdrawing labour from shops refusing Brislan right of entry. It was lost 37-8.10
At a conference in June on ship repairs and stabilisation of the ship-building industry organised by the Metal Trades Federation the main resolution called for workers to carry out their work with the utmost expedition and efficiency. Origlass’s amendment, which received some support in discussion, although lost on the vote, was to delete this clause and replace it with a recommendation to the Commonwealth Government to nationalise the shipbuilding industry under workers control.11
While Origlass was being defeated in the branch and in delegates’ meetings he was building up support at Mort’s Dock, particularly in the boilershop in his capacity as ironworkers delegate and as secretary of the Boilershop Committee and of the Metal Trades Committee (of delegates of seven unions). The Metal Trades Committee, together with delegates from non-metal unions, took up various job complaints with the management, pressed for improved facilities and requested the Commonwealth Government to release increased supplies of beer for the Dry Dock Hotel, and to increase the tobacco issue to the dock. A wider campaign which sought the support of the local MLA and Municipal Council was waged to have an ambulance station re-established at Balmain. In the course of this campaign a number of letters were written by Origlass signing himself secretary of a “combined unions committee”. He was attacked in Dock News (September 26, 1944) for exceeding his authority in designating himself secretary of a combined unions’ committee and the shop committee at Chapmans refused to receive correspondence from him for the same reason.
In a leaflet which began: “The dishonour of circulating the vilest anti-working-class propaganda rests squarely with the Communist Party”, Origlass briefly recounted what he considered to be the anti-working-class record of the party at Mort’s, in particular its support of speed-up, and gave the history of the combined unions’ committee.12 The Mort’s Dock Metal Trades Committee passed a strongly worded motion of confidence in Origlass.
In November a mass meeting of Mort’s Dock metal trades workers passed a resolution submitted by Origlass calling for the Commonwealth Government to unpeg wages, raise the basic wage in accordance with the real cost of living and introduce the 40-hour week immediately. It also called on union officials to convene a waterfront stopwork meeting to decide on action to secure these demands.13
This militant call for immediate satisfaction of industrial demands in contravention of the National Security regulations was conveyed to the branch executive which, according to the minutes, contented itself with referring it to the Metal Trades
Federation.14 There was no mention of the meeting or resolution in Labor News.
By the end of 1944 the executive still commanded a majority at branch meetings and had secured the election of its nominee as returning officer. But at Mort’s Dock it had very little standing. Here the enemy, Origlass, was acknowledged leader and spokesman of the ironworkers.
The executive had also lost ground at Cockatoo. The bad feeling between officials and men caused by the overtime embargo had been exacerbated by an abrasive incident over a fine inmposed on an ironworker, George Lang. Lang, in a test case for 127 boilermakers, electricians and ironworkers, had been fined £5 with £5.13.0 costs for refusing to work overtime while the ban had been in operation. At the executive meeting of December 11, 1944, Wilkins, who worked at Cockatoo, moved that the Federal Office be asked to pay the fine. Brislan moved an amendment, which was carried, that members of the union on the job be asked to take up a collection to pay for it. At the same meeting, in reviewing the difficulties of the year just past, members had noted the spirit of comradeship in the executive and congratulated it on being the most hard-working the branch had ever had.15
But at Cockatoo the rebuff to Lang was greeted with anger, since it had been regarded there as understood that the fine would be paid by the union. Indeed, in the belief that the union would take responsibility, Lang had withdrawn a legal appeal he had begun in the matter.
Retribution was quick in coming to Wilkins, who was defeated in the delegate elections at Cockatoo in January 1945. He had been ironworkers’ delegate from the boilershop for nine years. Communists in several unions lost their positions in these elections. The new ironworkers’ delegate from the shipyard was Short, of whom in 1943 Codock News had quipped that in any election in the shipyard he could depend on getting at least five votes including his own.16
The expanding influence of the Trotskyists during 1944 had been marked by the setting up of the Balmain Workers’ Social Club by Origlass and his supporters. The stated purpose of the club was “to promote social, educational and recreational activities, and the interests of the working people generally”. Clubrooms were found and a variety of social activities carried on. At the end of November a roneoed sheet, Rising Tide, began publication, appearing about once a fortnight. Together with political pieces of the sort which had been written for The Socialist and news of social events, it contained reports on industrial questions from a viewpoint opposed to that of Labor News. The club attracted a large membership. The forming of a social committee by the union branch in August appears to have been in order to counter the club’s popularity.
The conclusion cannot be avoided that the Balmain executive lost further support during 1944 at the two main shops. Activity on welfare and efficiency in routine union business may have improved its position in the smaller shops. But at Mort’s and Cockatoo there was growing impatience with the Government’s policy on wages and hours and anxiety about employment prospects after the war. The frozen stance of the trade unions on these matters, which would last as long as the war did, aroused resentment. Thornton, in addition, had been deeply influenced in 1943 and 1944 by the ideas of the American Communist leader, Earl Browder, on the possibility of collaboration between employers and workers after the war. Although his frankly expressed enthusiasm for Browder’s views was somewhat muted by the time it reached the rank and file, it was sufficiently well known to be attacked by the Trotskyists as a further expression of class collaboration.
In addition, the harassment of Origlass at Mort’s and the friction with the Cockatoo workers over the overtime ban must have contributed to the worsening of relations between officials and members at the two largest shops. The results of the annual branch elections announced in January 1945 showed that the executive, again opposed by a united opposition ticket, was returned in its entirety with an improved vote, approximately 60 per cent to 40 per cent, with between 1500 and 1600 voting.17 These results seem even less probable than those of 1943. The only indication of possible ballot faking observed by the opposition’s scrutineers was that there had been an unusually large number of ballot papers posted at the same time on one day at the Glebe Post Office, which could have suggested the filling in of a number of papers by one person.18 The discussions of the executive in January do not read at all like the deliberations of people returned to office by an increased majority in the face of strong opposition. A comprehensive report by McPhillips on the work of the union and dealing with such matters as the amalgamation with the munition workers, women’s auxiliaries, youth organisations and social and sporting committees was discussed at a special meeting on January 30. McKeon, acting secretary in the absence of Brislan, who had been seconded temporarily to Port Kembla, pointed out that the executive had had a trying time in the past 12 months, but during the coming year great efforts would have to be made to bring union policy to members. Several speakers enlarged on the need for the quality of delegates’ work to be improved. The establishment of good relations between leadership and the rank and file was still seen as being achieved by convincing the members through the delegates of the correctness of union policy.19 It seems to have been recognised that Labor News, although an unusually well-written union paper, was not well received by Balmain ironworkers.
By the beginning of 1945 it had apparently also been decided that the centre of opposition at Mort’s Dock would have to be tackled. Two confrontations with Origlass occurred in February. At the first, on February 20, the executive considered a claim by Origlass for half a day’s pay for attending a Labor Council Disputes Committee meeting on a matter involving the Ship Joiners’ Society, an organisation regarded by other waterfront unions as bogus. It was decided that the claim should not be met and that Origlass should be notified that delegates would not be paid for time lost unless the union executive or officials were notified and approval given.20
The second issue led directly to Origlass’s removal from his position as a union delegate. It began on Wednesday, February 21, with the suspension by the dock management of the seven members (boilermakers and ironworkers) of the Mort’s boilershop committee for meeting in working hours without permission. The boilershop employees thereupon struck. This direct action brought about intervention by the manpower authorities and the lifting of the suspensions. It was agreed to recommend a return to work. Attempts were made to inform the men by press and radio messages, but fewer half of them appeared for work on the next day, which was Friday. They were addressed by McKeon, who urged an immediate resumption, and Origlass, who recommended that there should be a general return to work on Monday, February 26, since a return by a minority would have a bad effect on job organisation and solidarity. This was accepted by the men present in the morning and by a larger meeting in the afternoon. McKeon then accused Origlass of having broken the agreement made, which had been to resume work on Friday. On Tuesday, February 27, at a special branch meeting, it was resolved to cite the delegates at Mort’s Dock to appear before the executive to explain the attitude they had adopted during the dispute. Origlass was one of those summoned on March 21 and was charged under Rule 17 of the branch rules with acting contrary to the best interests of the union on two counts, the first, of not notifying the union officers of a dispute until after the men ceased work and the second, that having been a party to accepting terms of settlement of a dispute which included resumption of work at a certain time, he moved at a meeting to defer the resumption. The second charge, also under Rule 17, was that he had divulged a decision on a matter of expenses to a committee consisting of persons other than union members.21
The second charge arose from the executive’s refusal of payment for lost time to Origlass for attending the meeting on the ship joiners’ dispute. Origlass had reported this refusal to the Metal Trades Committee after the blacksmiths’ delegate who had accompanied him had reported no difficulty in being paid by his union.
Of the seven men summoned with Origlass on a variety of charges, three, like him, were accused of not notifying the branch officers of a dispute until after the men had stopped work. The seven were reprimanded cautioned, exonerated or fined. But Origlass was found guilty on all counts and “in view of his statement that he is opposed to the policy which is supported by the majority of the membership and his consistent flouting of decisions arising from that policy”, it was decided that he should no longer be recognised as an official delegate of the union.22
The penalty of removal from the position of delegate was drastic and unjustified since Origlass had a strong defence in the first charge, and the second charge was trivial. The substance of his offence was, of course, contained in the executive’s statement that he opposed the union’s policy and flouted its decisions.
Added weight may be given to the supposition that the move against Origlass was designed to destroy his standing and influence in the union by the fact that he was informed by letter of his suspension only on the morning of the next branch meeting, on March 27, which gave him no time to rally supporters to attend it. At that meeting, by 109 to 15, the motion endorsing the executive’s action was carried.23
The news of the removal of their delegate was received with anger and surprise by the ironworkers at Mort’s boilershop. On April 9 Origlass’s co-delegates, Dailly and McGuckin, resigned in sympathy. The next day McKeon addressed a meeting of workers at the boilershop convened to get delegates elected. Origlass was nominated and his nomination refused, and McKeon told the men that Origlass was out “for the term of his natural life”. No other nominations were made. On April 12 the executive appointed three men, Griffiths, Goldsmith and Pamphlin, as delegates for three months, with the position then to be reviewed. The day after that, a meeting of the men at the boilershop refused to accept the appointed delegates and gave them until Monday, April 16, to resign their positions. If they did not do this, the men would refuse to work with them. McKeon informed the men on the Monday that their meeting was unofficial and its resolutions without binding effect. He instructed the men to go to work. Seventeen obeyed and the rest of the 250 or so ironworkers in the boilershop struck. Boilermakers and cranedrivers refused to work with the ironworkers who obeyed the union’s instructions to work and were suspended by the management, which brought all boilermakers and cranedrivers out. The next day, April 17, the strikers were joined by almost all the rest of the ironworkers at Mort’s.
About 600 men attended the next branch meeting, on April 24. At 8.30 the branch president, J. Leehy, closed the meeting because, he said, the uproar was too great to allow him to conduct it properly.24 This was later rejected as a valid reason by Mr Justice O’Mara, when the matter later came before the Arbitration Court. The judge observed that the supporters of Origlass, in a majority at the meeting, would have been interested in having his removal discussed and the executive’s ruling overturned. “The chairman left the hall, followed by about 100 supporters of the branch officials. The remaining 500 resolved unanimously to organise job meetings for the purpose of striking immediately with the demand that the executive should call a special stopwork meeting at Leichhardt Stadium to deal with the Mort’s Dock issue.issue.25
The chairman’s closing of the meeting in order to prevent the discussion and reversal of Origlass’s removal precipitated the action of the rank and file to extend the dispute. The question next was whether the strike would be joined by workers not directly involved in the stoppage at Mort’s. A decision which turned out to be crucially important in extending the stoppage was that of the Cockatoo workers, who on April 26 held a stopwork meeting on the island to discuss the issue, then carried a motion to adjourn to the mainland, where they decided to strike. Once Cockatoo stopped, Poole and Steele and other waterfront shops followed. By the end of April almost 3000 men were on strike.
The branch committee’s decision to depose Origlass, deliberately made, proceeded both from a sense of its own isolation and the knowledge that the union rules could be used to crush opposition. A year in office, far from strengthening the support enjoyed by the branch leaders, they had weakened it in the two largest workplaces and increased the influence of their main opponent. They worked under the handicap of having to defend the unpopular centralising policy of the National Council, which had increased its powers over the branches under the new rules of the amalgamated union. They worked also with a policy of production and industrial action which diverged increasingly from the mood and wishes of the rank and file. Certainly, by 1945 the arguments for support of the war took account of workers’ war weariness and was couched in terms of finishing off the Japanese quickly, liberating the prisoners of war and bringing the boys back home as soon as possible. The strongly collaborationist attitude of the union leaders to the Labour Government had been reinforced by some acceptance of the Browder ideas of industrial peace with the employers after the war. Although Browder’s open influence was short-lived #&151; anathema was pronounced on him by the international Communist movement in May 1945 #&151; his theories did affect ironworker policy statements in 1944. By this time, however, many workers were looking for a policy of militant industrial demands. Still another barrier between ironworker officials and the rank and file was created by the arrogance and elitism of the leaders’ attitudes. These impatient men, fond of the exercise of power, approached the members with a mixture of condescension and distrust, which easily led them to the use of standover tactics. Extreme personal vindictiveness and character assassination marked their relations with their political opponents.
For communists the policy of overall support for the war was not open to question or argument. It was recognised that there were difficulties in getting it accepted, difficulties magnified in Balmain by the particularism and tradition of independent action of the workforce and by the nature of the waterfront industry itself. Trotskyism, in spite of the small number of Trotskyists, was understood to be dangerous because of the challenge its leftism presented to the class collaborationist policies of the Communist Party. But that there might be a case for re-examining policy in the light of the Trotskyist critique was not to be contemplated. To be Trotskyist was to be anti-Soviet, which was to be anti-working class. Origlass’s attacks on the tactics which flowed from class collaboration and his challenge to the basis of the policy itself were never answered with a principled defence by ironworker officials but rather with simple reference to the virtue of supporting the war, at a low level of reason and a high level of emotive appeal.
If union policy was not acceptable to the members, this was due to the backwardness of the rank and file, the inadequate efforts of the politically conscious, and the subversion of the Trotskyist enemy within the working class itself. In other words, the obstacles to acceptance were seen in the form of the failings of people rather than possible invalidity of policy. The way to overcome the obstacles was for the enlightened to strive harder to reach and convince the masses and to expose and discredit the enemy. Policy was laid down, the task was to expound it, win over the majority and destroy the minority. The classic Stalinist approach.
Origlass did not appear at first sight to be the kind of figure who might play the central role in a mass revolt of Balmain ironworkers against their own union. He did not fit into the pattern of the traditional indigenous worker with whom members of the branch could easily identify themselves, as they had with Joe Brown. He was an outsider, a Queenslander with an Italian father, an outlandish name and the appearance of Heathcliff in a sea of men whose forefathers had come from the British Isles. He had joined the branch only in 1939 and lived in the Balmain district only since 1942. His esoteric revolutionary philosophy would barely be understood, let alone supported by the majority of those with whom he worked. Even in the day-to-day issues which he dealt with in the workers’ idiom, direct and fluent, the way forward that he pointed to always spelt struggle, effort and thought, a lot to ask of men at work. He was a man to whom political struggle came as naturally as breathing. His temperamental and political intransigence was such that neither attacks nor isolation nor setbacks could reduce him to quiescence.
The uncompromising manner with which he defended his views and attacked the leadership marked him out for punishment from above. That he should be defended by mass action from victimisation by the union was not so obviously understandable. Certainly his service as a delegate, in which position he combined efficiency with militant defence of workers’ interests on the job, counted for much with the men he worked with. Together with this there was a general resentment against the communist leaders which boiled into open rebellion when they intervened in a directly dictatorial fashion in the workers’ organisation on the job, in order to punish a respected delegate. Finally, there was the capacity of the rank and file to act for themselves. Origlass’s years of advocating that policy should rest in the hands of the workers on the job had met with little response at branch meetings. But once issues of great importance came up for resolution in the workshop, the workers did show themselves under certain conditions to be capable of determined and united action.
At an early stage of the dispute Origlass spoke of the men who had come out against their own union officials.
Ninety-five per cent of the working membership of the Balmain Ironworkers’ Union are on strike. The bulk of this membership consists of older men who have faced the vicissitudes of life, with all its trials, disappointments and vanquished hopes #&151; men who certainly are not moved to drastic and self-sacrificing action unless the gravity of the attack on their established rights is such as to make inaction insufferable.26
The branch meeting of April 24 marked a turning point for the officials as well as for their opposition. Faced with a massive demonstration that their intervention in the affairs of the men on the job had aroused much greater anger than they had expected, they were nevertheless committed to the attempt to destroy Origlass’s influence finally. Thus they would neither accept a mass vote of no-confidence in themselves, nor lift the sentence. But the only way in which the will of the branch members could be overridden was by invoking the powers of the national organisation. After the meeting the members of the executive decided that because the dispute had become a challenge to the authority of the elected branch officials and to the policy of the union, they would report the facts to the National Council for its consideration and any action it deemed fit.27 Thus the conduct of the dispute was openly turned over to those who were already covertly directing it: that is, the union’s national officers, in particular L.J. McPhillips, at that time Acting National Secretary.
On April 29 a meeting of more than 400 delegates of the two Sydney branches and Balmain, supported by the National Council, called unanimously for an immediate return to work at Balmain and for all members and officers to abide by the rules. Abiding by the rules meant, in the case of Origlass, that he should exercise his membership right of appealing to the National Council and National Conference against the branch decision. But as the National Council made clear when it considered the dispute, Origlass’s reinstatement was dependent upon his giving assurances that he was prepared to co-operate with the officers of the union and to execute the policy adopted by the Council or National Conference.28 There was a question of principle involved here, in the differing concepts of the role of a union delegate held by Origlass and his supporters on the one hand, and the union officials on the other. The strikers stood for the right of the men on the job to elect their own their own delegate, who was regarded as the representative of their interests not only in their relations with the employers but also with the union and its officers. For the officials the delegate was a representative of the union entrusted with the carrying out of union policy. Thornton put this point of view to the National Conference in June:
Origlass, although a representative of the union, refused in the most point blank way to carry out the policy of the union or abide by the rules while he was a delegate. The union supports the war, aims to get ships repaired in the shortest possible time. After this policy has been decided by the National Conference and endorsed by every branch and every workshop meeting, Origlass claims the right, not as an individual, mind you, but as a representative of the union, to carry out a policy absolutely opposed to the union policy. What else could the branch do but remove him from his position as delegate? There was no alternative.29
It was this monolithic view of policy that was rejected by Origlass, who argued that the trade unions, in which membership was virtually compulsory, but whose members held many differing views, were not entitled, unlike political parties, to demand adherence to a particular policy from anyone merely by virtue of being a member of a union.
The reply of the Balmain ironworkers to the endorsement of the union officials’ actions by the delegates of the Sydney branches came in the form of a series of mass meetings. On April 30, ironworkers censured the branch officials and pledged solidarity with the Mort’s Dock men, while a meeting of strikers from all the unions involved voted to extend the stoppage to all shops on the Balmain waterfront. On May 3, by 1500 to 194, ironworkers agreed to return to work on condition that the appointed delegates were withdrawn, the right to elect delegates was conceded and union rights were restored to Origlass.30
At further meetings on May 7 and 14, with overwhelming majorities, ironworkers supported the strike and called for a ballot to determine whether the executive retained the confidence of the members.31
It was not until the next monthly branch meeting, on May 22, that the issues were widened from those of reinstatement and the question of confidence in the executive to those of the rank and file deposing their officials and taking control of the branch. Again, this was precipitated by the action of the chairman in refusing to accept Origlass’s motion of suspension of standing orders to deal with the strike. When dissent from the chairman’s ruling was carried, Leehy withdrew with 100-150 supporters. The remaining 800 or so declared all branch positions vacant and elected a temporary action.33 That night the new men attempted to complete their victory by taking possession of the union office, but it was well defended and after a battle, they decided to leave the question of possession to legal action.33. On May 25, the suspensions were confirmed and a new committee of management elected. Then a mass meeting of all the strikers voted to end the stoppage.34 Work was resumed on May 28. The strike had lasted six weeks and had achieved rather more than the National Office was prepared to recognise in its press statement:
By their strike [the men] have accomplished nothing, except to hold up wartime ship repair work for six weeks, and to lose six weeks’ wages.
They have merely been the victims of a clique of political adventurers and would-be breakaways.35
The men had in fact not only reinstated their delegate but also taken control of their branch. There were now two executives, each claiming to be validly elected, and in effect two branch organisations.
The next two and a half years saw a bitter struggle in which the National Council tried to regain control in Balmain. But in spite of involved proceedings in the Arbitration Court, challenges and alterations to the union rules, the attempted closing of the Balmain branch and the expulsion of the rebel leaders, the “breakaway” branch survived, always retaining the support of a clear majority of Balmain ironworkers. In October 1947 the expulsions were lifted and the branch was readmitted to the union as the waterfront sub-branch of the Sydney Metropolitan Branch.
From late 1945 to 1947 the character of the struggle changed, the disparate elements that formed the opposition to the communist leadership of the leadership tended to break up and the original left-wing tendency became overlaid by right-wing anti-communism. It was this right-wing opposition, in turn, which ultimately became strong enough to overthrow the communist leadership of the entire union. But all that, and Origlass’s later battles against employers and union officials in the last days of the old Mort’s Dock, is another story.
From Labour History, November 1972
See also The Balmain Ironworkers’ Revolt. Sean Flood