Unionism among Sydney labourers, 1890-1910
This paper addresses two areas which Australian labour historians have neglected. First, they have shown little interest in unionism among labourers working on building and construction. There has also been a general neglect of the patterns of union development in the 20 years after 1890. Historians have been content, on the whole, to concentrate on the establishment and growth of labour parties and state industrial regulation after the major strikes of 1890-94. Unions enter the picture first, as constituent bodies of these parties and then as one corner of a triangular relationship with parliamentary politics and employers over the introduction and development of the new arbitration systems. Unions only re-emerge in their own right with an upsurge of direct action from about 1907. The traditional interpretation has it that the benefits gained under compulsory arbitration allowed unions to overcome the losses suffered during the nineties and largely accounted for the growth of union organisation after 1901.1
This article links these two problems: the lack of attention paid to building and construction labourers and the assumption that compulsory arbitration stimulated union growth. Its focus is the attempts to unionise the large numbers of non-union Sydney building and construction labourers between 1890 and 1910. It argues that arbitration did not foster growth in union membership. The number of unionists fluctuated with building and construction activity as a whole and as it related to key groups of labourers. Finally, and most importantly, this article argues that while arbitration had a minimal impact on the number of unionists, it had much to do with the proliferation of unions.
Prior to 1890, efforts to unionise construction labourers proved unsuccessful. An existing union, the United Laborers’ Protective Society (ULPS) played an important role in the organisation of labourers after 1900. This union’s opening to and unifying of diverse group of labourers paradoxically became a source of later divisions. Some groups, responding to changing economic and institutional conditions, broke away to form new unions. Their strategies were the product of conflicting impulses towards class or narrow sectional identification.
The four sections of this paper focus on the ULPS’s responses to a changing world. The first period to 1893 was largely the story of growth until economic collapse forced a major change in the union’s thinking. The second part traces the union’s adjustment to the massive unemployment endured during the nineties. The third examines how economic recovery and a more favourable institutional environment between 1899 and 1904 encouraged the union’s resurgence, although in a modified form. The final section shows how the union’s choice of strategy in the previous period left it unable to resist encroachment as its institutional supports collapsed.
Any discussion of labourers includes workers who did a wide variety of jobs in different areas of the economy. They had in common their frequently overlapping location on building, construction and quarrying works and their lack of formal craft qualifications. Irrespective of the skills peculiar to the different jobs (and many of these were interchangeable), much of the work required great strength and endurance at a time of minimal use of machinery. The pattern of economic development forced a high level of job and geographical mobility and it was common for many of them to have had experience in several industries. These common elements and the differences, both real and perceived, caused conflicting trends in unionisation.
Within this large general category of labourers, there were important groupings that had relatively stable employment and did not move much between types of jobs nor between different areas. The most important of these were builders’ labourers. There were also rock miners cutting railway, sewer and telephone tunnels. Finally, government instrumentalities permanently employed some labourers. These groupings tended to be the areas of most persistent unionisation.
To the extent that there were distinctive types of labourers, we can identify two extremes. At one end, there were the building tradesmen’s assistants, the core of the builders’ labourers. At the other end, were the navvies, the largest and most typical group of construction labourers. The former were, by and large, settled metropolitan labourers who, in times of prosperity, could count upon steady work on city commercial building sites and suburban housing. There was also work on construction jobs — bridges, tunnel lining and wharves. These labourers worked alongside the cream of the building trades: the stonemasons, bricklayers, carpenters and plasterers, and shared many of the advances in hours and conditions that these artisans had won. They developed strong workplace and union bonds with the craftsmen and, prior to 1893, clearly saw themselves as part of the building trades rather than as part of the legion of the unskilled. They aspired to security and dignity within a general improvement for the working class. Their union reflected this.
Navvies built roads, railways, dams and canals, typically with pick and shovel. Much of their work was casual and itinerant. They followed jobs or moved between jobs, often shifting between city and country or even between colonies to do so. Depending on the season and the availability of work, they mined, sheared, cut cane, laboured in pastoral industry or in agriculture or drifted into the cities looking for casual labouring around the ports. As navvies, they often dwelled in tent camps, which at times took on the character of demountable townships. They worked, and often lived, exclusively with other unskilled labourers and there was no doubt they saw themselves as such. In the nineteenth century, the eight hour day won by city building workers rarely flowed on to navvies. Nor did the tightly knit construction artisans support navvies against tyrannical and brutal overseers.2
Theirs was extremely arduous toil in a cruel climate and around them developed something of an aura as to their size, strength, Irishness, heavy drinking and rowdiness. However, as John Monash pointed out, they could aspire to a job hierarchy through force of skill, literacy or sobriety. There was the chance of direct promotion to ganger or of advancement to the better jobs such as powder monkey, trench timberer, rock miner, quarryman, platelayer and rough construction carpenter. Where continuous employment allowed for sufficient saving, buying a horse and cart made the family’s move between jobs easier. Further, the navvy’s teenage children could use the cart around the works and supplement the family income.3
Sydney labourers’ unions to 1893
During this period, only labourers working as building tradesmen’s assistants had a stable union, the ULPS. The 30 years after its foundation in 1861 coincided with the “Long Boom”. During this period, Sydney played a pivotal role as a rail, shipping, commercial and administrative centre connecting the NSW pastoral economy with British markets. Intense city building was both a cause and effect of the boost. Rapid urbanisation required a large, casual labour force of the less skilled. Seasonal and cyclical fluctuations in both urban and rural employment meant large flows of unskilled workers between city and country.4 Despite this, the United Laborers’ strong continuous organisation grew in numbers, financial strength and self-confidence.
Although a union of labourers, it covered only the best placed and most skilled labourers, those assisting the craft workers. It excluded the more numerous general construction labourers, as well as the city pick and shovel workers. This sectionalism allowed the ULPS to function as a craft union, alongside and together with the building craft unions. Like them, it had well-established welfare and industrial activities. Similarly, it had developed systems of job control and unilateral regulation. Job-level direct action enforced rules dealing with terms and conditions of employment. Crucial to this was the support gained from craft unions during a period of consistent shortages of tradesmen. To strengthen these ties, the ULPS negotiated reciprocal agreements on union policy. The unions faced divided employers, some of whom had “come up from the bench” and were sympathetic to workers. These strategies and employer difficulties allowed the United Laborers to win demands job by job.5
In the late 1880s, in an attempt to increase membership, the ULPS repealed its rule against working with non-unionists. The outcome was that membership fell from 500 to 150. Neither old nor prospective members were interested in an organisation which renounced its successful tactics. In August 1890, much chastened and swearing never to repeat the experiment, the United Laborers restored their old restrictive rule and began a vigorous campaign for the closed shop. Previously, fragmented and spontaneous rank and file action had enforced the hiring of unionists. This was consistent with the rest of the building trades, where serious strikes were uncommon, but walkouts by small groups of workers frequent. The union now tried and succeeded on a wider front. At the time of the 1890-1 Royal Commission on Strikes, it was the only building industry union which objected in word and deed to working with non-unionists. Membership quickly climbed back to 660.6
In its internal workings and language, too, the ULPS resembled a highly democratic and participatory craft union, it also played a leading role within the broader labour movement as a longtime and prominent affiliate of the NSW Labour Council, United Laborers, through their tightly mandated delegates, strongly supported Council concentration on union and class matters, but opposed the Council’s involvement in parliamentary politics. The ULPS also contributed generously to other unions involved in industrial action.7
While the ULPS was particularly supportive of other unions throughout the colonies, the bulk of the large construction workforce remained unorganised. Although nominally the largest employer in NSW, the colonial government created a largely fragmented workforce by contracting out public works. Subcontracting intensified the fragmentation. Nevertheless, spontaneous combinations and strikes in periods of labour shortage made relatively high wages possible for some construction labourers. On a number of occasions groups of these labourers unsuccessfully requested Labour Council help in organising, The Council usually referred the matter to the ULPS. However, this most solidaristic of unions was unwilling to change its rules and open its ranks to the less skilled, the worse placed and the itinerant. Finally in 1890, the Balmain Laborers, a union of ship painters and dockers, agreed to a Council request to form a branch for city general labourers. Nothing came of it.8
Three unions emerged during the following two years to enrol labourers on metropolitan construction works. There were common factors in their emergence. Labour Council activism interacted with two apparently contradictory forces. The first was a buoyant market for labourers. From 1890, after three years of contraction and stagnation, the NSW economy revived and remained prosperous until 1892. There was a similar reversal in the fortunes of public works spending. The result was a more favourable market for rural and urban labourers and the chance to force up earnings after the wage cuts and broken time of the previous years.9
The second factor was the intensifying level of class struggle. A hardening of contractor industrial behaviour from the late 1880s may have inclined construction labourers to push for something more stable than their relatively spontaneous job organisation. The major industrial clashes in pastoral, transport and mining industries heightened class identification throughout the manual workforce. Unionised and non-unionised workers increasingly recognised their common interests and the need for wider and closer organisation.10 Thus, as the maritime strike dragged to its tragic conclusion, the Labour Council’s Organising Committee was enrolling large numbers of unorganised workers into new or existing unions.
In 1890, it established the NSW Amalgamated Navvies’ and General Labourers’ Union based at the railway construction works at Granville, in the west of Sydney. On behalf of the new union, the Committee also actively enrolled navvies on the edge of or outside the Sydney district. Yet it was a conservative, welfarist union whose fragile organisation could not weather the first signs of the 1892 economic downturn. Its greatest setback came in its attempts to form a Sydney branch for the city and inner suburbs. The union’s level of internal cohesion and initiative was very low and it was entirely dependent on Labour Council support. The Organising Committee admitted as much and attributed the union’s failings to the “migratory dispositions of the workmen interested” and Council’s inability to fund organisers for the whole colony.11 By early l892 the union was no more.
In April 1892, while the Amalgamated Navvies’ Union was going through its death throes, the General Labourers’ Union (GLU) appointed an organiser to enrol “the great mass of non-unionists in and around Sydney and suburbs”.12 This new union covered shed hands and other pastoral labourers. More than the Amalgamated Navvies’ Union, this was an attempt to bring the itinerant and divided construction workers into a general or “mushroom” union of a type then emerging in Britain.13 Despite Labour Council co-operation, the GLU’s campaign failed.
Later that year sewer miners formed a union. They had previously established temporary combinations. With the depression deepening, they recognised the need for permanent organisation to combat further deterioration of working conditions. During a strike on the Darling Point sewer works, they founded a union, which immediately won a strike against attempts to cut piece rates. The miners soon turned their attention to the struggle for reduced hours and safer working conditions.14 Many of them worked for Public Works Department (PWD) contractors. Almost all the other worked for contractors to the Metropolitan Board of Water Supply and Sewerage (Water Board). The halving of PWD expenditure for sewer construction and a decline in Water Board work therefore boded ill for the sewer miners but it was GLU interference which determined the suddenness of their union’s demise. The GLU saw the sewer miners as an important target in its Sydney organising campaign. Initially it unsuccessfully tried to have them form a branch of the proposed Australian Workers’ Union (AWU), an amalgamation of the GLU and its parent Amalgamated Shearers’ Union. Subsequent inducements brought agreement. However, the GLU broke its various promises and left the miners unable to withstand the deteriorating economy. The miners disbanded their union during 1893.15
The only Sydney labourers union to survive the downturn was the ULPS. The worsening economy did not cause any sudden change in the unions ideas or practices. United Laborers continued to express high levels of solidarity within the union movement but would not contemplate forms of mutual aid which threatened their successful sectional methods. They played a leading role in the Labour Council’s attempts to foster organisations for other groups of labourers. United Laborers also continued their extraordinary financial support for other unions’ struggles until late 1893. At the same time, they were deeply concerned at a lack of direction in the union movement as defeats mounted after 1890. Their Labour Council delegates pushed ceaselessly for a tougher attitude to industrial matters and for the dropping of divisive political wrangling connected to the nascent Labor Party. The union also added its weight to attempts to reorganise those unions broken in the Maritime Strike’s aftermath.16
On the other hand, the ULPS remained aloof from the Organising Committee’s plans for a system of membership exchange using a common card. The scheme aimed to avoid friction between unions of the semi-skilled and unskilled in an unstable and shrinking casual labour market. The United Laborers believed they could continue to enforce their own rules unassisted. The unhappy experiment a few years earlier reinforced their sectionalism. They viewed the proposed involvement with unions which had lower or no minimum rates as a threat rather than an advantage. The plan failed to materialise.17
1893-1899: Depression, Disbandment and Transformation
The worsening crisis soon made life difficult for the United Laborers. By October 1893, there were 230 members unemployed and many on short time. By 1897, their almost moribund union had seceded from an equally debilitated Labour Council. Nevertheless, the Sydney ULPS continued. The smaller, autonomous branches in Newcastle and suburban Newtown also survived. Deteriorating market conditions made union job control increasingly irrelevant. As employers regained full job control, they enforced boycotts of ULPS militants. Some United Laborers finished up at settlements for the unemployed. Others joined the thousands of hungry itinerants tramping the rural areas. Still others, such as the leading militant J.P. Reilly, found work on PWD relief jobs. Here he encountered terrible working conditions and sweated piece rates. Shocked at the sight of workers buried in mud and slush, “with their hands bleeding from the arduous nature of the toil”, Reilly led a successful strike against attempts to further reduce earnings.18 The Labour Council assisted him through representations to the PWD and the Minister.
Massive unemployment among labourers of all kinds had pushed the majority of United Laborers into an undifferentiated labour market of the increasingly impoverished unskilled, They no longer worked only in small groups as assistants to the building artisans, were no longer part of a proud and well-tested industrial sector in which they could call on the support of craft workers for job regulation. If they managed to find jobs, they now worked in larger groups of general labourers under despotic gangers, as part of an interchangeable itinerant and apparently degraded workforce. They also faced different employers. During the “Long Boom”, they had generally worked for private builders or contractors on public works. Those on the expanding relief projects worked for the PWD. Reid’s Free Trade Government added to this trend with its halting introduction of direct government employment (day labour) from 1894. Under both systems, wages and conditions were bad and job control difficult, but changes in NSW politics appeared to offer an alternative avenue. The ULPS now urged Labour Council intervention on behalf of these workers before their employer, the NSW government. The Labor Party held the balance of power and could apply pressure on the relevant ministers on behalf of unionists. The union gained some concessions, but was frequently disappointed by a lack of interest from Labor’s parliamentary representatives.19
Depression had caused fundamental changes in the ULPS’s behaviour. By 1895, growing unemployment forced the union to suspend its minimum rate rules. Members could now work alongside non-members. Even more significantly, the union represented non-unionists, whom it had always regarded as blacklegs.20 General labourers could still not join the UPLS under its restrictive rules, yet there was no other union in Sydney they could join. Therefore, the depression pushed the United Laborers to organise among and agitate on behalf of, workers who, at least in the short term, could not become unionists.
This had decisive implications for the type of organising undertaken and the nature of the union as a whole. The old strategy of enforcement of the closed shop and exclusion could no longer work. On behalf of its traditional members and a large number of construction labourers, the union now acted to directly control the relevant jobs and labour market, the United Laborers replaced job-level solidarity and direct pressure from below with indirect pressure and industrial solidarity from above. Their pre-depression behaviour towards non-union construction labourers became their union’s central industrial strategy.
Major changes in construction technology encouraged these trends. From 1895, the PWD and then the Water Board, gradually introduced reinforced concrete in place of stone or brickwork for the construction of drains, bridges, aqueducts and water tanks.21 This meant the employment of quite different skill groups and new work organisation. Skilled artisans and their assistants were no longer needed. Rough carpenters for form work and large numbers of concrete labourers replaced them. This closely resembled the situation in other areas of construction. With the increased use of reinforced concrete for construction, and later for building, employment for general and concrete labourers grew at the expense of traditional building workers.
Thus technological change provided an organisational incentive for looking beyond the building trades assistants, a transformation already under way inside the UPLS. Whereas the depression had largely contributed to the failure of other unions’ attempts to organise Sydney’s general labourers, it had forced the United Labourers to confront the problem. By the end of the century, the result was a major shift in the Union’s attitudes to the enrolling of workers outside its traditional categories. Further changes in institutional and political arrangements forced the union to consider a very different industrial strategy.
1899-1904: Recovery, broadening and division
A severe drought from 1895 to 1903 hampered economic recovery. A shortage of overseas loan funds further restricted growth. After years of speculation prior to the depression, the collapse of the building industry had been particularly resounding. The UPLS, like many other unions, had survived the bitter years of the mid-nineties on paper more than in deed. With a strengthening economy, by the second half of 1899 there were encouraging signs of a general union recovery. The Sydney UPLS began organising and it reaffiliated with a reconstituted Labour Council.22 However, the depression had fundamentally altered the union’s perspectives. Subsequent developments were only to reinforce the major changes. The United Laborers no longer intended to remain a union only for builders’ labourers, but began to look towards becoming the union for all Sydney labourers. They had worked with the non-unionised and shared experiences of direct solidarity during the depression. The new Protectionist Government’s appointment in September 1899 of E.W. O’Sullivan as Minister for Works gave impetus to this metamorphosis.
O’Sullivan was a strong proponent of national development through state capitalism. He also firmly believed in enlightened state intervention to improve working class living and employment conditions. During his ministerial term, between 1899 and 1904, he actively combined these two tenets in formulating PWD policy and practice. He greatly centralised PWD decision-making into his own hands yet remained very approachable. In particular, he strongly sympathised with unionism and welcomed union input into his department’s labour policies. Building and construction industry unionists found this to be a winning combination. Their major employer favoured union preference in employment, overrode entrenched anti-unionism among PWD staff and introduced major innovations benefiting unions and their members.23
With support from the Labor Party and elements within his own party, O’Sullivan reshaped employment for labourers in two fundamental ways. The first was through the determined expansion of public works expenditure. This substantially relieved the high unemployment among urban and rural labourers and partially countered the effects of the adverse trade cycle. As unemployment persisted, O’Sullivan extended and systemised relief works and other areas of state intervention to lessen the suffering of the jobless.24 He also changed the system of employment on public works. The Reid Government’s introduction of day labour had been modest and barely touched construction works. O’Sullivan rapidly extended PWD day labour to replace almost completely construction contractors on the greatly expanding works program. Through his influence day labour also spread to public authorities such as the Water Board and the Harbour Trust.25
O’Sullivan introduced a number of measures to place the now enormous PWD hiring on a rational and efficient basis. By the end of 1901, three Labour Commissioners had control of unemployment relief and the supply of labour for relief works. A State Labour Board took over the registration and hiring of the labour needed for normal public works. The following year, to the great satisfaction of the unions involved, O’Sullivan also imposed a rotation system for PWD hiring. This gave Sydney unionists automatic access to nearly half the jobs on public works. bypassing anti-union prejudice among PWD foremen and inspectors.26
O’Sullivan also reformed wages and conditions. He made union rates the minimum wages on PWD works and set seven shillings (7/-) as the daily minimum for eight hours of unskilled labour. This latter rate anticipated Higgins’s much heralded federal basic wage by seven years. The Minister further enraged contractors by insisting that they too pay these minimum rates on the few contracts still available. For the first time, building and construction workers received payment for public holidays and paid time off for injury.27
The growth of public construction employment and ministerial encouragement of unionism stimulated a rebirth of unionisation among construction workers. Some workers resurrected defunct organisations or formed totally new ones. The ULPS enrolled previously excluded groups. From early 1900, even before completely revising their rules, United Laborers began enrolling non builders’ labourers. The daily 7/- minimum for an eight-hour day on public works made construction labourers more acceptable to the previously selective ULPS.
Rule changes soon halved the joining fees, dues and fines. High-cost unionism had been one way of maintaining organisational exclusiveness. The reductions made the unions more accessible to the generally lower paid construction labourers, whose earnings also suffered more from broken employment. Because there were still problems with rules defining precisely which group of labourers could be United Laborers, the ULPS made changes so as to include rockchoppers, sewer miners and concrete workers, all of whom were in great demand. The new rules also included gantry and crane workers, pick and shovel labourers and platelayers. The greater use of machinery and scaffolding on both construction and larger building sites meant more employment for the first group. The second group were the lowest status workers among construction and building labourers and the third laid train and train tracks. By mid-1901. the union formally covered the bulk of the categories in building and construction.28
The union had already begun agitating on behalf of these new groups. Union meetings elected a series of activists as temporary, paid organisers, sometimes for one day, at other times on a weekly basis over a number of months. The organisers visited labourers on government and private building sites, in quarries, on sewer and stormwater works, in telephone tunnels, on the larger water supply projects and the tramway and railway construction jobs around Sydney. Membership jumped from 280 in 1900 to more than 600 the following year. By 1903. the Sydney Branch was expanding from its traditional inner-metropolitan base by recruiting members living and working in the outer suburbs west to Parramatta. Organisation also spread beyond the Sydney district. New ULPS branches began among those working on the Port Kembla harbour works, the Portland cement works and on the construction of Cataract Dam. Itinerant members hoping to start branches in other country towns or on railway works wrote to Sydney asking for rule and membership books.29 This growth had little to do with arbitration but everything to do with the reorganisation of public works under O’Sullivan.
At the same time, the union’s character began to change. There was a clear decline in the autonomy of workplace organisation — the result of a number of factors. Some new members lacked experience and their union lacked complete coverage on construction jobs. Further, they were isolated from the traditionally supportive craft unionists. Industrial life was also becoming tougher for builders’ labourers. Private building employers chafed at the continued interference from O’Sullivan, unions and the Labor Party. After a decade of organisation, they began to act more cohesively and with greater class consciousness. This made it very difficult for builders labourers to win demands job-by-job as they had prior to 1893. They now looked more to the union as a whole to win their disputes. Nevertheless, the centralising trend within the ULPS stemmed from a desire to grow by organising through outside intervention on jobs. It also reflected the union’s own declining workplace autonomy due to its relationship with the dominant but sympathetic employer.30
O’Sullivan protected union activists against victimisation and recognised ULPS delegates on PWD sites. He also allowed the union to monitor day labour employment books. O’Sullivan’s attitudes encouraged a number of building and construction unions to rely on him to achieve their aims. They, and in particular the ULPS, increasingly took their industrial grievances directly to the Minister. He intervened in all areas of conflict, including the sensitive areas of hiring and firing, job classification and discipline.31 As the ULPS moved to share greater job control through intervention from above, it let atrophy its traditional methods of enforcement from below. Vigilance became external to job organisation as the union’s influence became increasingly identified with and dependent on O’Sullivan. This turned militants into petitioners. In the process, a small group of prominent activists became increasingly responsible for conducting union policy.
Where O’Sullivan had no influence, the weakening at the union’s base was obvious. The NSW Master Builders’ Association (MBA) recognised this and refused the union’s attempts at collective bargaining because they contained elements of unacceptable unilateral regulation. The union then sought satisfaction through the new province of compulsory arbitration. The MBA watched the tortured and finally unsuccessful path of the union’s logs of claims with wry amusement. The ULPS then tried unsuccessfully to use the same arbitration machinery to ban unionists working with non-members and to ensure members remained financial.32 Prior to the depression, members on each job had directly enforced this themselves. The union now implicitly admitted this was no longer possible. As it depended on its major employer to defend its job organisation and conditions, it now placed its hopes on the state enforcing the union’s labour market control and internal discipline.
The move from a narrow but direct solidarity to a wider but more passive, institutional form brought forth a paradoxical reaction. Changes in the ULPS’s recruitment policy encouraged a split. In April 1901, antagonists from the small Newtown Branch seceded to form the Builders’ Laborers’ Union (BLU).33 Although the new union gained registration in 1901, intense ULPS pressure ensured that the Labour Council refused it affiliation. For more than a decade, the ULPS bitterly campaigned against the breakaway union being accepted by the labour movement and the state.34 The BLU reciprocated the hostility with interest.
There were several reasons for the ULPS’s animosity. BLU representatives were openly contemptuous of the older union, which they regarded as flooded with labourers of lesser skill, status and character. They rejected any notion of a common bond between tradesmen’s assistants and other building and construction labourers. Their new union had re-established the old selectivity, even if it did not extend beyond Newtown. BLU representatives also grossly distorted relative membership figures during propaganda battles with the ULPS and unfairly accused the older union of neglecting builder’s labourers. In fact the older, much larger union was much more genuinely active than the BLU.35 Two other factors indicate the hollowness of the BLU’s case. While there had been a major change in the ULPS, the Newtown Branch, with its local autonomy, could have continued on the traditional path. Further, it was the Sydney Branch which was enrolling great numbers of construction labourers. Yet, its hundreds of builders’ labourers remained remarkably loyal.
The real reason for the split lay in the Newtown Branch’s decline due to local factors and the frustrated ambitions of some of its leaders,36 The main dissidents hoped to increase their power by breaking away and organising outside Newtown. They believed there was sufficient dissatisfaction among builders’ labourers to sustain a new union. At the time, an upsurge of organisation in many industries spawned a proliferation of unions. Some were of the most dubious nature. The BLU, the child of personal ambitions and antagonisms, was one of these.
Despite all its efforts, very few builders’ labourers outside the old Newtown Branch joined the BLU in its first eight years. In fact, membership fell heavily despite registration under the new Arbitration Act. In 1905, it had only half of its original membership. In comparison, membership figures for the craft unions in the industry were steady or, especially after 1905, improving. The BLU still had only 57 members in 1908 despite a city building boom and a rapid increase in building craft union membership.37
By contrast, the ULPS continued to have the support of builders’ labourers. In 1903, they were a major section of the 2207 United Laborers who constituted Sydney’s second largest union. Although membership then declined heavily, this was due to the exodus of construction labourers hard hit by massive cuts in metropolitan PWD spending. With about 1500 members during the rest of the decade, it still remained one of the larger unions and kept its large core of builders’ labourers. Its attempts to hunt the BLU out of existence were thus disproportionate to the threat and were a product of the centralising of the union’s affairs in the hands of an embittered few. Despite attempts by veteran ULPS members to foster reconciliation, intransigence mostly won the day.38
The ULPS soon faced competition from four other unions. During 1902, both the AWU and the ULPS responded to appeals from their members by organising on the Blue Mountains railway works west of Sydney. Labor Party leader. J.S.T. McGowen, arbitrated a compromise that divided NSW construction labourers between the two unions. The agreement gave the ULPS coverage of the areas where it was already active. The AWU, which was showing renewed ambitions towards construction workers, received the rest of NSW. After one year, the ULPS cancelled the agreement. The AWU could not mount a challenge, as it was preoccupied with defeating the threat from the “bogus” Machine Shearers’ Union.39
Another union covering labourers was the Public Service Association of NSW (PSA). Senior public servants had founded the union in 1899 for workers employed under the Public Service Act. The PSA was conservative, paternalistic and centralised. In 1911 it opened its doors to all NSW government employees and absorbed the fledgling Water and Sewerage Board Service Association. The latter had begun in 1900, modelling itself on the PSA. It covered permanent water and sewerage maintenance labourers. These flowed into the PSA.40
In 1902, construction labourers working for the Water Board or its contractors formed the Sydney and Suburban Sewerage Employees’ Union (SSSEU). They were already covered by the ULPS. The new union formed during a period of rising public awareness of the plight of the sewer miners and rockchoppers. In late 1911. O’Sullivan established an inquiry which found that these workers had suffered a terrible toll of illness and death from silicosis. Its recommendations included a six-hour day for tunnelling through sandstone. While O’Sullivan implemented the recommendations as to hours and conditions, the Water Board ignored the Minister’s request to follow suit.41 It also blocked the SSSEU’s claims for uniform rates on Board jobs. While the union had enough fire to prompt one large contractor to request a release from its contract, with the almost total collapse of sewerage construction during 1903 the union folded.42 Those members still having labouring jobs in Sydney probably drifted back into the ULPS.
1904-1910: Revival, recomposition and division
Amid a halting economic recovery and allegations of government incompetence, Joseph Carruthers and his conservative Liberal Reform Party won the August 1904 state elections. He promised a major reduction and restructuring of government spending and regulation.43 After more than four years of “O’Sullivanism”, the PWD was a special target. The new minister, C.A. Lee, cut depleted PWD spending even further, redirected the remaining activity from city to country and replaced day labour with contract. PWD spending remained very low during the middle of the decade and even with the end of decade boom did not regain the levels of the O’Sullivan era.
Economic revival after 1905 seemed to offer Sydney’s labourers brighter prospects. Unemployment amongst the unskilled fell gradually from 1906. Prosperity after 1908 reabsorbed most of the unemployed. Partly this was due to a general transition from construction to manufacturing and partly to renewed pressure on building stock. There was a new round of building city offices and warehouses. This reduced city residential areas and consequently stimulated suburban house building.44
The ULPS continued to broaden its appeal to the great mass of metropolitan labourers. To ease pressures on their external labour market, it campaigned through the Labor Council for an end to government immigration programs. The union also continued to lobby and agitate on behalf of builders’ labourers and rockchoppers and sewer miners, but with little success.45 Lee was much less amenable to union deputations. Further, the Labor Party was now the official opposition and, no longer holding the balance of power, was unable to exert the same pressure. Even in such unpromising circumstances, the ULPS appeared unable to move away from its new strategy of pressure from above.
While some sections of the ULPS membership seemed content to rely upon lobbying, rockchoppers and sewer miners were not. They continued to face terrible health hazards and their wages and conditions had deteriorated. Yet the ULPS did little more than protest to a sympathetic Labour Council. Although these workers had a tradition of job militancy, the union did not enforce their demands when their labour market was tight. Finally, in January 1908, they formed their own union. Within a short time, the new Rockchoppers and Sewer Miners’ Union of NSW (RSMU) had organised almost all the 500 or so workers on Water Board jobs. It immediately took advantage of a shortage of rockchoppers to win a series of local strikes. The Board and contractors had to comply with the union’s interpretations of classification, hours, wages and safety.46
The introduction of new industrial legislation soon complicated matters. The 1901 Industrial Arbitration Act had been a failure. In 1908, C.G. Wade, Carruthers’ successor, enacted the Industrial Disputes Act. This imposed heavy penal clauses for strikes, echoing employers’ proposals to combat rising union militancy. The Act also stressed groups of workers in “industries” rather than unions. Tripartite wages boards under the Industrial Court determined wages, hours and conditions for each of the “industries” under the Act.”47
The Labour Council promoted a boycott of the new legislation. However, a number of non-affiliates registered at once and then applied for exclusive access to the wages boards for their “industries”. This prompted a slow but steady leakage of competing affiliated union. The boycott collapsed during 1909. Nevertheless, the rising cost of living, resentment of Wade’s Act and the growing influence of direct action ideas increased industrial tensions. During 1908 there were a number of major and at times bitter strikes48
After a series of isolated, local skirmishes, the RSMU became the only union to decisively defeat both the employers and Wade’s repressive legislation. Against mounting pressure from the government, courts and capitalist press, the resoluteness of the small union’s rank and file won the day. The contractors and then the Board backed down on every point. It was successful self-activity of this kind which cemented allegiances to the new union and left the ULPS with those less demanding in their unionism49
While this was a spectacular victory, the establishment of wages boards had a more decisive and lasting impact on labourers’ unionism. The ULPS supported the Labour Council boycott and did not register. Breakaway unions registered early, and successfully applied for wages boards as the ULPS lost Industrial Court hearings deciding coverage of building trades’ assistants, Water Board and Sydney City Council labourers. It also lost in theory the rockchoppers and sewer miners it had already lost in fact. Throughout all these hearings. the ULPS claimed to be the only union which rightfully covered all types of labourers in building, construction, quarrying and public authorities).50
The Act divided the Sydney labouring workforce into different “industries” and thus into different boards. These cut across the union’s membership. These divisions owed very little to reality, but aided the judicial decomposition of a broadly based union and the fragmentation of a general layer of the labour force. Even more than the legislation, it was the interpretations of the Court’s President, Judge Heydon, which split the labourers on jurisdictional lines.
Both the ULPS and the MBA strongly contested the BLU’s claims to represent the majority of building trades’ assistants. The overwhelming majority of these workers were United Laborers. The BLU, which claimed to have 170 members, was very marginal. In response to ULPS requests that Heydon take this into account, compared with the immensely larger ULPS coverage, the BLU brought to bear its familiar inclination for untruth and elitism, BLU representatives objected to being included with rockchoppers as the latter belonged to a different industry — works construction — rather than building. Nor had they any wish to either cover or be organised with the pick and shovel brigade and the concrete workers, the “unskilled”. Their separate union and wages board helped stress their remoteness from the general labourers and their proximity.’ to the building artisans with whom they wished to be identified.51
Their stance was diametrically opposed not only to the new ULPS ethos, but to work practices on building sites and labour market realities. As one ULPS official explained, tradesmen’s assistants often did both “skilled” and “unskilled” labouring, and often on the same site. This was especially the case when the trade was not brisk. They competed with the completely “unskilled” for pick and shovel work on the foundations, expecting to be kept on for the sequence of lighter and better paid skilled labouring jobs. The ULPS stressed the differing groups’ overlapping work experience and shared interests. BLU members had left the ULPS for personal reasons. Their claim to skilled status was a charade and their union bogus.52
Heydon refused to accept that strength in the field affected the right to representation under the Act. The Act spoke of “industries” and not “unions” and either union could represent the interests of employees in the industry. The BLU had applied for the constitution of a wages board for its industry. The ULPS had not. There was a difference between builders’ labourers and others on the basis of skill and because the Act said so. Therefore, he granted the BLU sole employee representation on the wages board which decided builders’ labourers’ wages, hours, and conditions).53
Legislative and arbitral intervention alone cannot explain why jurisdictional defeats became heavy organisational losses. The answer lies in the transformation of the ULPS over the preceding decade. This is also the key to understanding how an attempt at wider unity led to greater divisions. For a number of years the ULPS had eschewed direct job control by workers for an increasingly centralised union organisation. The union had used its position and status to win concessions through representation and to retain members’ loyalty against the BLU. A wages board, to which the ULPS had no formal access, would now settle industrial matters for builders’ labourers. All concessions would seem to flow through the BLU’s wages board representation. There was little or no room for the ULPS’s deputations and lobbying. Here was finally a reason for builders’ labourers to prefer the BLU.
The BLU used this institutional monopoly to grow at the ULPS’s expense. During a commercial building boom, it could promise and hope to deliver improvements for builders’ labourers on a wide front for the first time. In this way, the BLU broke out of its geographical confines and stagnation. With 57 members at the end of 1908, 238 one year later and 950 at the end of 1911, it more than outstripped the rapid expansion of union membership in the rest of the building industry. It soon became part of a new national Builders’ Labourers’ Federation covering the majority of builders’ labourers.
Heydon’s decision caused the ULPS to panic and register. It unsuccessfully claimed all the remaining labourers. There were still some 80 United Laborers doing rockchopping and sewer mining, many of them also members of the RSMU. The RSMU replied by claiming that it effectively covered the vast majority (98%) of those getting the six-hour day on Water Board jobs. This time, Heydon decided that strength in coverage counted. In asserting its organisational and jurisdictional independence the RSMU stressed not so much the skilled nature of the work but the distinct sphere of employment. The Board had special conditions of employment not found in outside industry. Thus the RSMU laid claim to the best placed and most tightly organised and was for the moment content to leave the remaining miners and rockchoppers to other unions.54) For all its militancy then, the RSMU’s strategy was similar to that of the BLU or of the pre-depression United Labourers: the segmentation of labouring workforces by the removal of the best located and most cohesive groups. These became the nucleus on which to build a tightly disciplined, active, high-wage union out of the labouring morass.
Still another union made inroads into ULPS coverage. Some of the Water Board’s permanent labourers seceded from the PSA and formed the Metropolitan Board of Water Supply and Sewerage Employers’ Association in early 1909. They criticised the PSA’s failure to maintain their real and relative wages and its refusal to represent individual members in the law courts. Also, the PSA did not register under the 1908 Act due to its paternalistic traditions and the government’s exclusion of most public servants from arbitration. The seceding Board employees saw in the 1908 Act a golden opportunity to further their neglected interests with a minimum of conflict and bother.55
The ULPS, which had organised among the Board’s labourers with mixed success for most of the decade, contested this new threat. The new union used the argument that it dealt with a distinct employer, the Board, and thus had distinct interests, It admitted ULPS coverage among the Board’s permanent and casual labourers, but countered by claiming strength among the ventshaft workers, yet another “skilled” group of labourers who had little in common with pick and shovel workers. But ventshaft workers were only a tiny group. The new union’s representatives claimed that anyone who worked for the Board, by force of the work processes involved, was automatically more skilled than those who did not. Further, the different conditions enjoyed by the Board’s permanent employees ensured that they had little in common with outside workers. Heydon noted the Act’s inclusion of the Board as a separate “industry” and removed permanent Board labourers from the ULPS’s wages board. The new union excluded casuals until early 1910, after which it sought to represent them, again in competition with the ULPS. Heydon granted this too, after the Board and the new union outlined the advantages to the Board and the public of a tame “house” union rather than one with a militant past and close Labour Council links.56
Like other unions, the ULPS had reacted to the defeats and depression of the 1890s by looking outwards.57 In this case, it meant a new form of solidarity with the weak, the largely ununionised construction labourers. A similar experiment prior to the depression indicated the risk of losing strength among its traditional base, the well-placed building tradesmen’s assistants. The new widening did cause a split but the BLU’s challenge was weak and appeared doomed. Faced with similar pressures during the same period, British general or “all-in” labourers’ unions managed to contain sectional impulses. They merely acted as federations of permanent local job control or bargaining units.58 In NSW, Heydon’s administration of the 1908 Act was largely responsible for the ULPS’s attempts to unify the labouring ranks ending in enduring institutional disunity. A handful of Sydney labouring unions survived where there might only have been one very large ULPS and perhaps the much smaller RSMU.
In general terms then, recovery and then growth in union membership among labourers came as a result of economic recovery from 1899 and again after 1905. O’Sullivan’s administration of the PWD had given it a particular boost. Compulsory arbitration did little to increase unionisation among labourers, at least before 1910. They were already organised or being organised, but into fewer unions. Arbitration after 1908 was decisive in determining which unions were to survive and their contours within the labouring workforce. Prior to 1908, the ULPS covered the full range of very diverse labourers in building and construction. It had members in “skilled” and “unskilled” labouring, in permanent and casual positions, under public and private employers. Heydon’s decisions reduced the union’s jurisdictional representation to the unskilled and the worst placed. Yet the losses incurred as a result of the 1908 Act only demonstrated how far the ULPS had slipped in its ability to hold the loyalty of its larger and more heterogeneous membership. The real source of its weakness, and hence its defeats, had deeper roots and a longer history.
By organising along more generous class impulses after 1900, the United Laborers gave up the source of their historic sectional strength. This alone did not cause the union’s gradual qualitative decline. Rather, it was a question of a diminishing ability to adapt organisation and behaviour to new challenges, a weakening of nerve and of will. Rigidly pursuing a strategy suited to a set of fortuitous external circumstances proved disastrous when those circumstances changed. The union lost groups of both “better” and “worse” unionists. An example of the former were the rockchoppers and sewer miners. If the ULPS was not going to change its strategy and press home the advantages of these miserably treated but well-placed workers, they were. The opportunistic BLU and Water Board Union were examples of the latter.
While the ULPS continued its unsuccessful pressure group strategy, major changes in its environment left it vulnerable to such competing groups better able to negotiate the change. The BLU, in fact, offered nothing more than the ULPS had been providing, but through Heydon and the 1908 Act it was now in a position to do so. The ULPS was not, In broadening its base, the ULPS had lost distinct groups of labourers conscious that their superior skill or location allowed them to make gains through exclusive, sectional unionism. Such sectionalism could be the expression of a militant, rank and file union such as the RMSU, or of conservative, deferential and bureaucratic unions such as that for Water Board employees.
Through all these challenges, the ULPS tried desperately to defend its organisational integrity. A major arena of past activity provided one avenue and, from 1908, ULPS delegates initiated a Labour Council rule which formalised the exclusion of their rivals. They also persuaded Council delegations to urge the secessionists to rejoin the ULPS as part of a Council campaign to consolidate competing unions59 Attempts at reunification failed, The ULPS grew again, but only through concentrating on scattered metropolitan work groups and the large bodies of construction navvies further afield, Here it was to come up against the might of the larger rural-based unions, notably the AWU.
University of Sydney
This is a rewritten version of a paper for the Conference on Sources of Division: Historical Perspectives on Disunity within the Australian Workforce, Sydney, November 1985. The author thanks Greg Patmore for comments.
4. S.H. Fisher. The Family and the Sydney Economy in the late Nineteenth Century, in F. Grimshaw, C. McConville and E. McEwen (eds), Families in Colonial Australia. George Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 1985, 154, 158.
5. NI. Rimmer and P. Sheldon, Union Control Against Management Power: Labourers Unions in New South Wales Before the 1890 Maritime Strike, Australian Historical Studies, April 1989; Federated Builders and Contractors Association of Australasia (FBCA), Convention Reports and Proceedings, 1891-1911, 79. 96-98. 167-9; Report to the Royal Commission on Strikes, 1890-1 (RCS), Literary Appendix, 1-19 Minutes of Evidence, passim. It is clear that Bede Nairn underestimated the similarity of the ULPS to craft unions and thus the early homogeneity of the Labour Council. He also underestimated the militancy of the ULPS. N.B. Nairn, The Role of the Trades and Labour Council in New South Wales 1871-1891. Historical Studies: Selected Articles, second series, Melbourne, 1967, 157.
7. Rimmer and Sheldon, loc cit. This paper ignores the changing name and composition of the Labour Council during this period. The UPLS contributed £60 to the maritime strike fund in 1890. Labour Defence Committee, Official Report and Balance Sheet, Sydney 1890, 30. It was also a major contributor between 1885 and 1893. See eg, General Minutes, 31/12/1885, 21/1/1886, 3/12/1891.
10. J. Rickard, Class and Politics. Australian National University Press, Canberra, 1976, 14, 21, 26-7, 34 288; Rowe, loc cit, 40; J. F. O’Connor, 1890: A Turning Point in Labour History: A Reply to Mrs Philipp, Historical Studies: Selected Articles, 142-3.
11. RCS. Literary Appendix. 149-50; Sydney Morning Herald (SMH), 24/12/1890; TLC Organising Committee Minutes, 9/2/1891, 19/2/1891, 1/1/1892; TLC General Minutes, 2/1/1891, 11/5/1891, 11/6/1891, 4/8/1891, 21/1/1892.
16. In mid-1893, the ULPS contributed £100 to the Broken Hill miners, more than £50 to striking seamen, £50 to quarrymen and £25 to the stonemasons, TLC General Minutes, 20/7/1893, passim; TLC Organising Committee Minutes, 7/12/1892.
19. Public Service Board (PSB), Report into the Prince Alfred Hospital (and the Day Labour System), New South Wales Legislative Assembly Notes and Proceedings. (NSWLAVP), 1904, 659; TLC General Minutes, 13/9/1891, 5/4/1894, 11/10/1894, 11/2/1895, 25/10/1895.
23. B. Mansfield, Australian Democrat, University of Sydney Press, Sydney, 1965, 157-8, 237; PSB Report on Prince Alfred Hospital, loc cit, 686-92, 712; Public Service Journal (PSJ), 10/5/1901; Worker, 5/10/1901; ULPS Minutes, 8/1/1900.
25. B.E. Mansfield, The State as Employer: An Early Twentieth Century Discussion. Australian Journal of Politics and History, vol III, no 2, May 1958, 183; PSB Report on Prince Alfred Hospital, loc cit, 659; PWD Annual Report 1901-02, 3.
30. Cf FBCA op cit, for years 1892 to 1902; MBA, Ten Years of Labour Rule in New South Wales, Sydney, 1902. After discussions with O’Sullivan, the ULPS Board of Management recommended an end to the payment of “principle pay” for walking off the job in support of union rules without the union’s permission. ULP Minutes. 19/9/1902.
32. MBA Annual Report for 1903, 2; ULPS Board of Management Minutes, 22/9/1903; ULPS Minutes, 11/3/1903, 19/11/1903. Cf Hobsbawm’s comment for Britain, that: “The classical ‘labourers’ union knew perfectly well that it could win little without a strike: at any rate an occasional one.” op cit 189.
35 In 1901, the BLU representatives claimed 66 members. In 1902 they said it had been 140. In 1902, they said the majority of Sydney’s builders labourers were among the 111 BLU members(!) and ridiculed the ULPS for claiming at least 300 builders’ labourers (TLC General Minutes. 30/4/1902). Seven sears later they admitted that there had been 100 builders labourers among the 1400 Sydney ULPS members in 1902. Transcripts of Industrial Court Hearings (ICT) 3/8/1909) NSW State Archives 2/136, vol 83). For ULPS campaigns on behalf of builders labourers for example scaffolding and lifts legislation, see UPLS and TLC Minutes, 1900-4. Note also ULPS claims that BLU members worked for lower rates. ULPS Minutes, 10/11/1902. For evidence of BLU-employer collusion against the ULPS and its attempts to reduce hours, PSB Report on Prince Alfred Hospital, loc cit, 690, 759.
40. PSJ. 4/8/1900, 9/3/1901, 10/2/1902; Water Board Minutes 7/11/1900, 11/2/1903, 13/7/1904(MWSDBA). See also P. Sheldon, A Middle Class Union: The Early Days of the Public Service Association of NSW, Labour and History, February 1989.
41. Job Control for Workers Health: The 1908 Rockchoppers’ Strike in Sydney, Labour History, November 1988.
46. Sheldon, Job Control, 45-6.
49. Sheldon, Job Control; ICT, 19/101909 (NSW State Archives 2/138, vol 85).
55. Cooperator Eight Hour Souvenir, 7/10/1912; Transcripts of Hearings of the Metropolitan Water and Sewerage (General Labourers) Wages Board 1910, 25, 31, 62, 95, 131 (Water and Sewerage Employees’ Union Archive, Sydney).