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  Issue No 101 Official Organ of LaborNet 06 July 2001  

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History

Enlarging Human Personality


Mark Hearn argues that Lloyd Ross's post-War approach to Workplace Democracy seems contemporary by today's standards

 
 

To make men socialists is nothing, but to make socialism human is a great thing.(Oscar Wilde)

On 19 June 1938 Timm Stephen Dwyer, a 41 year old shunter with the NSW government railways, was killed in a workplace accident at the Enfield railway marshalling yards in Sydney. Dwyer was found crushed between two goods trucks.

The shunter's job was one of the railways most dangerous, particularly in the Enfield yards - the largest in Australia, containing over one hundred miles of track. On a quiet Sunday, Dwyer worked alone a string of 56 trucks 'through down departure into the neck'. Enfield yard ran downhill, and a system of gravitational shunting was used to sort the trucks and carriages into trains of various lengths. The engine in front of the long line of trucks was out of sight around a curve. Dwyer was standing between two trucks when they slammed together, leaving him pinned. An inquest found that the coupling on one of the trucks was defective, and Dwyer had been forced to get between the trucks to force it loose. Dwyer's union, the Australian Railways Union, was angry that Dwyer had been left to perform such a dangerous task unaided. 'Sunday work at Enfield is performed by the skeleton of a normally thin staff.'

Timm Dwyer had been an active unionist. Jack Ferguson, the ARU organiser sent by the union that Sunday to investigate the accident, had been signed up by Dwyer as an ARU member in 1926. In the ARU journal Railroad Ferguson observed that for the managers of the NSW Railways Department, Dwyer's death was 'merely an impersonal incident.' For Ferguson, Dwyer's work mates and above all, for Dwyer's family, Dwyer's death was not impersonal. Dwyer was the father of two children, and Ferguson recorded meeting Helen Dwyer, Timm's widow, and the children, Robert and Barbara. 'If only those responsible could enter the homes of the bereaved!' Ferguson entered the Dwyer's 'small home' in Sixth Avenue Berala. Despite her distress, Helen Dwyer felt compelled to speak out, expressing her bitterness about those who put 'balanced budgets' before a human life.

Timm had often complained to her of the staff shortages at Enfield. Helen told Ferguson, 'I feel that I must say something if I possibly can, so that I may be able to do some good, and save others from similar suffering.' Ferguson described how Helen had been informed of Timm's death with 'callous indifference.' No-one from the NSW Railways Department officially contacted her. A young girl, hastening with the rough speed of bad news, came to the door of the family home that Sunday afternoon, and told Helen that 'her son' had been injured. Realising that the girl was referring to Timm, Helen immediately made for the Enfield yard. As Helen rushed to the railway station, she was told by one of Timm's fellow workers that Timm was in hospital after a minor accident. When she arrived at the hospital she was finally informed that Timm had been killed instantly in the accident, and had been dead some hours.

I can tell you the story of Timm Dwyer's unnecessary death because the details are recorded in the pages of the Railroad, part of the campaign that his death triggered, and which extended over a period of two months in 1938. Behind that story, but rarely mentioned himself, stood the figure of Dr. Lloyd Ross, the university-trained labour historian and Workers' Education Association teacher who became NSW ARU secretary in 1935. Ross wrote some of the articles and editorials for the shunter's campaign but generally he allowed the people affected to speak for themselves - Helen Dwyer, Jack Ferguson, the Enfield shunters. Ross demanded that the Railways department listen to the need for action to prevent more deaths. In the Railroad, Ross issued a challenge: 'Who says shunters are not men?' A challenge to both the Department and the shunters. Ross knew that he could not single-handedly solve the shunter's problems, and nor could the union: the shunters had to help themselves.

To make T.J. Hartigan, the Chief Commissioner of the NSW Railways, listen to the shunters grievances, and their outrage at Dwyer's death, Ross co-ordinated a campaign of strikes and stoppages in the workplace, and a propaganda campaign in the Railroad. Finally, in late July 1938, Ross lead a delegation of shunters to Hartigan's office. It was virtually unknown for blue collar railworkers to cross the threshold of the Chief Commissioner's office in the 1930s. Ross not only led the shunters into Hartigan's office, he let them do the talking - and they made Hartigan listen. Hartigan said that he was unaware of the extent of the problems faced by shunters, particularly at Enfield - he was probably telling the truth; in the NSW Railways, a battalion of managers stood between Hartigan and the blue collar staff employed by the department, keeping Hartigan remote from the workplace. Ross brought the workplace into Hartigan's office.

Within a week, the Department made a series of improvements for shunters - increased staff, a shorter working week, provision of gloves (the shunters had been grappling with the often greasy couplings with their bare hands) and improved lighting in the Enfield yard. Ross told the shunters that they had not only won those gains: 'men', he said, 'have defended their self-respect.' It was a good result, particularly given the context of the period - the post-Depression and post-1917 strike years, when the ARU's representation of railworkers was barely tolerated by the Department. But the gains had been won at a terrible price: between January and July 1938 the ARU's 'red roll' recorded thirteen workplace deaths in the NSW Railways, four of whom were shunters.

In 1959 Lloyd Ross delivered the Chifley Memorial lecture, commemorating the memory of the Labor Prime Minister who died in 1951. Ross argued that any schemes to advance the idea of workplace or industrial democracy had to pass a threshold test. 'Do they offer workers an opportunity to increase their influence in the spheres where they are earning their living? Do they enlarge not only their power but their personalities?' Ross's idea of workplace democracy was a response to an instinctive human need: how to make workers individuals, whose lives are respected, whose needs are met, whose potential is realised?

The ARU's campaigns in the 1930s are characterised by a spirit of enlarging human personality, although the specific campaigns may not necessarily conform to a programmatic definition of workplace democracy. Ross continued to encourage the men and women of the NSW Railways to defend their self-respect - Darling Harbour porters, carriage cleaners, the women who worked in the railway refreshment rooms, fettlers who maintained the track - particularly those working in far-west NSW around Broken Hill. In pamphlets and articles Ross provided them with a platform to tell their own stories - such as 'Life and Work in the RRR'. Ross said he was employing 'the power of publicity' to highlight the grievances of the overworked and underpaid RRR women, whose needs were neglected by the Railways Department. Ross was a pioneer of trade union public relations, understanding that public embarrassment of the Railways Department could work hand in hand with industrial action to achieve success. In 1938 the RRR campaign, co-ordinated by ARU organiser Eileen Powell, resulted in a new award and a substantial boost in pay and conditions.

Ross knew about railworkers' grievances because he went out to hear their stories. With Jack Ferguson, Ross toured NSW on the ARU's Indian motorbike, dubbed "the red terror". Ross and Ferguson's workplace organising may now seem unremarkable, but in the 1930s unions were still recovering from the effects of the Depression. Most unions, like the ARU, were unable to afford the price of a motor car for workplace organising. Few workers outside the major cities had regular contact with a union organiser. Ross and the organisers were literally rebuilding the ARU, and they were doing it from the ground up - revitalising the union in the workplace, in order to strengthen all its other functions. In many ways, it remains a model for union organising today.

Ross's activism within the ARU was disrupted by the outbreak of the Second World War. Ross left the ARU in 1943 to work in the Commonwealth Department of Post-War Reconstruction, established by the Curtin Labor Government. Given Ross's background as a union official, it was not surprising that his thinking about post-war Australia focused on the need to create more democratic and inclusive workplaces. In developing his ideas about workplace democracy, Ross returned not only to his own experience as a union official, but also to his family inheritance. Lloyd's father, R.S. (Bob) Ross, had been a pioneer labour activist and journalist in the early twentieth century.

Bob Ross embraced a humane and democratic socialism, remarkably free of political or ideological sectarianism. In a pamphlet published in 1920 Bob Ross tried to define a democratic and militant spirit for the Australian labour movement - just as the labour movement was poised to divide over support for its traditional political wing, the Australian Labor Party, or the Communist Party, importing the revolutionary spirit of Soviet Russia. In Revolution in Russia and Australia Bob Ross argued the need for an Australian alternative to the Soviet experiment. Ross rejected the idea of the dictatorship of the proletariat: 'instead of less, we want more democracy.' The Australian system of adult suffrage was 'a high achievement' and 'an integral part of socialism.' Ross wanted the Labor Party to embrace workers control of industry as an essential element of nationalisation, a program he believed could be achieved through parliamentary action by Labor.

By the 1930s both Lloyd and his brother Edgar seemed to move away from the idea of an Australian alternative. Both became Communist Party members, inspired by the idealism of the Russian Revolution. Communist strategy helped to shape Lloyd's approach to organising the ARU, a form of disciplined militancy and creativity - inspiring the active role of workers within the union and industrial campaigns, and a role for women workers and organisers. A strain of communist idealism sat naturally with the instinctive democratic socialism that Lloyd had absorbed since his youth. But by the early 1940s Lloyd had grown disenchanted with the undemocratic nature of communism and the CPA, and he split with the Communist Party in 1941. From the 1940s, Lloyd was preoccupied with returning to the idea of an Australian alternative to both the Soviet experiment and traditional parliamentary approach taken by the Labor Party.

Throughout his writings on workplace democracy in the period from 1943 until 1960, Lloyd frequently return to the ideas advocated by his father, and the socialist heritage they shared. Lloyd and his father were strongly influenced by British Socialist writer G.D.H. Cole. Cole was a guild socialist, an exponent of workers' self-government in industry. Cole saw workplace democracy as an integral expression of workplace rights but also the rights of the worker as a citizen. Taking up this theme, Lloyd described his own ideology in 1944 as 'socialism by consent'. Ross believed that the aims of post-war reconstruction and the Labor Party could be integrated in a program of centralised planning, that extended from the broad level of industry, into the workplace and the community:

'Planned integration dominated by the aim for using the economic resources for improving culture, rebuilding cities, transforming schools, establishing community centres, planning free libraries, national ballets, national theatres...dreams.'

Ross was dreaming of the ideal of a fulfilled citizenship in the home and at work. Despite his faith in central planning, Ross clearly envisaged a decentralised social structure in which the commanding institutions of power - government, business, and indeed unions, would surrender a significant degree of their authority to local representative bodies in the workplace and in the community. In an article published in 1947, Ross praised the post-war 'revival of community activities', planning 'the cultural and social development of townships' and 'trying to express [workers'] democratic ideas at the grass roots'; he also advocated the need for Labour Production Committees and Labour Management Committees in the workplace. The participation of workers in management was, Ross argued, 'a test of our faith in democracy.' It was test that many in government, business and the labour movement were unwilling to face.

In the late 1940s Ross believed that workplace democracy would proceed as part of a Labor strategy to 'socialise' key industries - which he nominated as 'banking, insurance, transport, electricity, coal and steel.' The practical difficulties of implementing this ambitious agenda soon emerged. The Chifley Government's 1947 legislation to nationalise the Banks was declared unconstitutional. Chifley's hopes that the establishment of the Joint Coal Board, an attempt to promote productivity and industrial peace in the coal mining industry, was destroyed in what Ross himself described as the 'disaster' of the 1949 coal strike - characterised by a divisive struggle within the labour movement between supporters of the communist-influenced Miner's Federation, and their opponents, who backed the Chifley Labor government's strike-breaking intervention. Ross also acknowledged that few within the labour movement had given much thought to how state-owned corporations would be managed. To simply nationalise industries, and allow them to be run like the state-owned railways would, Ross believed, be a disaster. Finally, Labor lost office in 1949, with Menzies' conservative coalition campaigning on the slogan "socialism or freedom", a highly charged challenge, made in a climate of international cold war tensions.

By 1952, when Lloyd Ross returned as NSW ARU Secretary, the prospects for pursuing workplace democracy strategies had greatly diminished. The labour movement was moving towards a destructive split over the role of the industrial groups and their fight against communist-controlled unions. Lloyd found himself caught between the reactionary fantasisies recommended by Bob Santamaria's Catholic Social Studies Movement, and what Ross perceived as the simplistic demands for sweeping nationalisation embraced by Labor's left-wing and the Communist Party.

In 1947 Ross may have praised local communities as vital to his ideal of democracy, but in the same article he rejected the vision of a small-producer arcadia that had been recommended in a paper previously published by one John Williams, who was in fact Bob Santamaria. Reflecting his passion for unnecessary secrecy, Santamaria had written an article under the pseudonym "John Williams", advocating "distributivism" - an attempt by predominantly catholic social theorists to find a path between traditional liberalism and socialism. Ross repudiated Santamaria's proposal for a community of independent proprietors and small-scale rural communities. Ross believed it was simply unrealistic to break up industries into small productive units. Ross described the distributivist program as 'medievalism'.

However by the 1950s Ross had become a supporter of the Industrial Groups, also backed by Santamaria's movement. This was a controversial and high profile role for Ross - he was also a member of the NSW ALP executive, heavily involved in the split in the labour movement in the period 1954-55, a role which also provoked a strong but ultimately unsuccessful challenge to his control of the ARU - which in 1955 briefly compelled him to take a job as a porter at the Darling Harbour goods yards, in order to qualify to hold elected office in the union. In that context, his advocacy of workplace democracy also became another Cold War battlefield - as Lloyd was reminded by his brother Edgar, who by the 1950s was a member of the CPA central committee and a Miner's Federation official. Edgar resented Lloyd's attempts to associate their father's political legacy with Lloyd's interpretation of workplace democracy. In a blistering attack, Edgar described Lloyd's suggestion for workplace consultative committees as 'class collaboration' and warned that 'the progeny of the bastard "synthesis of Industrial Group ideas and Socialism" could well be "National" Socialism - Fascism, with its Corporate State.' Edgar denied that his father would have supported such an agenda.

By the mid-1950s there was little chance that Lloyd's ideas about workplace democracy would find their way into Labor's policy platform. The Federal ALP was dominated by individuals hostile to Ross; and Labor itself was politically marginalised as a result of the split - and out of office from 1949 until 1972. Ross also found it difficult to pursue these ideas within the ARU or the NSW railways.

In the 1950s the NSW Railways Department was a culture of apathy and bureaucratic control, an apathy reflected in poor levels of membership participation in the ARU. Not long after he returned as ARU secretary, Ross found that only about half of the ARU's workplace sub-branches regularly held meetings, and that attendance at the meetings was low. Ross continued throughout the 1950s to try to promote active participation in the union, and research into the conditions faced by railworkers. The ARU sponsored research into health and safety issues, and even the cause of high labour turnover at the Darling Harbour goods yards. In 1959, Ross wrote a report of a pioneering survey of railworkers morale conducted on behalf of the ARU by the then University of Technology (now the University of New South Wales). Ross said the union had proceeded with the survey, 'having failed to interest the railways administration in these problems.' While the research predictably found that most respondents were unhappy with wages and conditions, the survey also revealed that '74 per cent express personal interest and involvement in the activities and fortunes of the Railways; they are concerned when it loses, pleased when it advances, desirous of seeing it run better.' In short, many railworkers wanted to be involved in workplace decision making, and acknowledged a close identification between themselves and their work. The survey probably represented one of the few occasions when railworkers were asked for their opinion about their work and their industry.

In 1959 Ross delivered the Chifley Memorial lecture on the theme, "Workers' Participation in the Ownership and Control of Industry". Although Ross had another decade as NSW ARU secretary ahead of him, and would continue to research and write almost until his death in 1987, the Chifley lecture represented a recognition of his life-long interest in workplace democracy, and an opportunity to look back on the rich intellectual and political heritage of which he had been a part - a predominantly British democratic socialist tradition. Ross led his audience through the history of an idea - the arguments of Cole and Tawney, Sydney and Beatrice Webb. He talked about christian socialists, guild socialists and fabians. He quoted Cole's assessment of the work of the socialist writer and artist William Morris: 'Freedom for self-expression, freedom at work as well as at leisure, freedom to serve as well as to enjoy - that is the guiding principle of his work and of his life.'

One can only imagine the effect of Ross's address upon his audience. For many of them, he summoned unfamiliar or perhaps forgotten voices, of generations of thinkers and labour activists united by their concern for an idea simple to express but complicated in practice: how to extent freedom into working class lives - how as Oscar Wilde hoped, to make socialism human and meaningful. Oscar Wilde is one of those forgotten voices, remembered for his cutting wit, his persecution as a homosexual; he is rarely recalled as the author of The Soul of Man Under Socialism. In the Chifley lecture, Lloyd Ross did not refer to Wilde's essay, published in 1891. Yet Lloyd Ross and Oscar Wilde had in common a belief that while socialism had to be expressed as collective action, ultimately socialism had to create fulfilled individuals, free to realise their potential. Oscar Wilde wrote that if socialism resulted in industrial tyranny, then the last stage of man would be worse than the first.

At a time when socialism was too often invoked as a justification of tyranny, Ross struggled to make a democratic socialism meaningful in the lives of the railworkers he represented. In many ways Ross was reduced, as union official, to a reactive role, attending to the consequences of neglect and bureaucratic authority. Workers had to suffer, sometimes individuals like Timm Dwyer had to die, before authority would respond to the needs of the men and women from whom it expected loyalty and labour.

Yet Ross was not disillusioned by this experience, or by opposition to the idea of workplace democracy, and the slur of "class collaboration". Ross was convinced that the Australian labour movement could only remain relevant to workers through the extension of democractic practice - within the movement and in the structures of work and society. It required leadership, education and constant struggle to overcome the powerful forces of bureaucratic inertia and political self-interest. Ross also understood that he had to contest with a human tendency to forget the lessons of the past. In 1947 he observed that 'it is only because modern labourites and socialists have neglected their own history, and no longer read their theoretical classics, that these strains of liberty, industrial democracy, workers' self-government, have been forgotten and their lessons for to-day neglected.' Lessons which he believed could help shape a better future for workers, provided that in seeking solutions labour activists proved themselves to be 'energetic, imaginative and courageous.'


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In this issue
Features
*  Interview: A Little Knowledge
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*  Education: Theory and Practise
Whether or not you agree with the priorities for of Barry Jones’ Knowledge Nation Taskforce, Julie Wells argues its boldness has to be admired.
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*  E-Change: 1.1 Email Nation
In the first of a series of articles on politics and the new economy, Peter Lewis and Michael Gadiel argue network technologies are reshaping the fundamentals of society.
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*  Economics: Banking on the Goodwill
Given their history, Evan Jones wonders whether banks can really claim to be "just like any other business"
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*  International: A Deathly Struggle
In this dispatch from PNG, a trade union leader briefs us on the situation following the shooting of seven students at an anti-privatisation rally.
*
*  History: Enlarging Human Personality
Mark Hearn argues that Lloyd Ross's post-War approach to Workplace Democracy seems contemporary by today's standards
*
*  Satire: Shit is a Four Letter Word
Australian TV drama is lame and gutless just look at the ABC's Love is a Four Letter Word, says Tony Moore
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*  Review: Tribute to an Artist
Dalgarno painted the seagulls circling the seafarer like flies buzzing around the face of a bushman. Thus did the artist depict the maritime worker.
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»  Activist Notebook
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Columns
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»  The Locker Room
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»  Tool Shed
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Letters to the editor
»  Mate Against Mate
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»  Disconnected from Reality
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»  Applause for the Ton
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»  Unions Online? Not Yet!
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