Interview: Trade Secrets
Industrial: It’s About Overtime, Stupid
Unions: Full Steam Ahead
Bad Boss: The BBQ Battle Axe
Economics: Different Dimensions of Debt
History: Raking the Coals
History Special: Wherever the Necessity Exists
History Special: Learning from the Past
History Special: A 'Cosy Relationship'
Politics: Regime Change for Saddam
International: World War
Corporate: Industrious Thinking
Review: Jack High
Culture: Duffy’s Song
Satire: A Nation of Sooks
Poetry: Mr Flexibility
The Locker Room
Month In Review
Lessons from History
State Based Organising
Gino on the Gong
Wherever the Necessity Exists
In November 1908 Mr Thyer, the Vice-President of the Labor Council of NSW argued that the purpose of the peak council and indeed of its affiliates was to: 'organise wherever the necessity exists'. Ninety-four years later our union leaders echo Thyer's rallying cry as the labour movement struggles to extract itself from the double dilemma of declining membership and power.
The current crisis for unionism has lead many Australian unionists to turn to the experience of international, particularly North American, unions for inspiration. The most casual observer would be aware that the strategies of unions such as the SEIU have been enormously influential in debates about union organising here. However, we know surprisingly little about the history of organising in our own country. There has been a tendency for both unionists and labour historians to assume that unions in Australia never actively built their membership and that instead, they relied upon the state, and particularly the arbitration system, to 'deliver' for them.
It is certainly true that the context in which unions operate, including their regulatory environment, is important in shaping the nature of trade unionism. However the 'dependency thesis' paints a particularly sterile picture of unions in which they seem more akin to government bureaucracies than to active organisations of workers. My curiosity about this issue led me to undertake a study of the activities of the Organising Committee of the NSW Labor Council during the period 1900 to 1910, a period when NSW unions rebuilt themselves after the setbacks of the 1890s. My research suggests that the traditional 'dependency' view robs unions of their role as historical agents capable of deciding their own fate.
The first decade of the twentieth century was one of extraordinary growth for trade unions in this state. Between 1903 and 1910, the period for which data exists, union membership grew by nearly 80%, with the number of union members increasing from 73,301 to 130,364. The Organising Committee of the Labor Council played a critical role in this extension of trade unionism. This Committee was initially formed in the midst of the turmoil of the maritime strike in 1890 but collapsed four years later. When Labor Council reformed in 1900 it soon resuscitated the committee which, in the ensuing ten years, coordinated the organising and union formation activities of the peak council.
The Organising Committee had one basic function and that was to organise as many workers as possible into trade unions. This function was realised in two ways. Firstly the Committee helped to recruit new members into established unions and secondly it formed or re-established unions. It is not possible to quantify the number of members recruited to existing unions, however the work of the Committee in its union formation activities was prodigious.
The volunteer organisers of the Committee despite working with next to no resources were successful in organising across a broad range of industries, occupations and regions. They were most active in the metropolitan manufacturing industry. Unions were formed among workers in the tobacco, clothing, cardboard box making, brewing and metal trades. A number of unions were established in food and meat processing, including the Jam and Condiment Factory Employees Union, the Pastry Cooks Union and the ominously named Bone Crushers and Fat Extractors Union. Along with forming unions, the Organising Committee also assisted a number of established manufacturing unions with recruiting members. The next most important area of the Organising Committee's work was in the services sector. Among service workers, the Committee formed unions such as the Canvassers and Collectors Union, the Watchmen Caretakers and Cleaners Union, the Hairdressers and Wigmakers Union, the Lift Attendants Union and the City and Suburban Bottle Accumulators Society. The Committee also formed a union named the Undertakers and Assistants Union, whose delegate to Council was the aptly named Mr Frost.
The Organising Committee was also active in the building and transport industries. Most of their work in construction involved recruiting workers to pre-existing unions. However new unions were formed among bridge and wharf carpenters, marble workers and sign painters. In the transport industry, the Committee formed unions of cabbies, buggy boys, and milk, ice and meat carcass carters. Organising was also undertaken on a number of occasions for the already established Trolley and Draymens Union. The Committee also organised outside of Sydney. Rural and regional organising drives saw the formation of the Dapto Smelter Workers Union and recruitment among Newcastle sulfide workers, Lithgow brickyard employees, Kiama quarry men and timber workers on the North Coast of NSW.
In the first eight years of the decade, either upon the request of workers themselves or of other trade unionists, Organising Committee members attempted to organise women workers. Organising work was undertaken among female bookbinders, tailoresses, boot trade workers, women workers in the tobacco trade, hat makers, shop assistants and laundresses. In all of these cases the women were recruited into established unions and apart from a few exceptions, such as those entering the Laundresses Union, the new women members were organised into predominantly male unions. It was not until the last three years of the decade, as a result of the activism of a handful of women organisers that the Organising Committee began to treat the organisation of women workers with something approaching the same enthusiasm they gave to the organisation of men. Here some of the grand women of the NSW union movement played a key role. Kate Dwyer, Henrietta Greville and Minnie Lalor had an enormous effect upon the Organising Committee and most of the organising work among women workers that was undertaken under the auspices of the Organising Committee in the latter part of the decade was at these activists. Their work lead to the formation of unions such as the Domestic Workers Union, the Factory Employees Association and a union organising workers who made underclothes, the White Workers and Shirtmakers Union.
The Committee's organising efforts included raising funds for organising drives, visiting workplaces to sign workers up to unions, arranging 'smoke nights' and socials for target groups of workers and organising kindred trade conferences to deepen organisation in particular industries. The Committee also utilised 'white or 'fair' lists in their organising efforts. These were lists of employers who employed at union standards and recognised the appropriate union. The fair lists for various industries were distributed amongst the membership of affiliates of the Labor Council, who were asked to only patronise those businesses. The white list was not only a tool to protect the employment of unionists but also to encouraged employers not to oppose organising campaigns.
Often when the Committee organised a group of workers, its actions were motivated by reports of 'sweating' in a workplace involving long working hours, low wages and poor workplace safety. Indeed the Anti-Sweating Committee of the Labor Council which was established in the middle of the decade, was almost indistinguishable in its membership from the Organising Committee. Organising a workplace was seen as a remedy to the exploitation of workers across a number of industries in rural and urban New South Wales including among assurance agents, canvassers and collectors, and workers in the timber and tanning industries. Invariably when organising was undertaken among women workers it was amidst claims of exploitation and ill treatment.
Many historians have assumed that the introduction of arbitration and the improvement in economic conditions in the first decade of the century heralded a new era of trouble-free organising for the union movement. However, despite the growth in union membership in the period from 1900 to 1910, this was not uniformly the case. Throughout the first decade of the century the Organising Committee encountered a number of obstacles including employer victimisation of unionists and the costs of the arbitration system.
The Labor Council was often called upon to take action to prevent the victimisation of union activists across industry, including among the groups of workers that the Organising Committee had been instrumental in organising. A number of the unions that had been established by the Organising Committee collapsed, or near collapsed, as a result of employer bullying of activists. For instance in 1902, the Secretary of the Smelter Employees' Union, a union organised by the Committee, was discharged in the words of a Committee member 'from the fact of his active connection with the formation of the union'. Numerous other examples of employer harassment of union activists were played out across the decade, the victims of which included the members of the Organising Committee, who generally held down full time jobs and undertook their organising duties outside of working hours.
Employer efforts to 'disorganise' workers were at times more sophisticated than sacking activists and changing rosters. In 1908, in a strategy echoing union avoidance strategies of nearly a century later, the employers of members of the Masters and Engineers Association attempted to induce workers to abandon their union. The employers offered the workers wages higher than the union rate, and the donation of £50 towards the establishment of a bogus union - the Sydney Ferry Employees' Mutual Provident Society. The members who remained solid with the union were removed from the good ferry runs and reported to Labor Council delegates that they feared for their jobs. The rest of the employees were reportedly afraid to even be seen 'speaking to a union man'.
Arbitration itself seems to have constituted a barrier to the success of the Organising Committee. This was principally because of the financial constraint arbitration imposed upon unions who sought to use its mechanisms. By 1905 affiliated unions were, according to the Labor Council Secretary, in 'financial difficulty owing to Arbitration Court litigation'. Many of the unions that were formed by the Organising Committee later appealed for help from Labor Council due to financial difficulties they faced as a result of arbitration cases. For these unions the legal costs incurred through arbitration drained their already meagre finances and proved detrimental to their prospects for survival. The budget of many small unions simply would not stretch to include both embarking upon organising drives and pursuing awards through the Arbitration Court.
The massive expansion in unionism in NSW during the first decade of the twentieth century took place in the context of improved economic circumstances, and the emergence of a system of compulsory organisation. However this expansion did not occur without trade union intervention. My research suggests that NSW unionists, and particularly the members of the Organising Committee of the Labor Council, played a critical role in the union growth during this period. Despite the advantages that the arbitration system offered to unions, it also sapped union resources that might otherwise have been used in further organising drives. Employer victimisation of unionists did not disappear with the 1890s but remained a formidable hurdle for successful organising. The speed and scale of the union recovery after 1900 obviously owed more to worker and union activism than has often been acknowledged. Clearly this suggests a need to draw upon our own history in our current efforts to rebuild unions nearly a century later.
The Labor Council's Organising Committee was reformed in 1999.
DrRae Cooper teaches industrial relations in Work and Organisational Studies at the University of Sydney
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