Union Control, Collective Bargaining or Compulsory Arbitration: the Trolly, Draymen & Carters’ Union v the Carriers, 1888-1908

Mark Bray* & Malcolm Rimmer**

A drivers’ union existed in Sydney between 1888 and 1891. However the present NSW Branch of the Transport Workers’ Union only began life at 1901. It was one of Billy Hughes’ unions, part of the waterfront industrial army that he led until his expulsion from the labour movement in 1916. At this time it was also a Sussex St. union, most of its members working for the ‘heavy carriers’ who did general cartage work around the wharves, warehouses, railway yards and markets of West Sydney. It was also a very important union within the labour movement, because the drivers could influence the outcome of disputes involving other unions. From the 1890 Maritime Strike to the 1917 NSW General Strike, Trolly and Draymen were in at the thick of things, most often standing to gain little themselves., Despite occasional flurries of militancy, for which the union was eventually to be deregistered in 1917, the Trolly and Draymen was an ‘arbitration union’. Established just before the NSW Parliament passed Bernhard Wise’s Industrial Arbitration Act (1901), the union applied for an award in early 1902 and was granted ‘an award covering ‘heavy’ and ‘light’ carriers in September 1904. The capacity of the union to help its members depended greatly upon its effectiveness in the industrial tribunals. But like many NSW unions, the Trolly and Draymen’s union was frustrated by the delays and litigation that beset ‘Wise’s Court. Only after the Wade Government, introduced a wages board system in 1908 did the union begin to establish itself across the road transport industry with satisfactory awards. In terms of organisation this paid off. The union had only increased its membership from 1,100 to 1,515 between 1901 and 1908. By 1912 it had climbed to 4,600 – a figure near which it was to remain for the next thirty years.

What was the pay-off from compulsory arbitration? The customary answer focuses upon improvements in ‘industrial matters’ such as wages and hours. In road transport these were important, the latter in particular. But the impact of compulsory arbitration went deeper. It displaced a managerial control strategy for survival in a competitive market: a method of controlling the driver’s work effort so that labour costs would not threaten the market viability of carrying firms.

What were the elements of this ‘strategy’? Since the major operating costs of the carriers were labour and fodder, the wage/effort exchange was the critical element to be controlled, if the carrying companies were to remain competitive in a low-entry cost, and generally small scale business.l There were three ways the carriers controlled this exchange. First, wages were flexible, reflecting both market influences upon carrying charges, and the different capabilities of drivers. Consequently, labour costs could be loosely related to receipts. Second, although most drivers were called ‘permanent’ employees, carrying firms treated them like casuals, laying them off for a few days a week if work was scarce. Third and most important, hours were unlimited and no overtime was added to the fixed daily wage. By this device, the employers could force the drivers to work quickly since delays in delivery merely cut into the drivers’ leisure. Since drivers’ work effort couldn’t be supervised, this was the only way carriers could cope with time losses caused by idleness and by customer inefficiency

The outcome of this strategy of management control was that drivers were often employed for very long hours – up to 70 of 80 a week – for a flexible daily wage – and with no guarantee of six full days pay each week. Between 1888 and 1904 – when the first award was made – there were three attacks on this system by trade unions. The first, between 1888 and 1890, was an attempt at union unilateral control. A short-lived union called the Sydney Trolly and Draymen’s union fixed standard hours at 63 a week, with 1/- an hour for overtime. This was not just a matter of economic shares between workers and employers; it struck at the heart of the employers’ ‘control’ strategy –what Burawoy has termed ‘market despotism’.2 Worse, the union, to make its rules stick, proposed to enforce them by obtaining compulsory unionism and imposing penalties upon drivers who didn’t stick to the ‘working rules’.

These new rules were enacted in mid-1890 and became an immediate cause of conflict with the employers, who formed the Master Carriers’ Association in August 1890, and who were spoiling to join in the Maritime Strike in the interests of ‘freedom of contract’. The drivers’ union was too small and weak to either impose its working rules on sufficient drivers, or to withstand the long Maritime Strike. In October 1890, the union Secretary, Moses Wheeler, wrote to the Master Carriers seeking a conference on the ‘working rules’. He was rejected, and quickly after the strike broke. The drivers returned to work with the union insolvent, demoralised, and outgunned by the employers. By mid 1891 it had sunk from view.

An intriguing postscript occurred in 1891, when the Master Carriers fixed rules to eliminate competition in the industry. They imposed a standard scale of charges, and forbade undercutting of work being subcontracted to non-member firms. Product market regulation of this kind would have enabled the carriers to sustain standard wages and hours when the unions sought them in 1890. But the ‘schedule’ was too late and too insecure. It collapsed in mid.1892 in an orgy of rate-cutting as the depression took hold of the trade. The Master Carriers’ Association too became moribund.

In August 1900 the Master Carriers reformed to fight the Metropolitan Traffic Act, and to watch the impending Industrial Arbitration Bill. By the time the union was formed the following February, the employers abandoned the hard won principle of ‘freedom of contract’ and settled to collective bargaining – the second method used to break the old managerial control strategy. In August 1901 the two sides met and negotiated a 12 month agreement fixing a 66 hour week, a standard scale of pay, and overtime rates. In addition, a voluntary Arbitration Board was agreed in October to enforce and interpret the agreement.

It looked as if the employers’ control strategy had been eliminated at a stroke: that negotiations between customers’ and carriers’ organisations and between Master Carriers and union – had replaced the system of atomistic competition in product and labour markets that served to allow customers to exploit carriers, who in turn exploited their drivers. However, collective bargaining failed, like union unilateral control before it.

What went wrong? First, the attitudinal legacy of ‘unilateral regulation’ was based to’ shake-off, and the negotiations were spoiled by the extremists – on both sides – who would not compromise. Key issues – such as payment of slow workers and a system for recording overtime – were unresolved, which left managers doing much as they had before. Second, since the agreement was voluntary, many firms either left the Master Carriers to evade it, or simply ignored it. The union had insufficient strength to enforce the agreement outside a handful of firms. The employers too were impotent, although they did try the ruse of refusing to accept resignations. This led to the third problem. Arbitration was available and, despite the delays and difficulties of the new Court, was a more attractive option for unions and employers unused to compromise and unable to uphold an agreement. In February 1902 the union filed for a hearing. In April the employers refused to register the collective agreement with the Court to make it enforceable. In September, negotiations resumed over standard hours and higher ‘casual’ rates of pay, only to stall. The matter reli1ained unresolved until it was heard by the Court in 1904.

The award, when it came, sealed the fate of ‘market despotism’. It was a ‘common rule’ the only matter on which both union and employers’ association could agree, thus eliminating competition upon labour costs. It also set in train the long process of humanizing drivers’ hours, lowering them to 57. Most contentious, it gave union preference, a benefit which the Supreme Court and High Court agreed to overturn in 1905, on the grounds that “the employer should know best who is not a suitable worker for his business”.3

However, there were flaws in ‘award regulation’. These arose in two areas. First, where no ‘schedule’ of carrying charges existed – as among ‘light’ carriers and produce carters for example – the employers tended to opt out of the award by making their drivers ‘independent contractors’ rather than employees: a device pioneered by Grace Brothers in 1905. Second, even those carriers who were bound by the award still gnawed at the edges of regulation. Once practice resented by the drivers was informal unpaid overtime, which was technically an award breach. But what driver would report it? The employers’ disciplinary powers remained awesome. Common punishment included physical beatings, short time work, eviction from tied housing, and – of course – dismissal.

Here was where new management strategy rested, once the direct nexus between wages, hours and effort had been broken. The Carriers had to meet reasonable standards upon wages and hours, and had now to enforce the separate matter of work effort directly. This was done by disciplinary means or by rewards. To protect employers whose control over the work process remained weak, the schedule could be pitched to allow a little slackness in the industry, or at least to shift the burden of inefficiency. This was done in 1904, when a surcharge was imposed upon customers by the Master Carriers, if drivers were delayed through the customers’ fault. And so competitive product and labour markets at their exploitative worst, gave way to regulated product and labour markets. In the process, the whole basis for managerial control over work effort had been revised.

It is important to understand that all these changes were vital preconditions for the piecemeal improvements in wages and hours which were to be gained through compulsory arbitration in the following decades. The economic achievements of the Trolly -and Draymen’ s Union depended first upon breaking a vicious system of managerial control, which in turn could only be removed once effective product market regulation was established.

How secure were these new arrangements? The State, through the Arbitration Court, could guarantee labour market regulation, of course. Product markets were a different matter and regulation here was unstable. The subsequent history of the industry showed ‘schedules’ and competition restricting rules to be ‘fair-weather’ tools liable to collapse, as they did in the 1921 depression. Inexorably, employers would then find themselves driven back towards award evasion . through using ‘lorry owned drivers’ in place of employees – a new label for a form of exploitative economic control as old as the industry. Nor has the problem of competition-eroding working conditions gone away. In the modern interstate road-haulage industry are found the irregular earnings, uncertain employment and excessive hours, which were the curse of the industry, opposed by union and Arbitration Court alike. at the turn of the century.

*University of Wollongong
**University of New South Wales


  1. The 1911 Census estimated that 14% of those engaged in the industry were employers, while 24% were self-employed. Small employers were rife. In 1890, the average number of horses run by the 52 members of the Master Carriers’ Association, was only 6.
  2. Burawoy, M,”Between the Labor Process and the State: The Changing Face of Factory Regimes under Advanced Capitalism”, American Sociological Review, Vol, 48, 1983.
  3. Ex Parte Master Carriers’ Association, (1905),4, AR, 3510