An Insight into the NSW Railway Shop Committees, 1940s-1950s

Frank Bollins

A summary of an address given by Frank Bollins1 former Shop Committee Activist and Metal Workers Union official.

Having survived the ebb and flow of its formative years which commenced in 1926, the Railway Shop Committee movement began a revival process that reached its zenith in the war period and post war years.

Under extreme pressures from the Labor Council, some rail unions, the State Government and Railway Department, the Shop Committee movement went into a state of decline during the late 1950’s and middle 1960’s that ultimately led to its demise in the middle 1960’s to be supplanted by the establishment of more widely accepted Union Stewards Committees, some of which continued to function under the title of Shop Committee.

According to Alan Wilson, Secretary of the Council of Railway Shop Committees for a number of years, the 1930’s resurgence was based on a programme of demands that went beyond the somewhat narrow concepts of the early Shop Committee founders.

The early shop committees which had been established with the full support and encouragement of Jock Garden, Secretary of the Labor Council and who, for a period, was a member of the Communist Party, had a very limited concept of their role and scope.

A study of minutes of the Eveleigh Loco Shop Committee shows that the main concentration of that Committee was on the day to day issues of working conditions, namely, poor amenities, lack of meal room facilities, pay arrangements, train travel conditions, and more importantly, the right for the Committee to exist and to have communication with local management.

Although a draft constitution had been prepared, the Shop Committee structure, from its early formative years right through to its demise, was a loose structured type of organisation, there being variations in structure and representation in all of the railway workplaces where the committees functioned.

During 1938 the Council of Railway Shop Committees prepared a new draft of a Constitution which was submitted to all shop committees. The Eveleigh Carriage Works Committee adopted the draft with minor amendments and forwarded a copy to the Secretary for Railways.

During 1934 the C.R.S. Committees adopted a program of demands that went far beyond the concepts of its founding fathers.

A ten point program which included such issues as: increases in annual leave, extension of the then existing long service leave, introduction of sick leave entitlements, improvements to the Railway Superannuation Fund, and more generous travel conditions for rail workers and their families, became the centre of a concentrated campaign that firmly established the Shop Committee movement in the minds of railway workers for almost three decades.

The Effect of World War II

In its campaigning, the rail shop committees had learnt to effectively use trade union leaders and parliamentarians in pursuit of their objectives.

A number of railway men had been elected to State Parliament and they served as a source of political pressure on government~, particularly when the Labor Party was in opposition. Three ex-railway men, Joe Cahill, who was later to become Premier of N.S.W., Claude Matthews, later to become a Labor Cabinet Minister and W. Carlton from the A.R.U., regularly attended meetings and gave full support to the demands.

The commencement of World War II gave an added impetus to the politicalisation of the Shop Committee Movement.

Up till then the influence of the Communist Party had been minimal. A small number of dedicated members had operated in a relatively isolated manner in a number of workshops but had made no real impact

Events were soon to change that situation. The demand for the lifting of the ban on th~ Communist Party and the freeing of Ratcliffe and Thomas, two communists who had been gaoled, became central political issues for the shop committees.

Additional to these issues, support for an improved war effort, utilisation of railway facilities for war production, activity in support of War Loans were issues raised in a mass way by a new developing force of younger communists who were not firmly entrenched in the rail shop committees.

By this time Alan Wilson had become an elected official of the A.E.U. His position of Secretary of the Council of Railway Shop Committees was taken by Stan Jones. a well known communist from Eveleigh Loco. Ted Walsham. another dedicated communist from Eveleigh Carriage Works. became Chairman of the Council.

Even before the legalising of the Communist Party in 1942 there was a big influx in membership of the Communist Party.

The writer Frank Bollins. became a member in the latter stages of illegality and immediately became part of the communist influence in the railway shop committee movement.

In those heady days the influence of the Party was ever expanding. In each of the major workshops. and in some instances. smaller and less significant workplaces. actively functioning, well organised groups of communists were making their presence felt.

Communist Party branches increased their membership to such an extent that in some instances sectional groups. and in at least one Chullora workshop. a multiplicity of branches were established to more effectively serve the Communist Party and the railway workers.

For, despite what was said of the ideological influence of the Communist Party. especially that which related to what could be regarded as the Communist bible of the times. The Trade Unions. by L.L. Sharkey. which presented a revolutionary role for the trade unions and shop committees. there was a fundamental desire amongst the many communists within the railways to give dedicated service to rail workers and uplift not only their existing working conditions but to prepare the world for a peaceful future.

At the Eveleigh Carriage Works which was duplicated in most other rail centres in varying forms, activity that covered a wide diversity of issues was developed.

Apart from campaigning on the essential railway issues and major political and economic issues of the day, the Eveleigh Carriage Works Committee devoted much of its energies to a plethora of issues. To name but a few:

  • Trading. First introduced to dispose of apples and pears for the Apple and Pear Marketing Board, trading which subsequently grew into a considerable business venture, the Committee purchasing its own vehicle.
  • A monthly Agenda paper comprising of local issues to be discussed with management and consequently a monthly mass meeting.
  • Establishment of a Retirement Fund to give a financial send-off to retiring employees.
  • Organising of political meetings and collections for both the Labor Party and Communist Party during State and Federal elections.
  • Extensive train seat bookings for rail workers going on annual leave.
  • Lunch hour musical entertainmont during and after war time period.
  • An Arts and Crafts Exhibition of a most comprehensive character.

As the war proceeded to its closing stages, the Communist Party initiated a mass campaign of Victory, Peace and Security. Throughout Australia communists were busy drafting what they considered to be best for the national populace in the postwar period.

Railway communists were not found wanting.

Programs were developed at both Eveleigh Loco and Carriage Works that contained proposals not only for the modernisation of the railway facilities including machinery and amenities etc., but both programs projected the concept of an updated medical – first aid facility for rail workers.

The demand was for fully trained nurses to take the place of the then partially trained first aid attendant, the establishment of a resident doctor in the Eveleigh area along with a permanently established ambulance for the Eveleigh area.

The Program for the Carriage Works was adopted at a mass meeting and 1200 copies of the Program were printed and distributed.

It is now history that despite some early resistance to this somewhat revolutionary concept, the initial proposals were adopted by the Railway Department and a more modern system of health care, including nurses and doctors was introduced into the system.

It was during the post war period that the Council of Railway Shop Committees reached its zenith.

The influence of the Council was widespread. The Magnet, official voice of the C.R.S.C. , boasted of 37 affiliated shop committees. Magnet was widely distributed and read throughout the State.

Meetings were held on a regular monthly basis and minutes circulated to all affiliated committees. The Council had its own well appointed meeting room in Wembley Chambers, Railway Square, which incidentally was widely used by the Communist Party, especially the Rail Branches.

For a long period it was the sole voice of the organised rail workers. Even the three major service unions the A.R.U., A.F.U.L.E., and Transport Officers, gave only lip service to rail workers and their conditions.

The Council was able to deal directly with the Department, especially in the early period of the rise to power of Reg Winsor who was to become Railway Commissioner for a brief period, on all major issues affecting railway workers.

Under the leadership of Walsham,Jones and Bollins, the monthly meetings were an effective forum of the railway worker. But it was not ‘all one sided. Penetrating debate not only “on what” but “on ‘how” took place. Tony Mulvihill, later to become’ ., Senator, regularly presented a counter viewpoint on policy matters.

Because of the political pressures that the Council and affiliated Committees were exerting on the Government, the Railway Department,and the Labor Council and the unions, resistance to the Council and affiliated committees began to develop.

In this period the Industrial Group movement of the Labor Party was introduced into the railway workshops.

Strenuous efforts were made to combat and curtail Communist Party influence within the Shop Committee movement.

Mass meetings became more and more political forums, but despite some gains, the Groupers were not capable of so influencing rail workers to enable them to take over the leadership of the Shop Committee Movement.

But there developed an unholy alliance between the Labor Government, the Railway Department and the Labor Council and most of the railway unions.

Severe restrictions were imposed not only on the Council, but on all of the Shop Committees, on what issues they were entitled to take up. Issues such as sick pay and compensation anomalies, long service leave and annual leave, superannuation and issues of a political character were ruled “out of bounds” for the shop committee movement.

In the vacuum that was created, the Council and Committees fought for ,and assisted to establish, the Combined Rail Unions Committee of the Labor Council, and in so doing helped to bring about its own ending.

The C.R.U.C. commenced to meet regularly on a monthly basis and concerned itself with issues previously covered by the Council of Railway Shop Committees.

In its early period of existence, two representatives of the C.R.S.C. were allowed to sit on the Labor Council Committee, only with voice but no vote. But it was a temporary respite, for soon, by decision of the Labor Council, the C.R.S.C. representatives were excluded from the C.R.U.C.

It was the beginning of the end for C.R.S.C. and the old structure of shop committees.

Because of the influence of the Labor Council and a number of rail unions, a change in basic workshop organisation commenced. In the place of the old simplistic shop committee structure, delegates of which needed not necessarily to be an elected shop steward, Union Shop Stewards Committees began to flourish free from any domination of the shop committee.2

So restrictive were the embargos that were imposed on the Council that it ultimately expired during the middle 1960’s.

Despite its almost unnoticed demise, the C.R.S.C. had played a vital role in establishing many of the conditions that rail workers enjoy today.

In addition to its campaigning on job issues, the Council developed an understanding on the shocking state of railway finances, especially its overseas indebtedness and succeeded in lessening the restrictive nature of the Railway Act to the minds of railway workers.

Not only did it succeed in improving the level of basic conditions, but the shop committee movement helped to develop many union officials and State and federal politicians including Senator Tony Mulvihill who, as previously mentioned, was a consistent advocate of alternative policies for the shop committee movement.

The whole nature of campaigning has changed in the railway system.

Having established, in many instances, a more than comparable set of conditions with private enterprise. the rail unions and their members find themselves in a massive fight for survival as an industry.

Whatever comes from this struggle. full credit must be given to the C.R.S.C. and workshop committees and to those who devoted their abilities and lives to make the Shop Committee movement a viable and effective force during its lifetime.


  1. Frank Bollins first became a delegate to the Carriage Works Shop Committee in 1942. Shortly afterwards he was elected to the position of Assistant Secretary before becoming the Secretary after Ted Wa1sham became the Chairman. With one short break during 1950-57 he gave continuous service to the Shop Committee Movement from 1942 to 1960. He was also Assistant Secretary of the C.R.S.C. for a number of years. He was elected an official of the Sheet Metal Workers Union in October 1959 and retained that position until he was elected State President of the Amalgamated Metal Workers Union in 1972, a position he retained until his retirement in 1983.
  2. Up till then the contradictory situation existed that Shop Committees acted as the convenors of the Union Stewards and the officers of the Shop Committee were the officers of the Union Stewards when they met. This despite the fact that many of the shop commitee delegates were not elected union representatives In the case of Eveleigh Carriage Works, Ted Walsham, never an elected A.R.U. job delegate, was both Chairman of the Shop Committee and the Union Stewards when they met for many years.