Extract from The History of Capital Labour (1888)
by W.F. Schey

The Foundation of the New South Wales Amalgamated Railway and Tramway Service Association, which is now the NSW Branch of the Australian Railways Union. (This is an extract by W F Schey from The History of Capital Labour etc., Oceanic Publishing Co., Sydney and Melbourne, 1888.)

This Association, although one of the latest additions I to the ranks of trades-unions, is nevertheless II very strong and sturdy organisation. For some years before its foundation the various classes and grades of the railway workmen were disunited and disorganised. Each particular class looked with a jealous eye on all the others, and the lamentable spectacle was constantly seen of fellow-workmen continually striving against each other’s interests. Many of the men themselves sorely lamented this state of I things, and two or three attempts were made to organise societies amongst them, but being only sectional societies their success was only very partial, and, with one exception, short lived. The only society which survived for any time, viz., the New South Wales Locomotive Drivers and Firemen’s Association, has been well preserved, and is now a registered trades-union, with about six hundred members and a very fair bank account. Others, sud1 as the Signalmen’s Union, and the Guards and Shunters’ Society, sprang into existence, lived a short time, and then died of inanition.

Among those who viewed with much sorrow this state of petty jealousy between men whose interests were identical was a porter at Parramatta Station named W F Schey. He saw that the internecine quarrels of the men induced much petty tyranny from the officers, and that in many cases terrorism was exercised and encouraged because it might be practised with impunity. Men were kept persistently and wilfully from all knowledge of their rights; promotion was only to be obtained in many instances by sycophancy and degrading toadyism, nnd the whole railway service was honeycombed by political influence. At last discontent among the lower Tanks of the service seethed up to such a point that the’ time’ was ripe for act ion; and a circular note signed by Guard J. Cavillon and Porters F.F.Cavanagh and W.F.Schey called a mass meeting on railway men to discuss the advisability of forming a union. At that meeting, to which the Commissioner for IRnilways and all principal officers of the department had been invited, the more prominent among the men attended, hut the officers were conspicuous by their absence. This “,as on the J5th of March. 1886. Several hundreds attended the meeting, Mr Cavillon presiding. Mr Schey moved the first: resolution affirming the desirability of forming a union. Mr R White, late president of the defunct Signalmen’s Union, seconded the resolution, which was carried unanimously. A strong provisional committee was formed, prominent among who was Mr H Hoyle, assistant foreman blacksmith at Redfern, who had been a leader of the men for years in their local endeavours. He had been president of the Iron Trades Eight-Hour Conference and WRS universally respected by the mechanics and labourers of the workshops. After resolving to make their basis as broad as possible, and open their ranks to every grade of both railway and tramway employees, the meeting separated well satisfied that a new order of things had been started. To their great surprise the commissioner at once evinced thp- most violent dislike and opposition, and issued a long minute plainly threatening those who joined the new society with dire pains and penalties. This fanned the flame and the spirit of liberty was now fairly aroused in the men. Meeting after meeting was held, each larger than the last, till congregations of fifteen hundred, and eventually over two thousand, railway and tramway employees declared their intention to have the union and to resist all interference with their citizen rights. Deputations were formed and waited on the Commissioner, asking the withdrawal of the obnoxious minute. This was refused and the Secretary for Public Works J Mr Lyne, was then appealed to. After a great deal of hesitancy and indecision that gentleman wrote a minute practically 1eaving things as they were. Messrs. Hoyle, Schey, and White were now empowered by the men to seek to be heard at the bar of the Legislative Assembly in pursuance of the rights of the employers, but as all active opposition had now ceased and merely passive resistance was given by the opposing officers. It was deemed wise to allow the matter to stand, and to go on with the organisation of the association. This was done, and taking date from the 1st of June, 1886, the association was fairly started and registered as a trades-union. Mr Schey was asked to resign from the railway service and become secretary to the new organisation, which he agreed to. refusing to accept a salary of £4 per week which was offered, and only agreeing to take £3 per week, which was equivalent to what he had been paid by the railway department. The whole matter had created an immense stir, and day after day the columns of the metropolitan press were filled with letters concerning the matter. The struggle had been watched with the greatest interest all over the country and branches were quickly formed in every railway centre of any importance. In September, 1886 the secretary made a progress tour through the lines, firmly establishing the various branches on a uniform basis.

Work was going quietly and steadily forward, and the association daily increasing in strength and numbers, when another event suddenly stirred the even current of affairs. Pursuing the government policy of retrenchment, a number of men were suddenly discharged, and, as no employment was available, the men were reduced to great straits. Seeing that the whole of the officers were retained and that a general reduction of wages was threatened, another mass meeting of employees was convened in December, 1886, to protest against these things. Mr McEvoy, one of the vice-president.s of the association, in addressing the meeting made a very intemperate speech. Next morning, without any warning, Mr McEvoy was called up before his inspector and immediately dismissed from the service, and Mr Hoyle, the president, who had presided at the meeting in question, was suspended and ordered to show cause why he should not be di5missed also. Great indignation at once pervaded the whole service, and the men could with difficulty he restrained. It was seen, however, that the Minister could not stand still while the association could, and pacific counsels prevailed. Mr Hoyle furnished his explanation, and after the lapse of a few days was reinstated and eventually paid for all time lost. Mr McEvoy’s case was considered by the association, and although they could not possibly agree with the language he had used, they nevertheless deemed that he had the intention of serving their interests, and therefore made him a grant of ten pounds as a solatium. Eventually, through the efforts of the association he was re-employed in his former capacity, and thus ended and episode fraught with much anxiety and interest to the whole of the workingmen.

When the first annual general meeting was held in May, 1887, representatives from the kindred society in Victoria were present, and the conference which lasted two days, dealt with a number of important questions, and gave universal satisfaction. All this time official recognition was assiduously SOUW1t, but was persistently refused. The Ministry having been replaced, the Hon. John Sutherland, who had always been a good friend to railway men, took the Portfolio of Public Works; and, upon renewed representations being made, that gentleman at length in September, 1887, accorded the association the official recognition they had so long sought. A deputation quickly followed to the Commissioner, and a very satisfactory interview was the result. The new Railway Management Bill being before the Legislature, the association, through its general secretary, Mr Schey, who had been meanwhile elected a member of the Legislative Assembly for the suburb of Redfern, put forward many valuable amendments to better the condition of railway workmen, and so just and equitable were they esteemed to be, that all the most important and valuable were safely inserted in the bill. Since the annual meeting, five new branches have been opened, viz., at Mittagong and Cootamundra on the Southern line; at Wellington and Bourke on the Western line; and at Peat’s Ferry on the North-Coast line. It has thus twenty ‘nine branches, and a roll of over five thousand members. It has the largest and best sick and accident fund connected with any government department in the colony, and now contemplates at an early date the establishment of a social club for railway and tramway men, as also a library and lecture hall for the purpose of elevating its members mentally, morally, and intellectually.

The Branch Committee would like to thank Mr. Steve Magee and the A.C.O.A.(N.S.W. Branch) for help in the production of this edition of The Hummer.