Mark Bray and Malcolm Rimmer, Delivering The Goods: A History or The Transport Workers’ Union In New South Wales 1888-1986

Allen and Unwin, Sydney 1987 pp. Xxi and 297 $24.95 Paper

John Shields

Delivering the Goods is a commissioned history of the New South Wales Branch of the Transport Workers’ Union (TWU); a union which these days is both a pillar of the State’s Right-wing Labor establishment and one of the nation’s most powerful industrial organisations. As the book reveals, however, the union’s road to power and success was rocky indeed. For here was a union which, from the very first, had to tackle head-on one of the toughest, most open and most competitive businesses of all – the fiercely private enterprise road haulage industry; an industry in which unregulated subcontracting and cut-throat price competition remained the name of the game until very recent times.

A beginning was made in 1888 with the formation of the Sydney Trolley and Draymens’ Union amid the docks, railway goods yards, bulk wool stores and dire poverty of working-class West Sydney. This was one of the many unions born at the wrong end of the long late colonial boom; born on a wave of enthusiasm for the principles of the “New Unionism”. Under the presidency of the redoubtable Andy Kelly, the union struggled valiantly to gain a foothold in the city’s haulage industry but, like so many other infant industrial unions of the time, it was swept away in the wake of the defeat of the 1890 Maritime Strike.

Revival came in 1901 with the formation of the Trolley, Draymen and Carters’ Union under the patronage of labour movement generalissimo Billy Hughes, and it was Hughes and his able, if far less ambitious lieutenant, Mick Connington, who set the new union firmly on the course of industrial moderation and award regulation. As union secretary (1901-1916), Connington worked tirelessly to secure wage minima and standard hours for his members, and he did so with considerable success. To Bray and Rimmer, he looms as one of the unsung heroes of Australian unionism. Although he followed Hughes out of the union over the conscription issue in 1916, Connington, unlike Hughes, remained true to the union cause.

Connington’s departure, and a brief period of deregistration following the 1917 General Strike, ushered in an era of dislocation and decline. Down to the mid-twenties the union languished under a run of secretaries who were either incompetent or corrupt. Perhaps the only real achievement during the 1920s was federal amalgamation, but even this was a sadly botched affair and something which returned to dog the union for decades afterwards in the form of bitter conflict between the NSW union and the Melbourne-based Federal body. Under these circumstances, the union was ill-prepared for the steady mechanisation of road freight haulage, the advent of motor omnibus services, and the economic crisis of the 1930s. The decade brought a catastrophic decline in membership.

If corruption, incompetence and decline were the hallmarks of union affairs during the inter-war years, those of the 1940s and 1950s were internal factional strife and industrial opportunity squandered. Bray and Rimmer argue convincingly that the factionalism of the early Cold War years was driven as much by personality as by ideology. Barney Platt, who held the secretaryship from 1942 until 1959, transformed political opportunism into something of an art form. Elected initially on a Left-wing ticket, Platt subsequently hitched his star to the grouper cause. Then, in the 1950s, he clung to power by aligning himself with the anti-grouper forces in the NSW ALP. By the late 1950s, when the latter turned against him, Platt had traversed the entire political spectrum. Barney Platt left the union financially enfeebled, whilst his refusal to operate outside the arbitration system meant that the industrial gains secured during the 1950s boom were modest indeed.

According to Bray and Rimmer, it was not until the mid 1%Os that the TWU really came of age. Under a stable, Right-wing leadership – the predecessors of the present incumbents – the union both consolidated its position in road freight haulage, particularly within the strategically pivotal oil refining industry, and strove for dominance over the entire land transport sector. By the 1980s, with the long- running wrangle between the State and Federal Branches finally resolved, the TWU had emerged as a pace-setter within the Federal arbitration system, particularly on the issues of wage indexation and industry superannuation. And there the narrative ends, with the Quinn leadership’s pragmatic, pro- arbitration methods evidently “delivering the goods”.

Delivering the Goods, then, is a well-crafted institutional history. As the first scholarly study of this hitherto neglected field of union struggle and achievement it deserves to be widely read. The two opening chapters dealing with the union’s formative years (1888-1917) are the most evocative in the book; a subtle blend of economic, social, labour process and industrial relations history. This achievement is all the more remarkable since there are no union records extant for the pre-1917 period. Instead, the authors have made skilful use of Master Carriers’ Association minutes and sporadic newspaper reports to piece the narrative together.

I must confess, however, to a certain impatience with the approach adopted in those chapters dealing with the inter-war and post-war periods. At times, the emphasis on leadership squabbles and succession and on the minutia of industrial issues becomes a little tiring. This may be unavoidable in an “official” institutional history in this genre, but it also seems unnecessarily limiting. Perhaps more could have been made of the wider industrial and political milieu in which the union operated, especially changes in work organisation, transport technology and industry structure. I kept looking for more, too, on the TWU’s relations with the Labour Council, with other unions such as the A.R.U. and A.W.U., and with State and Federal Labor governments.

Moreover, it is only in the opening chapters that we catch a real glimpse of the lives. of ordinary union members themselves. Hummer readers will be familiar with one of their number, namely the ill-fated Mervyn Flanagan, father of four, who was shot dead during the 1917 strike by a well-heeled scab driver from darkest Bingara. Perhaps the account of ‘ union affairs post-1940 could have been enlivened by the judicious use of the oral testimony of rank and me members, but then such evidence may well have served to subvert the book’s official purpose.

Similarly, in contrast to the splendid treatment accorded union-employer relations in earlier chapters, in the later chapters discussion of employers and employer strategies becomes increasingly two- dimensional. The authors leave no doubt that the union at times enjoyed a remarkably close relationship with the management of the large freight forwarding companies. Yet the book explores neither the growth of these powerful corporations in the post -war period nor the nature of the relationship between union officials and management. In this regard, the book’s silence on recent controversial aspects of T.W.U. history is open to question.

Finally, a few points on minor matters of detail. The Protectionist Lyne government could not have been responsible for emasculating the Court of Arbitration (p.41) since the former had run its course before the latter had come into being. The 1901 Industrial Arbitration Act expired not at the end of 1907 (p. 47), but in mid 1908. The Commissioner responsible for the 1920 report on the reduction in standard working hours for 48 to 44 per week was G.S. Beeby, not A.B. Piddington (p.8).

These things aside, though, this is a book which all persons interested in the past, present and future of Australian unionism would be well advised to read. The authors have set themselves an immensely challenging task and the end result is a credit to their scholarship and, one suspects, to their tact and patience.