Mark Hearn, Working Lives: A History of the Australian Railways Union (NSW Branch)

Hale and Iremonger, Sydney, 1990, 221 pp.

J.C.A. Lacey

This fine and timely look arose out of an oral history project initiated in 1986. There is a complementary audio cassette also known as “Working Lives” which contains many of the interviews on which this book is based.

The book has an interesting structure. The first five chapters are a chronological account of the ARU’s predecessor, the Amalgamated Railway and Tramway Service Association, and the rise of the AR U after the devastation of the 1917 strike. Despite the Depression, the story becomes a happier one as the ARU gradually succeeded in gaining improved conditions for its members. This section of the book concludes in 1965.

The next three chapters give a detailed account of the workers in three branches of the Railway Service: Permanent Way (fettlers and track maintenance), Safeworking (signalling and shunting) and The Workshops and Carriage Cleaning Sheds.

Working conditions were appalling: “Jack Herbert, a fencing ganger in the 193Os, remembers ‘times when you’d get a shilling a night camp allowance; you’d finish up getting into town 8-10 pm in a goods train and go up into the mountains and cut your own tent poles or something like that and pitch you tent up in the dark and you’d have to be on the job at 7.3Oam.”

Even more astonishing was that the fettlers had to pay for their equipment: Ernie Jones recalls “We arrived at Kendall at 7.3Oam and went straight out on the job. And when we came back we had to cook our own food, nothing was prepared, they gave you a palisades and a bundle of afran and a frying pan and a meat safe which we had to pay for – it wasn’t given to us it was taken out of our pay”. (p. 157).

Thus, as well as recording the history of the ARU, this book gives many interesting and telling portraits of its members and leaders, not only Lloyd Ross and Jim Walshe but also Station Assistant Mary Stratton.

In the last section of the book the author returns to a chronological account finishing with a discussion of the implications of the 1989 Boozallen and Hamilton report commissioned by the Greiner government. The book thus ends as it began. ARTSA had experienced progress in its first two years, then in 1888 Premier Sir Henry Parkes introduced a new Railways Act in order to “make the railways pay”. In 1988 the Greiner Government introduced its Transport Administration Act which requires the railway to operate for the first time on a commercial basis.