Operative Plumbers’ Society of N.S.W.

(From The Cooperator, 7.10.1912)

President: W. J. Russell Secretary: J. Duncan

The first attempt to organise the plumbers, gasfitters, and qalvanised-iron workers into a trade union, was made so far back as the early seventies. Although the lineal descendant of the body then formed is now one of the strongest of the various unions associated with the building tr.i1fles, no present day Union has had a more checkered history. This is due, no doubt, partly to the vicissitudes of the passing years, but more because of the changes that have occurred in the methods and customs in the conduct of the trade. for instance, in the old days the galvanised iron workers were more closely allied with the plumbers and gas fitters than they are now. Today they are more in touch with the tinsmiths. The original society, in the terse lanquage of Mr. J.E. West, who was actively associated with the earliest movements of the society, “went out”. What was the cause of its decease is not stated, but the plumbers and gasfitters remained unorganised until 1880, when another and more successful effort was made to weld once more these workers into a trade orqanisation. A meeting was called of all interested in the formation of a new union. That meeting was held in the old New Zealand Hotel, William Street. The project was taken up enthusiastically and the promoters were agreeably surprised to find a roll up of so larqe a number of men associated with the three trades named. Thatame evening, these men formed themselves into a union. It was found now that the room was not large enough for the numbers that gave in their names at the first meeting for membership, so a large room was secured at the Swan With Two Necks, George Street, one of the headquarters of Unionism prior to the building of the present Trades Hall.

Soon after the inauguration of the Union, affiliation with the Trades and Labor Council, the Eight Hours Demonstration Committee, and the Trades’ Hall Building Committee, was consumated, and representatives to all these positions received official recognition.

Considerable progress was made during the eighties, membership increased, and the organisation bade fair to become a strong one. Through slackness of trade, however, a consequent lack of interest, and through departures and lapse of membership the Union was compelled to disband, and the beautiful banner possessed by the old Union was cut up and distributed among the remaining members as mementoes. The Trades’ Hall shares, held by the original Union, likewise suffered a similar distribution. The plumbers of Sydney, when the Union went under, passed through many vicissitudes, receiving just any wages the individual employers were disposed to give. Until May 3rd, 1900, these conditions obtained, when a meeting was called of the plumbers of Sydney for the purpose of reorganising the trade on a sound basis. Mr. Frank Brennan, the present Director of Labor for the Government of N.S. Wales, who was then at attached to the Trades and Labor Council, occupied the chair. Several speakers addressed the meeting, including Mr. Wilson, M.L.A. The only business done that night was the appointment of Mr. Campbell, the meeting then adjourning to May 10th. The first election of the officers resulted as follows: – President, George Ware, who today represents the plumbers on the Wages Board; vice-president, W. Elliott, who died a few weeks back from lead poisoning; secr.etary, George Turner, now in business in Redfern; treasurer, J. Mercer, who at present occupies the position of trustee, J. Grieves, T. Webster and G. Kirk; stewards. W. Bristow and .J. Gorman; auditors, R. Jones and H. Coomber. The following resolution was unanimously carried at the meeting:- “That this society be composed of plumbers of average ability and that persons desirous of enrolment be admitted on the proposition of two members of the society”.

There was an enrolment of no less than 63 members at that meeting.

At the following meeting, which took place on May 15th, the first important action of the new society was transacted, viz., the sending of a circular letter to the Master Plumbers, notifyinq “that this society, having resolved to adopt a minimum wage of 10/- per day of eiqht hours, from the 26th of May, would be thankful to receive their acknowledgment accepting such rate”. On June 19th of that year, on account of the plague outbreak, and for other reasons, it was decided to ask employers for a further advance to 11/- per day of eight hours as a minimum wage. In response to that request the society received communications from fifteen firms conceding the advance asked for. Against the firms that refused to grant the advance, the men concerned decided to strike, and a levy was struck for their support while out.

On November 20th, 1900, the secretaryship was taken over by Mr. G. Bright, now carrying on a successful business at Mosman. At the same meeting the rule defining the minimum wage was altered from 11/- to 10/- per day of eight hours.

From this time onwards and for a year or two, the society had a somewhat checkered career. Trade was exceedingly restricted and work in consequence scarce. . In March, 1903, John Duncan, a young plumber just out of his apprenticeship, took over the secretaryship. This office was rendered vacant by the retirement of Mr. Bright, as previously stateD. Mr. Duncan at present fills the office of permanent secretary. The membership f1uctuated considerably during the lean years, but in 1908 a forward movement began to manifest itself, and from that time till now the society has never looked back. On the 11th October, 1908, the claims to be put before the Wages Board were dealt with by the Union, and it was decided to place before the Board the log drawn up. At this time outside of the Union and its membership wages were paid as already previously stated. The Board sat under the presidency of the late Thos. E. Spencer. The other members were J.B. Gove and G. Ware, representing the employees, and Mr. Jas. Minto and Mr. Harry Wall, representing the employers. The men’s claims were advocated by Mr. Jas. Robertson, and Mr. F. Meade watched the case for the employers. A satisfactory award was secured in one respect, particularly since the despised and unnecessary improver was done away with. Henceforth every person engaged in the industry was brought up to the minimum of 11/- per day of eight hours. Various other concessions were gained from the Board. Recognizing the great benefits that the Union had obtained for them in the presentation of the case before the Board, the membership increased by leaps and bounds, and it now totals 750 members. It has also a branch at Newcastle with a membership of 60 members.

Directly after the publication of the award it was decided to appoint a permanent secretary, the selection falling upon Mr. George Ware, with Mr. J. Duncan as assistant. Mr. Ware held the position for two years, during which time he represented the men on the Newcastle Wages Hoard. Mr. Ware resigned the secretaryship in October, 1911, in order to resume his former employment in the Government Architects’ Workshop. Mr. J. Duncan, who was acting as his assistant secretary, was thereupon appointed to the secretaryship.

From the very inception of the reorganised society, it being affiliated with the Labor Council, every assistance has been accorded to other Unions on strike; assistance has always been given to members in time of stress and trouble. At present the Committee of Management is busy drafting the new claim, which in due course will .be presented before the new Wages Board recently designated under the new Act and known as the Building Trades Group. This consists of Mr. F.A.A. Russell, barrister-at-law (chairman), Mr. James Minto (employers), and Mr. George Ware (employees). Both of these gentlemen were represented on the old Board.