Condition of the Waterside Workers in Sydney after the Defeat of the 1890 Strike

Edna Ryan

The text of an address given by Edna Ryan to the Sydney branch of the Australian Society for the Study of Labour History, 16 October, 1984.

If the spectre of communism stalked Europe in the l840s, the aspirations towards socialism were high in Australia in the 1880s, in the easter regions especially. Socialists expected to succeed and the disappointment was too much for William Lane who tried to escape the bitterness of defeat. The charismatic Harry Holland persisted in his belief that poverty would be eliminated and his bitter disillusionment was a long drawn-out agony lasting another twenty years.

In the ten years 1890-1900 Sydney was a silent battlefield – the unions for the most part destitute and destroyed. The 1890 strike is considered by some to have been the first outbreak of class war in the colony. Battles galore there had been but this was a major confrontation between capital and labour in which labour was beaten. Defeated not only by the ruling class and the state but by unemployment. Australian unionists have such contempt for scabs because they were so often defeated by scabs – destitution was never considered an excuse.

The recovery came within the decade and it began in the outback – with the shearers. Reorganisation got its inspiration from the hinterland – Harry Holland had come from Queanbeyan Salvation Army on the march to end poverty and organise for socialism and unionism in the city; Donald Macdonnell spent his young working days between Stuart Mill in Victoria and Queensland – living on horseback from shearing shed to shearing shed north and south of the back of Bourke. Billy Hughes left the city to organise for the AWU and PLL in Young. Many of the city labour and socialist activists represented country electorates in the N.S.W. Parliament. Bourke, Grenfell, Cootamundra and Young seemed much closer to Sydney than they do today.

The Australian Socialist League increased its membership by two hundred in Sydney after the strike, at the same time as the newly formed Political Labour League (PLL) surged ahead. Many were members of both the Australian Socialist League (ASL) and the PLL including Hughes, Holman, Beeby, Moroney and E.J. Brady, who was the Secretary of ASL. The chaotic conditions which prevailed on the wharves caused continuing bitterness. It meant that unionists stood alongside scab. in the line-up for work and the wound of defeat was festering and angry. It suited the employers to keep the workers divided. The Wharf Labourers’ Union ceased to exist – the union could offer nothing to its members and many of them were out of work; others left the waterfront and, with their wives, sought work on sheep stations and rural properties as married couples.

In 1899 the Council of the Australian Labour Federation spoke of the union “for the past few years being utterly disorganised.” (Fitzhardinge 100). An attempt was made to revive it in 1896 with the help of Labour members of parliament (O’Sullivan, Hughes, Spence, Smith) but although the men turned up to hear the speakers and the exhortations to organise, nothing came of it. Friends outside the industry helped to revive the union – the proprietor of Mann’s Hotel on the corner of Kent and Grosvenor Streets, Archdeacon Langley of St. Phillips Church of England and the State MLA for the area, W.M. Hughes. It was put to Hughes that he himself should set about reforming the Wharf Labourers’ Union. His electorate covered the waterfront from Darling Harbour to Balmain. Langley became a trustee of the union when it was revived with Hughes as general secretary for fourteen years before his expulsion in 1916.

Hughes had won the State election easily in 1894. He had arrived in Sydney in 1888 and moved to Balmain in 1890 – he was already deaf and dyspeptic. After three months’ intensive recruiting by Hughes and others, 1500 members were enrolled and 600 had paid their dues.

It has been impossible for the ship-owners and stevedoring companies to chase the member of parliament off the wharves as they had been doing with any union representative for the past nine years. Members of the union had been black-listed and given work only in rare instances. Hughes had never been a member of the union but had worked as a country organiser for the Labour Party, and the AWU. He had been prominent in promoting the Early Closing Act in 1899, even before the Shop Assistants’ Union had been revived. After the Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Act of December 1901 came into operation, a number of unions were re-formed and registered.

In spite of the dreadful odds against the wharf labourers, Hughes succeeded in getting the employers to make an agreement with the newly formed union in 1900, prior to the Industrial Arbitration Act. However, the advent of the Arbitration Act was common knowledge and may have had some influence on the shipowners and stevedoring companies. Labour was not even an opposition in its own right until 1907 but had done much horse trading and bargaining to add industrial arbitration to the list of reforms. Some might not consider it to have been a reform – a question to be taken up at another time.

Hughes warned the wharf labourers against rash action because their newly formed union was in no condition to pull on a fight. His deal with the shipowners was for an 8-hour day. This meant an increase of 2s. per day for wharf labourers who worked a 10-hour day for Is. an hour, at casual rates. (More on this below.)

Harry Holland had formed the Newcastle Wharf Labourers Union, separate from that in Sydney. The Newcastle union came out on strike for the 8-hour day against the advice of Hughes. The Sydney union did not give any support, thus widening the rift that had already occurred between the ASL of which Holland was Secretary, and the Labour Party. When the Arbitration Court opened its doors for business in May 1902, the first case which came before it was that of the Newcastle & Hunter River S.S. Coy. vs. the Newcastle Wharf Labourers Union.

Judge Cohen, President of the Court, endorsed the agreement already existing between the Sydney Wharf Labourers Union and the steamship companies, made it an award with common rule and preference to unionists.

This was a triumph for Hughes and left Harry Holland isolated. Hughes had a Svengali-like influence on the members of the union and he acted like a schoolmaster, expecting obedience from the members. This was not unusual in Labour leaders who adopted an authoritarian/paternalistic attitude towards the less educated rank and file.

To complete the outline of Hughes’ role. He went to Melbourne as a Federal M.P. in May 1901 and immediately set up a provisional committee of Labour members representing waterfront constituencies. The Waterside Federation was inaugurated on 7 February 1902 representing twelve unions with a total membership of 6300, of which 2800 were in Sydney. By the end of the year 18 unions were represented with Hughes as President. He had also been instrumental in helping to get other unions off the ground in Sydney. He helped the Carters (later the Trolley & Draymen’s) Union which was connected with the waterfront and important to it. Hughes remained President of that union. He helped to organise meetings that set up unions for cabmen, marble workers, fishermen, storemen and packers.

Hughes was at the same time studying law and became the advocate for the waterside workers, coal lumpers and others in the arbitration court. He became simultaneously Commonwealth Attorney-General, President of the Waterside Workers Federation, President of the Carters Union, President of the Transport Workers Federation (which included the Seamen’s Union). After his first pre-selection win in the State contest in 1894, he was never opposed in either pre-selection for parliament nor for his position in the waterside union until his defection in 1916.

Now to the condition of workers on the waterfront, material which is gleaned from the evidence given at the Arbitration Court hearing commencing on 22nd August 1905 with Judge Heydon, John Plant Wright and Edward Riley on the Bench. The latter two were respectively the employers’ and the employees’ representatives.

The claimant was the Sydney Wharf Labourers Union represented by W.M. Hughes instructed by Brown & Beeby, and the NSW Interstate Steamship Owners Association and the NSW Coastal Steamship OWners’ Association, represented by A.J. Kelynack, instructed by Sly & Russell.

The cause of the dispute. In 1902 Judge Cohen had granted an award covering the men working on deep-sea ships. Hughes obviously intended to take on the employers separately and deep-sea owners were absent owners – easier to tackle. About half the membership of the waterside workers union benefitted. The rate was Is. 3d. per hour for an 8-hour day, as against Is. on coastal and interstate wharves. Saturday was 4 hours with Is.6d. for overtime. Preference was given to unionists and the number of “constant hands” was limited to those already in employment.

The Stevedores Association who represented the deep-sea owners considered that the union would have no right to reject applications for membership but Cohen made no decision beyond suggesting that some discretion should legitimately be allowed the union. (NSW AR 1903.143-50).

For reasons I do not have time to go into, but on which questions would be welcome, the coastal and interstate wharf labourers’ claim did no get a hearing for three years.

In presenting the claim Hughes said the whole membership of the union was necessary to the industry and the casual wage should be high enough to enable all members to earn a decent living, even if not fully employed.

Here I will give an outline of the wharves and labour used.

The Wharves

AUSN considered to be the chief wharf; Adelaide 5.S. Co.; Howard Smith; Huddart Parker; Union S.S. Co.; (Druitt & Sussex Sts) North Coast S.N. Co.; Dalgetys; Central Stevedoring Co.; Taylor Bros. One boat arrived at Druitt St. on Mondays, one at Sussex St. every three weeks from Wellington, N.Z.; one from Auckland every two weeks – an average of two boats a week.

An island boat about once every three weeks Sussex or Margaret St. Howard Smith had 10 or 12 steamers trading in this port, with a gross tonnage of 24 to 30 thousand tons.

Sussex Street is busy on Mondays, and Tuesdays when coastal, interstate and deep-sea ships are in. The interstate trade fairly regular but the deep-sea trade varies greatly between summer and winter.

The Steamship Owners Association was formed about 25 years ago, but the Interstate Owners Association was formed 5 years ago.

The labour required on some boats – a Tasmanian spud boat, for example, had four holds. Four men worked in each hold: which was 16, and either two or four worked at the landing – i.e. either 8 or 16. Usually 6 or 8 men were trucking sometimes 4 truckers to a hatch. So that up to 36 men worked on such a boat.

The deep-sea wharf labourers flocked to the interstate wharves when their normal work was slack, and vice-versa. Each of the companies had a number of “preference men” who were given the first chance of work and the lions’ share of overtime. Such men made good wages while others made very little.

It suited the employed to have an oversupply of casual waterfront labour. They played a cat and mouse game with the casuals – giving them an odd bit of work to keep them dangling, and occasionally a good amount. Only the preference men could reasonably expect to get work.

Huqhes set out to have the work distributed more equitably. He told the court he was prepared to put 15 to 20 per cent of waterfront labour out of the industry and get rid of the no-hopers.

“We are here to ask the court to determine the rate of casual labourers. If the effect happens to be the employment of constant men in their place, that will be an unfortunate thing for these men who are employed casually… It may be better that 600 men are employed constantly than that 1000 men should be employed casually… We do not dread that. If the companies like to employ 600 men constantly, let them do so. If they treat the constant hands unfairly, then we might ask the court to fix a rate for the constant hands, or the court may do that now, but we ask the court to fix a rate for casual labour.” Hughes insisted he was not there to get the court to distinguish between casual and constant labour. He told the court he had appeared in the carters’ case where a casual labourer gets 8s.6d. for one day’s work – for a full week of 48 hours, he got 40s. Hairdressers got 10s.6d. for a casual day, 40s. for a week.

“We have been chiefly objecting, apart from the of the rate, to the poor distribution of the lowness work.”

Hughes said it was not possible to live on 20s. per week and many members of the union averaged no more than this. “Nor is 30s. to 35s. a living wage but they can live on it. It would be better for 80 per cent of the union members to be able to earn enough to live on.”

Henry Howell, the Sydney Manager of Howard Smith told the court that it was difficult to get preference men to take constant positions because they earned more money as casuals. He had no doubt that Hughes’ objective was to lift the rate for wharf labourers and make it uniform throughout the Commonwealth. “This is a Branch of the Waterside Workers Federation”, he said.

The constant men were general labourers who did general wharf work when no ships were in port – the preference men were not only strong and young, “the bulls” but also skilled at handling cargo. It is my opinion that such skill was never recognised on the waterfront as it was in the workshop. An examination of coal lumpers’ work is a glaring example of high skill and of danger being given a low status.

The Witnesses

Emmanuel Scully had been a wharf labourer for 8 or 9 years. He went to the wharves by 6 a.m. each day hoping to be given work and hoping to get well known for his regular attendance. Kelynack asked him why he was not a preference man. Scully did not know why but preference men obtained work whenever they decided to front up. Stevedores chose their preference men, he explained to Kelynack, and a man never asked why he was not chosen. “We are not on principle supposed to ask a stevedore why – whether he gives us work or whether he leaves us out …” Privilege men often go straight in the gate and do not wait for their names to be called.

John Emil Andrews had been a wharf labourer since 1885 but he had worked on a station for five years after the 90 strike with his wife as a married couple’s job. He said there was not any work on the wharves for a known union man. Now he worked at the AUSN all the time or at the Adelaide S.S. Co. or at Huddart Parker when he could get work. His average earnings over the last 3 years were 22s.6d. His earnings were so low now because a privileged man having cut out on his other job would be sent to replace him. Sometimes he would be put off at 4.30 instead of 6 p.m. and thus he rarely got any overtime. Privileged men were allowed to work for as long as they wanted and to replace those already given work. Some casuals hang around all day and may get an odd hour or two. Andrews was 51 years old. He said he would not become a privileged man if he had the offer – he appeared to hold them in contempt, although “they are union men like myself”. He had heard their earnings’ were £2. l6s. up to £3.

Kelynack in examining Andrews asked wasn’t it a fact that privileged men were good workers who always turned up in any weather. He accused Andrews of having no brains. Andrews said that he wanted the work divided up but now only a few got work all the time and others got none. Kelynack told him: “If you went to the country, your wife would work as a hosuekeeper … How is it she does not try to do something now? You are not keeping a house, you are living in a room so she has no housekeeping to do.”

William Millard – ten years a wharf labourer. Found it difficult to live on his meagre earnings. His wife also worked at washing and office cleaning. When asked, he said he never inquired what she earned he only knew she got l2s. at one place for office cleaning and washing. Millard said he used to average 36s. a week in 1896, now his earnings were below 25s.

John McKay had averaged 22s.6d. p.w. for ten years. He had been 18 years on the wharves but averaged 15 hours work p.w. His wife sub-let part of the house and had lodgers. He could not say what she made as she had been doing this before they married.

D. McArthur had a family of four and paid 6s. rent. His wife was NOT working. Part of the house was let and his wife washed for the lodgers! Herbert J. Hill said his wife did NOT work. They lived 9 miles out of town at Rockdale. He had no idea how the money was spent as his wife looked after this. His average earnings were 35s. He took a train at 5.12 a.m. and returned either at 25 to 12 midnight or at 3 a.m. (the paper train). They kept fowls, grew vegetables and collected their own firewood.

George Cole “When I came on the wharf first they would put 250 bags an hour out, that is four years ago. I have been in a boat where they put out 400 an hour – the four men in the hold average 200 for each two men – an average of 3 bags a minute. You feel the strain after 8 hours.”

William Parsons had 8 children. One daughter was married, two others were at work, one was unemployed, four were still at school. The rent was l6s. and the total family earnings £3.17s.6d. Parsons said on principle he would not go and ask a shipowner to put him on his books as a preference man because a body of men went to the gates to take their chance – let each man take his chance. Parsons must have been a “powerful man” according to Judge Heydon, as he still carried wheat at the age of 48. Parsons said he knew a wheat carrier aged 69.

Angus Donald McDonald, a secretary of the Sydney Coal Lumpers’ Union. His members unload coal into colliers and ships that come into the harbour, seldom at the wharf. They load cargo and bunker coal for Is.6d. an hour. Some of the men belonged also the Wharf Labourers’ Union. About 300 of his members were unemployed most of the time. William Cavanagh gave evidence that he worked l3½hours. straight without a meal break. He was afraid to ask as he would not get picked up again. He got 19s.6d. for that job.

Sarah Dawes told the court she and her husband had six children. The rent was l2s. p.w. and they could only survive by her letting a room for 5s. James Horsenell “My wife does not take in lodgers or do anything else.” The judge asked him “how do you live on 20s. a week?” and counsel for the employers said: “they have other means”.

George Cole (already mentioned) also told the judge that his “wife did not take in lodgers or anything else.”

William Edward Barker said that £2.l8s.9d. was a very big week indeed when told he had signed for such a week’s earnings. He was not sharp enough to point out that he had signed for this once but not any more. Barker said that his earnings averaged between £1.11.0 and £2 p.w. He paid 9s. rent and Is. for ferry fares. He had a wife and children. They kept fowls which when laying were a great help. Rabbits were also cheap.

Barker had been able to save £80 in a year while he was working on the wharves in Townsville but he was single at the time and it cost very little to live he paid 3s.6d. a week for a house. He had been in Howard Smith’s No.1 gang and AUSN’s No.2 gang. There was not so much surplus labour in Townsville. He did not return to Townsville after he married in Sydney, partly because he did not like the idea of returning and having to “reeve in again”, i.e. start from scratch as a newcomer. Yes, he would like to go back but it cost money to move and now they never had any savings. Barker had been working on the wharves on and off for about 25 years but had not been able to get his name on the book or among the preference men. He said preference men were “bulls” chosen by the stevedores who looked for young men. Barker at 41 considered himself middle-aged.

Albert Owens worked at the Union Company, generally second man in a gang of six. He was always selected at Druitt Street, employed every time a ship was in there. He might get work on the island boat at Sussex or Margaret Street. On a busy day the Union Co. employed from 150 to 350. “For a man to get 30s. a .week as a wharf labourer is pretty good.” Owens had. noticed some new arrivals at Margaret Street wharf and he did not know where they came from or why they were picked – but he was left out. “Of course”, he said, “what I would be left out for I would not lower himself to ask”. Kelynack queried why he would not ask. “Because I would be degrading myself by doing so.”

Howell, from the Howard smith Company, told the court the most satisfactory time for ship-owners was between 1890 up to about six years ago – “I mean the least dictation and interference from the wharf labourers and without difficulty in getting a fair sample of men, for the reason we selected our own men. This is a great advantage to anyone who has to manage a wharf.”

He continued, the agreement in 1900 arose out of a good deal of trouble. Men began refusing to do certain work and to demand more money. If a steamer went to an outside wharf it might be difficult to truck the stuff, and we had to pay more as the men would not carry it even if they might have been able to carry it easily, but it would be difficult to truck.

These troubles led to a conference between Hughes and myself.

It has worked fairly satisfactorily – men were reported to rejoice and cheer when it was signed. The concession was an 8-hour day. It made a difference of more than Is. an hour to the ship owner but as our steamers come in at all hours, we pay overtime all the time. The working day instead of 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. is from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Overtime is not time over 8 hours but time after 5 p.m. Although it is a concession of Is. in 8 hours, it works out at considerably more. Howell said that before 1900 the owners were not tied to the union – it was possible to put enough weight on a man to kill him. That was common before 1900. He explained that there was no difficulty in putting a load on a truck. A man of 9 or 10 stone can go away with 8 cwt. on a truck without much labour, provided the wharf is flat. Howell himself had been compelled to do labouring on the wharves during the 1890 strike. He said about 10 or 20 per cent of wharf labourers are engaged in trucking.

Where there is plenty of wharf storage accommodation, labour could be worked cheaply. The cost of labour in the past with inferior wharf accommodation was 8d., 8½d., 7¼d. and 9d. per ton. This year it had gone up to over Is. per ton somewhere between l1d. and l3d. He described work in the hold as simply slinging cargo on to the trucks. Howell looked upon stacking heavy cargo such as wheat, maize and potatoes as about the heaviest work on the wharf. The most intelligent men are sent down the hold on account of understanding slinging where judgment is required. When told that a lot of surplus labour is held in reserve for the benefit of the ship owner, Howell said this was not done at the ship owner’s request. They often used surplus labour because it was there. If it were not there “we would do without it.”

He said “My stevedores often work a gang short because the labour available is indifferent.” The judge remarked that he did not like the expression “surplus labour” and suggested they should be referred to as “men under 15s. a week” but Kelynack’ replied the wharfingers would be glad to have fewer men around.

Henry Copeland explained one reason that earnings for the preference men had dropped. He had been working on sugar for five years, prior to that on coke and bullion and general cargo. Copeland said he was known as a heavy weight on the Adelaide Company’s wharf.

Three or four years ago, they put a gang in the hold of a sugar boat, six men and sometimes a man to run the hook down below, the hatchman, the guy winchman and one on the landing – that would be 10. “They back carts so no wharf labourers are required on the wharf. When we work that way we have to put the sugar in small slings, 3 bags at a time, because the sugar company use whips to lift it up on the stacks. Three or four years ago, at the average rate of work, and what the bosses considered a fair average, was 25 ton per hour per gang of 10 men. “This year and last year they have altered it this way; each worker before was to sent up six bags in one heave, then come back and got another six. Now you make up 12 bags in one heave, so that in 3 heaves they used to have 18 bags, now they have 36. We average 40 to 47 ton per hour with the same number of men. We get less money and have to work faster.

The Bench did not go along with Hughes’ claim to raise the wages, but concluded that the solution was to distribute the current rates differently.