Skill and Fines and ‘Rock and Roll’: the Metal Trades Margins Campaign of 1967-8

Jim Baird

At the time of the watershed metal trades margins dispute of 1967-8, Jim Baird was an organiser for the left-dominated Boilermakers’ Union. He was also a shop committee activist and a members of the Communist Party. As the following account reveals, Jim played an active role in organising the combined metal unions’ campaign of opposition to the Conciliation and Arbitration Court’s original decision in the 1967 Metal Trades ‘work value’ case and against the consequent imposition offines by the Industrial Court. Well versed in the complexities of conciliation and arbitration, Jim was subsequently appointed to the Conciliation and Arbitration Commission by the Hawke Labor Government.

The anti-penal clauses struggle in the metal industry, which commenced in 1967, flowed ftom a decision of the then Conciliation and Arbitration Commission to deal with a claim for increased wages based on an increase in the skill responsibility of the work which metal workers carried out. In this period of the so-called metal trades ‘work value’ case, the Bench was made up of Judge Gallagher, Judge Moore and Commissioner Terry Winter. Winter was the ex-federalsecretary of the Municipal Employees’ Union and generally regarded as a person of the Left; a Labor Party person.

The Bench granted a claim for tradesmen only. Now it was a period when there were two parts of the wage: there was the basic wage and there was the margins for skill. The basic wage was supposedly fixed on the basis of ‘needs’. When the basic wage moved, the argument of the unions was that, therefore, there should be a relative increase in margins to maintain the level of their relativities. The decision of the Court was to grant tradesmen $7.20 but to grant nothing for trade assistants. One of the reasons was that, at that time, there was a shortage of tradesmen and the market required people to be encouraged to stay in the metal industry or to come to it ftom other work that they had taken up where the wages were better, such as the transport industry and the building industry. When that decision was handed down there was a reaction which was very important. That was that the tradesmen took the view that the tradesmen’s assistants should receive a relative increase of 80 per cent and that feeling led to the development of a new unity in the struggle.

Another factor that was important when you look at what happened in the penal clause struggle was that between 1950 and 1965 there had been a massive development in the shop stewards movement. There was the Waterside Workers’ Delegates’ Committees; there was the Power Station Committees; there was the Metal Industry Shop Committee movement. I think it would be true to say that at no period in history were the workers in Australia so well prepared, so well organised for a struggle. That’s not generally understood.

The interesting thing about the wage demand was that a figure of $7.20 was exactly the mathematical average of over-award payments that had been won in the field prior to that case. That also applied to sick leave, annual leave, long service leave, a month’s holiday, redundancy pay; all were first determined by the market and then the Commission ratified them and they became part of the awards. The reasoning was to equalise the labour cost to all employees and provide a level playing field, particularly when it was the large companies that generally were the break-through points.

I was responsible for organising our campaign in New South Wales. We decided – and I might say we decided it with the advice of the Communist Party Industrial Committee – that we would not fall for an all-out strike. What we decided to do was to use the organisation that had been built up to run a series of strikes, one after the other, and bans and limitations. As a matter of fact, Charlie Brown, who was an organiser of Boilermakers in those days, said it was called the ‘rockand-roll’ tactic. Boilermakers would stop for a couple of hours; they’d come back to work; the tradesman’s assistants would disappear and when they were back in the engine drivers would go home. So it was a very difficult period for employers to simply say, “They are on strike, we’ll take them into the Court”.

In the course of this rolling action money was collected on the basis that lists were taken up for every workshop that was out. At one stage I had a problem with the strikes, but not about getting people to take part in the campaign. Rather, they were ringing up and saying, “It’s our bloody turn, why aren’t we getting a turn”. Well, the reason for that was, we knew that it would take longer than a few weeks of strikes. We knew that it would take some time. And in actual fact it took twelve months, a little over twelve months. In that time every major workshop in New South Wales had been on strike, had overtime bans, limitations, ‘rock-and-roll’; and all had had the experience.

I might say that as far as my union, the Boilermakers’ , were concerned, another development was that the shop stewards’ movement, which had been encouraged, was formalised and for the first time we started to have rank-and-file conferences prior to national conferences of the union. The W aterside Workers’ had done it before us. We weren’t that clever. We picked it up because they had great success with it. The collection system itself was fairly simple. There was an organised committee in every workshop which had the responsibility of sending out speakers to all other workshops and when any action was taken by the Court – fining or in some other way threatening – that was immediately picked up in every workshop where we could get a speaker. In those days you could go to a factory and people would come out to the gate and it was a tradition, a democratic tradition, that everything the union did had to be recorded. In most case the recorders we took to those meetings were rank-andfilers. The organisers did a particularly good job in making sure that there was a constant flow of information and so the struggle went on merrily.

On the official side of the union’s activities – I am talking now mainly about the Amalgamated Engineering Union, the Boilermakers’ and the Sheet Metal Workers’, but I don’t exclude the Electrical Trades and the Ironworkers’ – the union leaders were placed in a position where elections were taking place and they had to be on side, otherwise they wouldn’t have got elected again. There were many attempts to sabotage the campaign. The Metal Trades Federation had developed into a major organising factor and while activities weren’t so great in some States, in New South Wales, South Australia and Victoria the main campaigns actually took place. You must remember that in Victoria they always had a preponderance of Federal awards, so it was a situation where it had a major interest as this was a Federal award. On the Metal Trade Federation we had people like Jack Devereux, Laurie Short, Jack Bevan, George Atkins, Dave McLeash. They were able to maintain a unity and not break ranks and attack the strike action. In fact the unions – all the unions – had an interest in the matter. The Ironworkers’, who covered the trade assistants and process workers, had a vital interest in it because they’d been excluded from the decision.

Another feature of the Commission’s decision which was provocative and helpful was that the increase would go to tradesmen, but if anybody received above $7.20 in over-award payments then the increase would be absorbed. All the major workshops, where the major activities were taking place, were already getting an over award payment equal to 17 per cent at least, so they got nothing either. It is interesting that Moore gave a minority decision. He said, “Look, this is going to cause trouble; we should grant $5 and no absorption”. And, frankly, if they had done that and they had maintained the relativity with the Ironworkers there would have been no campaign.

The first breakthrough was when the employers said they would agree that the $7.20 would not be absorbed, thinking that the tradesmen would accept that. The tradesmen, by this time, had been in joint committees of all kinds with the Ironworkers’ and then the Engine Drivers’. The Engine Drivers’ had a separate award which always flowed on from the metal industry, so they were deeply involved in the activities also. So the employers were then faced with the position that they had to not only deal with the unions on the basis of granting. the $7.20 to tradesmen, they then had to agree to give the pro rata relativity to the trades assistants. The Engine Drivers then said, “You can do whatever you like with the work on the floor but none of it’s going to be bloody well lifted.” And so their critical tactical position meant that they had to be included.

Now I used to appear on a regular basis in the Industrial Court. I remember one of the early days of the Court when Terry Ludeke, whom some of you probably know who was a Deputy President of the Commission, he was the prosecutor and on this day it was Dunphy, (Presiding), Judge Smithers, who was generally known as the hanging judge because he used to visit New Guinea every three months and hang a few people, and then we also had our famous Governor General (Sir) John Kerr. In these proceedings Kerr was always friendly, affable and helpful, but always agreed we should be fined. The other judge was Eggleston, who was advocate for the ACTU, and his contribution were generally fairly muted.

I recall on this occasion 1 turned up as I was told by Jack Bevan, who was our Federal Secretary, to go down and handle this dozen disputes. And I got down there and Dunphy said to Terry Ludeke, “Mr Ludeke, can we deal with all these matters together”. Now being a mug, and not knowing what was going on, I thought he meant they were going to deal with them one after the other. And Terry Ludeke says, “Oh yes, Your Honour, that would be satisfactory”. And he said to me, “And what do you think about that Mr Baird”. He’d already got stuck into me because I got up and said, “I appear for the Boilermakers and other unions”. And he said, “You don’t appear here without our permission”. But when he asked me what I thought about this proposition I said, “Well, Your Honour, perhaps they’re cheaper by the dozen”. And he said, “Not here, Mr Baird, not here”, and went on to prove it. That left me in the position on each of the cases where I had to put a case to show that there was either provocation or there was grounds for the dispute or we had recommended a return to work. And we generally put up a very miserable (in my opinion) response to what was a real threat. I must say we never did that again.

What happened after that was, we had the successful organisation of the workshops where we simply could telephone a workshop and say, “Look, we’re on in the Industrial Court tomorrow; you’re back at work tomorrow”. And then 1 used to get up, after Terry had laid out all the terrible things we’d done and say, “Your Honours, we’re seeking to have orders made etc. etc. etc.” And whoever was the presiding Judge of the day would say, “What do you have to say about that, Mr Baird,” I’d say, “there isn’t any strike, they’re back at work”. “What do you mean there’s no strike.” “They’re back at work”. Then he’d say to Terry, “Is that true?” And of course he didn’t know about it because we were in Melbourne and they were in Sydney. So consequently we used that tactic quite a bit.

Occasionally we were able to win a case simply on the basis that the arrogance of the employers, and their frustration, increased as time went by and they made mistakes in the technical process of lodging their claims and on a few occasions we had the joy of having the cases dismissed, only to be picked up next week.

Now I also used to attend the costings sessions with the Deputy Registrar where the costs were worked out. Five dollars for a letter, five dollars for a telephone call; two barristers Gunior and senior), and we’d argue each costing in every case and try to reduce the costs. In fact, in the long term, the costs were greater than the fines. So what did we do then about that. Well we held off paying the fines as long as we could and then finally had to. But we used that and publicised in our paper, every time there was a strike and at the end of the year we struck a levy, ten pound, which was a large amount. And out of that levy we recovered all of the fines, all ofthe costs, employed three new organisers and brought every organiser a new car.

At that stage the metal industry employers had had enough of this. It was not working. The penal clauses were failing. I remember saying to the solicitors, “I said, look you keep this up, you’re going to foul the whole system for yourselves.” And they responded, “Oh, never mind about that; let’s get on with the money.” And I remember Sel Hastings, who was the Deputy Registrar, saying to them – one of the large companies that used to handle all these, Waldron, Blake and Dawson I think their name was – “What Baird is saying to you is true, you’ve overdone it. Everybody in the Commission is saying you’ve overdone it.” And it was shortly after that that there were conferences held and we were granted every one of our claims; every one of our claims.

Bear in mind that the Commission’s role was never to fine anybody. It simply heard the argument that there was a strike or there was an apprehension that there was a strike, or the Commission itself may have such an apprehension, whatever the employer thought about it. And then it was that apprehension, or the actuality of a strike or a refusal to carry out an order, which led to the matter being taken by the employers to the Industrial Court.

Following that dispute, John Moore was made the President, Gallagher was given the job of Chairman or President of the Coal Tribunal, which was a separate identity, and Moore organised in the late part of ’69 and 1970 the first award which was fully settled across the table. I used to be carrying somebody’s bag at that stage, I think it was Jack Bevan’s, and I used to be brought into the conferences for the purposes of getting information and that kind of thing. And in those conferences, Hood sat at the top of the table with about 30 people there – all unions represented, all the employers – and we argued every clause that was in dispute and if we couldn’t agree Commissioner Hood would make a decision. In five days we walked out of that place with a new Federal award which contained a whole number of improvements, not all of them we would have liked, but those were directed and won as a result of the earlier strike.

The penal clauses were never used again after that. And even in the Mudginberri dispute and the Dollar Sweets dispute it was not the Act used. The Industrial Court was wound up, although Dunphy continued on with an office and a car and a secretary for a long time after that. But the emphasis ftom 1970 right through till 1983, when the Accord was introduced, was one of trying to get agreements and we had great success with what they called Section 25 agreements in the old Act. That was agreements where the parties negotiated directly, we got a settlement and that then took place of the awards. That was done in the motor industry, in Chrysler, GMH, Ford. It was done in the building industry in 1973 and it was done by the Waterside Workers’ following their earlier dispute.

As far as the penal clauses were concerned they were never taken out. They weren’t taken out by a Labor Government at any time and despite the fact there were many union representations, including the recent ones regarding secondary boycotts, the Labor Governments would never move ftom’that position. What’s more, they had, and still have support ftom trade union officials who want them in. And many a time I’ve been in disputes where the threat of the penal clause has been used to break a strike by unions who never wanted the dispute itself. Jack Hutson, in his book, Penal Colony to Penal Powers, refers to a statement by the A WU’s Charlie Oliver defending the penal powers on the basis that arbitration was so important that we must have the penal clauses in to control the workforce and not upset the arbitration system. Our problem in that period of the penal clauses, too, was not only that there was the problem of union officials using them to get people back to work, for fear that they themselves might be jailed or the union fined – and that’s a legitimate fear – but also because some of them felt that the success of the militancy of the workers was leading to a situation where new leaders were coming up ftom the rank-and-file and challenging the leaders for position. And that happened in a number of cases and, in addition to that, we had the problem of the Industrial Groups who carried out a continual campaign of trying to undermine any strikes we had, wherever they may be. Also a number of our officials were harassed by ASIO, telephone tapping, threats, letters even wives being rung up and being given all sorts of stories about their husbands to try and create problems there.

So the penal powers were defeated in that struggle. It’s more subtle now. The new Workplace Relations Act, the introduction of contracts like those at Weipa and the threats to fine people, with the fines on the meatworkers industry in Mudginberri, are cases in point. Incidentally, at Mudginberri the meat was bought from the abattoir by certain well known politicians, stored by the Northern Territory Government and resold back to the company when the strike was over at half the price the Northern Territory Government paid for it.

Penal clauses are an extension of the arbitration law. Arbitration law is the control of labour. It’s about the market and when there is a shortage of labour then the Act is altered to meet that. Moore’s proposition in 1970 about a more compatible, consultative cooperative process was not because Moore himself had that as an aspiration but because the employers new that in that period the lessons that the workers had learnt in the metal trades, building, maritime services struggle was a threat to them in the long run in respect of their power over working people.

You might say that sound’s funny coming from an ex-Commissioner but my views were well known in the Commission and I was appointed to the Commission by Ralph Willis, who knew that I’d been a Communist since I was 17. I think I’m the only Commissioner who has ever been appointed while still a member of the Communist Party. I resigned from the Communist Party because I did take an oath to carry out the law of the country as a result of the appointment.