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10. Chapter X. The Employers' Union and Freedom of Contract.

THE following is said to be a programme laid down and agreed to by a private meeting of the capitalistic combination of New South Wales, comprising shippers, pastoralists, merchants, members of Parliament, and other large employers of labor:—

“1. Plan to overthrow the combination of labor and unionism, and the universal advancement of the workers.

“2. To obtain co-operation of the various Australian Governments with a view to enable the Australian employers of labor to enforce all or any agreed terms of the employers by force of arms.

“3. To enforce, through Government, freedom of contract by the force of ‘law and order.’

“4. The maintenance of a high standard of wages as applied to shearers and others until such time as the unions agree to receiving freedom of contract under any conditions.

“5. The disbanding of unions by means of freedom of contract, and then the rapid


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reduction of wages at once (25 per cent.) for all employment.

“6. The Pastoralists' Union, in conjunction with the Employers' and Shippers' Unions, to agree to the conditions and act as a body when either party's interests are involved.

“7. The Shipping Union to arrange as part and parcel of capital to introduce German, Italian, and Coolie labor by the importation of 5000 men per year.

“8. That arrangements be at once made to secure the adoption of General Booth's emigration scheme—the flooding of the Australian labor market with men of all sorts and conditions.

“9. That free passes be granted to all men desirous of leaving the city in time of metropolitan strikes, or vice versa, to enable men to come from the country districts.

“10. The arming of all free labor in self-defence.

“11. To discharge gradually all union labor from shipping and other circles of employment. The prevention at all hazards of one-man-one-vote.

“12. The Labor candidates to be opposed by good local men, or where no local men, to put up a Labor candidate favorable to capital, all his expenses to be paid by the Association.

“13. That the representatives of shipping commerce, and pastoralists combine to make the combination of labor illegal.”




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The original of the above was given to me by one who said he was present. He gave me at the same time a good deal of verbal information which I have since verified. We have had evidence in various ways of efforts made to carry out this plan, and whether it was laid down or not on the date mentioned (24th April, 1891) by the 65 alleged to have been present, we have other and ample evidence of a combination amongst Australian capitalists to accomplish the objects set out in the foregoing list of proposals.

To anyone acquainted with the history of the Trade Union movement and its wonderful achievements in the face of the most powerful forces brought against it, it would seem incomprehensible that any body of intelligent men in this age should dream of attempting to crush it out of existence. The fact is that the leaders in the employers' organizations were ignorant of the real strength of Unionism, and knew nothing of the spirit underlying it.

The workers are rapidly awakening to the fact that they are being taken advantage of, and are no longer willing to be treated as so many wage slaves willing to accept just what is offered them by a fellow-man who is termed an employer. The trade union introduces the collective bargain; and, to secure this, conferences between employer and representatives of the workers are necessary. Where unions stood alone the employer met his own employees as delegates representing the rest of the workers. The fear of the boss's displeasure and of


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the resultant loss of employment were always over them, hence the employer had not so much to fear.

As the number of unions increased, and those in one industry became one body with a paid secretary. the circumstances were altered. Often the employer refused to meet unless the delegates were all his own employees. The most outspoken would often lose his position, and as a consequence a strike would result until his reinstatement was secured. Employers termed this an interference with the management of their business. If a conference resulted in improved conditions in one industry it inevitably led to a demand for improvement in others.

The greedy unscrupulous employer would reduce wages, and a strike would take place. Other unions would be drawn in, and in any case they would support the one in trouble, realising that injustice to one should be the concern of all. All these influences combine to force organization and federation on both sides.

At a banquet tendered Mr. E. M. Young, President of the Employers' Union, on the 26th February, 1891, that gentleman, after referring to the necessity for unity said that “with that intent he invited all who were available at the time to meet him, and from that small beginning arose their Pastoralists' Union. But he had dreams far greater than the Pastoralists' Union. He dreamt of uniting the vast Western Plains of New South Wales and the distant West of Queensland; and he thought recent events had shown—in view of the scheme of federation which he had recently successfully carried through, and which had bound all together—that he


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was justified in dreaming that the scheme was possible.”

The attitude assumed by this federation of employers is clearly set forth in another portion of the same address as follows:—

“The working men here were simply asking for control. There was no question of wages, of hours, nor of terms in any shape. All that the employers insisted on was that they should be allowed to conduct their business as they pleased, and to employ whom they pleased, whether the men were in unions or not.”

This sets forth two extreme views. Firstly, that the workers' unions ask for control of the industry— a statement entirely devoid of any foundation. Secondly, that there was no question of wages and conditions, when the facts were and still are that wages, hours, and terms are the only questions about which troubles are made, the question of who is to be employed being rarely raised. Experience has shown that ever since its establishment the Employers' Union has set itself against conferences with the workers' unions, and has fought for freedom of contract. It seeks to ignore collective bargaining, and tries to force into practice individualism between employer and employee.

In an age specially characterised by the disappearance of the private employer and the growth of corporations, public companies, combines, trusts, and monopolies on one side—necessitating as it does the organization and federation of labor on the other—to attempt to introduce something so foreign as freedom of contract was not only bound


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to cause trouble, but was certain to be found practically impossible. Mr. Young and his federation certainly made a great effort.

The P.U. was first organized in 1889. In 1890 it began on the Darling Downs, Queensland, to employ non-unionists only. This was by a collective understanding amongst pastoralists, as admitted by Mr. Williams in conference in May, 1890. To checkmate this the Australian Labor Federation of Queensland took action. They selected the Jondaryan Station, and refused to allow the wool to go on board the s.s. Jumna unless the pastoralists agreed to employ unionists. The P.U. gave way, for the time being only.

This was in May, 1890, and in June an attack on the Shearers' Union in New South Wales was proposed at a meeting of pastoralists held in Maitland, New South Wales, and a leading pastoralist in Sydney offered £5000 towards a £50,000 fighting fund. The Amalgamated Shearers' Union, covering New South Wales, Victoria, and South Australia, took action at the same time by issuing a manifesto on the lines so successful in Queensland, and would have met with similar success but for the action of the Employers' Union. That body precipitated the Maritime Strike of 1890.

The year 1891 saw the war carried into Queensland, and it extended from there into New South Wales, but owing to the cost having proved too much for the pastoralists they came to terms with the A.S.U. in August of that year. Next year the miners of Broken Hill silver field were attacked. The big mine, which has paid over £11,000,000 to


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its shareholders, had during the trouble of 1890 stopped, on the paltry pretext of not being able to get supplies, but in reality to cut off supplies of cash to the strikers on the coast. The miners had sent on £700, and had struck a levy of 2s. 6d. per week. The mine-owners had an agreement with the Miners' Union, arrived at in 1889, which runs as follows:—

Agreement of November, 1889.

“It being distinctly understood that the only question at issue is the employment of union or non-union men, it is hereby mutually agreed between the officers of the A.M.A. and the Broken Hill Proprietary Company, Limited, the British Broken Hill Proprietary Company Limited, the Broken Hill Proprietary Block 14 Company Limited, the Broken Hill Proprietary Block 10 Company Limited, and the Broken Hill North S.M. Company Limited—

“1. That the A.M.A. will as early as possible take means to have the Barrier District made a colonial district so that the executive may control their own affairs, and draw up such rules as will be approved of by a committee of managers.

“2. Shift bosses and foremen are not to be compelled to join the Union, but may form a union for themselves.

“3. The surfacemen and furnace hands may form a union of their own, and may be affiliated with the A.M.A.




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“4. Tradesmen and mechanics already members of recognized societies are not to be compelled to join the Amalgamated Miners' Association.

“5. The companies undertake to collect the dues for each of the unions on pay day and hand the same over to the duly appointed officer of the Union, who will be present on pay day.

“6. Work to be resumed on the mines forthwith—that is, as far as practicable.

“7. It is understood that no local union will be recognized by the employers unless exceeding the number of one hundred; if below that number, permission must be obtained from the A.M.A. executive and Managers' Association before it can be formed.

“8. All past differences to be forgotten.”

It will be seen from the reading of clause 1 in the agreement that the officers meeting the representatives of the mine-owners had given way a great deal when they allowed the managers to have a say in the approval of the rules. I was so strongly opposed to it that I immediately, as general secretary of the A.M.A., wired to the secretary at Broken Hill objecting to the clause, and followed it by letter, giving my reasons. There was no objection to the miners of the Barrier forming themselves into a separate district, as that had been agreed to by the A.M.A. as a body.

When the stoppage of the big mine took place in 1890, a conference was arranged for and was held in Melbourne, at which all difficulties in the way of


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carrying on the mine were removed and a new agreement arrived at which reads as follows:—

The Agreement of 1890.

  • “1. That in the event of any future trouble existing, the point or points at issue shall be referred to a Board of Aribtration of equal numbers of either side, say three; and failing their being able to agree, that an umpire be appointed, who shall be either a Chief Justice or a Judge of the Supreme Court or any of the Australian colonies. In the event of the Board not being able to agree, the Judge shall be chosen as umpire; or upon his declining to act, the selection shall be made by lot out of the list of Judges of the various colonies. The decision when given to be final and binding on both sides. The award to take effect from date of notice of arbitration on either side.
  • “2. That until the said Board, as provided above, shall have been appointed and delivered its decision, work in every branch of the mine shall continue as is usual without let or hindrance.
  • “3. That the A.M.A., Barrier Colonial District No. 3, agrees that no question of any kind in connection with any other Labor organization shall form the basis of dispute, and only a question affecting the mines and the employees is to be considered a matter on which arbitration shall be resorted to when trouble takes place. The meaning of this being that in the event of a Trades Council or any Labor


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    body outside the A.M.A. of the Barrier Colonial District No. 3 calling the latter out for a dispute foreign to the mine, they will refuse to come out and will not raise such questions as between the mines and themselves.
  • “4. That contracts other than stoping of ore shall be allowed as heretofore.
  • “5. That on the foregoing being agreed to, work shall be resumed at the earliest date possible on the various mines represented by this conference; the same rate of wages as before the present cessation of work to obtain, and the week's work underground shall consist of an average of 46 hours arranged as follows: Day shift eight hours, the afternoon shift on Saturdays to work only from 4 to 10 p.m., and the morning shift on Monday to start at 4 a.m. and work till 8 a.m. All other days than Mondays and Saturdays to be full time.“6. That the November, 1889, agreement as it stands shall hold good as heretofore, and the conditions thereon be upheld by all the companies represented at this conference.
  • “7. That the foregoing shall come into force on the Port Pirie Working Men's Association agreeing to ship by ocean-going steamers without further trouble the bullion now at the Port, and hereafter to be produced when work is resumed at the mines; also to handle and receive timber now afloat or to be shipped in sailing vessels as required. This clause to apply only until the maritime strike is


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    adjusted, when the decision come to will apply to Port Pirie as a natural consequence.
  • “8. On the above undertaking by the Port Pirie working men being supplied in writing orders to be given to resume working forthwith, and the men employed as rapidly as the circumstances will admit.
  • “9. That even in the event of a delay at Port Pirie on the signing of the agreement it is understood the managers be instructed to start all dead work forthwith, also the pumps, and that the necessary men to do so be put on. This clause only to be subject to the approval of the Labor Defence Committee of Broken Hill.
  • “10. That all past differences are to be forgotten.”

This agreement provided clearly for the settlement of all future differences and also narrowed down the area, as it prevented the miners taking up any other organization's troubles. It was loyally observed by the A.M.A., but the mining companies broke away in several matters without the Union making a noise about it.

In 1892, however, the mine-owners were ready, and having saved up a quarter of a million of a reserve fund they took up their share of carrying out the policy of the Employers' Union, and deliberately forced on a strike. The first step was taken by Mr. Knox, the mine-owners' secretary, who wrote to the A.M.A., stating that the companies wanted to introduce the competitive contract system into the stopes of the mines at Broken Hill. The


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officers of the Miners' Union replied, asking for more particulars as to what was proposed. Mr. Knox answered that the Board did not consider it necessary. The miners asked for arbitration as per the agreement of 1890. No reply was vouchsafed, so they wrote again. This time they were met with a refusal and a notice that the agreement was determined. The mine-owners' manifesto stated that they wanted “freedom of contract.” The miners, after exhausting all means of avoiding trouble, came out on strike. This lasted from July 4 to November 6, 1892, and the arrest, trial, and jailing of the leaders of the miners provided enough excitement and gratification for the Employers' Union for 1892–3.

In 1894 the next move was made. When the conference of 1891 was being arranged for between the pastoralists and the Shearers' Union a blunder was committed by one of the branch secretaries, and the Union was committed to agreeing to work with non-members. The press in general, and the president of the P.U. in particular, constantly asserted that men were only members of the Shearers' Union by coercion; hence when the concession was made they fully expected to see vast numbers refusing to pay up their subscriptions.

Three years' experience had shown the fallacy of this idea, as the Union had become stronger than ever, and had organized the shed hands as well. Men had been coerced into remaining outside the Union, but the settlement had allowed these to join. The P.U., therefore, in 1894, without notice, broke its agreement of 1891. The Australian Workers' Union


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had no alternative but to fight. With an over-crowded labor market and Government aid to the employers, the fight was a bitter one. It cost the A.W.U. over £12,000, and proved a big loss to the pastoralists. The A.W.U. was temporarily crippled, and the P.U. was enabled to reduce wages and shearing rates for a couple of years.

The action of the P.U. proves that there is more than what the Employers' Union terms “freedom of contract” behind the actions of that body. The Shearers' Union (now the A.W.U.) had agreed to work with non-members, and had consented to the shearing agreement bearing the P.U. definition of what they meant by freedom of contract. This was printed at the top of every agreement signed by the men, and read as follows:—

“Shearing Agreement for New South Wales adopted at a conference held in Sydney on the 7th and 8th of August, 1891, between representatives of the Pastoralists' Federal Council of Australia and representatives of the Amalgamated Shearers' Union, at which the following was agreed to: That employers shall be free to employ and shearers free to accept employment, whether belonging to shearers' or other unions or not without favor, molestation, or intimidation on either side. (This is the definition of freedom of contract of the Pastoralists' Union of Australia.)”

The heads of the P.U. expressed themselves as well satisfied, and promised to use every endeavor to see the agreement carried out. Their break-away,


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therefore, can only have one interpretation. It was simply carrying out the plan of the Employers' Union, whose ambition was to crush the workers' organizations throughout Australia. The persistent refusal, either straight out or by subterfuge, to meet the organized workers in conference proves that they did not wish to recognise unionism amongst the workers. All mediation, however influential, was refused, and in some cases snubbed.

In 1894 Sir George Dibbs, as Premier of New South Wales, sent a telegram, drafted by myself, to the Premiers of all the other colonies, soliciting their aid as mediators. He also asked the managers of the various banks to meet him. They at first refused, but a peremptory message brought them, and he then asked them to use their influence with their clients to prevent trouble arising in the big industry of wool-growing. They agreed to submit his request to the Associated Banks. They did so, but that body refused, thus showing that they were all behind the Employers' Union in its aggressive attack on Labor.

Australian employers acting collectively will not avoid conflicts with Labor. They will not settle either by voluntary conciliation or arbitration, nor will they keep to any agreement they make with the workers' organizations any longer than suits their pockets. They have absolutely no sense of honor when acting together. The only exception to this has been the Mine-Owners' Association of Victoria. The Broken Hill mine-owners broke their agreement of 1889. The P.U. of South Australia came to terms with the A.S.U. in 1891, but failed to


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keep the arrangement, as they were over-ridden by the Federal Council of their own body. The Federal Council's agreement with the A.S.U. in 1891 was broken in 1894. In 1902 an agreement was arrived at with the Victorian section of the P.U. The South Australian section followed suit, but only kept it one year. The Victorians broke away again in 1906. The experience of the Coalminers' and the Seamen's Unions has been somewhat similar.

It was such experiences as these which led to the strong desire on the part of the workers for a Court of Arbitration, with powers of compulsion, not only for settlement of disputes, but for the enforcement of awards when made. Employers do not like this method of securing industrial peace, but the system of compulsory settlement has come to stay, and the employers themselves have been the cause of the demand for such Courts.

After all, why not settle matters in this way? The State provides courts with highly-paid staffs for the collection of private debts, the enforcement of private contract, and the settlement of every quarrel no matter how trivial. Two persons are not allowed to resort to fisticuffs to settle their differences without the Court interfering, yet no provision was made anywhere until recently for the settlement of disputes involving serious consequences or for the enforcement of agreements voluntarily entered into between employers and organized workers Compulsory Arbitration must be preserved as a better expedient than any other so far put forward, and, with all its drawbacks, can be put up


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with until the disappearance of the competitive system with its natural corollary of wage slavery.

Time has not changed the Employers' Union. In November, 1906, the building trades of Melbourne demanded a reduction of hours from 48 to 44 per week. The contractors by whom they are mainly employed were on the point of giving way when the Employers' Union took a hand. This body put the screw on them by calling upon all firms from whom they purchased material to decline to supply them if they gave way. The combine of brickmakers refused bricks, and so this body, which did not believe in dictation as to how a man should manage his business, used all its powers to prevent employers doing so.

A large proportion of the Unionists, however, were able to keep at work, and thus support came for the rest. Contractors secured supplies from the back doors of firms who had their front doors closed, and who belonged to the employers' combine. The men were winning when the matter was remitted to Justice Cussen, who gave an award raising wages but leaving the hours as they were. The strike lasted eleven weeks. It was the beginning of a demand for shorter hours than 48 per week, which is spreading and growing.

The Employers' Union has a paid secretary at £1000 per annum, and he goes around preaching the economic gospel of the organization. In a speech delivered at Lilydale, Victoria, in April, 1902, he set forth their creed very neatly. He said:




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“Marriage was a luxury for the workers, as were also long sleevers, attending theatres, and the like; and it was not fair to compel employers to pay for such things.”

This gentleman's name is Walpole, and he has recently been on a trip to America to pick up points to be used in resisting every demand for improved conditions put forth by Australian Unionists. He makes much trouble for the employers, but really helps the Labor organizations; and we are sorry that the Employers' Union does not employ about a score of such men. The more that body intrudes itself the more clearly its character and aims become understood. The more apparent it makes its opposition to the masses, the more it weakens in power and influence.

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