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16. Chapter XVI. Union Outrages.

THOSE who read of the so-called union outrages are not altogether to blame for taking the impression that it is a serious and very unlawful thing for a body of men to stop a mine, a factory or other industry by ceasing work and preventing others from working in their places. It is only those who have taken part in such cases who can understand how quietly these things are often done. In everyday life disagreements between two individuals frequently lead to blows being struck, and one or other is punished for assault. Inevitably there is bitter feeling in most industrial battles. When works are stopped and picketed there is naturally a certain amount of risk. The pickets use moral suasion, and intend to use nothing else, but all the same there is always the risk of something occurring to provoke quarrels which lead further than strict moral suasion. Sometimes the “scab” interviewed is impudent, insulting, and a bully, and tries the patience of the interviewer too far, with the result of an assault being committed.

It is not easy to say where moral suasion ends and coercion begins. A strike is a fight. It is warfare, and must be judged by the ethics of war, if there be such. Killing is crime in ordinary times, but he who kills most in war time is honored and


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promoted. The great majority of strikes can be justified; very few wars can be. The state of mind of the unionist who is standing out against a reduction of his earnings is the same as that of a true patriot fighting against an invasion of his country and its hearths and homes. If our critics could but dimly realise this they would be more just in their judgment of men who have admittedly gone too far when a strike is on.

The moral influence of men who have right on their side is great. The effect of a demonstration by a large body of men is marvellous. I have taken part in scenes where, though we practically stopped mines from working, in reality we did nothing, as the managers themselves did all that was done. As illustrations, I will quote two instances—one where no harm was done, and the other where results were serious.

A mining company had got into conflict with the Miners' Association. A settlement was secured, and one clause of the agreement was that some men who had been discharged were to be put on again so soon as there was room for them. The association officers heard that the manager was about to put on men other than those promised. At a general meeting it was decided that members should muster at the mine at four o'clock next day, the time fixed for the starting of the new hands. The mine was situated in a small clearing surrounded by eucalyptus scrub. About half-past three we began to muster. I was the secretary of the association at the time. On the appearance of men coming out of the scrub from all directions, all converging on


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the mine, the manager did not wait till I had reached him, but rushed over to the shaft, and ordering the men up from below, stopped all work at the mine. On being interviewed, he said he would leave it to the directors; he would do nothing. The company's office was fourteen miles away. When the board met it appointed a new mining manager, who came to an entirely friendly settlement with us, and things worked smoothly.

I have taken part in several other similar cases, with somewhat similar results. In all such cases, however, the responsible officials of the union had charge. Here is a case of a different kind. In the shearers' fight with the pastoralists in 1894 all sorts of characters were raked up out of city slums to fill the places of unionists. A body of these were shipped on the “Rodney,” a steamer trading on the Darling and Murray rivers. These boats carry goods on barges which trail behind whenever the river is navigable, and take wool-laden barges down stream in the wool season.

At Swan Hill, on the Murray, there was a camp of union men, and as the “Rodney” steamed past, the “scabs” jeered and hooted the men in the camp. They were very brave when out of danger. The “Rodney” travelled on to the junction, and then made away up the River Darling. The captain's orders were that he should stop at Pooncarrie all night. He, however, pushed beyond Marara, and selected a spot where there is a small island in a big reedy swamp, tying up his craft to a gum tree. Though he felt sure no one could get on board, nevertheless he kept up his fires and placed a watchman on deck.




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The boat and its attached barges had, however, been seen by the “enemy.” No doubt word had been sent from Swan Hill. A number of men borrowed a boat from higher up the river, and quietly carried it on their shoulders along the river bank, out of sight of the watchman. With muffled oars they pulled across the river. Originally about twenty-five had agreed to join in the capture, but only about a dozen really did the work. Some of those who backed out wanted to batten down the “scabs” under the hatches and burn them, but the leaders refused to hear of any such terrible vengeance.

The men who formed the boarding party turned all their clothing inside out, and covered face, head, hair, and clothes with mud until recognition was impossible. About four o'clock in the morning they waded through the mud-swamp to the side of the tied-up boat. The watchman on his beat soon saw a muddy head appear over the side of the steamer. He gave the alarm to Captain Dickson, who cursed him because he had not tomahawked the head. The captain rushed aft and tackled the first man he met. This happened to be a good light-weight boxer, and science told, though he admitted that the captain was a tough snag. In a few minutes the steamer was captured. The crew tried to cut her adrift, but had no chance.

The forty “scabs,” who had been so bold at Swan Hill, played a different tune now. Roused out of sleep, they evidently thought their end had come. They fell on their knees and begged for mercy. They were removed from the boat and


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taken ashore without harm. Two of those who had boarded the boat were below on a hunt for more “scabs.” They had finished their search, when “the means to do ill deeds” in the shape of many tins of oil and other inflammable material caused one to remark suddenly to the other:

“What say if we burn the blanky boat?”

No sooner said than done. Quickly the reeds in the swamp glistened with the shimmer of flame; the water, the bank, and the big eucalyptus trees reflected the unwonted glare; whilst on the river bank, opposite the burning “Rodney,” sat a young man with a concertina, playing “After the Ball is Over.”

In spite of strict orders from the Union secretaries and executive that they were to do no violence, extreme actions, inexcusable and uncalled-for, were done. In the “Rodney” case there was but one idea in the minds of the men at the start, and that was to capture the non-unionists. The party had no hand in the burning, though the law would have held them responsible if it had caught them. One of the proprietors of the steamer admitted to me that, excepting for the loss of trade incurred before she could be replaced, the burning of the “Rodney” inflicted no injury, as she was covered by insurance. As it turned out, the insurance company refused to pay. The firm tried to induce the New South Wales Government to pay for the steamer. They did not succeed in that move, however.

Amongst the men arrested and tried for the burning of the “Rodney,” but acquitted, was a


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staunch unionist named Syd. Robertson. He was a fine fellow, and the police could not find a pair of handcuffs which would close on his wrists, so they put him in hobbles and chained him to other prisoners. Apparently the police have not forgotten him, as they “ran him in” again when they made the recent attack on the peaceful citizens of Broken Hill.

At the time of the burning of the “Rodney” feeling ran very high. The sheds had been mostly filled by “scabs,” and good staunch men had no chance whatever of work, and were therefore penniless. They saw the work taken from them by the scum of society from the cities. There was a pretty desperate body of unionists on the Darling then, and it only needed the removal of the leaders' restraint for an outbreak of a serious character to eventuate. It was a marvel that the shooting of McLean and Murphy did not lead to the shooting of all the “scabs.” In most other countries it would have done so. It was not any fear of the police which prevented it. It was simply union training and discipline. What arms they had amongst 250 men were all sent on ahead in a buggy, and were seized by the police. Had they intended to use the weapons the unionists would not have given the police a chance to get them.

Whilst the best and most tolerant friends of unionism must strongly condemn some things done by unionists during our many strikes, there is one thing in their favor particularly noticeable, namely, the proof that the Australian bushmen, with their magnificent courage and resource, are the men to


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depend on if Australia is ever invaded by a foreign foe. Trained to work and stand together, physically hardy, and with a high average intelligence, they will save Australia if such qualities make it possible.

As an example, in 1891 in Queensland a shed was completely surrounded by a cordon of watchful police. Two men on mere mischief bent crept in through the darkness and the police. They reached the shed and struck a match, when a bullet from a constable's rifle came “ping” between their heads. They did not move, but one laconically remarked to the other, “Aren't they mean blanky blanks,” at the same time striking a second match. This is an instance of cool daring under circumstances which demanded great nerve.

Men do strange things in times of excitement. In Western Victoria a number of unionists went into a hut where a body of non-unionists were asleep. They roused them up and asked them to join the Union. The cook jumped up and fired a gun up the chimney—an agreed-upon signal with the boss. The latter came rushing down to the hut armed with a revolver, which he began to use, when one of the unionists pushed his thumb under the hammer just as the trigger was being pulled. It took a piece out of his thumb, but it probably saved lives. The weapon had to be forcibly abstracted from the mad squatter, who rolled on the ground and kicked in his resistance to those who only wanted to save him from himself. In the court afterwards Judge Kerferd found him such an erratic witness that he told him he would not hang a dog on his evidence.




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After getting the boss quiet the unionists took the non-unionists away with them, but after travelling a few miles they began to ask one another what they were to do with them now they had them, and the only solution was to let them go. A number of the men were arrested, as was also an organizer of the Union who was eighteen miles away at the time—a fact which he clearly proved in the lower court. All were committed for trial. They all got off eventually, however. In this case there was no intention to do other than interview the men in the hut, and if the cook had kept quiet there would have been no disturbance. These few instances out of many hundreds which might be given show how difficult it is to avoid breaking the law if it is too strictly interpreted, and it is much more difficult when biased judges are on the Bench or capitalistic Governments are in power.

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