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3. Chapter III. The A.M.A.

THE Australian Labor Movement naturally divides itself into two separate periods. One is that running from the days of early settlement, and more particularly from the period following the gold discovery to the year 1890; the other, the period since that year. The year 1890 is, by unanimous assent, the turning point in Australian Labor history, and marks the beginning of the abolition of class dominance and the introduction of truly democratic government. It was the period of a conscious awakening amongst the workers to the fact that social salvation could not be secured by the old methods of confining trade unions and their efforts each to its own industry, but that union principles must be applied politically, and reform and better conditions sought through political machinery. To understand the position it will be well for us to get a grip of the conditions leading up to the change, and then briefly review the results so far accruing from the departure. When we do so it will be seen that the value of industrial organization cannot be over-estimated. Prior to the gold discovery in 1851 wages were low and more on the basis of those paid in the United Kingdom. Wool-growing was the main industry, and squatters, as the owners of sheep and cattle were termed, were little kings on their large holdings. There was practically on Labor Movement in those days. Squatters and others in


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New South Wales could get “free” laborers then by having convicts assigned to them. The goldfields period was from 1851 on to the sixties. When the goldfields broke out in New South Wales there was naturally a rush of men from other occupations. The squatters actually sent a petition to the Government of the day, asking that martial law should be proclaimed, and digging for gold peremptorily forbidden. Though such unions as the Stonemasons existed in the fifties, it was not until the decade following the falling-off in gold finding that organized Labor began its fight.

The evils existing in connection with gold mining, which led to the formation of the Miners' Association in 1872, were mainly a ten hours' day or shift as it is termed; attempts to reduce wages; to introduce Chinese workmen; and neglect of precautions to safeguard the life or health of the miner. The miners of Bendigo, in Victoria, were the first to move. They organized and made a demand for an eight-hour shift. Opposition was shown to the request, when the miners offered to stake their claim on the result of one month's trial. If they failed to do as much work in eight hours as had previously been done in ten they agreed to forego their demand. The mining companies accepted the challenge, and the trial took place, the result being that the miners won, and established the eight hours. In October following, in the same year, a big strike took place at Stawell, in Victoria, for the eight hours, the men winning the day. Unions were established in a number of other mining centres, and in 1874 a Conference was held in Bendigo, when it was resolved all should


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unite under the title of the Amalgamated Miners' Association of Victoria. They adopted rules based on those of the National Miners' Association of Great Britain. Later, the association drafted a Bill providing for eight hours, for proper ventilation of mines, and inspection of machinery, etc. This was laid before the Government, and owing to pressure by the Association was taken as the basis of the Regulation and Inspection of Mines and Machinery Act of 1877, which repealed and took the place of the Act of 1873. During the few years following, the A.M.A. fell back, until in 1878 there were only three branches, with a total of 250 members.

The revival came from the alluvial gold mining field of Creswick, Victoria. The immediate cause was an attempt to reduce wages from 7s. to 6s. 6d. per shift. The conditions in that and the Ballarat districts as to wages and ventilation were especially bad. The system was what employers called contract work. The manager fixed a price or piece work rate of so much per foot of driving. The rate was that by which a picked party of men working in the best places in the mine could make equal to the standard wage of 42s. per week. It naturally followed that the average made by other parties was under the standard in spite of straining every nerve in hard effort. Further, a practice grew up of the manager deducting whatever sum might be earned over wages and holding it in reserve to make up a pay which might be under wages. Very soon, however, they improved upon this by paying the party whatever they earned at the price fixed when they earned less than wages, but when their true earnings


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exceeded wages the excess was deducted and never paid. It was “heads I win tails you lose” all the time. Not only were miners' earnings very small, but much time was lost owing to foul air and lack of ventilation. The number of fatal accidents was very large, whilst more or less serious accidents ran up to over fifty per cent. each half year. A form of phthisis called “miner's lung” overtook men after a few years, and led to a more or less lingering death. We are told that a man cannot live where a candle will not burn, but the writer has worked many an eight hours' shift where no candle would burn, and where light was dimly secured by placing two candles one on the other horizontally in the mouth of the air pipe. The two candle flames would unite, and what air came through the pipe kept them supplied with oxygen, but left little for the miner working six feet away.

The lack of legislation to enforce sanitation and care for miners' lives and limbs applied to all forms of mining—gold, silver, coal, and copper. In the coal mines of New South Wales, where several thousand miners were employed, organization was forced upon the men as early as 1869. In order to secure trade in competition with each other, employers would cut the selling price of coal and then try to make a profit by cutting the men's wages. In such a field as Newcastle the employers require to have a sufficiency of labor always on hand to supply a full market, and as a consequence the average earnings of the men are very considerably under the rate shown by the mineowners' books on the working days. The


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employers were united in a union of their own, and were supposed to fix a selling price, but some of them would every now and then blackleg on the rest and thus bring trouble. Many strikes have taken place, and it has only been by loyalty to each other and persistent resistance to reductions that the miners have maintained a subsistence wage.

The attempt to reduce the wages of the miners at Creswick, Victoria, was cleverly planned. One mine was almost worked out, a second nearly in the same position, whilst a third was just opening up and had only one man on wages. It was expected that the miners would not trouble to resist in the mines which were so nearly worked out, and that the temptation to get work would prevent refusal in the new mine. The directors in the mine in which I was employed did not join in the movement at all, and most of the workmen spoke pretty strongly against the others accepting a reduction. The first step taken was a suggestion contained in an anonymous letter published in the press, that the miners should organize and resist the reduction. This was written by the manager of the mine in which the first move was made by the board to reduce wages, a mine called Cameron's Freehold. The letter was followed by an advertisement calling a meeting at Dibden's Hotel for Thursday, July 11, 1878. No name was attached, but the advertisement was put in by one of the men in Cameron's Freehold. The afternoon shift in that mine wanted to attend the meeting, but the manager, with apparent indignation, refused, and on the night of the meeting sent them underground. He called one of their number


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into his office, however, and told him to go to the meeting and speak on behalf of the others. This man was named Jack McHenry, and it was his wife and daughter who a few days later stoned a boss Chinaman who was on his way to take the mine on tribute. The attack on the Asiatic was so vigorous that he retired, the two women chasing him over the hill back towards where he had come from. The meeting was largely attended, every man bar two from my own shift being present, though our wages were not affected. I was appointed chairman of the meeting, some suggestions made by myself were adopted, and a branch of the A.M.A. was formed. I was elected secretary, and held the position for nearly sixteen years. McHenry, who attended from Cameron's Freehold, was paid his shift for that night; so we had the unique experience of the mining company which started the reduction paying the men who fought against it.

One of the directors in an adjoining mine was a farmer, and somebody told him that if he went for reduction of wages he would find a firestick put into his crop. This frightened the little wits he had out of him, and he mounted his old grey horse and rode down to the mine to assure the men that he was no party to the reduction. One or two others were also frightened, as there was considerable excitement. In troubles of this kind it is always wise to help your opponent out rather than force him to back down. Finding out privately that the directors of the mine (Dyke's Freehold) were prepared to give way, I drafted a letter which I got one of the workmen in the mine to copy and send to the board


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in the name of the rest of the workers, asking the directors to reconsider their decision regarding the reduction of wages. It also gave some reasons for the request. Immediately after the board meeting the men were informed that, owing to the absence of the chairman, the consideration of the letter had been postponed, but that in the meantime the old rate of wages would be paid. I had arranged with the chairman that he should be absent. Of course the matter never was reconsidered, though I had to use strong influence with the men in the mine to induce them to refrain from demanding a reply. Some men are great on dignity and formality, and too often unionists are eager to humiliate the employer instead of being satisfied with gaining the end sought.

On the morning of the day following all hands on our shift in the Ryan's Junction Company's mine were in the act of changing to go underground when one of the shift named Tom Ryan came rushing into the changing house, saying in an excited tone,

“It's now or never, boys; they are sending the police to force the men down at the Ristori mine. We must go and stop them.”

I said, “Go and see if Dyke's men will go with us.”

This mine was only a very short distance away, and within the space of half a minute after Tom had entered their changing house he emerged, followed by Jack Reid, Ned Russel, and others. Together with one or two others, I at once started off at a run, and nearly ran over our manager, Mr. W. Maughan, who shook his stick at us and said, “Mind


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what thoo are aboot.” He got into his North of England dialect when excited. The whole shift from each mine followed us. We had over a mile to run, and about ten minutes in which to get there before it was time for the men to go below. We crossed the paddock of private land and pulled a rail or two out of a fence as we went, which we threw into a big sludge drain, and thus got across. The Ristori mine was just opening up, and the only wages man, a Mr. B. Q. Richards, went on strike against the reduction of wages. The company called for public tenders for driving, and in spite of our warnings miners from Ballarat had tendered at a price we considered too low to make wages. The president of the association, Mr. John Sampson, had been deputed to attend before eight o'clock that morning to try to persuade the new contractors not to enter on the work. The management had sent for the police, and two mounted constables were on the ground. All the mines were on private property. President Sampson had been parleying with the manager ere our arrival, and the latter had asked the police to arrest him, only to be informed that they had no power to do so, but that he (the manager) could sue him if he liked. The whistle blew for eight o'clock just as we rounded the corner of the engine house. In a few minutes there were three hundred men on the ground, and the manager changed his tone. We put the mine on strike, and he begged permission to allow enough to go below to make things safe for standing idle. We took care that none of the new men did so, as we marched them out into the road, where I mounted the stump


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of a tree—for, I think, my first time—and addressed the men. We picketed the mine night and day, providing a tent for the men to stay in, and within a week the directors gave way and we won all along the line. We got back to our work that morning in less than two hours, and what with the excitement and the fact that we had a good boss, we put our best foot first and did as much work in the six hours as we usually did in eight. This fact, although admitted, did not stop some of the shareholders from trying to get us severely punished. First they tried to get all hands discharged, but when informed that this meant stoppage of every mine in the district out of sympathy, they asked for the discharge of myself and a couple of others, but especially myself as secretary. They were informed that this would have the same result, so we were allowed to keep our employment.

Creswick miners made a departure in organization in this respect. Experience had shown that something was needed to keep members in the union after the first excitement was over. Hence the organization was made an accident society as well as a trade union. The companies had previously adopted the practice of enforcing payment to an accident fund in each mine. Of course this saved their pockets. We made use of this by taking over the existing funds, and making provision for benefits on a more liberal scale. It also gave us an excuse, if one were needed, for compelling every man who worked in the district to join the A.M.A. Owing to the accident benefits saving so much to shareholders' pockets there was less opposition to


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the principle of refusing to work with non-members. Almost at once we enforced this rule, and it has been maintained successfully in that district for nearly thirty years. The Creswick miners were practically the organizers of the A.M.A. We became aggressive, and opened new branches in Ballarat, Egerton, and other places, the Creswick rules, system of account, accident pay, etc., all being adopted by the others. I became General Secretary in 1882.

Holding the view that organization is the first step essential to social salvation, I worked for the extension of the movement. The organization soon added to its strength in Victoria. We sent an officer to resuscitate Bendigo, where, with four thousand miners, they had a membership of fifteen. Believing then, as I do still, that Labor is one in aim all over the world, my ambition was to unite all miners— gold, silver, copper, and coal—in one body, with an Intercolonial Council to deal with large issues and arrange for financial aid in case of need, leaving each colonial district self-governing in its own sphere. It took four years, however, to break down the conservatism of delegates to our annual conferences. After eleven and a half years' hard work my ambition was gratified. Branches of the A.M.A. were established in every colony, including Tasmania and both Islands of New Zealand, and all those engaged in any form of mining were united, with a total membership of about 23,500. I regret to say that after my retirement the conservatives who had always opposed uniting with any other than gold miners, and only with them if in Victoria, once more secured power, and broke up the intercolonial


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organization. The same element is responsible for the A.M.A. holding aloof from the political movement.

We had uphill work in organizing. The first nine branches had to fight for their bare existence. Members locked out or on strike were paid £1 per week. This involved levies and a strain on the finances, but it was good training for those called upon to levy themselves, as it forced them to take a wider interest in a movement in which selfishness should have no part. During the eighteen years, 1872 to 1890, there were 29 cases of strikes, eight of lock-out, and six other serious difficulties. The lock-out was in all cases an attempt made by the employers to stop workers from joining the union. There were thirteen attacks on unionism. In addition to these, our industrial battles were for shorter hours, three; to resist reduction of wages, thirteen; to resist attempts by employers to increase hours, two; against Chinese, two; against non-unionists, four. In most cases the A.M.A. won. Some were settled by compromise, and one by arbitration. After a time mine-owners readily met us in conference, and friendly settlement took the place of industrial war. In 1882 the Creswick Branch asked for an increase of wages of sixpence per shift. A conference was held between delegates from both sides, the result being that the increase was conceded, as well as some other advantages. The agreement, though not in writing, has been loyally observed by both sides, and was only varied by a similar conference held a number of years later.

Creswick miners do not allow a member to fall into arrears. If he owes over a month's contribution


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he is called upon to pay up, or the members will not work with him, nor will the engine-driver lower him underground. There is no interference with men seeking employment, nor with the choice of the management. When a newcomer appears he is asked by the steward of the shift if he is a member. If he is he produces a clearance certificate. If he is not he is asked to join, and if he has not got the cash it will be lent to him so that he can become entitled to benefit in case of meeting with an accident. Should he refuse to join, then the steward quietly informs the underground manager or captain of shift, as he is termed, and he gives the man his choice of paying or leaving the mine. I can only recall three cases in fifteen years where it reached this stage. In one or two mines the management gave authority to stewards of the association to send about his business a man who made any bother about paying into the A.M.A.

The experience of the A.M.A. has shown that whilst the benefit system undoubtedly tends to keep up membership, and also to lessen the opposition of the employers, on the other hand it hampers the distinctly union side. There is a tendency to increase benefits without increasing contributions, and thus leave finances short for bona-fide union work. Members come to look upon it as a purely accident relief society rather than as a union. Good leaders may counteract this to a large extent by vigorous propaganda, but good leaders are not plentiful. The miners' organizations have done splendid work for their members and for the mining industry, not only in Victoria, but in all the other States. They have


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influenced legislation to a considerable extent, though they have been slow in Victoria and in Newcastle, N.S.W., to officially join with the other unions in the political movement.

A very important series of amendments of the Regulation and Inspection of Mines and Machinery Act was made in 1883, and it is worth recording how these were secured. An election had been held and a new Ministry had taken office. The gentleman appointed to the office of Minister of Mines (Mr. J. F. Levien) was a grower of onions, and had no connection with or knowledge of mining. A storm of protest was raised in the press of the mining districts of the colony, and it is hard to say what might have come of it but for our action as officers of the A.M.A. Three of us went to Melbourne to wait upon the new Minister. At his invitation, the night before the day for officially meeting us we met him in a small room in the Library of Parliament House, and there we coached up the Minister on various phases of mining matters of which he was previously utterly ignorant. He was an apt pupil, and was very affable. As we parted he remarked that next day we must remember that he would have his official cap on. Next day we solemnly laid our requests before him, the press being fully represented; and the papers commented afterwards on the highly intelligent grasp of mining matters the Minister evidently possessed, as indicated by his reply to the deputation. All opposition to his filling the position was killed, and we got our amendments put through, and they are still the law of the State.

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