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8. Chapter VIII. Organizing the Shearers.

THE organization and work of the Shearers' Union (now the Australian Workers' Union) have had a very decided influence on the Labor Movement in Australia, therefore some details as to its history are excusable. Quite a number of attempts had been made to organize the workers in the pastoral industry prior to 1886, but all had failed. Those who had moved in the matter lacked experience, and confined their efforts to a limited area. With a nomadic class who only worked at the occupation a portion of each year, and many of whom had thus no settled abode, the work of organization was naturally difficult.

In all such work it is essential to choose the right time. It came in 1886. A reduction in price had been notified, and those who usually went out shearing were indignant and ready for concerted action if some one in whom they had confidence, and who was widely known, would take the matter up. A young man named David Temple was working in the gold mines at Creswick, in Victoria. He and his brothers usually went shearing each year. He was a member of the A.M.A., and knew of the good work it had done. When the notice of reduced shearing rates appeared he said to his brothers that it was not worth while going out shearing unless they had a union like the A.M.A. The young man's mother, a practical Scotchwoman, said to David:

“Why don't you start a union, then?”

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He said he did not know enough of such work, and all previous attempts had failed.

His mother replied, “Why don't you go to Mr. Spence? I am sure he will help you.”

He took his mother's advice and called on me. We talked matters over until I got a grip of things, and then we made a start.

I at once wrote a letter, which appeared in the “Ballarat Courier” on the 27th May, 1886, urging shearers to become organized if they wished to prevent a reduction of wages, and offering to assist. Three letters from shearers approving of the suggestion appeared on the 29th, and two others, with one from myself, on June 2nd. On June 3rd Mr. Temple opened an office at 30 Armstrong Street, North Ballarat, and commenced to enrol members. I gave him a letter of introduction to the late Mr. Bateman, editor of the “Ballarat Courier,” who wrote a leading article setting out the grievances of shearers. This appeared on the 4th June. In it he said:

“The effort was originated by Mr. Spence, secretary of the A.M.A., whose abilities in such organizations could not be overdrawn or overpraised, and his proposal has since had warm support in other letters which have been published since.”

The following advertisement appeared in the “Courier” of June 12th:—

“IMPORTANT TO SHEARERS.—A meeting of Shearers will be held at Fern's Hotel, Sturt Street, this (Saturday) evening at 8

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o'clock. Business—Re establishing a Shearers' Union. All shearers particularly requested to attend. David Temple, Sec. pro tem.”

The meeting was held, Mr. Temple reported 40 on the roll, and about 100 in all when returns came in. Objects and rules were adopted. I was elected chairman, Mr. Temple secretary, and a committee of nine was chosen. Thus in a small way was launched the Union which now numbers 44,000 members.

A Union was started at Bourke, N.S.W., which had 21 members at its first meeting held in Dugan's Shakespeare Hotel on Saturday, October 2nd, 1886. Shortly before that date a similar Union had been started in Wagga Wagga, N.S.W. Both these joined the A.S.U. in January, 1887, and became branches of the amalgamated body. Bourke has continued as a branch, but Wagga became merged in a larger district.

After our first meeting in Ballarat in June, not much was done until the start of shearing in August, but finding from Mr. Temple and others who had gone out shearing that the time was opportune I sent out three organizers, who volunteered for the work—Messrs. D. Temple, J. A. Cook, and J. Slattery. These men went from station to station enrolling members. The entrance fee was half-a-crown, and the contribution for the year five shillings.

Near the end of shearing I sent the three organizers to New Zealand, and they organized the shearers in that colony also. We had the rules translated and printed in Maori. We enrolled a considerable number of that race and found them

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staunch Unionists. Acting as president, treasurer, and general director of the movement, I enrolled close upon a thousand in the office. As a result of our work we came out at the end of the year with over nine thousand members.

All through the history of the Union the plan was followed of trying to conciliate the employers. In taking up a new district, circulars, copies of rules, etc., were posted to each squatter, inviting him to reply or to join in arranging for a conference at which conditions mutually satisfactory might be arranged.

A new shearing agreement was drafted by the Union, admittedly one which fully protected the employer, and in 1887 we commenced to enforce it. We had £740 with which to begin a fight against the wealthiest and most powerful class of employers in Australia. The men won, and the next two years saw an amicable settlement and recognition of the Union in some districts, whilst there was still fighting to be done in the new portions of the colonies taken up for organizing.

Queensland had in the meantime also organized a Shearers' Union, whilst the A.S.U. extended until it covered New South Wales, Victoria, and South Australia. At the start the station labor other than shearers was also enrolled, but as these workers did not come in very readily it was made a distinctly shearers' organization. The shed hands, however, were organized in 1890, but both Unions became one body in 1893 under the name of the Australian Workers' Union. In 1904 the kindred body in Queensland joined, so that the A.W.U. is now one

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organization, covering practically all the States, and with a membership of 44,000.

From the beginning the Union has been Federal in spirit. In its allotment of districts to branches it ignored the political boundaries of colonies. It also ignored all class or sex distinctions, and admitted all who had no other union which they could conveniently join. Owing to the effect of the Arbitration Act under which the A.W.U. is registered the rules had, however, to be narrowed in respect to those admitted, and it is now confined to those engaged in pastoral work. The Union draws the line at colored aliens, as,—“No Chinese, Japanese, Kanakas, or Afghans or colored aliens other than Maoris, American negroes, and children of mixed parentage born in Australia shall be admitted to membership.” That the Union is broad in its aims the following quotations will show. The first is Rule 3, in which the objects of the Union are set out, and the other is the preface to the Rules, which indicates the spirit in which the Rules are to be interpreted:—


3. The objects for which the Union is established are, by the provision and distribution of funds and by all other lawful means, whether industrial, political, municipal, or otherwise;

(a) To regulate and protect the conditions of labor, the relations between workmen and employers and between workmen and workmen;

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(b) To impose restrictive conditions on the conduct of the trade, business, or industry of the members;

(c) To promote the general and material welfare of the members and to improve the relations between employers and workmen;

(d) To gradually replace the present competitive system of industry by a co-operative system;

(e) To provide legal assistance in defence of members' rights where deemed necessary;

(f) To establish and maintain a Funeral Fund for the burial of deceased members;

(g) To endeavor by political action to secure social justice;

(h) To establish and maintain Labor journals;

(i) To assist by federation or otherwise kindred organizations in upholding the rights and privileges of workers, and generally to assist in the emancipation of Labor.

Disbursements in furtherance of any of the above objects shall be deemed to be part of the ordinary expenses of the Union within the meaning of Schedule B of the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Act.


“Daily, as the various and widespread sections of the human family are being insensibly drawn into closer touch with each other, it becomes clearer that men should become co-operators—mates—instead of antagonists. ‘No

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man liveth to himself.’ We are all mutually dependent one upon another. Under the existing order of things, however, each is forced into warfare with his fellow, and life is made a struggle in which the success of the winner means that those whom unjust conditions have forced into a fight are crushed back into hopeless misery. So long as man depends upon his fellow man for leave to toil, so long will the lives of the great mass be one continuous struggle, rendered more keen and uncertain by every scientific and mechanical appliance brought in to facilitate wealth-production. Nature's storehouse holds ample supplies to gratify the needs of all; but so long as the few are allowed to hold possession the many must starve. The doors of the storehouse must be thrown open to all and the toll-bar of monopoly be broken down ere justice can be done. Production must be for use and not for profit before robbery of Labor will cease and the fear of poverty be for ever banished. With the disappearance of enforced poverty, crime will gradually cease. With machinery put to its proper use—that of contributing to the happiness of mankind—the increased leisure will give opportunities for the cultivation of all those higher faculties latent in man, but now repressed by the pressure of a social system which makes the satisfaction of mere material wants an all-absorbing struggle.

“It is evident that the changes so essential to the true progress and development of all

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that is best in humanity can only be effected by setting up its accomplishment as our aim, and working towards its realisation. Experience has taught us that no great reform can be secured otherwise than by systematic organized effort. Alone, we can agitate; organized, we can compel. It is by the organization of Unions that the conditions of life for all have been prevented from becoming worse than they are. To continue, however, upon the lines of old Trades Unionism alone will but stave off the crash that now threatens our civilisation. To narrow the fight to a mere question of employers and workmen is but a waste of energy, and can never secure that reconstruction which will leave one no longer dependent upon another, but under which all shall have equal opportunities.

“Realising, then, that we must attack a system, and change it so that there will no longer be room for conflict between interests—no room for narrow selfishness to govern men's actions—the Australian Workers' Union starts with new aims. Realising that all workers, no matter what their occupation or sex may be, have a common interest, the A.W.U. aims at embracing all within its ranks. Whilst it of necessity uses that power which combination and that alone gives for protection of present material interests, the A.W.U. looks to education and such social and political reforms as strike at the root of the injustice from which the masses now suffer. By loyalty to principle,

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unity of purpose, aim, and method alone can we succeed. Rules are but a means of securing unity of action; nevertheless their observance and recognition are essential to success. We trust, therefore, that each member of the A.W.U. will strive to understand the high and noble aim this Union has in view, and become an active unit in the great army of Reform—active as an agitator and true to his comrades, as a Unionist always is—and success is certain.”

The A.W.U. was the first to introduce the idea of applying Trades Union methods to secure political and social reform. It teaches its members that to vote straight for Labor candidates is as necessary as to act straight in regard to Union rules and conditions industrially. The working man who supports any candidate for Parliament opposed to a Labor candidate is considered as politically blacklegging on his class. The effect of this teaching has been such that wherever the A.W.U. holds sway the representatives in Parliament are all Labor members, and if there be any member of the Union who votes for any other he is unknown and unheard of.

The Union has recognised that it is not by hoarding money, but by the judicious expenditure of its funds, that success comes. To secure an educated membership is its aim rather than the building up of big funds. It is men rather than money who will win the fight for social justice. Every year the Union sends out organizers, and last year it had twenty-eight working at one time, all of whom are paid, and whose duty it is not only

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to enrol members, but to educate them industrially and politically. A certain sum is spent in literature, and one shilling per member per year is set apart in a Parliamentary fund for paying the expenses of candidates.

The annual contribution is fifteen shillings for shearers and cooks, and ten shillings for others. From each of these subscriptions the sum of five shillings is paid to “The Worker” newspaper, published in Sydney, which entitles each member to a copy of the paper free of charge posted weekly to his home. The Queensland members pay a subsidy of 3s. 6d. to “The Worker” published in Brisbane, and get a copy in the same way.

The Southern “Worker” is entirely owned by the branches in the three Southern States. The paper was started at Wagga Wagga, N.S.W., as a small sheet called “The Hummer,” and was first issued on the 19th October, 1891. The name was changed to that of its Queensland predecessor, “The Worker,” in 1892, and in 1893 it was removed to Sydney. Since then it has gone through troublous times, but kept alive; and is now practically the largest union-owned paper in the world.

For some time past all profits from the journal and from job printing have been devoted to enlarging and improving the paper. It has the largest circulation of any weekly in Australia giving news of the day to its readers. It has a special correspondent in Melbourne and another in Adelaide, and keeps its readers in touch with Federal and State politics. It owns a fine five-storied building in

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Bathurst-street, Sydney, with an up-to-date plant, including the latest and most improved machinery.

The Queensland “Worker” was the pioneer in Labor papers in Australia. It is owned and controlled by an Australian Labor Federation of that State, and has done splendid work. The paper is on the up-grade, and exerts a powerful influence on the Labor movement in that State.

Unionism came to the Australian bushman as a religion. It came bringing salvation from years of tyranny. It had in it that feeling of mateship which he understood already, and which always characterised the action of one “white man” to another. Unionism extended the idea, so a man's character was gauged by whether he stood true to Union rules or “scabbed” it on his fellows. The man who never went back on the Union is honored to-day as no other is honored or respected. The man who fell once may be forgiven, but he is not fully trusted. The lowest term of reproach is to call a man a “scab.”

Experience has taught that the man who sells himself to the employer at a time of strike is a man of weak character, if not worse. At many a country ball the girls have refused to dance with them, the barmaids have refused them a drink, and the waitresses a meal.

Unionists have starved rather than accept work under other conditions. Hundreds of men have worn their boots and clothes to tatters seeking work upon Union terms; and not finding it, have gone without for a year—remaining penniless, but independent

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and proud that they had not degraded themselves. It was such men who made the Union a success, and enabled it to hold its own against well-organized Capitalism aided by friendly Governments. Men imbued with such a spirit put the cause above personal self-interest. They needed no prompting— no exciting by fiery orators—but stood loyal to principle, no matter what the consequences might be. Rough and unpolished many of them may be; but manly, true, and “white” all the time, and the movement owes them much.