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  ― 80 ―

9. Chapter IX. A Fighting Union.

SHEARING sheds employ a varying number of hands, ranging from half-a-dozen to upwards of 200. Each shed, therefore, can be likened to a factory. Generally it is far from any centre of population, and is only used at shearing time, being locked up during the rest of the year. Counting each shed as corresponding to a factory, it is safe to say that more strikes have taken place in connection with shearing sheep than in all the other industries combined. Probably 10,000 cases since 1886 would be under the number. These lasted from one hour to eight weeks. But one hour meant that the Unionists were prepared for a much longer term if necessary.

Sometimes the employer would be merely trying the men, and if they gave in he profited; but if they held out he was not prepared for the risks and delay, so would come to Union terms. Up till 1890 there was no collective unity amongst pastoralists except the natural class feeling. Each had been so accustomed to having his own way that he took any interference unkindly, even though he admitted that the Union demands were quite reasonable. Some came to terms at once, and did well for themselves, as they got the pick of the men, who on their part showed their appreciation by more carefully looking after the Union employer's interests.

Photograph facing p.80. Twenty-third Annual Conference of Australian Workers' Union, 1909.






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The majority put up a fight, however, objecting either to paying Union rates or using the Union agreement. The latter contains the specifications as to how the work is to be done, although many prefer a verbal agreement only. If the men failed to get their terms at roll-call they would either go away and look for another shed, or, when so directed by the Union, retire to some reserve near at hand and form a camp. In the latter case a cook would be appointed, rations obtained from the nearest store, and a complete system of picketing adopted. The shed would be surrounded, and any man looking for work would be brought into camp and fed with the rest, the Union paying the accounts. In all sheds the men select one of their number to act as spokesman, and also a committee to help him look after mess accounts, etc.

This training rendered it easy to fall into line when in camp. Strict discipline was maintained, and good behaviour insisted upon. No one was allowed to bring any drink into camp. In dry seasons the grass seeds ripen and get into the wool, so the pastoralist cannot wait, or the value of his wool will be lessened. This fact helped the Union to win many a shed.

In many cases, when a Union organizer called at a shed he found it had started, and after he had addressed the men they not infrequently struck and demanded that the agreement they had signed should be cancelled and Union terms conceded. This gave the pastoralist an opening under the “Masters and Servants' Act,” and he sometimes sued the men. The Union in such cases provided for defence, and


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also paid the fines, often making good the wages forfeited as well. However, law was not much good to the squatter, as he had to get his sheep shorn in any case, and so he had often to give way with the best grace he could.

Sometimes the men at work were non-unionists, who refused to make a stand, but worked on. On many occasions their hut was rushed at night, and they were taken away to a Union camp, where the employer would come next day and interview them. They generally assured him that they were in camp of their own free will, and intended to stay there until he gave them Union terms. This would be said in the presence of the police, and it is not easy to ascertain how much the non-unionists were influenced by fear, as many of them remained true to Union principles afterwards, although at first brought into it by compulsion.

The years 1887 to 1889 inclusive saw a great deal of fighting of this kind. Penalties were imposed on the shearer who stood out against the Union. He was made to pay up sums equal to the total paid by those who had joined at the beginning. Then fines were imposed, and some had to pay as high as £10 each in cash in order to be placed on the right footing with their fellows.

Organizers were kept very busy, often knocking up several horses during the season in rapid riding to get from one shed to another in time to be at roll-call. One man had thus nine changes of horses in a season. Owing to the pastoralists ordering them off the run, the organizers and leaders had to obtain maps showing the roads, reserves, etc., and


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as these had been in many cases fenced in and made use of by the squatter, he was often surprised at finding the men simply camping within a few yards of his hut and setting him at defiance. He himself had forgotten where the road or reserve was till the Union found it.

Up till 1890 the struggle had been with the individual pastoralist, and the Union had won pretty well all along the line, and had come to friendly arrangements with some sections of the pastoralists who had become organized in different districts. The year 1890 saw the federation of the Pastoralists' Union, and their unity with the Employers' Union. It altered the methods of fighting.

The P.U. began to systematise the work of getting anti-union Labor. They raked the cities, offering work to any kind of creature in the semblance of a man. Professional thieves and burglars who were well known to the police were engaged, and under police escort were taken on free passes on the people's railways to the sheds to fill the places of respectable workers.

Higher pay than that asked by Unionists was given these creatures, who enjoyed the change and the good things provided on the road. They were taken from Tasmania and from New Zealand by steamer, first to Queensland and afterwards to New South Wales and Victoria. This was in 1891 and again in 1894. The A.W.U. was of course alert. Boats were watched, and Pastoralists' Union offices picketed. We used a secret code of our own for telegraphing, and often sent a man with the crowd in the steamer or train, as the case may be. Once


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these men started on their journey they were practically prisoners, as they were locked in the railway carriages, the man in charge of them having the tickets.

The Government of the day sided with the capitalists, and gave them the use of the police—ostensibly to keep the ring clear, but in reality to try to crush Unionism. The squatter was at first called upon to pay for any police sent to his station, but if any disturbance took place the cost was then thrown upon the country. It was not difficult to have a disturbance, especially as the press was strongly anti-Labor. The fight was a costly and unsatisfactory one to the pastoralists.

One station owner, who was notorious as anti-Union and as an employer of Chinese, engaged a body of non-unionists in Melbourne for his shed on the Darling River, N.S.W. He had to take them over 1000 miles by rail, and then drive them by coach to his shed. They were a lively lot, and made him treat them handsomely on the way. They had, in fact, a really good spree. The Unionists were on the look-out for them at the place where they had to leave the train, and interviewed them on arrival, the result being that they left the squatter to pay all expenses of their trip and then go and look for another team to do his work.

Those who did succeed in getting non-unionist labor lost severely, owing to the inferior workmanship causing deterioration in the price obtained for the wool. Some of the squatters' homesteads suffered also, as the family's jewellery sometimes disappeared. In 1891, for the first time in the


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history of Bourke, N.S.W., big firms in that town had to put on night watchmen, on account of the thieves brought into the district by the P.U.

Nothing was too hot or too heavy for these new-found friends of the lordly squatter. One young fellow—a Sydney larrikin—brought back with him a huge bunch of door keys which he had collected on his travels out back. Unfortunately a certain number of the same class have gone out ever since under the P.U. engagement system, and shearers find it unsafe to leave a watch or any other valuable in the hut, as it was at one time reasonably safe to do.

The fight against the Bushworkers of Queensland in 1891 proved so costly to the P.U. that they came to terms with the Shearers' Union in August, 1891, in time for the major portion of the shearing. It was understood that the agreement then signed between the two bodies, representing New South Wales, Victoria, and South Australia, would hold good until altered by mutual consent. The A.S.U. had conceded the point of refusal to work with nonmembers owing to a blunder made by one of the branch secretaries, but the A.W.U. loyally carried out the agreement arrived at, and for three years work went on smoothly.

In 1894 the Annual Conferences of both bodies sat in Sydney at the same time, and some communications passed between them. Without warning or consultation the Pastoralists' Union broke its shearing agreement, and issued a new one, containing, amongst other objectionable clauses, one declaring the employer or his agent sole judge in any case of


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dispute as to breach of agreement. This was actually contrary to law, but as the squatter is mostly the magistrate, its illegality did not matter much.

This action on their part brought on the strike of 1894—by far the biggest fight any Union has had to put up in Australia. The P.U. were favored by the bad times which had followed the financial disasters of 1892–3, and which left a mass of unemployed. In spite of that fact the A.W.U. won in the great majority of the sheds. The years 1895–6 saw the A.W.U. considerably weakened, but quietly re-organizing and recovering the losses of 1894. From the year 1897 it has been on the up-grade.

Ever since 1891 the Pastoralists' Union has persistently refused to meet the A.W.U. in conference; and, being tired of asking, the latter in 1902 made a demand for increased shearing rates. This was resisted by the P.U., and a number of strikes took place. In many cases the increase asked for was conceded, and probably further fighting would, under the old conditions, have enlarged the number.

But now we met with a new experience. The decisions in the Taff Vale and other cases in England had given a new interpretation of the law as it affects Trades Unions, and hence, when a camp was formed at Coonamble, an injunction was applied for and obtained against the officers of the A.W.U., which forced the breaking up of the camp and rendered it unwise to continue the struggle on those lines.

The action in this case was taken by Mr. Keogh, who, it is alleged, was not a member of the P.U. He


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was bringing a body of non-unionists, hired in Melbourne, to his shed at Warrana. Suspecting trouble, he hired five professional pugilists in Sydney to come with them, whose duty it was to punch any Unionist who came interfering with his team.

The non-unionists were travelling in coaches after having left the train, and were being taken across a paddock so as to avoid the town and the crowd. It was necessary to cut the wires in the fences in order to get through, but ere they had time to do so a number of men from the Union camp—about one-half of whom were not members of the A.W.U.—arrived on the scene and interrupted proceedings. The hired pugs were expected then to do their duty, and each to earn the “fiver” which he was to get. One of them, eager for the fray, issued a challenge, which was immediately taken up by a young man—a Union shearer—who looked a quiet, simple chap. A ring was formed, and they took up positions facing each other in proper style.

The first round ended the fight, as Mr. Keogh's professional pugilist had found more than his match in the quiet young man, who was quite prepared for any of the others if they wanted it. They did not “care about any” just then, however, and, instead, joined the Unionists, and all hands marched off to the Union camp. It was following this that Mr. Keogh took legal action, and proved that the law is once more in favor of the employer and against organized Labor.




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The organizers of the Union have had to resort to many schemes to gain their ends. Some of them became clever strategists, and would make splendid officers to lead an army. The Union was anxious to get a small station owned by a big Scotchman named Graham, and situated close to Kingston, in Victoria. The Union organizer (O'Brien) was amongst the men who were camped in Graham's hut waiting for roll-call. Of course it was not known that he was a Union organizer, but when he stood out as spokesman for the men when roll was called, Graham found him out and ordered him off the premises. O'Brien got nearly all hands away with him, however, as he had not been some days amongst them for nothing. The shed was declared on strike, and the men camped in the town.

Graham secured another team of men from Ballarat, some 16 miles away, and was driving these to his place when he was met by O'Brien, who rode alongside trying to talk the non-unionists into coming away with him. Graham was driving a pair of horses, and whenever he got a chance he would cut at O'Brien with his whip. The latter kept alongside, however, until they got into Kingston, near the Union camp. He then rushed his horse in front of the heads of Graham's pair, and blocked them. It was dark by this time. Meantime the men from the camp and others came up, and the non-unionists were lifted out of the vehicle just as the constable came along on horseback and dispersed them.

A friendly landlady planted O'Brien until we should find out how things stood. The press, of


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course, had a sensational account of a riot, and of stone-throwing, and other things. The Union secretary (Mr. Temple) and myself drove out to see about matters. As Graham did not know Temple, I sent the latter down to interview him on behalf of the press, and Temple had the pleasure of dining with Graham and of getting the full strength of things. He was shown over the shed, and was able to see how many were there, and to obtain other details. Graham also told him that he did not intend to prosecute, as he could not swear to any of the men; though he said, of course, that he wanted the press to say that he intended doing so, in order to frighten them. That was all we wanted, and we were back in time to meet the head of the police, who had called at the office to inquire about the disturbance.

Graham was stubborn, but got along badly with a poor team of men. Finally, to get to know how many he really had, we sent for another organizer—Jim Cook—whom he did not know, and got him to engage as a non-unionist. He came by train, and the play was beautifully acted on his arrival, as the men from the camp were there, and in loud tones were trying to persuade him to be a man and join the Union, Jim giving the usual and well-known answer of the non-unionist that he had a sick wife, and was not going to let his kiddies starve. Near the gate there was quite a “tussle,” and as Jim did not want to carry his leggings with him he gave them to one of the men from the camp.

The press made a great deal of that incident, and related how the shearer had been hustled and


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actually robbed by the Unionists on his way to earn an honest living. Of course, the boys in camp knew all about it; but their acting was good enough to deceive Graham and the press as well. When Cook saw how things were he left, and the strike was declared off. The constable, in commenting on the O'Brien incident, complained of his not stopping the buggy further out instead of directly in front of the police station. Said he:

“How the divil could I stay indoors whin the row was forninst me. I got me horse so as I could gallop about and not see anny of them, so divil a one o' them could I identify.”

Some of the Unionists were great believers in immersion as a cure for “scab.”One experienced organizer said he had only known one case which required more than one dip. That was in Western Victoria. He was on picket duty, and caught the “scab” creeping across a bridge over a stream at three o'clock on a frosty morning. He tried moral suasion without avail, and finally he dropped the “scab” from the bridge into the cold water. The poor fellow came out still loyal to his desire to oblige the employer, so he was again pushed in. He came out the second time still a hardened sinner, and after some further parley was again dipped under the cold water. He repented this time, and came out a convert to Unionism and a monument to the efficacy of cold water in judicious quantities properly applied.

This was at Barwidgie, where Mr. Arthur Rae, whilst travelling organizer, got in as a shearer and


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worked amongst the non-unionists a while ere the boss (Mr. Ware) found it out. Rae had just time to get away, and Ware got out a summons for him for leaving his hired service. Of course Rae was under an assumed name. That summons was all over the country, and mostly in a direction where Mr. Rae was not expected to be found. It was once handled by Mr. Rae himself, who was unknown to the constable, who was asking for someone not of the name of Rae. Ware got a renewal extending the time, so anxious was he to get at the Union agitator; but he didn't get him, and after nearly wearing the summons out he gave up.

The writer has been President of the Union since its inception, with the exception of three years, when he was the General Secretary; and, in closing this chapter reviewing some of the achievements of a fighting Union, in which he necessarily played an important part, cannot refrain from quoting an excellent caricature of the malicious misrepresentation to which he has been subjected. The verse is from the pen of a Union shearer, and appeared in “The Worker” some years ago:—

Spence's Station.

[In the old Union days it was a favorite gag with squatters to tell Union men that Spence was making a good thing out of them. In New South Wales I've heard them say Spence had a station in Victoria; in Victoria they'd say he had a run in New South Wales. Have known Spence many years,


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and have travelled Australia from the Territory to the Bight, but could never locate Spence's Station.]

Beyond the furthest far-out-back, beyond the setting sun,
Beyond the Western desert plain, where rivers never run;
Away beyond the border fence, 'neath azure summer skies,
Where droughts and floods are both unknown— there Spence's Station lies.

He owns five hundred million sheep of Lincoln-Leicester breed,
That's crossed with old Merino strain, true type of squatter's need;
His stud ram weighs ten thousand pounds, of wool he cuts a ton;
He's three weeks' shearing with the blades for Howe, the Queensland gun.

His shed is roofed with beaten gold, brought from the planet Mars;
From huts to shed the shearers ride in cushioned motor cars.
The drummer shears two hundred sheep and never turns a hair;
No cuss words on the place are used, all work doth start with prayer.

He got eight million pounds, we've heard, by pinching Union funds,
And purchased houses in the moon and many station runs;



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And when he's made his pile they say he'll give the Union best,
And live in regal style while we are tramping in the West.

I've toured this land from north to south, from westward to the east,
In times of flood, in times of drought, of famine, and of feast;
I've tramped it when the plains were dry and when the plains were wet,
But never crossed the boundary fence of Spence's Station yet.

F. J. MURRAY.

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