Job control for workers' health:
the 1908 Sydney rockchoppers' strike
By Peter Sheldon
NSW laborers' unions, the Australian arbitration
syndicalism, and development of the labour movement in the early 20th
By Bob Gould
On October 10-12, 2003, the anarcho-syndicalists of Jura
Sydney, and the trade-union-oriented autonomist grouping, Love and
Rage, sponsored and organised a successful Workers Control conference,
held mainly at the Markets Campus of the University of Technology,
One of the better papers at the conference was Peter Sheldon's
the Sydney rockchoppers' strike in 1908, which won the six-hour day, an
unprecedented industrial achievement anywhere in the world at that time.
Peter Sheldon is an academic of broadly anarcho-syndicalist
sympathies who now teaches industrial relations at the University of
NSW. He did his postgraduate thesis on the history of the NSW Water,
Sewerage and Drainage Employees Union up to the late 1970s, and he is
the acknowledged specialist on the history of labourer's unions in NSW.
In the late 1980s he published two very important articles in
the Australian journal Labor History, one on the 1908
rockchoppers' strike and the other on the
complex history of the labourers unions,
often led by Chicago or Detroit socialists and industrial union
syndicalists, which battled to establish a certain amount of job
control in the working lives of their members, and to establish their
unions as powerful entities in the developing industrial situation in
Australia, which rapidly came to involve state-sponsored and organised
arbitration structures, the Commonwealth and state industrial
The successful rockshoppers' strike, which achieved the
extraordinary victory on working hours (which was maintained for the
next 15 years or so) is an exciting and interesting story in itself.
All forms of sewer and waterworks construction in the Sydney basin
were, in the early 20th century, extremely hazardous and
life-threatening for the workers involved, because the Sydney basin
includes big areas of sandstone, which produces a fine dust when cut.
The industry required robust youngish workers, in the Sydney instance
many of them hard-drinking Irishmen, but the job rapidly caused lung
diseases, and the workers tended to die young. This situation produced
an early proletarian resistance to the hazards of the job, and constant
informal pressure for shorter spells in the excavation trenches, even
before the development of trade unionism on a major scale.
After 1901, when unions got going, and rapidly became
syndicalist ideology emanating from the United States, there developed
a potent brew of syndicalist labourers' unionism, driven by the
terrible hazards of the job. This unionism threw up capable leaders out
of the workforce, broadly influenced by syndicalism.
A political circumstance that helped the unions in getting
at this time was the fact that a capable politician who had origins in
the labour movement and had been president of the NSW Labour Council,
the Irish Catholic printer, E.W. O'Sullivan, was the minister for works
in the Protectionist NSW government of George Reid from 1899-1904.
At this moment a kind of Australian nationalism and vaguely
ideology, of which O'Sullivan was the best representative, favoured the
extensive expansion of public works and infrastructure, and the
energetic O'Sullivan was a political vehicle for this expansion.
At the same time, the emerging Labor Party had the balance of
in the NSW parliament between Reid's Protectionists and the Free
Traders, and Labor used the balance of power to squeeze many
improvements out of Reid's government.
As public works minister and a serious trade unionist,
strongly enforced preference for unionists in the public works
department and strongly encouraged the expansion of trade unionism in
this previously relatively unorganised sector.
His proactive attitude to unionism irritated the Sydney
but this did not faze O'Sullivan. His co-operative and even initiating
attitude to trade union development in the areas covered by his public
works department was important in helping the unions get organised.
After he was thrown out of office in 1904 union organising got a lot
In the last two years of his life, from 1908-10, O'Sullivan
over from the declining Protectionist party to the Labor Party. His
interesting life is well-covered in a biography, Australian Democrat,
by Bruce Mansfield, Sydney University Press, 1965.
Coincident with this, the new institution of arbitration was
its feet in Australian conditions, in particular, the NSW Industrial
Commission, the institutional form of the new arbitration structure,
was just getting organised. Several leftist academics are in the
process of completing the 100-year history of the NSW industrial
commission, and it will be an extremely interesting book. It is due for
The first boss of the commission, and the man who did most to
its subsequent development, was Justice Heydon. He belonged to a large
and diverse Catholic family, a number of whom became prominent in the
law. Very briefly, right at the start of his role in the commission, he
had some slightly radical Rerum Novarum type notions, but he rapidly
shed them, and became a brutally class-conscious instrument of the
bourgeoisie in trying to mould the new system.
In particular, Heydon rapidly became expert in moulding and
expanding the legal notion of union coverage, and manipulating it in
the interests of more conservative trade unions.
Heydon had a moment of reactionary notoriety in another
1916 and 1917, when the very leftist Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne,
the Tipperary Irishman, Daniel Mannix, led the successful battle to
defeat conscription during the First World War, Heydon organised a
lobby of "loyalist" Catholic laymen professionals in Sydney to denounce
Mannix and support the jingo government of Billy Hughes. This group
included a member of another influential reactionary Catholic family in
Australia, the Hughes family (no relation to Billy). The clash between
Mannix and the Catholic reactionaries in Sydney was notable for
Mannix's beautifully dismissive remark about Heydon being an
undistinguished judge in some court or other. (For more on this episode
nationality and religion in Australia. The Irish Catholics, the labour
movement and the working class in the 19th and 20th centuries.)
By a further curious twist of history, the latest reactionary
appointment by Tory prime minister Howard to the Australian High Court,
Dyson Heydon, also belongs to this conservative Catholic professional
When you know the social and cultural and religious context,
sharp interplay in the Industrial Commission between Heydon, the
reactionary Catholic stooge of the ruling class, and Hogan, the tough
and courageous Irish Catholic syndicalist union leader of a brutally
oppressed section of the working class, has dramatic overtones.
Peter Sheldon describes the complex manoeuvres, mainly in the
Industrial Commission of NSW but driven by movements of the rank and
file, which influenced union development and coverage. What is striking
about this, from the socialist point of view, is the speed with which
the more leftist syndicalist and militant trade union currents
developed a kind of dual approach, encouraging job control and militant
industrial action, but also inevitably, exploiting whatever legal
opportunities were opened up by structural elements such as union
coverage, while at the same time trying to evade reactionary restraints
imposed by the new system. Those problems have been dominant issues,
from a leftist point of view, in the class struggle in Australia ever
since. Sheldon's work gives a unique insight into these problems and
developments at their birth.
Job control for workers' health:
the 1908 Sydney rockchoppers' strike
By Peter Sheldon
"Of course, rebellion is a crime, and a very serious one, but
seems to me ... looking at the deliberate, and ostentatious, and
defiant character of it, to be more like an act of rebellion, a
resolution on the part of the body that they will defy and set at
naught the law. The union was put above the State ... I will not say
criminal, because it is a nasty word, but is not that the attitude of
"The Rockchoppers have resolved! ... Let the other Unions
their battalions right up to the firing line where the legal smoke
gathers and the cannon of the law roars against the Rockchoppers."
In such terms did two opposed protagonists view the strike of
rockchoppers during October-November 1908. This was not only one of the
most eventful strikes during that year of rising industrial conflict,
but also one of the most significant in the first decade of the 20th
century. Remarkably, labour historians have ignored it. There was a
major tramway strike in the middle of the year and, from October and
extending into 1909, metal miners were engaged in a bitterly fought
struggle at Broken Hill. From 1909, Newcastle coal miners also entered
into prolonged and open conflict with the mineowners. All these other
disputes have received varying degrees of attention from historians of
the broader sweep of labour history in
The rockchoppers' strike has received virtually none. Yet, in 1914, the
New South Wales Industrial Gazette included it as one of the "Principal
Dislocations" in the period since 1907, devoting to it a similar amount
of space as it did to the tramway strike.4
Nor does it figure in studies which more closely examine the other major strikes.5
This is even more surprising as it was concurrent with the first,
intense stages of the Broken Hill strike and the Barrier unions sent
very public expressions of support.6
In fact, the contemporary press, whether capitalist or socialist,
prominently featured the two struggles together as touchstones of the
mood of industrial politics of the time.7
The strike caused a great deal of excitement among Labour Council
delegates and in the daily press, and much hot air in the NSW
Parliament. Finally, biographies of two contemporary labour movement
protagonists mention the strike, at least in
Why then has these been such a consistent neglect of the
Certainly, not for any lack of success on the part of the rockchoppers.
Among those strikes mentioned above, theirs was the only union to have
won, and they won well. The others all went down in glorious or
ignominious, but always bitter, defeat. There was still more to the
rockchoppers' victory. They not only defeated the concerted action of
hostile employers, they also won against the strongly anti-union
government of G.C. Wade and his repressive 1908 Industrial Disputes
Act. For these reasons alone, the strike deserves attention. The strike
grew out of the work experiences and industrial traditions of these
workers over the previous two decades. Therefore, the first section of
this article deals with the strike in that context. Central to the
strike and the traditions which fed it was the notion of workers'
self-activity and its connection to the question of workers' health.
This provides the starting point for subsequent suggestions as to why
historians have neglected the rockchoppers.
Rockchoppers and the kindred rock miners were important
the large labouring workforce which played such a prominent role in the
economic development of New South Wales.9
Rockchoppers (or rockgutterers), as the name implies, chopped trenches
through rock. Rock miners cut the tunnels. Both used a rock pick as
well as a "gad", a handheld metal spike which they hit with a hammer to
break up the rock. After 1880, rock miners gradually gave up "guttering
and gadding" for the use of explosives, which they strategically placed
in holes drilled with a ratchet. Both the old and the new tunnelling
technologies left a jagged finish. Miners then "scabbled" back the
walls and ceiling of the tunnel to the required dimensions with a pick.
With the need to understand explosives, many rock miners came from the
ranks of coal or metal miners. While there was a certain overlap
between the two groups, rockchoppers were more usually labourers. Not
all construction labourers could become rockchoppers and it always took
some time to learn. Theirs was hard, heavy work, which nevertheless had
a vital element of skill.
Rockchoppers and rock miners worked on railway buildings, on
supply works, in quarries, in the construction of telephone tunnels and
on large city building sites, but the roots of their distinct unionism,
and of the 1908 strike, lay in the construction of Sydney's sewerage
system after 1880. Until then, a rapidly growing metropolis had brought
forth only official neglect of the need for an adequate supply of water
and system of sanitation. The results, especially from the
mid-seventies, were terrible rates of sickness and infant mortality
from infectious diseases among the growing and more densely settled
working class population. In the end, it was only the real threat of a
major catastrophe from epidemic which prompted the NSW Government to
provide the finance and institutional framework necessary to alleviate the situation.10
The chosen systems for sewerage relied largely on gravitating
effluent through tunnels to outfalls emptying into the Pacific Ocean or
connected waterways in and around the city. From 1880, major
construction became the responsibility of the Public Works Department
(PWD). Nine years later, construction of the smaller reticulation works
and maintenance and administration of completed sections of the system
came under the authority of the newly established Metropolitan Board of
Water Supply and Sewerage, a mixed state government municipal statutory
authority. Both bodies largely used contract labour for construction
work during the final years of the century, although there were
occasions when they opted for direct hiring (day labour).11
The rock miners and rockchoppers on water and sewerage works
the victims of a savage irony. Their work was essential for providing
the city's sorely needed water supply and sewerage systems but their
reward was an excruciating and early death. The overwhelming danger was
the fine dust they raised cutting through the sandstone rock lying
under most of Sydney. When inhaled, this dust lodged in their lungs,
causing silicosis, then popularly known as "sewer miners' disease". The
effects of certain explosives, damp and poor ventilation compounded the
risk. Understandably, industrial safety became the workers' central
concern. Around it they developed their other industrial demands and
their approach to unionism. It is therefore useful to look further at
the industrial hazards they faced before looking at their responses.
In late 1901, a contractor, S. Butcher, reckoned that three
four sewer miners died from tunnel work, Between 60 per cent and 70 per
cent of his best hands had died this way: "Real good men. Mostly young
men between 30 and 40; some between 40
and 50.12 Another contractor, G.
Maddison, spoke of men who continued to work as they "pine away to
almost nothing", until they could not
Physique was not a factor, as the work demanded and got the strongest
and hardiest of labourers. Yet two years would finish the strongest of them.14
It was the job and its location. After nearly 15 years of
unsuccessfully trying to treat this epidemic, three eminent doctors
corroborated these accounts. Hospitals usually misstated the cause of
death as tuberculosis, a relatively common disease at the time. This
allowed the real nature of the problem to escape proper public
attention and also the awareness of the
The effects of blasting, although less devastating to the
health than dust, were nonetheless more immediate, Contractors and
state employers had miners use explosives, such as dynamite and
rack-a-rock, which should never have been used in the cramped sewer
drives. The fumes caused the miners violent headaches, nausea and
fainting upon re-entering the drives.16
Various forms of ventilation were supposed to remove the fumes and heat
following the explosions. With contractors refusing to spend money for
the safety of their employees, the reality was very different.17
In the early years, the rockminers responded to these horrific
conditions through individual resistance and spontaneous combinations.
There is evidence that the introduction of explosives after the l880s
was partly due to their refusal to do pick work, other than scabbling.
because of awareness of the dangers of
In the same way, during the early years of blasting, some miners
rebelled against using rack-a-rock; others left their jobs rather than work with it.19
Problems with ventilation caused miners and contractors to clash over
the length of time between blasting and re-entry. With piecework the
norm for much of this period, the miners exerted a strong measure of
control over these decisions. The time was in some sense theirs. When
time payment was the rule, re-entry time depended, to some extent, on
the ruthlessness of the contractor and some miners lost their jobs
rather than compromise. To control the length and pace of the job,
under time payment the miners also tended to limit output, similar to
the "darg" in coal mining. Butcher admitted that, against his wishes,
miners working for him limited the length of tunnel they cut to about
six and a half feet per week: "We found that ... the men drove the
usual thing and no more … they would do that in the early part of the
day, and take it easy later on.20
This was not collective bargaining. Nor was it even the traditional
unilateral regulation, which forced employers to endorse workers'
chosen way of working. Rather, it was a measure of job control which
did not refer at all to the employers'
Combination did not always remain at an informal level. In
1892, with the slide into depression well under way, some of the miners
realised that their lot was to become still tougher. Thus, during a
strike on the Darling Point sewer works they agreed that: "the union
should be immediately formed so that if the men were compelled to go
back under the old system they would do so as an organised body".22
The Sewer Miners' Union formalised their spontaneous resistance to
near-starvation wages and employer arrogance. The new union, with some
60 members, immediately won a strike against attempts to cut rates for rock removed.23
While improved earnings were always a feature of their demands, they
soon turned to struggling to lessen the hazards of their working lives.
The principal demands became reduced hours and safer working conditions
but, a year after its birth, heavy cuts to sewer construction and the
interference of another union contributed to the union's disbanding.24
A few miners got work cutting the shafts of the Balmain coal
from 1897 and participated in the struggles of their tiny but combative
Balmain Sinkers' Union the following
Nevertheless, as for other construction labourers, the rest of the
nineties were brutally difficult for rockchoppers and sewer miners.
There was no union to cover the few who still found employment on
Sydney's sewerage construction works and job control in these
conditions was virtually impossible. However, with the upturn in
construction work after 1899, their chances improved markedly. At the
same time, the old and highly respected United Laborers' Protective
Society (ULPS) was opening its membership rolls to construction
labourers including rockchoppers and sewer miners. Until then, it had
confined itself to trades assistants on building
sites.26 Prior to the depression, the
ULPS had a strong tradition of job control, unilateral regulation and internal democracy.27
By 1900, this too had changed. It now increasingly relied upon a
sympathetic Public Works Minister, E.W. O'Sullivan. During his period
of office between 1899 and 1904, O'Sullivan greatly expanded public
works spending for Sydney, extended day labour in place of contractors
and applied union rates on public works.28
In 1901, O'Sullivan set up a Board of Inquiry into the dangers
rock work and had ULPS members invited to give evidence. Sewer miners
and rockchoppers finally had a public platform from which to launch
their complaints and collective demands. The exhaustive evidence of
contractors and specialist doctors, some of which appears above,
confirmed the workers' case and sheeted home the responsibility. The
contractors, for all their pious expressions of concern over the fate
of the miners, made their priorities clear.
W.H. Gilliver, one of the largest, had rejected using water
ventilation due to the expense. His defence remains a gruesome classic
of the spirit of capitalism: "A contractor does not take a job to
slaughter men; but at the same time he has to make a living like other people."29
Gilliver employed between 60 and 80 sewer miners. Trying to get their
living, they were to die making Gilliver his. E.M. Gummow, another
large contractor, assuaged his conscience in a similar vein: "I think
that the sewer miners are greatly to be pitied in the work they have to
do ... If the men do not complain I shut my eyes to the facts, because,
in competition you cannot afford to incur any greater expense than is necessary."30
Yet the miners all spoke of contractors ignoring complaints,
their never making any effort to supply good air or any other
improvements called for. Dust, fumes, bad air; yet while PWD engineers
and inspectors had the right to enforce pure air on contract jobs, they
obviously did not see it as a duty. The miners found equal fault with
these officials as with the contractors when it came to acting on complaints.31
Overall, the PWD and Water Board officials who gave evidence showed an
abysmal ignorance of the health risks and causes of illness of the
sewer miners. Their lack of concern was also palpable.32
The consistent lack of response from contractors and
officials was one reason why, on the whole, sewer miners did not make
individual complaints on a scale which reflected the dramatic urgency
of their situation. It got them nowhere. Another was the fear of victimisation.33
Finally, there was a tradition of tough, stoic forbearance, a dislike
of complaining or making a fuss. To what extent this expressed a sense
of "manly" endurance or was rather a case of pride covering for
powerlessness was not clear. A response from Cornelius (Con) Hogan, a
very active unionist, suggests an alternative
With individual responses largely unsuccessful, the dangers of their
work forged a strong group identity and solidarity. Sewer miners thus
developed pervasive collective norms and activity whether they were in
formal unions or not. For most of the period, they used informal and ad
hoc responses to grievances on particular jobs. Their control over
re-entering when on piece-work, the limiting of production and the
struggle against pick and gad work were examples.
The Report of the 1901-2 Board of Inquiry noted that it had
a little late to be of greatest benefit. There had already been a
marked decrease in the prevalence of dust in sewer mining, and
ventilation had improved somewhat, especially under O'Sullivan's day
labour system. Nevertheless, the Board of Inquiry advanced a number of
detailed, practical proposals to quicken and strengthen the
improvements already under way. Elimination of dust, particularly
through mechanisation of tunnelling, was the highest priority. In the
meantime, given the inherently dangerous nature of mining in sandstone,
the miners should only work six hours each day without any reduction in
their daily wage rate.35
At the time, many workers in Australia had still not won the eight-hour
These recommendations had little practical result. By
mid-1909, ventilation had not improved and there was no mechanical mining.36
O'Sullivan enforced the introduction of the six-hour day on PWD day
labour works but this major improvement only extended as far and as
long as he held power. When he recommended that the Water Board also
adopt these reforms, the Board at first stalled and then refused.37
However, the development of the industry was restructuring the type of
work available and, with it, the organisation of its work hazards.
After the turn of the century, the PWD's larger trunk mains
nearing completion. The next stage was the construction of submains and
reticulation for the Water Board. As the mains terminated in shallow
ground, the Board's works involved many fewer, shallower and shorter
tunnels. Instead, most of the work involved trenchcutting. Therefore,
as the focus of sewerage construction moved from the PWD to the Water
Board, there was a consequent shift in employment from sewer miners to rockchoppers.38
While changing technology had reduced the danger of "dusting" for
miners, nothing had changed in the trenches.39
For these reasons, the 1902 Report marked a turning point in public
attention from the silicosis problems of sewer miners to those of the
Contractors and the PWD and Water Board still placed lines of
rockchoppers in trenches as close together as possible. Some of these
trenches went to depths of 20 feet yet were only two feet wide. It was
impossible for the rockchoppers not to envelop themselves and their
closest fellow workers in thick clouds
Gilliver had "watched men chipping rock, and looking down the trench
you could see nothing of them, only a cloud of dust that was coming
from their picks".41
Here, too, the Report looked to mechanisation to remove the
dust problem but there was no mention of reduced hours for rockchoppers.42
Unlike the sewer miners whose work required increasing judgment and
less concerted muscle, the rockchoppers had to toil continuously during
their eight-hour working day. Nor did they have any control over their
time at work. Young nippers would continually pass down new picks,
sharpened on site by a topman or tool sharpener. In hard rock, a
rockchopper might use five or six picks an
There was no let-up, and workers had to achieve daily quotas, for
gangers prowled the works weeding out those unable to keep up. As
employers made very few improvements in technology or work practices
for most of the decade, working continued to kill young rockchoppers in
large numbers. The NSW Labour Council and sympathetic newspapers made
periodic references to an epidemic of silicosis among these workers due
to the "sweating" conditions under the Water Board and its contractors.44
In 1909, the Lone Hand carried a long article significantly
entitled Drains Built with Young Men's Lives.
Again, both contractors and workers agreed for rockchoppers what they
had agreed for sewer miners eight years earlier. The article pointed
out how, in making Sydney a safer place to live, these "young, brawny,
Australian men" suffered a mortality which was "enormous and swift".45
After years of agitation and the 1902 Report, rockchoppers and
miners knew much more about the dangers. When possible, many
interspersed the work with less dangerous labour. Still, large numbers
remained and succumbed to disease. The reason was money. In contrast to
the constant broken time and itinerant work of much other labouring,
rock work was more regular. It also came to pay more, as a result of
the workers' successful militancy. This in turn drew strength from a
greater awareness of the difficulties and dangers of rock work and,
consequently, a growing reluctance to do the job. However, the higher
pay and constant employment for trench and tunnel work especially
attracted married men with large dependent families. Frequently, within
a short space of time, after a period of choking incapacitation, deaths
left their young families destitute.46
Rockchoppers also faced problems when it came to alternative
employment. Theirs was skilled labouring and, in the mastering of it,
workers often contracted silicosis. This made them unfit for many other
After the demise of O'Sullivan, the ULPS's pressure group
came unstuck. While great numbers of rockchoppers and miners continued
to die young, the union did little more than protest to a sympathetic
Labour Council. The Water Board continued to refuse requests for the
six-hour day and better wages. Despite a shortage of these workers
throughout 1907, the union would not enforce their demands. The Board
finally made concessions after the visit of a high level Labour Council
delegation but then reneged on its promises.47
Time was running out for the slow, indirect methods of the ULPS.
In January 1908, just one year after Labour Council Secretary
Cochran (ULPS) urged Council to "fight for these men who were unable to
fight for themselves",48
these same workers acted decisively to take matters into their own
hands. From within a union, the ULPS, which offered little resistance,
they faced the cold-hearted intransigence and unscrupulousness of the
Water Board and its contractors. As a way forward, a number of
rockchoppers and miners convened a meeting in Sydney to form their own
union. They enrolled 90 members and, within a very short time, the new
Rockchoppers and Sewer Miners' Union of NSW (RSMU) had organised almost
all the 500 or so workers in their "calling" on Water Board sewerage jobs.49
With the return to contract labour and a decline of PWD metropolitan
sewerage work after 1904, contractors avoided improvements by reducing
daily rates to those of ordinary labourers.50
On the other hand, neither the Board nor its contractors had ever
accepted the six-hour day or implemented the other recommendations of
the 1902 Report. It was here that the struggle had to begin. Strong and
cohesive, using to the full their complete coverage in a tight labour
market, the rockchoppers and sewer miners moved swiftly, forcing their
employers to concede step by step. The change from informal to formal
organisation signalled a parallel change from a simple form of job
control to unilateral regulation. Rockchoppers and sewer miners still
won their demands on the job; they now extracted formal employer
acknowledgement to their union.
The Board approved 10 shillings (10/-) for a six-hour day for
tunnelling. While most construction labourers were getting between 7/-
and 8/- for their eight hours, "first class" rockchoppers at least
joined sewer miners on 10/- for a six-hour
With their next push, they forced the elevation of "second class"
rockchoppers to the same level. Thus within a question of months, the
Board had had to comply with the union's interpretations of
classifications, wages and safe working. Picked off and beaten one by
one, the contractors also had to agree to the new regime of wages,
hours and safety and to the banning of rack-a-rock, outlawed under the union's rules.52
The union then began to expand its activities to agitate for higher
wages for the other labourers on sewerage construction and for the
later starting time specified in its rules.
The successful militancy of the union either tended to
contractors from taking on Water Board work or it inflated the costs of
their tenders. To get the work done, the Board reintroduced day labour
on a wide scale. The union's attentions therefore began to focus more
directly on an ever less complacent although consistently arrogant
Board. Chief Engineer J.M. Smail had to admit the circumstances now ran
against the Board:
As a matter of expediency the Board granted the increases in order
to push on the works in the interests of public health, as this class
of labour outside the union was very scarce.
I regret to say that, notwithstanding the concessions
granted, trouble did not cease, as further demands were made.54
The anti-union majority on the Board was outraged that the
not content to sit back and enjoy the benefits of the Board's
"concessions". The antipathy to claims for even modest improvements in
the working lives of construction labourers could not have been clearer.55
After years of ignoring all evidence as to the plight of these workers,
the Board now pompously talked of having treated the rockchoppers
fairly, even "liberally". When forced to make improvements, the Board
spoke of doing so on "humanitarian
But the evidence showed otherwise. Although quibbling about formal
recognition, within a very short period of time the Board had to accept
the content of the union's rules as to wages, hours of work and the
manner of working on its jobs.57
Such unilateral regulation was, as the union later claimed, "a good
example of what militant unionism can
Six years after the 1902 Board of Inquiry Report, this union, in the
space of a few months, had finally forced the Water Board to concede
the Report's recommendations and more.
The introduction of more repressive industrial legislation
complicated the union's struggle. Wade's 1908 Industrial Disputes Act
imposed heavy penalties for strikes. Resentment towards the Act, the
rising cost of living and the growing influence of direct action ideas
increased industrial tensions. During 1908, there were a number of
major and at times bitter strikes with others threatening to erupt in
the new year. From January, groups of RSMU members were taking direct
action over grievances on many single
As a result of their successes, confidence and organisational ability
were rising. This upsurge peaked when, for some three and a half weeks
from late October, the whole union declared itself on a "general
strike". As a result, the RSMU became the only union to defeat
decisively their employers and the new, more repressive legislation.
The strike grew out of a festering dispute within the union.
came to a head on 20 October as a result of the Water Board's refusal
to recognise and act on workers' demands which sought to enforce their
union's internal disciplinary procedures. Charles Withers, a prominent
but idiosyncratic member working at the Willoughby day labour sewerage
works, had used rack-a-rock in violation of one of the union's most
sacrosant rules. The union then fined him and he stubbornly refused to
pay. Tension grew between Withers and the other 50 rockchoppers on the
job and they finally demanded that the Board transfer him to another
site. When the Board refused, they walked off and then picketed. The
Board publicly offered to pay his fine and privately offered him full backing.60
At a well-attended meeting the day after the strike began, RSMU members
unanimously voted for a "general strike" in their industry unless the
Board moved Withers. The Herald reported that "The general
opinion of the meeting was that the union might as well not be in
existence if it is to be flouted as alleged, by this man."61
The job site walkout spread immediately to shut down all Water Board
jobs, whether day labour or contract. Over 500 strikers went out,
leaving Withers the only rockchopper to blackleg.62
It was clear that the Board had been waiting for a chance to
this most insubordinate group of workers. It had always placed the
interests of ratepayers and contractors above those of its construction
workforce. The RSMU threatened the prosperity of the contractors and
the ability of the Board to deliver public works without raising rates.
It was already undermining the Board's traditionally strong control
over its labour force. With a more repressive government at its back,
the Board now had an excellent chance to break the union for good. The
new President, W. J. Millner, advised the other Board members that
"matters be allowed to take their course, as ... the Government is
instituting proceedings to prosecute the men for an infringement of the
Industrial Disputes Act".63
It was equally clear that the contractors, grouped in the Public Works
Contractors' Association of NSW (PWCA), were eager to assist in the
kill. The Association notified the Board of a complete lockout on all
its members' jobs until the Board had resolved the dispute. In
recognition, they asked for compensation for the extra costs incurred
and, with an eye to the future, the transfer of the Willoughby job from
day labour to contract.64
Nevertheless, public and private employers did not reckon with
response of the rank and file rockchoppers, who realised they had very
little to lose. One unionist even commented that a three month strike
would do the rockchoppers and sewer miners' health a lot of good by
taking them away from the dust.68
It was, as the Herald at first grudgingly acknowledged, a fight
over union principle and these unionists were going to defend their
principles to the end.66
In their favour was a marked shortage of their specialised labour in
city and country providing the chance to go off elsewhere looking for
work. Five days after the strike began, the first contingent of 50
members left for the North-Western railway construction works. There
was even talk that, if the strike lasted more than a week, there would
be almost no-one left to risk their lives providing Sydney with its sewers.67
Through the intervention of Premier Wade, the dispute
a direct confrontation with his government and his Act. The instrument
of repression was to be Judge Heydon of the NSW Industrial Court.68
The level of rank and file support for the strike intensified
commensurately. The government successfully prosecuted four leading
members of the union for incitement to strike and Heydon jailed them
for refusing to pay the resulting heavy fines. Wade then moved to
charge 118 others. The rockchoppers did not flinch but filled the
vacant positions, withdrew their union's meagre funds from the bank and
waited for the next round.69
The persecution of their fellow unionists raised their passions even
further. Until then they had picketed enthusiastically, attended the
constant union meetings in great strength and, when not so occupied,
they gathered at Trades Hall to pass the time "in revelry and song".70
Once the trials began, they massed in and around Darlinghurst Court.
Harry Holland commented: "it is safe to say that Judge Heydon has never
previously shown to a fuller house".71
From descriptions of their "participation" it is also obvious that
Heydon had never faced such a spirited and determined public. When
Heydon admonished them for being rebels, they shouted, "We won't pay a
shilling!" and "You'll have to jail the
lot of us!"72
Clearly they agreed with Heydon that they were putting their union
rules above the laws of the state. The large crowd then marched to the
prison, where they again demonstrated loudly. The RSMU took up the
challenge by making the freeing of all jailed members a precondition
for any negotiations, "no matter what concessions were offered by the Water and Sewerage Board".73
It was a case of solidarity and of insisting on the enforcement of
union principles. On the other hand, while Wade's intervention caused
an essentially narrow industrial dispute to outgrow its original
context, many rockchoppers wanted their strike to have a larger and
more powerful meaning. At public meetings, some of their militants made
this broader challenge clear. One declared that the union was going to
"bust up" Wade's Government which was "more than the electors could do".74
Another saw the flouting of the hated legislation in the pursuit of
union principle as a signal the other unionists in NSW were waiting
for. In this, they had the full support of the International Socialists
and in particular of that group's journalist-orators, Harry Holland and Harry Scott Bennett.75
Overall, the rockchoppers clearly saw the importance of their struggle
for the broader union movement. Because of this, the union was hoping
for solidarity but, in support of its principles, was ready to go it alone.76
The attitude of the parliamentary Labor Party was at best
ambivalent. The Herald,
which was ceaselessly trying to foster both a split within the party
and the political isolation of the rockchoppers, accurately remarked:
"It is beyond question that no happening — not even the notorious
tramway strike — has ever caused such perturbation in the ranks of
labour as the present situation".77
A pathetic Labor Party Leader, J.S. McGowen, tried to juggle union
support and his eagerness for bourgeois respectability.78
As in the tramway strike, the behaviour of Deputy Leader, W.A. Holman,
was openly treacherous. He was bitterly hostile to the strike, which he
blamed on a few Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) activists leading
stupid and duped unionists. According to Holman, the IWW were hoping to
lose the strike to increase frustration and rebelliousness among the
workers. He fed a hostile capitalist press with false information as to
his reception at an angry RSMU meeting and broke his subsequent promise
to make a public retraction.79
seized on his paranoid accusations of IWW incitement to call on the
state to meet the challenge with force; the strikers had to realise
that they were "face to face with the
The RSMU had wished to avoid any Labor Party involvement but
appealed for support from the Labour Council. Within the union
movement, the imprisonment of the four caused an immediate sentiment of
outrage. The Sydney Coal Lumpers' Union, in particular, displayed great
After much debate, Council decided to involve itself but little
financial assistance for the unaffiliated union followed. Following an
agreement between the RSMU and Council, from 6 November, more than
halfway into the strike, the executives of the two bodies nominally
shared control of the strike. However, much to the irritation of some
union officers on Council, it was clear that the rank and file of the
RSMU made all the important decisions. Thus, for example, the jointly
agreed ban on the involvement of Labor Party politicians stuck.82
Given the enthusiastic support of the rockchoppers by the International
Socialists, a similar ban on them did not. Against intense pressure,
the resoluteness of this rank and file in control of their strike won
the day. Employers could find no strikebreakers, as members preferred
to go labouring on country jobs rather than weaken the strike. This
further tightened the union's control over a very specialised labour
market. It was the contractors who were the first to buckle. They had
to continue paying for pumping water out of the wet ground, for
lighting and watchmen. With the Board showing no signs of compensating
them for the effects of the strike, they were finding the dispute an
increasing financial strain with no end in sight. By 5 November, a
conservative MLA, speaking on behalf of the PWCA, requested Wade to
stay further prosecutions if the contractors paid the fines for the
imprisoned unionists. Wade, still intent on the fight, refused.83
Gulliver, as President of the PWCA, then sued for peace and persuaded
the government to wait. After some haggling, the contractors'
association paid the fines of the imprisoned unionists and the four
left prison. The PWCA expected the union to agree to a proposed
two-year no-strike agreement and a disputes settling body. To
Gilliver's consternation, the strike continued and the union refused to
sign the agreement so as to be free to fight Wade's Act alongside other unions.84
By 10 November, the strikers' victory was complete as the contractors
and then the Board backed down on every
In a final attempt to create a disorderly rush back to work and to ban
the union from their jobs, contractors used grotesque disinformation as
to the arrival of blackleg labour from interstate. The ruse failed
miserably. The rockchoppers returned to work on the day they had chosen
(16 November), financially troubled but spirited and compact.86
When those working at Willoughby found Charles Withers still on the
job, they immediately walked off. As the dispute threatened to flare up
again, Withers immediately resigned. The strike was over and The
Truth's "Redoubtable Rockchoppers" were back at work the following day.87
What can we make of this strike and the struggles of
and sewer miners which preceded it? At the level of narrow unionism,
these workers made major gains in wages and even began to determine the
categories of their employment. The winning and extension of the six
hour day was even more remarkable. So was the enforcement of the
workers' own safety codes. This was not mere corporatism, the seeking
for a select few of achievable gains within capitalism. With each
victory, the initial, better placed core group broadened its struggle
to adjacent groupings. As they looked outwards, so at each turn they
sought to equalise upwards. As part of the wider political arena, they
sought to destroy Wade and his Act, were extremely distrustful of Labor
politicians and would not relinquish control of their struggle to the
officials of other unions sitting on Labour Council. It was a militant
rank-and-file controlled strike which built upon the experience of hard
job control over a number of years. There is no evidence of their
having publicly enunciated a program which took their industrial
struggles into the higher plane of conscious revolutionary politics.
This, of course, does not mean that some, at least did not, but rank
and file unionists leave few records. There is certainly evidence of a
growing sympathy among some members for the International Socialists.88
What stands out was a determination to enforce a political perspective
which placed their most immediate interests as workers first. The
intense self-activity of rockchoppers and sewer miners arose every few
years, notwithstanding the constant loss of militants through disease
and death. Its aims and organisation pose a number of interesting
questions. Did it represent merely an extension of Stuart McIntyre's
formulation of "laborism", that most typical ideology and practice of
Australian trade unions?89
Certainly, the rockchoppers' lack of enthusiasm for the Labor Party set
it apart. Of more central importance, did the "Withers strike",
preceding conflicts and their general class consciousness come with a
world view which accepted "the economic relations of the capitalist
mode of production, and the legitimacy of the capitalist state"?90
Without being able to fully answer these questions, I would
that the story of the rockchoppers tells us something more about the
currents of working class consciousness in the early years of the
century. Their solidarity with nearby groups and with other unions in
struggle are evidence of a non-corporatist militancy and something more
than militant unionism. Their aims and methods and the form and content
of their struggles suggest a conscious and consistent placing of their
industrial interests before those of capital and the state. Their
demands had that element of universalism which is at the core of
revolutionary socialism. Faced with the most horrific health risks,
they did not price their health in terms of capitalist cost accounting,
at so many pence per level of danger-hour. Nor was it a question of
demanding tighter government regulation of working conditions, that
other traditional laborist approach to health hazards at work. Human
life was too important to leave to the proven and callous disregard of
capitalists and state officials. Instead, capitalist production had to
adjust to workers' demands. If it could not accommodate them, they were
not going to cut any more sewerage works for Sydney.
If they were not entirely won over to one of the existing
of socialism, there were a number of good reasons. The more important
socialist groups targeted certain unions or districts as most amenable
to their propaganda and tended to leave the smaller sectional unions
alone. The International Socialists, among others, concentrated on
Broken Hill and the miners around Newcastle. In fact, because of their
intense interest in Broken Hill, the International Socialists arrived
late during the rockchoppers' strike.91
Beyond an analysis which explained some of the ills of capitalism,
these groups had very little to offer in the way of practical ideas for
militant unionists in struggle. Holland accepted the possibility of
revolutionary violence and the need for one big union as part of the
industrial struggle for socialism. However, his passion for continuing
the strike after the rockchoppers had won their demands and when it was
obvious that other unions were not going to join was misplaced.92
His was an apocalyptic vision in which each small, if intense, dispute
could be the spark of a general strike for the overthrow of capitalism.
The Sydney IWW Club offered even less. Dedicated to propaganda work for
the restructuring of the union movement, it was desperately keen to
avoid any connection with industrial direct
The media immediately enmeshed the strike with the much more
"politicised" events at Broken Hill. Holman, Holland and others linked
the strike to the major struggles for control within the labour
movement. Yet the decision to strike and its conduct remained in the
hands of rank and file rockchoppers who managed to maintain their
struggle outside the constant attempts to dominate or challenge the
Labor Party through the unions. Historians' neglect of this strike is
related to the absence of this party political context but is also
symbolic in other ways. First, there is the question of focus. In
developing a tragic-heroic theme for their historic vision of
Australian unionism, Brian Fitzpatrick. Robin Gollan and Ian Turner
concentrated on certain groupings of the unionised working class.94
The story of the mass or industrial unions of miners. shearers and
transport workers not only fitted this rather romanticised pattern, but
also followed Fitzpatrick's interpretation of the economic history of
Australia. Fitzpatrick stressed primary and particularly export
industries to illustrate Australia's position within the British
Empire's division of labour. As Noel Butlin later pointed out, this
ignored the crucial role of city building and public works construction.95
The labour historians who have followed in Fitzpatrick's footsteps have
similarly ignored the workers, largely labourers, in these
So there is yet "another labour history" in this case, one
includes, for example, the history of railway navvies, of builders'
labourers and the other groups which made up the enormous
building-construction workforce. Union membership figures make the
extent of this omission very obvious. None of these authors mentions
the United Laborers' Protective Society in any detail, if at all. Yet
this union was one of the largest, most active and prominent affiliates
of the NSW Trades and Labour Council prior to 1890 and again during the
early years of the new century. In 1912, with 5655 members, it was one
of the largest of the Sydney unions roughly equivalent in size to that
of wharf labourers. At the end of 1916, its 8002 members made it the
third largest union in NSW. The Railway Workers and General Labourers'
Association, another union of construction labourers, had an active and
informed rank and file. It has received similarly scant attention
although, prior to its entry into the Australian Workers' Union in
1916, its nearly 19,000 members made it the largest union in NSW.96
Thus it is perhaps not surprising that a strike of some 500
rockchoppers has escaped the attention of these historians. It occurred
in the wrong sector of the economy and did not concern a mass union
with a major involvement in the Labor Party. Rather, it was the outcome
of the actions of a tightly knit rank and file in their sectional
labourers' union behaving like militant craft unionists. Further, the
outcome of the strike, complete victory, stands in stark contrast to
the traditional interpretation of the period, that of employers and the
state combining to decisively crush an upsurge of militant unionism.
By emphasising the interrelationship between unions and
parties, these historians have concentrated on conflicting tendencies
towards unity as a basis for the larger clashes with capital or for
parliamentary involvement. Those urban workers who figure in these
histories are largely building workers using unilateral regulation in
tight labour markets to win the eight-hour
By 1890, they have disappeared as the "armies of the unskilled",
gathered in their "new unions", go down fighting before capital and
state. Chastened, they then "turn to politics" and the dynamic becomes
one of containment or rebellion of the organised working class within
the embrace of the Labor Party. Other parties move across the stage to
compete for leadership positions within unions. Or they challenge the
Labor Party's ideological stranglehold in attempting to gain the
allegiance of the working class. Verity Burgmann has added another
level of analysis by concentrating on the important role of working
class intellectuals and socialist agitators in the process of class mobilisation.98
These analyses tend to ignore industrial organisation in its
terms. This is particularly true for those workers and their economic
organisations which remained on the margins of struggles for the
"political" soul of the working class. Further, the concept of workers'
organisation outside unions does not arise at all except as
pre-history. Rank and file militancy within formal unions only emerges
when trade union bureaucracies, the Labor Party and arbitration fail to
satisfy growing demands arising out of changing economic conditions.
There is no concept of continuous low level struggle, of traditions of
working class self-activity. Rather, militant workers appear at crucial
moments as ahistorical objects of economic forces over which they have
no control. Jeremy Brecher has made a parallel criticism of mainstream
labour history in the United States. There, historians also ignored
workers' self-activity outside formal unions, as well as crucial
struggles which had no immediate bearing on the prevailing obsession
with the development of collective
Ian Turner's complete omission of the rockchoppers' strike is
most serious, as the strike occurred almost midway through the period
he examined in Industrial Labour
In responding to critical reviews of the original edition, Turner
admitted his overemphasis on mass unions to the detriment of urban
craft unions and on labour leaders to the detriment of the rank and
file. This came within a general renunciation of his previous Leninist
theorising as to the crucial role of left-wing "political" minorities
as catalysts for profound change in the labour movement.101
In this schema, unions existed mainly as strategic vantage points to be
captured for the important battle elsewhere. So keen was Turner to
unravel the threads of a revolutionary "political" culture, that he
ignored a pervasive and mounting workplace culture of self-activity
towards job control. His revised views, while pointing to a greater
interest in the rank and file, do not appear to have accepted workers'
industrial experience and struggles as important in themselves.
Turner therefore had no historical way of understanding the
direct action wing of the IWW during World War One and its influence in
a number of key disputes. This is particularly the case for those
militant rank and files who seized control of their struggles from the
most left-wing union leaderships in Australia at the time.102
It is true that the Wobblies recruited in reaction to unemployment,
declining real wages and Labor Party sell-outs. They provided a
tellingly attractive and revolutionary analysis and practice opposed to
capitalism, the state and reformism. At its core was a strong belief in
the primacy of human beings over material objects, one aspect of which
was the need to put workers' health ahead of the dictates of capitalist
production. But there were other concepts, less obviously "political",
which found ready acceptance among workers who had first hand
experience of their worth. These related to the methods of social
change: the necessity of worker self-activity and, in particular, job
control in opposition to the rule of the labour "fakirs"; the belief
that the working class could impose solutions for all the important
problems at the point of production. These elements were already
present within certain sections of the working class, particularly
among miners, shearers and construction workers. It is in this light
that the rockchoppers' strike of 1908 takes on added meaning. It was an
important example of that current of working class consciousness and
self activity which was to be the basis of the IWW's bold but abortive
attempt to turn the working class in Australia towards revolutionary
syndicalism from below.
Department of history,
University of Wollongong
1. In Bradley to Ryan, NSW Industrial
Gazette (NSWIG), vol. 2, 1912-13. 34-5.
2. International Socialist Review (ISR),
7 November 1908.
3. B, Fitzpatrick, A Short History of
the Australian Labor Movement, Melbourne. 1968; R. Gollan, Radical
and Working Class Politics. A Study of Eastern Australia, 1850-1910.
Melbourne, 1967; I. Turner, Industrial Labour and Politics. The
Dynamics of the Labour Movement in Eastern Australia 1900-1921.
Sydney, 1979, do not mention the strike. V.G. Childe, How Labour
Governs, Melbourne, 1964, 93, does, but only briefly.
4. NSWIG, vol. 4, 1913-14, 1104.
5. Eg R. Gollan, The Coalminers of NSW
A History of the Union, 1860-1960, Melbourne, 1963; G. Osborne, Town
and Company, in J. Iremonger, J. Merritt and G. Osborne (eds), Strikes:
Studies in Twentieth Century Australian History, Sydney, 1973.
6. Sydney Morning Herald (SMH),
3 November 1908.
7. Ibid., 4, 5, 6 and 9 November 1908; ISR,
7 and 28 November, 12 December 1908.
8. H.V. Evatt, William Holman:
Australian Labour Leader, Sydney, 1975, 164; P.J. O'Farrell, Harry
Holland: Militant Socialist, Canberra, 1964, 32.
9. Fourteen per cent of the NSW workforce
were construction and general labourers in 1891. N.G. Butlin, IInvestment
in Australian Economic Development 1860-1900. Cambridge, 1964, 196.
10. D. Clarke, Worse than Physic:
Sydney's Water Supply 1788-1888, in M. Kelly (ed), Nineteenth
Century Sydney, Sydney, 1979; A.J C. Mayne, Fever, Squalor and
Vice: Sanitation and Social Policy in Victorian Sydney, St Lucia,
11. Much of this information comes from
P. Sheldon, The History of Unionism on the Sydney Water Board,
PhD dissertation, University of Wollongong, to be presented during
1987, Chapters I and 2.
12. Report of the Sewerage Works
Ventilation Board of Inquiry, Votes and Proceedings n/the NSW
Legislative Assembly (NSWLA VP), 1902, vol. 2, 1041.
13. Ibid, 1049.
14. Ibid, 1050.
15. Ibid, 1086, 1108, 1110.
16. Ibid, 1063, 1120.
17.. Ibid, 1039-40, 1043, 105-7. 1062-3.
1067, 1073, 1096. Also PWD Report, 1901-2. 105.
18. Sewerage Works Ventilation Board, op
cit, 1048, 1054.
19. Ibid, 1067.
20. Ibid, 1041.
21. During the October-November 1908
rockchoppers union delegates described how "the custom for many years
past had been to cease work without notice". Labour Council Executive
Committee (TLC Exec.) Minutes, 27 November 1908.
22. Trades and Labour Council Organising
Committee (TLC Org) Minutes, 16 and 17 June 1892.
23. TLC minutes 18 August 1892; TLC exec
minutes, 13 September 1892.
24. TLC Org Minutes, 16 June 1892.
25. TLC Minutes, 3 November 1898, 17
26. ULPS Minutes. 9 July 1900, 15 April
ULPS Rules Committee Minutes, 20 September 1900. (George Waite Papers,
ML. Mss. 262 Boxes 4-4A, 5); ULPS, Amended Rules and Regulations. 1902.
(ML 331.88 U).
27. Report of the Royal Commission on
Strikes, 1890-1891, Literary Appendix, 149 and Minutes of Evidence,
333, 343, 402-3.
28. For O'Sullivan, see B. E. Mansfield, Australian
Democrat, Sydney, 1965, 174, 180; The State as Employer. An
Early Twentieth Century Discussion, Australian Journal of
Politics and History,
vol. 3, no. 2, May 1958. 183, Re the ULPS, ULPS Minutes 1900-1904, eg
19 September 1902, 14 April 1903, 2 December 1903; Public Service
Board, Report into the Prince Alfred Hospital [and the Day Labour
System], NSWLAVP Session of 1904, 660 and passim.
29. Sewerage Works Ventilation Board, op
30. Ibid, 1052, 1058. 1068.
31. Ibid, 1045, 1059, 1063, 1068.
32. Ibid 1071-3, 1075-9, 1079-83. Thomas
Griffiths, the Water Board's Engineer for Sewerage, admitted to having
no personal knowledge of miners getting silicosis or being overcome by
fumes or bad air. He even admitted that he would not have known if 90
per cent of sewer workers died. Ibid, 1095.
33. Ibid, 1098, 1100, 1105.
34. Ibid, 1054-5.
35. Ibid, 1034-6. This came as no great
surprise as some of the medical witnesses and contractors had suggested
the same or an even greater reduction in hours. Ibid. 1111, 1114.
36. Lone Hand, 1 July 1909, 313,
37. ULPS Minutes, 2 June 1902, 30 March
14 April 1903; Metropolitan Board of Water Supply and Sewerage (MWSDB)
Minutes, 15 May 1902, 3 September 1902, MWSDB Archives.
38. PWD and MWSDB Annual Reports.
Sewerage Works Ventilation Board. op cit, 1093.
39. Ibid, 1054-5.
40. Ibid, 1100.
41. Ibid, 1043.
42. Ibid, 1035-6.
43. Transcript, Water Board Employees
Board Hearing, 1910, 593, Water and Sewerage Employees' Union Archives,
Sydney (WSEU Arch).
44. Eg TLC Minutes, 17 and 24 January
1907, 26 February 1908.
45. Lone Hand, 1 July 1909. 312.
46. Ibid, 312-6.
46. Ibid, 312-16.
47. MWSDB Minutes, 6 and 22 February
1907; TLC Minutes, 24 January 1907, 14 February 1907, 18 April 1907, 6
and 20 June 1907.
48. Ibid, 24 January 1907.
49. Cooperator Eight Hour Souvenir,
7 October 1912, 15.
50. Ibid; PWD Reports, Lone Hand,
1 July 1909, 312-7.
51. According to Peter Macarthy,
labourers on the NSW railways received an average 7/1 per day in
1908-9. P. G. Macarthy, Wages for Unskilled Work, and Margins for
Skill, Australia, 1901-21, Australian Economic History Review,
vol. 12, no. 2, September 1972, 151. Builders' labourers and pick and
shovel men received 8/- in 1910 under the ULPS's first award. NSW
Government Gazette, 1910, vol. 2, 2621.
52. MWSDB Minutes, 16 January 1907, 20
1907, 31 March 1908, 12 and 20 May 1908; 7 July 1908; MWSDB Annual
Report, 1907-8, 65-6; Australian Star, 20 February 1908; SMH,
22 October 1908.
53. MWSDB Minutes, 5 August 1908.
54. MWSDB Report, 1907-8, 66.
55. Board President T.W. Keele spoke of
postponing works rather than having to grant rockchoppers a 1/- per day
increase to 10/-. Board Member Jacob Garrard thought it unfair to the
gas companies, the Harbour Trust and PWD to concede the workers'
demands. Another Board member muttered darkly about replacing them with
Italian labourers, Australian Star, 20 February 1908.
56.56. MWSDB Report, 1907-8, 65.
57. MWSDB Minutes, 18 March 1908, 20 May
1908, 3 June 1908.
58. Cooperator, 7 October 1912.
59. SMH, 22 October 1908.
60. Ibid, 29 October 1908, 3 November
1908. See also TLC Minutes, 5 November 1908 in Truth, 8
61. SMH, 22 October 1908.
62. Ibid, 23 October 1908; see also
Heydon's view of the strike's genesis in Bradley vs Garraway, NSWIG,
vol. 2, 1912-3, 39-41.
63. MWSDB Minutes, 28 October 1908.
64. MWSDB Minutes, 31 October 1908.
65. SMH, 22 October 1908.
67. Ibid, 21 and 27 October 1908.
68. Heydon discussed his role in a
version of these terms. See Bradley vs Ryan, op cit, 31, 35-6; Bradley
vs Garraway, op cit, 42. For Wade's views. New South Wales
Parliamentary Debates (NSWPD, vol. 31. 2nd Session 1908. 229.
69. SMH, 28 and 29 October 1908.
union's total receipts for the year were £374 and its final
£64. Report of the Registrar for Friendly Societies, New South
Parliamentary Papers, 1909, vol. 5, 371.
70. SMH, 28 October 1908.
71. ISR. 7 November 1908.
72. SMH. 3 and 4 November 1908.
Holland's account of the sentencing of RSMU Secretary Ryan is
particularly passionate. After a shocked and indignant silence over the
heavy sentences, there were three cheers for Ryan and: "the crowd rose
to a man, and made the rotten old courthouse ring and ring again ...
Then they hooted the Judge. You'll have to send 500 of us after him,
they told the man on the bench. The Judge went ghastly white. Men
swarmed over the seats, refused to take their hats off, and poured into
the aisle to shake the secretary by the hand, and to tell him to watch
for their coming". ISR, op cit
73. SMH, 29 October 1908.
74. SMH, 3 November 1908.
75. The International Socialists were
propagandists of the rockchoppers' struggle, turning over their journal
to the strike and their public meetings to speakers from the RSMU. They
also spoke at a number of the union's own public meetings. At the end
of the strike the IS entertained the released unionists at their club, ISR,
31 October 1908, 7, 14 and 21 November 1908.
76. SMH, 31 October 1908. NB. The ULPS
successfully blocked the attempts of the RSMU and other labourers'
unions to affiliate with Labour Council. The grounds for rejection were
that an existing affiliate, the ULPS, already covered those categories
the competing unions represented. Nonetheless, the RSMU, a small and
financially weak body, contributed generously to the Labour Council's
collections on behalf of unions in struggle. TLC Minutes, 3 and 24
September 1908; TLC Exec Minutes, 12 May 1908, 7 July 1908.
77. Ibid, 5 November 1908.
78. NSWPD, 1908, 2247 and p055mm;
Troth, 15 November 1908.
79. SMH, 4 and 11 November 1908; ISR,
7 and 14 November 1908; Truth,
8 November 1908. As Holland pointed out, there was no IWW involvement
and Holman was trying to criminalise and thereby marginalise the rising
International Socialists. For union hostility to Holman over his role
in the tramway strike, TLC Minutes, 27 August 1908.
80. SMH, 4 November 1908.
81. ISR, 7 and 21 November 1908.
and the International Socialists (IS) had gained support among the coal
lumpers through their efforts during the lumpers' successful strike in
mid-1907. O'Farrell, op cit, 23, 27.
82. Truth, 8 November 1908. See
also ISR, 31 October 1908.
83. NSWPD, 1908. 2246-7
84. SMH, 12 November 1908. It
appears likely that the proposed agreement came from the Labour Council
85. SMH, 7, 11 and 12 November
1908; Truth, 15 November 1908.
86. The strike caused rockchoppers great
financial hardship and some suffered evictions. Ibid, 13 November 1908.
87. SMH, 17 and 18 November 1908.
88 Ibid, eg 11 November 1908. Holland and
International Socialists had some sort of revolutionary perspective but
provided no analysis of how a strike of 500 rockchoppers, even if it
spread, was going to overthrow Australian capitalism. See ISR,
89. 5. McIntyre, Early Socialism and
Labor, Intervention, 8, March 1977, 81-2.
90. Ibid, 82.
91. Holland admitted as much. ISR,
28 November 1908.
92. Ibid. 14 and 28 November 1908. See
also O'Farrell. op cit, ch. 2.
93. Ibid see also Minutes of IWW Club.
262, Box I. At this rime. it was very much the feature of the Socialist
Labor Party aligned to Daniel De Leon's political wing of the IWW in
the United States.
94. Fitzpatrick. op cit: Gollan. Radical
and Working Clan Politics: Turner. op cit
95. Cf. B. Fitzpatrick. The British
Empire in Australia, South Melbourne, 1969 and N.C. Butlin, Investment
in Australian Economic Development 1860-1900, Cambridge, 1964.
96. Figures from Reports of the Registrar
for Friendly Societies, NSWPP and Statistical Registers of
97. Histories of single unions to date
largely covered city-based craft unions and have had a top-down
98. V. Burgmann, Symposium on Class
Structure in Australian History, Intervention, 16 and In
Our Time: Socialists and the Rise of Labor, 1885-1905, Sydney,
99. J. Brecher, Strike!, Boston,
100. The omission is repeated in I.
Turner and L. Sandercock, In Union is Strength,
Melbourne, 1983. At p.60 they claim that the first major industrial
confrontation with the 1908 Act was the Broken Hill lockout in January
101. Turner, Industrial Labour and
Politics, xv1, xviii, xx, xxi-v.
102. Ibid, 84-93. Miriam Dixon, in her
review of Turner's Syney's Burning,
briefly raised similar questions. To explain the influence of the IWW,
she advanced a general ethnic socio-historical hypothesis, the
convict-Irish-unskilled heritage at the core of Australian working
class self-identity. Although interesting, it does not account for
strong IWW influence among groups such as coal miners who brought norms
and values derived from their native, non-Irish parts of Britain. In
general. then, Dixon fails to ground her hypothesis in workers'
industrial experience. See Australian Journal of Politics and
History, vol 14, 3, December 1968, 481-2.