The coal lumpers’ strike and the rapid growth of revolutionary socialism

Harry Holland and the early labour movement in Australia and New Zealand – Part 8

Holland and the Socialist Federation immediately threw themselves into four key industrial battles which, over the course of the next three years, would determine the relationship of forces between bosses and workers in New South Wales: strikes by the coal lumpers on the Sydney waterfront and the Sydney Rockchoppers, a lockout of the Broken Hill ore miners, and mass demonstrations and strikes by the Newcastle coal miners.

Coal lumpers (behind ropes) carrying coal to the SY Aurora, 1912. Photo: Dictionary of Sydney. The photo is attached to an excellent article by Margo Beasley describing the work of coal lumpers and trimmers.

The first of these was the fight of the coal lumpers on the Sydney waterfront in 1907. The lumpers were the workers who carried coal in baskets or sacks on their backs from the railway wagons or coal hulks to the fuel bunkers of the steamships, for fourteen hours a day on average. In an atmosphere of dust worse than a coal mine, they often worked in nothing but a loincloth and boots due to the extreme heat of the bunkers. An article by Holland in the ISRA describes the conditions under which they worked. “The Arbitration Court fixed the distance for two men to carry at 8 yards [≈ 7 metres] which may be extended to 9 yards  [≈ 8 metres] and it has been permanently extended, 9 yards being the rule now… While it stipulates the general dimensions of the basket to be used, … it is absolutely and curiously silent about the weight of coal which two (or more) men may be compelled to carry… the baskets are piled up until instead of averaging 2¼  cwt [≈ 114 kg] they regularly run up to 2¾ cwt [≈ 140 kg]. “There is a penalty for overloading a horse,” said a prominent unionist to the writer, “but it is no offence to overload a working man.”  After a few years of this work, the lumpers were often permanently disfigured, with their carrying shoulder several centimetres lower than the other.

The lumpers were locked out, in direct violation of an award they had signed a year earlier in the Arbitration Court, yet the Court took no action against the employers.  The employment conditions demanded by the Stevedore employers would today be called a ‘zero-hours’ contract. “[with] no guarantee of employment to the worker signing the agreement … the employee binds himself to be ready if called upon to work, when and where and how and under whom the employers may require him to. If he desires to be relieved of his obligation to be ready to so work if called upon, he must give the employers seven days’ notice in writing… even if he is called he is guaranteed no more than three hours’ employment. If the employer fails to call him, the employer commits no breach of the signed agreement, but if the employer does call him, and he fails to respond, the employee is guilty of a breach of agreement and renders himself liable to a legal prosecution.”  They also demanded a clause that would give them ample scope for victimising unionists. “The Employers … shall, in all cases, have the right to knock off any man who in his opinion is incapable of work.” Holland comments, “The opinion (biased or unbiased, honest or otherwise) of the ruling-class boss if supreme.”

The ISRA ran a campaign for solidarity with the Coal Lumpers’ Union, explaining the issues in the dispute, commending the Newcastle coal trimmers in refusing to coal up vessels normally coaled in Sydney for the duration of the lockout, and defending the unionists charged with criminal offences.

Holland, writing in the ISRA, called on members of the Wharf Laborers Union to refrain from scabbing on the locked-out workers, reminding them of the solidarity the coal lumpers had shown towards other unions in the past. “We fully recognise all the factors that will operate against the wharf labourers if they refuse to blackleg on the coal lumpers; we know all about their liability so far as the probability of their being mulcted in heavy fines is concerned. We know, too, how some of the wharf labourers work with a veritable halter around their necks in the form of an agreement which, strangely enough, contains no reference whatever to likely troubles in kindred trades.  But that agreement does not affect the men who work on the deep-sea vessels, and even if it did, that would not and could not furnish a solid reason for the wharf labourers to blackleg on the coal lumpers.”

In an indication of the dangers presented by the chauvinist attitude towards non-white immigrant workers, one article reports that in “abrogation of the immigration laws … Chinese, Lascars [Malays] and Arabs” had been employed to do the work “for which white blacklegs could not be procured.”

Tom Mann during a visit to Auckland, New Zealand, probably in 1908. Photo: Solidarity Forever

The Coal Lumpers’ campaign took a favourable turn when at Holland’s suggestion Ben Tillett and Tom Mann, who had both been leaders of the victorious London Dock Strike of 1889, visited Sydney and lent their immense authority to the cause. The ISRA reported that “The Protestant Hall was packed from floor to ceiling [for the meeting to hear Mann]. Hundreds stood. Hundreds went away – there wasn’t room for them, and the meeting was the most perfectly enthusiastic that has ever been held in Sydney under Socialist auspices. Tom Mann’s speech – fiery, vigorous, earnest, convincing – was something to be remembered.”

Ben Tillett

Ben Tillett arrived the following day by train. He was met at the station by a crowd of unionists, with welcoming speeches by Holland and the Lumpers’ Union president, after which the whole crowd paraded towards the Socialist Hall. There was a further packed-out meeting for Trade Unionists only on the Friday night, a large open-air meeting in front of the Newtown Town Hall, and on Sunday, despite heavy rain, a march of 2,500 unionists through the streets, in defiance of a mayoral ban, and a rally of 10,000 in the Domain. Further meetings were held across the city over the following days, then a delegation including Holland travelled to Newcastle to present the case for the locked-out workers.

After a fourteen-week lockout, the workers returned to work with substantial gains in pay and overtime rates and generally improved conditions. Holland’s article reporting the victory was sober and realistic. It gave great credit to the Lumpers themselves and their families for their impressive solidarity, while noting the “failure of the kindred unions to realise their responsibilities … the sorry spectacle of kindred unions working alongside blacklegs while an industrial war is raging,” and the “absolute refusal of alleged working-class politicians to fight with the workers.” He also noted the “gross maladministration of the law to convenience the employers.”

For the Lumpers to have won in spite of this adverse relationship of forces proved that the new mood of struggle was affecting broad layers of the working class. Over the following year, other workers took note of this victory, and began testing the possibility of fighting themselves. Shop assistants and tramway workers in Sydney, coal miners and wharf labourers in Newcastle, timber workers, rockchoppers, and others took action to defend their unions – and in some cases, the employers backed off before the fight was joined, in order to better prepare for the inevitable showdown that was to come later.

Holland commented in March 1908, “The industrial war-clouds have been gathering for many months, and the crash will inevitably come within a very short period. The keener-sighted capitalists know it and are ready. Only the workers appear to be stupidly blind.”

Sir Charles Wade, Premier of New South Wales October 1907 to October 1910 Photo: State Library of NSW

In preparation for the coming battles, the Wade government of New South Wales adopted the Industrial Disputes Act of 1908, which Holland described as “a still more violent measure [than the Arbitration Act] with class hatred and the cunning of class rule written all over the face of it.” The Act provided for imposing fines of up to a thousand pounds [≈ $200,000 today] on any worker who strikes or even aids a strike. Where the striking worker was a member of a union, the Act provided that a judge could order the union to pay a further £20 per worker.

Another new law adopted by the Wade government aimed to sharply curtail the right of workers to organise politically and discuss ideas, by banning all indoor political meetings on Sundays and public holidays from 1st January 1909. (Religious meetings were of course, exempt from the ban.) This measure was clearly aimed at the Socialists who organised regular political forums on Sundays.

The ISRA sounded the alarm at the dangers to the working class posed by these Acts in a series of articles by Harry Holland; these were quickly reprinted as a pamphlet under the title Labor Sledgehammered. The pamphlet became their principal weapon of propaganda as Holland and other SFA militants fanned out across New South Wales during 1908. With the momentum of the Coal Lumpers’ victory carrying them along, and the Industrial Disputes Act adding urgency to their efforts, the Socialist Federation stepped up its propaganda and organising work. It was a period of rapid growth for the revolutionary socialists.

Mann with four women arrested and jailed as part of the Free Speech campaign. Photo: Solidarity Forever

The Victorian Socialist Party under the leadership of Tom Mann was a party modelled on the mass Social-Democratic Party of Germany. Built initially through a successful free-speech struggle in 1906, the party aimed to involve workers’ whole families in its activities.

Fundraising postcard sold by the Victorian Socialist Party, featuring Mann in prison uniform ‘picking oakum.’ Photo: Solidarity Forever

It started a Socialist Sunday School, which about a hundred children attended. The Party organised picnics and other social activities, a band, orchestra and choir, as well as political meetings. The party organised training of its own members in the arts of public speaking and debating. National groups of Italian, German and Russian workers had their own associations within the Party. Politically, it was a broad church, albeit firmly under the leadership of Mann, and to begin with even members of the Labor Party were welcomed into its ranks.

Crowd at 1906 May Day demonstration in Melbourne being addressed by Tom Mann. Photo: Solidarity Forever

Mann celebrated weddings, baptisms of children into the socialist cause, and funerals. The party’s education programme included discussions on scientific, literary, religious and social themes. Mann himself spoke on “Jesus Christ the Communist”, “Ruskin, Tennyson and Morris”, “Decisions of the International Congress just held in Germany (1907)” and “The Execution of Von Plehve, the Russian Tyrant, in 1904” among other topics. Prominent socialists of various political tendencies were hosted by the Victorian Socialist Party, including the American writer Jack London and the English socialist Keir Hardie.

Socialist novelist Jack London in 1905. London toured Australia in 1907 speaking at meetings organised by the SFA. Photo: The Book of Jack London

The other parties of the Socialist Federation in Sydney and Broken Hill emulated some of these institutions, but not the broad church character. Harry Scott Bennett, one of the leaders of the Melbourne party, who had briefly been elected to the state legislature before turning his back on parliamentarism, moved to Sydney and became one of the leading socialist propagandists and educators alongside Holland. Well-attended meetings in Sydney, held several times a week, heard Scott Bennett speaking on the “French Revolution from a socialist viewpoint,” “Socialism and religion,” “The Truth about the Empire,” and “Shelley, the poet of revolt.” Holland spoke on such topics as “Wages Boards, Arbitration Acts, and Industrial Unionism,” “Woman, Past, Present, and Future” and “Half a century of Socialist History in Germany.” The meetings included songs by the Liedertafel, the International Socialist choir.  Socialist Sunday Schools were organised in Sydney and Broken Hill.

SFA leaders meanwhile continued to travel around the regions spreading the influence of revolutionary socialism outside the big cities. In late 1907 and early 1908 Holland had toured the South Coast by bicycle, visiting Wollongong, Port Kembla, and the coal mining town of Bulli.  Following a visit to Adelaide by Tom Mann, a South Australia branch was formed just prior to the SFA conference in June 1908. The New Zealand Socialist Party voted to affiliate at this conference. Newcastle coal miners’ leader Peter Bowling was welcomed to the conference. After the Conference, Bob Ross and the Adelaide delegates traveled to Brisbane, while Holland and others went to Newcastle and Wallsend. A new branch of the Socialist Federation was formed in Newcastle in July 1908.

The socialists were growing not just in numbers, but in the working out of their ideas. The conference of June 1908 took steps towards greater political homogeneity and clarified some questions of electoral politics, declaring that it was “against a program of palliatives and urges the workers to concentrate their energies upon abolishing Capitalism by perfecting their industrial organisations and only using the ballot for Socialist propaganda.”  A further motion declared, “That the Socialist Federation shall always and everywhere until the present system is abolished, make the answer to this question its guiding rule of conduct: Will this legislation advance the interests of the working class and aid the workers in their class struggle against Capitalism? If it will, the Socialist Federation is for it, if it will not, the Socialist Federation is absolutely opposed to it.”

Under the influence of the IWW, the ISRA also reflected deepening discussions and clarity on some of the key weak points in the ideology of Australian socialism, especially struggles for national and racial equality and immigrant rights.

Holland wrote, “There are some fool white workers who, in their stupid racial pride and ignorance of their own slave condition, imagine that they are somehow superior to their fellow wages-slaves of the Asiatic races.”  The ISRA reprinted an article from The Cape Socialist in South Africa: “The man who sneers at the “nigger” because of the colour of his skin is ignorant. Science teaches us plainly that all life has the same origin, therefore talk of white and black people as brethren is no mere figure of speech but a literal fact… It is exceedingly foolish of the trade unionist to think he can protect himself by prohibiting cheap foreign labor. He should not be so ready to condemn the “alien”, whether colored or white. It is too ridiculous to suppose that the colored worker accepts low wages in preference to high wages. The colored man, as well as the white man, is compelled to take whatever his master chooses to give. And who are the masters of the white and colored workers? Just those high-minded, patriotic Christian gentlemen who infest every so-called civilised country under the sun, and who make it part of their business to stir up racial prejudice for trade purposes.”

The long-running agitation for the extension of women’s suffrage, and the increasing union activity of predominantly female unions like the Shop Workers and Tailoresses, also prompted deeper discussions on women’s unequal status.  An article in July 1908 mocked a speech on the status of women given by a conservative Bishop, who “portrayed her as always the slave and property of Man.” The writer pointed to “the deplorable dependency of woman on man,” and suggested that the only way out of this is through socialism. There was a women’s division in the International Socialists, which played a prominent role in solidarity with the Rockchoppers’ strike in late 1908.

The Socialists also began to win wider influence within the established trade union organisations. Holland was admitted as a delegate to the Industrial Congress of Sydney in April 1908. His speech calling for defiance of the Wages Board Act was received with thunderous applause. A number of unions submitted resolutions in support of the IWW Preamble and the principle of organising unions along industrial lines.

Billy Hughes in 1908, when he was a member of the Federal Parliament, as well as an official of several unions. Hughes later became Prime Minister of Australia. Photo: National Library of Australia

Indignation among the union ranks at the treacherous conduct of some of their own leaders, especially Billy Hughes and William Holman, was a major contributing factor to this growth in socialist influence. Hughes had organised the Carters Union, of which he was President, to scab on the Wharf Labourers Union, who had delegated him to lead their strike. A few weeks later, a meeting of 300 outraged Wharf Labourers carried a resolution repudiating the Arbitration Act and refusing to register under its successor, the Wages Boards Act. In consternation, the union secretary described the meeting as  an unrepresentative section of the union “with Socialistic ideas, which were being fanned into flame by certain agitators, who had become almost fanatical on the question of joining the Industrial Workers of the World’s Union.”

Holman played a similar role in relation to the Tramways strike, leading to the victimising of twenty union militants who were not re-instated when the strike ended.

By October it had become clear that a major battle was shaping up at Broken Hill, the Barrier Range mining town in the western deserts of New South Wales, closer to Adelaide than to Sydney, which was the source of a major fraction of the profits of Australian capitalism. The owners of the Broken Hill Proprietary Company (BHP) had announced a wage cut when the contract expired at the end of the year. Both Tom Mann and Harry Holland headed for Broken Hill.

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