The Sydney Rockchoppers and the health benefits of striking

On 4 October Holland arrived in Broken Hill; the same night he addressed a meeting of over 2,000 at the Hippodrome – in a town whose entire population was only 40,000, and where the unions still retained close ties with the Labor Party – with a speech entitled “From the Maritime Strike to the Socialist Federation of Australia.” The following Tuesday he spoke on “Industrial Unionism and Revolutionary Socialism” and the following Sunday, on “The Revolutionary Socialism of the SFA and the Middle-Class Socialism of the Labor Party.” The final big Hippodrome crowd heard Holland speak on “Germany’s March towards Social Revolution.” The tour was an outstanding success, strengthening the hand of the Barrier Socialist Group, throwing the Labor Party forces on the defensive, and building the organisational strength of the Combined Unions. On the way back to Sydney Holland also spoke in Adelaide and Melbourne.

The Proprietary Mine at Broken Hill, 1908. Photo: NSW State Archives

In an article entitled Class war at the Barrier, Holland wrote, “It is scarcely twenty-five years since a boundary-rider discovered silver in the range that gives Broken Hill its name. Then the employees of an isolated station property constituted the population of that portion of the desert country. Today a city’s foundations rest in the red sands – a city whose population runs well towards 40,000 – a population whose working-class section is responsible for the enormous silver wealth of Australia.

“The quarter-of-a-century history of Broken Hill has been marked with many determined struggles on the part of the working class, either to wring a little more of their earnings from the exploiters or to resist wage-reductions.”

“The wealth wrested from the forces of nature by the Broken Hill workers is measured by figures that add up to millions. The Proprietary Company – the largest of all the Barrier exploiting concerns – started operations with a paid-up capital of £18,000 [≈ AUD 3.7 million today] . In less than twenty-five years its shareholders have drawn in dividends not less than TWELVE MILLIONS [≈ AUD 2.5 billion today] …

Another view of mine, with miners’ shacks in background. Photo: NSW State Archives

“While he has been piling up huge fortunes for the “owners,” the miner has lived down to a line that is drawn very close to starvation level; he has lived in the most miserable hovels constructed of timber and corrugated iron – bake-ovens in summer and refrigeration in winter; month by month he has furnished a record of death and crushed limbs and mangled bodies that is worse than appalling; his children have been “educated” in sweltering sheds that are called schools by courtesy; the water supply of his community – because it is accorded the treatment that a class government invariably sees fit to mete out to a working class community – is drained from a catchment area that boasts disused slaughter yards, active piggeries, a rubbish tip, an ancient night-soil depot, and other abominations. … And he is the wealth-maker! For the expenditure of his life’s energies, for the certainty of getting his system permeated with lead, for the risking of his limbs and often the sacrificing of his life, he is lucky if he averages £3 [≈ AUD460 today] per week – a low wage in a centre where the cost of living is considerably high.”

His “directors” sit about once a fortnight. Each sitting averages an hour or two. Their pay works out at about £40 a sitting – not less than £20 an hour! [1908 £20 ≈ 2018 AUD 3,000] (This is in addition to their dividends).

“These men – along with the other shareholders – have produced nothing. They have not even done the work of organising the labor of other men for exploitation purposes; … hired experts have done all that.

“And these £20 an hour directors – these stealers of the millions of values created by the honest workers – are the gentlemen who coolly propose that, because the price of lead has fallen to some extent, and therefore the dividends are somewhat smaller than heretofore, the miners’ wages must be reduced at the end of the present year.”

The lockout was thus due to begin on January 1st, just as the second part of Wade’s repressive legislation became law. “A fall in the price of lead and zinc brought to the Proprietary Co. the conclusion that the price of human flesh and blood must also follow.”

Sydney Rockchopper 1909.
Photo: The Lone Hand

But before the well-planned assault on the Broken Hill miners could begin, another industrial dispute broke out. In this case the initiative rested entirely with the workers, and the bosses were on the back foot from the start. The workers were the Sydney Rockchoppers, about 600 in number, who mainly worked for small employers contracted to the Water and Sewage Board to dig the tunnels and trenches of the Sydney sewage system. The working  conditions of the Sydney Rockchoppers were even more dire than those of the Broken Hill miners described by Holland.

Cutting through Sydney sandstone raised a fine dust which, when inhaled, led to high rates of fatal silicosis among these workers. One contractor estimated that he had lost 60 to 70 percent of his workers in this way, mostly before the age of 40. There was a certain skill involved in the work; by the time the necessary skill had been learned, the worker was fit for no other kind of physical work.  Their use of explosives like dynamite and rack-a-rock, with their associated noxious fumes, added to the toll of injury, illness and death. (See a contemporary report entitled Drains Built with Young Men’s Lives pp. 312-20 in The Lone Hand, 1 July 1909.) As was often the case with coal miners, workers in such conditions tended to develop a very strong sense of union, for reasons of self-preservation.

Rockchoppers gang (from article in The Lone Hand) Caption reads: “A gang of Rockchoppers – taken seven years ago. Out of this group of thirty men, sixteen are now dead.

It was in fact the union’s ban on the use of rack-a-rock explosive for health reasons, one union member’s violation of that ban and the employers’ support of that man, which led to the strike. At the strike meeting, “One member…remarked that three months’ rest from work would be beneficial to the rockchoppers, and would give them an opportunity of purifying their lungs” [SMH 22Oct08]. The industrial court lost no time in bringing down the full force of the new Industrial Disputes Act against the strikers.  John Ryan, the union secretary, and three other union leaders were prosecuted for instigating a strike. Summonses were prepared for 188 other workers.

But workers who could expect to die in their thirties of silicosis had little fear of prison. The courtroom was packed with union members and supporters as Ryan’s case was called. They applauded when Ryan declared his full support of the strike; the judge threatened to clear the court.  Ryan was found guilty and sentenced to £30 fine or six weeks imprisonment. He immediately announced his refusal to pay the fine.

Rockchoppers’ gang digging a trench. tranches were often above head height. Photo: The Lone Hand

Holland, writing in the ISRA, reported that on hearing the sentence, “from the midst of the crowd came the call ‘Three cheers for Ryan’, and the crowd rose to a man, and made the rotten old courthouse ring and ring again – “one of the most disorderly scenes ever seen in a courtroom in this State” wailed a daily paper. 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, but preserved a discrete silence. 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. …

“Then the crowd adjourned to Chancery Square, and once more broke the law by holding a meeting, Wade and his law and his courts being denounced without equivocation. Grenville, Holland, Scott Bennett, and Tennant were the speakers” [Grenville and Tennant were Rockchoppers Union leaders, Holland and Scott Bennett leaders of the International Socialists]. Afterwards a procession marched to Darlinghurst Jail and cheered and cheered again for the man inside.”

When proceedings against the remaining unionists continued the next day, the crowd was prevented from entering the court by hundreds of police.  Against there were huge crowds who cheered as they accompanied the convicted men to jail. “The Rockchoppers have resolved – and rightly resolved – that no pick shall swing and no rockchopping be done in any sewer until the gates swing open to free the men now imprisoned.”

Over the following week a series of spirited meetings were held in solidarity with the imprisoned Rockchoppers and in denunciation of the Industrial Disputes Act, addressed by Rockchoppers union executives, the Coal Lumpers, Tramway workers and others who had recently taken union action, as well as the Women’s division of the International Socialists. Messages of support were received from the Combined Unions at Broken Hill. They succeeded in winning some support from the Sydney Labor Council.

The imprisoned strikers were released within days, after the contractors paid their fines. Labor Party leader Fred Flowers intervened to ‘settle’ the dispute by imposing a two-year no-strike pledge on the union; the Labor Council attempted to get the union to hand it over to an ‘independent’ board for adjudication. William Holman, Labor Party Member of the Legislative Assembly, was shouted down by angry workers when he attempted to address one of the meetings. He had earlier denounced the strike, saying “the whole trouble is due to two or three men belonging to the IWW.”

None of these  attempts to blunt the impact of the strike were any more successful than the legal proceedings in bringing an end to the strike. The Rockchoppers held firm. Other than the scab at the centre of the dispute, not a single strike-breaker could be found. On being freed from jail, Ryan rejected any form of no-strike pledge, telling the Sydney Morning Herald, “There might be a general upheaval at any moment, and the Rockchoppers were going to hold themselves free to join in the fight against Wade’s Act”. A settlement was finally agreed by the union members, which included a six-hour working day on account of the injurious nature of the work, and their safety practices to be respected. But when they returned to the job and found the scab still working, they walked out again, until he resigned.

It was the most comprehensive victory any union of workers had ever won in the state, and fully vindicated the strategy, advocated by Holland and the International Socialists, of mobilising the economic power of the workers, scandalising the brutality of the employers far and wide, and appealing for solidarity from other workers. The Rockchoppers had proved that, provided that they could maintain union under fire and win the support of other workers, even a relatively small group of workers could overcome the Industrial Disputes Act and defeat the power of the state. And this, on the eve of the planned assault at Broken Hill, was the most worrying aspect from the point of view of the Wade government and its wealthy backers.

For the rulers had no intention of backing off their assault on Broken Hill. Just as the Rockchoppers dispute was ending, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that 50 extra police had been despatched to Broken Hill by the Wade government, and a further 200 were being made ready.

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