Carrying coals to Newcastle – “organised scabbery” against the New South Wales miners

Twelfth part of Harry Holland the early labour movement in Australia and New Zealand

The battle of Broken Hill had ended with the Australian capitalist class unable to deliver the decisive defeat to the workers of New South Wales that they had wished for, and so the upsurge of workers’ struggles continued without a pause. Within weeks of Holland’s release from prison, another major conflict erupted on coalfields of Newcastle, which soon spread to encompass the whole State of New South Wales.

The grievances of the coal miners were many: low pay, abusive bosses, long hours, and victimisation of union militants. Along with many local grievances, the demand for an eight-hour day was raised, paid bank-to-bank, that is, with the time spent underground trudging or crawling from the mine portal to the coal face ­­– which could be up to an hour each way ­­– included in the hours of paid work.

The coal miners – even more than the Broken Hill miners – were central to the functioning of the entire economy. Railways and shipping both depended on coal, as did production of electricity and the gas which fuelled many industrial boilers and furnaces, street lighting, and home heating. Within a day, steamers were laid up in port and a hundred trains a day had stopped running. The strike was launched from Newcastle by the 12,000 members of the Colliery Employees Federation, led by the IWW-aligned militant Peter Bowling. The union had prepared for the strike with careful organisation, building a union federation across the state that could speak and act in union. They had even prepared for the economic pressures of a long strike by making a special arrangement to keep two coal mines open with union support, and sharing the profits from sale of the coal as a co-operative to pay benefits to striking workers. Within a short time, more than 20,000 coalminers across the State had joined the strike, along with the Coal Lumpers, some Waterside workers, and others. In terms of the breadth of workers affected, by the end of November the movement was approaching the dimensions of a general strike.

Coal miners at South Waratah Colliery, near Newcastle, northern New South Wales, about 1898

“With magnificent tact the Newcastle Coal Miners launched the thunderbolt of the strike against the organised brutality of the Capitalist Class,” Holland wrote. “The ‘owners’ were completely taken unawares – they had no coal stored up, and in that respect they were completely unprepared for the struggle. With industrial unity the miners must have won in less than 48 hours. The Waterside Workers – notwithstanding the difficulties that Craft Unionism imposes, were ready to fling down the tools of their servitude and join forces with the miners. The lightning of revolt electrified the industrial forces in almost every centre…”

Holland’s article was entitled The Danger Ahead. It pointed out that the opportunities provided by the bosses’ lack of preparedness were being squandered. “Large orders for coal supplies have been cabled to Wales, Japan, New Zealand, and elsewhere… In the meantime, a systematic plan for organising a scab labor supply is being worked in the country districts, where harvesting and shearing operations will shortly terminate, rendering an amount of country labor available… to do blackleg work as wharf laborers and coal-lumpers.  [the employers] hope that their temporary overseas coal supplies will reach Sydney before the existing small stores are depleted, and by that time they think they will have sufficient blackleg labor to unload it.”

With coal supplies to supply shipping and railways and break the strike about to arrive in Australian ports, a key question was winning the active solidarity of the Wharf Labourers’ and Coal Lumpers’ unions. The Coal Lumpers Union stood solidly in support of the miners, but the Wharf Laborers, under heavy pressure from their leader, Labor MP William Morris Hughes, wavered. And they were not the only ones.

“Boats that are loaded by blackleg labor are unloaded by union labor,” Holland pointed out. “…union-manned boats carry goods to Newcastle for the mine-owners… union compositors and linotype operators day by day set up the most villainous reports, the most lying attacks on the strikers; union machinists print off the sheets that carry the lies broadcast…”

“If the miners are to win – if the miners’ strike is not to bring disaster to the waterside and other unions, and the triumph of blackleggism to the great industrial centres, there must be a speedy and concerted action on the part of all the unions that are in any way involved. … no industrial worker should handle any goods or render any service whatever for those who wage bitter warfare against the working class. There should be no more organised scabbery.  Let them have Sydney and Newcastle without a light, Sydney without a paper except such as fights for the working class … no police conveyed to the coal-fields to play the game that was played at Broken Hill…”

With such high stakes, the coal bosses, press and capitalist politicians waged a concerted campaign against the strike, seeking to isolate the coal miners from the rest of the working class. Noting that “if everything goes as the strikers intend it to go, the rest of their fellow citizens will be deprived of their railways, their trams, their steamers, and the whole of their transport, their light, their heat, and the greater part of their occupations also” the Sydney Morning Herald pushed the line that “The community is the third party to every modern industrial quarrel.”

Aberdare Coal Mine, Cessnock (Photo: Macleay Museum, University of Sydney)

As at Broken Hill, the leadership of the union was a prime target. The Herald quoted a Lithgow Valley coal boss: “…the majority of these men are simple. They are led like sheep. It is solely the firebrands that are responsible for this trouble. Mr Peter Bowling will have to be collared at once.” The use of the word ‘collared,’ with its unmistakable imagery of the neck-irons used in the days of the convict colony, was prophetic. So also was the Herald ‘s editorial comment that the coal strike “seems to indicate a conspiracy against the State.” When the police moved against Bowling a month later, the charge was Conspiracy.

Just as at Broken Hill, for a period of several weeks the power of the union mobilisations rendered useless the Wade government’s Industrial Disputes Act, as it did all other attempts to impose an end to the strike through arbitration. In early December, the Acting Premier Lee (Wade himself was ill throughout this period) declared itself ready to directly intervene, saying that “the provisions of the Industrial Disputes Act will be enforced” and that it would “command” the coal being mined by the union-owned co-operatives to provide strike benefits. The Herald hailed the decision, while complaining that it didn’t go far enough. “The way must be opened, by force if necessary, to make possible the working of all mines, and the re-opening of all factories… Everyone will admit that once action is taken, a very grave task will have been begun, the end of which no man can foresee – except that the State must triumph. It may mean bloodshed at half a dozen points at once, an appeal to the Commonwealth for troops…” For its part, Labor Party Deputy Leader William Holman avowed, “I have always been an opponent of strikes. The men have taken a wrong method of enforcing a good cause. My sympathies are with the men. The men have been led into mischief and ruin by these [Socialist] agitators. We are in no way supporting or intriguing with agitators who seek to make their own game out of the miseries and misfortunes of the workers.”

William Holman in 1919. Photo: State Library of NSW

Holland denounced the Herald’s incitement to violence against the workers, as well as Lee’s comment that “if we do anything that takes us outside the four corners of the Constitution, this Government will come to Parliament and ask it to indemnify it.”

“Which means,” Holland wrote, “that the Government will if necessary kill men and women and children regardless of whether even its own class-made law gives it the “right,” and will then depend upon a class-ridden Parliament to “indemnify” the murderers… In the sledgehammering of the miners, in the smashing of unions, in the jailing of men and women, in the spilling of red blood, … a little thing like the Constitution isn’t going to be permitted to stand in the way.

“The Parliament – Government and Labor Party – is against the miners, and on the side of the Exploiters. THE WORKERS ALONE ARE FOR THE MINERS.  Therefore, the workers are against Parliament; and this being so, immediately the first summons is served, or the first arrest made, THE WORKERS SHOULD DOWN TOOLS IN EVERY INDUSTRY.  And then, if the Government, in its insane feverishness to see its Masters win, should make civil war – if the Government dares to spill human blood, to commit murder for the profit of a robber gang – well, then, LET THE GOVERNMENT BEWARE!”

As it turned out, Holland was present when the first arrests were made, and played a major part in organising the initial response to the arrests. Peter Bowling had been in Sydney with some other miners union officials, and Holland was on the train with them when they returned to Newcastle. “Just before steaming out of the station, [we] learned that some carriages with about 100 police had been brought along from another station and hitched to our train… The plain-clothes man I recognised as one who was prominent in the Governmental strike-breaking effort at Broken Hill…four plain-clothes men occupied the compartment immediately behind us and four more, that immediately in front of us.”

“Some reporters came aboard, and told us that a motor car was bringing warrants from Sydney for the arrest of the officials. Arriving in Newcastle, we found a vast crowd – about 2,000 people – on the platform and at the gates to receive us… Cheers for Bowling, cheers for Burns, cheers for Brennan [two other miners’ union officials]. The police crowded round about. Quickly our little party became separated as we made for the street. It was clear that something was going to happen, and the air was electrified.”

“Suddenly someone shouted, “They’ve got him – they’ve arrested Peter.” The utmost indignation prevailed; and but for prominent union officials who were in the crowd an immediate attack would have been made on the police. In fact, had a single man made a call for rescue, bloodshed must have resulted.” Brennan and Burns were also arrested.

“Each man was cheered as the doors closed upon him; and in a very short space of time the story of this new crime on the part of the NSW Government had spread like wildfire. There was no lack of bail, and after a tedious delay on the part of the officials, the three unionists, arrested at 10.45 [pm] walked out of the lockup at 2.30 [am]. Holland, Tom Waters of the Butchers Union and some of the union leaders present decided to make an immediate protest, “The union’s printer was awakened at 3am and from 3.30 till 8 we were printing dodgers calling a citizen’s meeting. As fast as the handbills came off the machine Tom Waters and his assistants carried them away to various centres – Wallsend, West Wallsend and Minmi even were reached.”

“And the response was magnificent. When, at 3 o’clock, tired and sleepy, we reached Arnott’s paddock, the sight was one never to be forgotten. The hill was a seething mass of humanity, and from every point of the compass, along every roadway, they were still pouring onward. Shortly after the meeting opened, the Wallsend contingent – 2000 strong, and headed by a brass band and a band of bag-pipes – appeared. They had marched eight miles, and how they were cheered. … No trams, no trains, and scarcely any facility for advertising the meeting; and still 16 hours after the arrests had taken place, 20,000 people had come together to record the unanimous protest against the villainous conduct of the Wade Government… Tom Waters moved the resolution denouncing the arrests as a move to break the strike for the mine-owners, and also denouncing the Government for sending police to Newcastle where the most perfect order had prevailed.”

Holland and the three arrested men addressed the crowd. “Years ago I lived, or tried to live, in the coal city, and in that great sea of faces were hundreds whose nods of recognition and cries of welcome were good to see and to hear. … Round after round of cheering that might have split the skies; and then the greatest meeting Newcastle had ever known dispersed, with hatred throbbing in twenty thousand hearts for the perpetrators-in-chief of that brutal midnight crime.”

Once again, timely, disciplined and massive mobilisation of workers had stayed the hand of those elements of the capitalist class who sought ‘compulsion’ knowing that ‘it may mean bloodshed.’

William Morris Hughes, Member of Parliament and leader of wharf labourers’ union.

But where threats of direct violence of the forces of state failed, the pleading and persuasion of the Labor Party leaders was more effective. The key figure in this effort was William Hughes, Member of the Federal Parliament for West Sydney since 1901, and at the same time, official of several unions including that of the wharf laborers. In this capacity he gained admittance to the Strike Congress, from where he worked tirelessly to limit the strike to the northern miners, and to argue for acceptance by the workers of Wade’s Wages Board to bring about a return to work. “ ‘Loyalty to the Congress’ was the powerful weapon with which they attempted to enforce their nefarious instructions,” Holland wrote.

Bowling’s organisation had been state-wide, and the unity in action of all the coal miners of New South Wales was, as Holland recognised, the best demonstration of IWW-style industrial unionism in action ever achieved in Australia up to that point. Yet for all that, the miners lacked any overall unifying demand around which the strike could coalesce. If organisational preparations were state-wide, in contrast the political preparations were distinctly local. This was a weakness which Hughes was quick to exploit: there is no need for a national action to resolve local grievances, he argued.

“Only those unions whose members were on strike should have been admitted to the Strike Congress,” Holland wrote, “– and then we might have been spared the spectacle of the Sydney dailies and a professional politician dictating the Congress’s policy. We might also have been spared the outrage of the midnight arrests. Mr Hughes’ presence on the Strike Congress has amounted to not less than a catastrophe.”

“The Sydney Coal Lumpers positively wouldn’t blackleg – not for all the Congresses in creation [though] Mr Hughes himself pleaded the case for Scabbery before them… Having failed to persuade the coal-lumpers to scab, Mr Hughes’ next task was to prevent the wharf-laborers from ceasing work. Hughes’ supporters threatened with personal violence any who objected to scabbing….Now, in defiance of Mr Hughes, the wharf-laborers are doing the correct thing by refusing to work on boats where scab coaling is done,” Holland wrote in mid-December.

Peter Bowling in 1911. Photo: International Socialist

Bowling and the other arrested officials appeared in court on December 14. The charge was Conspiracy, and the evidence presented against them consisted of minute-books, resolutions, and letters, the written records of ordinary union organisation work with which they had prepared for the strike.  The police had seized these records at the time of the arrests.

But Hughes’ efforts soon began to get results. A week later, Holland reported, “The wharf-labourers are scabbing it on the northern and southern miners and aiding the real law-breakers – the ‘owners.’ So are the seamen. So are the western miners. So are the railway men. So are many others.”

Sensing the advantage provided by the growing isolation of the Newcastle miners, on 16 December Wade rushed through the NSW parliament a Strike Suppression Act directly aimed at the coal miners and their leadership.  The Act – which soon became known as the Coercion Act – made any leader who instigated or helped to continue a strike liable to 12 months’ imprisonment (where it involved ‘a necessary commodity’ such as coal), and empowered the police to enter any closed union meeting.” The Act, particularly the section relating to the police entering ‘meetings behind closed doors,’ also had the effect of retroactively validating the charges of Conspiracy against Bowling and the others. Bowling and some other Miners’ Union officials were soon charged under this new law.

“By the political success of their action,” Holland wrote, “they have placed the miners where they must either break the law or sacrifice their unionism; they have placed the coal lumpers and other unions where they must either break the law or scab on the miners – for that is what compliance with such a law as this means… The miners have already declared that they will fight the new law to the last ditch, and it may yet happen, in this land of sunshine and slavery, that the scarcity of coal may be more than equalled by the scarcity of jail room.”

In late January Bowling was convicted of “taking part in a meeting for the purpose of aiding in the continuance of a strike” and sentenced to twelve months hard labour – the maximum sentence. His co-defendants got eight months. Holland wrote in an article entitled Damned By the Law: “The Labor Party carries a fearfully heavy load of responsibility in this matter… four of the most fearless and straight-going men that ever stood in the forefront of a working-class fight are in jail, and it is the duty of the industrial workers to get them out. … There is a method that will cause the jail gates to swing open swiftly to release these honest men. The Review’s advice is that that method should be taken without any delay whatever.”

Holland had to choose his words carefully: the miners’ strike was still going, and every journey and every speech he made was being closely monitored by the police for possible breaches of the Coercion Act. On a visit Holland made to the South Coast mines to protest the Coercion Act and build support for the strike in mid-December, police forced their way into the crowd, despite objections. On one occasion the unionists gave their police pursuers the slip and held a meeting without them. In February 1910, Holland was hauled before the courts again on charges that he illegally participating in a procession. The charges were dismissed by the judge after Holland pointed out glaring contradictions in the police evidence.

Two weeks later Bowling and four other Miners’ leaders (including the two arrested with him on the night they arrived in Newcastle) were also convicted of conspiracy. All five were sentenced to 18 months hard labour, which in Bowling’s case was cumulative on his other sentence. It was a heavy blow.

Their leaders in jail, their meeting places and offices ransacked, the documents of their meetings and discussions stolen by the police, with a legal precedent established that a single word spoken between two people in favour of continuing the strike constituted a conspiracy punishable by long jail time, those workers who could drifted back to work over the following two weeks. Wade’s law made any union activity outside the framework of Arbitration illegal, and now, for the first time, he was in a position to give effect to these laws. This was the stinging defeat of the working class that the rulers had sought, but failed to achieve, at Broken Hill. The crushing effects would be felt for years to come.

In a fit of triumphal glee, the authorities clapped Peter Bowling in the leg-irons of the convict era when transferring him from Darlinghurst to Goulburn jail, as if he were a violent criminal. Nothing could express more clearly their fear and hatred of the working class, and their relief ­­– now that it was back in its chains.


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