Capitalism’s Trail of Blood: The Fight for Safety on the Job

Harry Holland and the early labour movement in Australia and New Zealand, Part 13

The defeat of the miners’ strike ended the forward momentum of the working class that had been gathering pace since 1906. Some hard-fought industrial battles continued to erupt over the next few years, but less frequently, and mostly rear-guard actions. Many of these strikes concerned the victimisation of union leaders, as the bosses pressed the advantage they had won through the miners’ defeat to further weaken and erode union organisation.

Following defeat on picket line, the working class once again attempted to challenge the capitalist rulers in the electoral arena, as they had in 1890. In March 1910 there was a Federal election, followed in October by elections to the State Legislature of New South Wales.

Harry Holland in 1911

Harry Holland headed the Socialist campaign in the Federal election, as the candidate for West Sydney standing against Stanley Cole, candidate of the Commonwealth Liberal Party (also known as the Fusion Party, since it was formed by a merger of the old Free-Trade and Protectionist Parties) and the incumbent, the strike-breaker-in-chief, Labour Party leader William Morris Hughes. There was great interest in the election in this particular electorate, widely seen as a “triangular contest” of parties representing the three main classes of capitalist society. Noting the size and enthusiasm evident at Holland’s election rallies, the Sydney Morning Herald wrote that the outcome was “one of the big uncertainties” of the election.

“We shall indict Mr Cole on the ground that his party stands always for the Capitalist Class, always against the Working Class,” read Holland’s campaign literature. “We shall indict him on the record of his party – the long list of its past crimes against the Working Class; and we shall further indict him on the present policy of his party – especially in connection with the smashing of strikes, wrecking of unions, and jailing and leg-ironing of honest men whose splendid lives are a credit to themselves and to Australia and a standing reproach to the class-dominated party that holds them captive.

William Morris Hughes, Labor Party candidate for West Sydney in 1910

“We shall indict Mr Hughes on the Labor Party’s middle-class policy, its desire to jail workers who strike, its success in helping to jail the Coal Strike officials, and its general anti-working-class attitude in connection with industrial struggles and in Parliament. We shall indict Mr Hughes on his personal record as a Strike-breaker and enemy of the Working Class. We shall require him to answer charges of disloyalty to the principles on Unionism in every industrial struggle that he has been connected with… We shall charge him with having engineered to break the Coal Strike… We shall charge him with having insisted that the Coal Lumpers must unload Japanese non-union coal from the Palermo, and with having objected to the Coal Lumpers receiving strike pay when they refused to do the blackleg work. We shall charge him with having toured the South in advocacy of the Southern men blacklegging on the North, …with having sat for nearly two hours with Premier Wade the day before Mr Bowling, Mr Burns and Mr Brennan were arrested, and with having discussed with Mr Wade the projected prosecution of the officials now in jail…

“Both Fusion Party and Labor Party come clamouring for your suffrages with the evidences of their crimes against the honest Working Class clinging like funeral cerements about their political bodies… If you are conscious of your class position; if you desire to ‘abolish all class antagonisms by abolishing the last of the systems of human exploitation’, if you know that ‘the historic mission of the working class is to redeem itself’… then we claim your vote for Revolutionary Socialism…” [8451]

The vote was a huge disappointment to Holland and the SFA. Hughes held his seat by a comfortable majority; the Labor Party took the reins of the Federal Government. Hughes had proved his usefulness to the capitalists once again. The outcome was worse than 1890 in one respect: in 1890 the electoral battles were a continuation of the industrial struggle; in 1910 the vote in West Sydney marked the end of a phase of struggle and served only to measure of the scope of the defeat.

In October the Labor Party won a majority in the State Legislature of New South Wales as well.

“That the middle-class mind predominates in Australasia — both industrially and politically — is the lesson the result of the 1910 Elections teaches,” Holland wrote in an article analysing the Federal election. “The great majority of the workers here are not prepared to accept the revolutionary working-class objective and tactics which mark the fighting of the workers’ movements in other countries. By more than 20 to 1 in West Sydney the Socialist candidature was turned down in favour of middle-class interests as represented by the Labor Party. In the Senate contest, Socialist principles were also voted down by more than 20 to 1. In each case there was a marked falling off in the numbers who voted the Socialist ticket. The Socialists do not seek to find excuses for these hard facts. It is quite true that we expected a larger vote in West Sydney — quite true that we anticipated a much heavier poll by the S.L.P. [Socialist Labor Party] candidates for the Senate. The fact remains that the vote has gone against us; and the only explanation is that the workers of Australia are as yet economically uneducated — as yet so unconscious of their class position and interests as to be easily tossed along in the whirlwind of political happenings.”

Feeling the wind in their sails, the class-collaborationist officials at the Sydney Labor Council – the city-wide trade union body – moved to further shut down space for the class-struggle militants in their ranks. A month after the election,  the SLC launched disciplinary proceedings against the Coal Lumpers’ Union delegate to the Council, Mr Macey, for standing in the election against the official Labor Party candidate, and demanded that the Union withdraw him as their delegate.

Holland wrote, “For many long years the unionists have fought for political freedom. … When Frank Volk was thrown out of the tramway service for having expressed his political opinions, Laborites joined with Socialists in shouting condemnation from the housetops at the Government responsible for that atrocity. And since those days Labor Councillors have been just as vehement as the Socialists in decrying any wreaking of class vengeance on the heads of those who insist on exercising their franchise rights. But now, at the behest of the Labor Party … a party that every second Labor Councillor loathed for its cowardice in the Broken Hill Lockout; a party that every second Labor Councillor hated for its barefaced and Iscariot selling-out of the miners this year – at the behest of that party, the Sydney Labor Council flounders stupidly into the mud of capitalistic party politics, and demands of the one union that, more than most others, has reflected credit on working class organisation, that it shall penalise one of its members because he dared to disagree with the politics of a party of the Master Class!”

Meanwhile, Holland noted increased police pressure on workers’ demonstrations on the streets and other political activities. A procession demanding the release of jailed miners’ leader Peter Bowling was “dogged by an army of plain-clothed and uniformed police; their names were taken at every corner – the names of some who were never there at all were also taken; at Bourke Street an organised police attack was made on the leaders, who were hurled into prison, and charged with a separate offence for every street they passed through, and duly given cumulative sentences which in each  case totalled 18 months hard labor, while some 60 others were heavily fined for the sole crime of being in the ranks.” (Holland contrasted the severity of this attack with the indulgence the police showed toward a rowdy procession of bourgeois university students.)

When a miner who attended a meeting addressed by Holland, and who seconded a motion moved by Holland calling for the release of Peter Bowling, remarked at the meeting that he hoped the day would come “when unionists would not be frightened by a few paltry policemen,” he was prosecuted for “using insulting language” and fined. Detectives often attended Holland’s meetings in the Sydney Domain and took notes.


George Foster Pearce, Labor Party Senator, in 1901

As the anti-militarist campaign of the Socialists mounted in 1911, politicians from both Liberal and Labor parties joined forces in an effort to suppress the voice of the International Socialists. Labor Party Senator George Foster Pearce and others raised a scare in the Federal parliament about ‘treasonable literature’ and threatened to block the International Socialist newspaper from transmission by post.

Later, municipal governments also got in on the act. Since 1909 Wade’s Coercion Act had prevented the Socialists from organising indoor meetings in theatres and halls on Sundays (with religious meetings being exempt from the ban) and were forced to organise outdoor rallies in public parks and street corners. Now these outdoor meetings came under police pressure.  In February 1912 the Balmain Municipal Council began arresting Socialist speakers at public rallies, while Methodist rallies on the same spot went unmolested. John William Roche, the first Socialist speaker arrested, was fined £3, with the alternative of one month’s hard labour. Roche refused to pay any fines and went to jail. Holland and others formed a Free Speech Committee to fight this attack on political rights, along similar lines to the great Free Speech campaign in Melbourne that contributed so much to the growth of the Victorian Socialist Party in 1906.

The most devastating consequence of the defeat of the miners was a new rise of industrial accidents and deaths. This began in the course of the strike itself, with a heavy toll of accidents among the untrained and inexperienced strike breakers. This deepened after the strike ended. One of the union rights that came under heavy attack was the right to refuse to work in unsafe conditions.

Coal Wagons at what Holland described as ‘the Pelaw Main Death Trap’
Photo: University of Newcastle

At Pelaw Main Colliery in Kurri Kurri, a short distance inland from Newcastle, a union meeting to discuss a safety-related stoppage in June 1910 ended in uproar when police entered the meeting and refused to leave when asked. The union leaders had to publicly disavow the strike, and one resigned his position. Any official supporting a strike could be jailed under the Coercion Act.

At this one mine accidents including fatalities were a common occurrence, including four separate fatal accidents in less than eight weeks between February and March 1911. When, after one of these deaths, 33 coal wheelers refused to enter the mine until their own union representatives had been allowed to check the mine for safety, they were fined under the Industrial Relations Act. The wheelers declared that they would refuse to pay the fines, and surrendered themselves for arrest. The police then declined to arrest them, saying no warrants had been issued. At that point William Holman, Acting Premier in the Labor Party government, intervened to smooth things over. “Mr Holman’s feet went cold when he found that the wheelers were determined,” Holland wrote.

Masthead of the first issue of the International Socialist

The International Socialists in Sydney had launched a larger format newspaper, now named the International Socialist, in May 1910. Now that the Barrier Flame had folded as a consequence of the victimisations at Broken Hill, the International Socialist served the whole State of New South Wales. To some extent it also filled the vacuum left by the decline of the Victorian Socialist and became the paper of the whole Socialist Federation in Australia.

Reflecting the shift in the political relationship of forces, the new International Socialist was less of an organising and agitational paper than its immediate predecessor; it adopted a more propagandist emphasis, with reprints of theoretical articles from the IWW and Socialist press in the United States and Europe. There were however ongoing campaigns for the release of the jailed miners. Peter Bowling was released in October 1910, Stokes from Broken Hill not until January 1911.

One of the regular columns in the enlarged paper was entitled Capitalism’s Trail of Blood, where the terrible toll of death and maiming on the job was recorded.

The column of June 4, 1910 includes among others, “R Peebles, coal lumper, died at Sydney Hospital as the result of a fall down a bunker of the steamer Indvaleema… Charles Pollux, sailor, fell a distance of 75 feet from the main upper topsail yard of the barque Kilmeny, at Melbourne, and was killed… A sleeper cutter named Abel was crushed between a tree and a cart at Urunga and received serious internal injuries. There is little hope of his recovery. David Sampson, shift boss at the British mine, Broken Hill, was precipitated 200 feet down the shaft, and killed instantly. The body was terribly mutilated… Norris Gallus, a sailor belonging to the Norwegian barque Ancenis, while working aloft on Friday afternoon, fell from the topsail yard. In the descent, he struck the side of the vessel, and was killed… Albert Pinder, a lad of 13, employed at May Bros’ works at Adelaide, was sent into a room in which the acetylene generator was installed, when an explosion occurred. The boy was found on the floor, with all one side of his face blown away, his jaw fractured, and one eye destroyed… A man named Callinan was thrown from a waggon near Quirindi and was dragged underneath the vehicle for some distance. He was badly crushed, and his condition is precarious… J. Lock was seriously injured at the brickwork excavations near Woonona, on Saturday, by an explosion of blasting powder. Harold Yates, railway employee at Ipswich, Q., had his head crushed between the door and upright of a railway carriage, on Monday. At the inquest on John Snell, who was killed at East Greta Colliery on May 19 by a fall of earth, a verdict of ‘accidental death” was recorded.”

Mining accounted for a disproportionate share of these preventable ‘accidents.’ In April 1911 the Broken Hill correspondent for the IS reported “a human being murdered for the sake of profit by the South Mine Company. An AMA member named Gregurke was blown to atoms as the result of having to use inferior fuse supplied by the Co. The fuse was tested by Barnett and Long, AMA officials, and they proved beyond all doubt that the fuse was not fit to use; but this is common practice with the mine managers. … nearly every day the AMA flag is waving [at half mast] denoting the loss of one or other of its members, slaughtered in the industrial hells.”

The connection between union organisation and safety on the job was a question Holland would return to many times in future.

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