Organising The Export Works In Queensland

The greatest challenge to W.R. Crampton, who had been appointed state organiser in 1908, was the organisation of the export works

The enrolment of the export workers had been delayed by tactical problems. Unlike the lamb export trade in the southern states, Queensland export production remained separate from the local trade. The geographical isolation of many of the export works, the uncertain length of each production season and the demarcation between the travelling slaughtering gangs and the less nomadic casual hands, all represented initial obstacles to unionism. Self-contained, and controlled by managers who refused to recognise unionism for fear of any disruption to their rigid production schedules, the export works challenged efforts at infiltration. It is an interesting commentary on the isolationism of some export works that a prominent writer on the meat industry, J.T. Critchell, remarked in 1903 that no-one without the best credentials would be welcomed at the works at Lakes Creek, Rockhampton. William Davis, a general hand at the Alligator Creek works near Townsville who later prepared a detailed account of his life at the meatworks, commented that:

the Manager had a fanatical hatred of everything and everybody connected with the Trade Unions, or Political Labour Movements.

At many works the union officials were not allowed onto the premises and there is frequent mention, in the union records, of union delegates being sacked.

The slaughtering gang – the highly-skilled nucleus of the workforce at the export works – was the weak link in the companies’ policy of obstruction. Travelling from area to area, their mobility made them less susceptible than local, casual hands to the employers’ embargo on unionism. This enabled union delegates among the gangs to ‘white ant’ each works. The ‘fine missionary work’ of Crampton consolidated this groundwork.

V.G. Childe’s account of Crampton’s activities in North Queensland, whilst unashamedly affirming the heroic aura of these early struggles, nonetheless points to his dedication and resourcefulness:

He proceeded to the big new meatworks in the north and did magnificent work. Unionism was then weak in that part of Queensland. In the meatworks it was absolutely taboo. When the managers refused Crampton admission to the works he splashed across the tidal flats and crawled in through the thick jungle. Conditions inside were indeed bad, but the men and boys followed the union organiser barefooted across the mud to hear the gospel. Through such efforts a new state of affairs was established in the north

Once a solid core of meatworkers had been enrolled, a carefully planned campaign involving a series of sectional stoppages aimed at disrupting production throughout the plant, soon forced the managers into recognising the union. A union sub-branch would subsequently be formed at each works. Due to the isolation of the export works, the members at each plant enjoyed considerable administrative autonomy. The basic organisational unit was the shop committee, or Board of Control.

Within the space of a few years the unionism at the Queensland export works was being hailed as the prototype for industrial unionism at the plant level. The AMIEU covered not only the slaughtering gangs, the freezing-room hands and the general workers but also the ancillary tradesmen employed at each works. This group included carpenters, tinsmiths, boilermakers, engine-drivers and plant maintenance men.

V. Davis, in his reportage of the day to day life of Townsville meatworkers, provides a perceptive description of his fellow workers. Three main aspects emerge from his, and other, contemporary characterisations of the meatworkers: their group cohesion and inter-dependence, their mobility and their propensity to larrikinism. The slaughtering gangs tended to be self-regulating and autonomous craft groups. A shortage of skilled labour helped to entrench these travelling slaughtermen as the militant cadre within the industry. The potential elitism of this group, however, was qualified by the inter-dependence of all meatworks labour, the comradeship which emerged within the complex system of interestate migration, and the co-ordinating role of the union in the engagement and placement of seasonal hands at each works. At heart the syndicalism of the meatworkers was not so much a matter of organisational structure as an act of primitive rebellion. Their attitudes reflected the conditioned recklessness of seasonal workers, and the rough, brutalising work they did. The meatworkers have been continually accused of ‘anarchist’ behaviour – reluctant to accept direction from the union, let alone submit to pressure from the management, they brought an element of larrikinism into the union. The decentralised structure of the AMIEU gave reign to this undisciplined vehemence as, too, did the localism of the labour movement at many provincial centres.

The Board of Control, or shop committee, at each meatworks became the keystone of the AMIEU’s syndicalism. First established in Queensland, these boards grew out of the initial mode of organisation at the meatworks and reflected the degree of decentralisation within the union necessitated by sectional idiosyncrasies and by the tyranny of distance. The boards consisted of a delegate elected annually from each department, together with a works president and secretary. Once these delegates were protected from wholesale dismissal, the boards of control assumed a dynamic role. First and foremost they laid down certain principles of employment at the works, the most basic of which was loyalty to the union. A permit system was introduced whereby all members were required to obtain an authorisation from the union office before commencing work for the season. Each works was staffed by a selection committee constituted by the local board of control. The first men on and the last off each season were the union delegates. The bulk of the men were selected on the basis of seniority lists – all members employed during the previous season to be placed before any new men would be accepted. Finally, during the season, casual work was spread among the unemployed by means of a rotation system.

The board of control not only supervised the selection of labour but also played a significant role in the day to day operation of the works. The delegates supplied the labour for overtime, decided the pace of work and handled any disputes as they arose. In these circumstances the board of control duplicated the company’s structure of supervisory staff and threatened to undermine it radically. Further, the boards of control fulfilled a more general function as the primary initiators of policy within the union. In Queensland, the boards at Alligator Creek and Ross River carried disproportionate influence within the branch.

The other branches subsequently adopted this model for plant organisation. In Victoria shop committees were set up at the Melbourne and Corio works in 1917, mainly upon the initiative of C. Coupe. Coupe saw the formation of shop committees as a crucial turning point in the union’s development in that they would ultimately form part of the machinery of government for the workers when they are prepared to take control of the industries, to be run in the interests of the working class.

The structure of the shop committees followed the Queensland model closely and there was considerable interest in forming district councils based on these units. In South Australia, on the other hand, the shop committee at Gepps Cross grew naturally out of the local union administration at this centralised slaughtering centre. It, too, took a similar form to that of Queensland.

Advocates of the One Big Union often pointed to the AMIEU structure as a prototype of industrial unionism and ‘job control’. But while the popular term ‘job control’ was a misnomer in this context in that the shop committees functioned primarily as a negative control over management, they did serve to inspire in the meatworkers a very powerful vision of workers’ control. This objective they announced in stentorian tones: ‘we will be satisfied when we own the meatworks’. Describing this attitude in action, Captain Howell, the manager at the Ross River works, related how ‘the men go about the works not caring whether they work or not, and as though they were a unit entirely apart from the works altogether’. The operation of the committees certainly helped to consolidate the cohesion of the workers at each plant, fostering a sense of some degree of ‘control’ over their work lives which has continued to be an important force in their industrial organisation. The companies, not surprisingly, became increasingly apprehensive about the extent to which the committees effectively circumscribed their managerial functions.

The syndicalist mood was not restricted to the plant itself. Particularly in the provincial centres where meatworks dominated the local communities, syndicalism impinged upon the whole gamut of community activities. Outside the metropolitan areas, regional isolation and localism had an important impact on the labour movement, especially in Queensland. Isolated from head offices, the district sub-branches enjoyed considerable local autonomy; consequently, the strength of the labour movement lay in the regional alliance of trade unions. The formation of sturdily independent provincial Labour Councils was an outward sign of the groundswell of solidarity. This parochialism reinforced the emotive appeal of ‘job control’ in juxtaposition to the somewhat intangible, and ‘foreign’, ownership and management of the meatworks – an endemic conflict of interest when complex and capital-intensive industries function within unsophisticated communities.

The meatworkers took an active part in shaping the local communities within which they worked. Particularly in isolated or ‘frontier’ communities the meatworkers were forced to take the initiative in organising the amenities and services they needed. In all states the shop committees took an active role in establishing and supporting local ambulance, fire, hospital and transport services, educational facilities in the form of Schools of Art or libraries, mortality funds and recreational amenities. As communities became more settled, it was customary for the local sub-branch of the union to nominate representatives to the governing boards of civic institutions and for members to be active in municipal politics. The schemes for co-operative enterprises advanced in the 1920’s grew out of this tradition.

The role of the IWW in shaping the syndicalist temper at the meatworks needs to be understood against this background of the meatworker’s character and traditions.

By 1917 the IWW had gained a strong foothold in the Queensland meatworks. The IWW journal, Direct Action, frequently commented on the warm reception that propagandists received and Tom Barker endorsed the AMIEU as ‘the most powerful organisation in Queensland’. A number of activists won places on the boards of control, underlining strong, tacit support from the rank and file. When Hughes proscribed the IWW and gaoled its leaders, the AMIEU was unanimous in condemning this action and members contributed generously to the defence funds.

Both the ALP and employer organisations resorted to a theory of IWW conspiracy in an endeavour to discount the syndicalist movement.

To understand the syndicalist ‘temper’ at the meatworks, we must first look to the character and the traditions of the meatworkers. Jack Crampton, in 1914, drew attention to the strength of purpose that these ‘rebellious spirits’, the industrial nomads, gave to the union.

For years past, especially in Australia, we have, to a great extent, been indebted to the Ramblers, Bohemians or Nomads for much of the industrial organisation we possess. The men who ramble from one place to another, from State to State, learned their roving habits through oppression, through unsuitable or unbearable conditions. Even today we find the nomad assisting to carve out the destiny of the more militant of our industrial associations. The strength of many a union today is the result of the work of the rambler. What a difference between the city workman and the average waterside worker, the meat worker, or the shearer or miner! It is farcical to speak to these of the loss sustained by a stoppage of work. They are always stopping, their work is intermittent; being such, they become independent and self-reliant.

The IWW performed an important educative function, both in the publication of industrial literature and through public meetings and demonstrations. By such means the IWW helped to promulgate sophisticated industrial strategies. The boards of control, as they had evolved, provided a vehicle for radical action and were admirably suited to the perfecting of on-the-job strategies, especially sabotage and the scientific application of go-slow tactics. In 1919 the South Australian branch reported to federal council in the following terms:

No dispute along the old lines of a cessation of work has taken place within the past two years. Job control and scientific organisation has rendered obsolete this medieval method of fighting. The arbitration method of securing our rights has often been discussed, and has been submitted to most adverse criticism; and, so far as this branch is concerned, unless the whole aim and present methods of the arbitration system are speedily altered, we will have none of it.