[Editor: This report by W. G. Spence was circulated prior to the 1893 conference of the General Laborers’ Union. It was published in The Shearers’ and General Laborers’ Record (Newport, Vic.), 15 March 1893.]
To the members.
Ladies and Gentlemen — I have the honor to submit Report for past year, and in doing so beg to congratulate you on the measure of success attained. The Union has not only held its own, but has made advance in several directions. In judging as to whether we have reason for satisfaction, it is necessary to consider the circumstances in which labor generally has been placed. With an immensely overcrowded labour market, every labour organisation has been at great disadvantage, and many have been with difficulty kept alive.
Irregularity, together with want of employment, always tells against maintenance of payments to Union funds, and thus hampers progress in every direction. In organising new branches of the labour field of necessity restricted to those who are in employment, and who can consequently subscribe the sums necessary to carry on the work and secure to the workers the privileges aimed at.
The G.L.U. has entered into a field hitherto left comparatively untouched. It seeks to unite a scattered mass, embracing alike those who have been shut out of the ranks of organised labour by the narrow conservatism of some sections of trades unions, and those whose occupation prevent them staying long in one place. The skilled mechanic working in the bush, far from any union of his particular trade, can join, as well as the poor fellow who is knocked from pillar to post, because maybe he is physically unable to do the work of a strong man. The careless and apathetic, as well as the intelligent, have to be brought in; the ignorant, the selfish anti-unionist, as well as those who have been long waiting the opportunity to actively help on the great work of reform. The selfish join, expecting an immediate benefit, often seeking £5 return for his 10s. contribution, and is disappointed when he finds that a union is not some fairy goddess or all-powerful giant Santa Claus, travelling round dispensing good gifts in the shape of higher wages and shortened hours.
Considering the circumstances and the work before us, we must realise that steady progress is all that we can at present expect.
Three years ago Capitalism raised the cry for “Freedom of Contract.” They claimed that this would prove to be the salvation of the colonies. Freedom of contract was the one thing needful. That established, prosperity they told us was assured. They have secured it, and what are the glorious results?
For over two years now Capitalism has had things pretty well its own way in most of the colonies, and the result is seen in thousands of good workmen wandering hungry, sad, and weary over a sparsely-populated country, whose richly-endowed land smiles at him as he passes, but which he has long been fooled into the belief is not his. Capitalism owns thousands of tenements in which to-day hundreds of thousands of starving, innocent children cry for bread to the wan-faced, hollow-eyed, despairing mother who gave them birth.
The streets of our cities teem with our unfortunate sisters, most of whom have been driven to their present position for want of bread, or through the starvation wage of the sweaters.
Capitalism has had, and still has control of all the strong powers of the State. It pulls the string, and its puppet — the Government — administers law in whatever direction is desired. Railways, police, military, educational influences — all are directed by the god of commerce, Capitalism.
The self-styled superior classes having by various methods and means more or less unworthy, struck what they believe to be a fatal blow, or rather succession of blows, to Old Trades’-unionism, have been turning their attention to each other, and have fairly revelled in gambling, with the inevitable result that when settling day came they could not meet their liabilities. The craze for getting rich out of other men’s pockets has had a good innings.
Syndicates formed to boom up fictitious values, and banks promising high rates of interest so as to draw into their coffers the hard-earned lifetime sayings of the working man who has practised the doctrine of thrift, have during the year gone into liquidation and other methods of attaining Nirvana.
Governments who would have the whole military and police force of the State at any cost concentrated upon any given spot where a handful of working-men had chosen to refuse unreasonable conditions, and who, upon the slightest pretest, gaol labour leaders, do not, except upon extreme pressure, prosecute the swindlers who conspire against their trustful fellow man by issuing bogus balance-sheets.
We have then as a result of Capitalism and Employers’ Unionism having unrestricted sway, misery, idle men and women, unused natural resources, and so much money in the banks that some of them will not take any
more on fixed deposit, even at lower rates of interest. Deficits stare our Government in the face, and most of them still decline to tax the monopolist who has mainly caused it, but as of old, further increase the burden of the workers. The latter being under present conditions dependent upon the monopolist for work and bread, is made to suffer for evils of over-speculation and other gambling propensities of the wealthy.
The third great act in the plot laid against Unionism has been carried out during the year at Broken Hill. As usual the powers of darkness were arraigned against Labor, and the latter were repulsed, although not beaten on the principle attacked — that of Unionism.
More than ever should it be clearer from these facts that something more requires to be done than confine our attention to fighting with the possibly unfortunate individual who chances to be for a short time our employer. It may be that Capitalism has its iron, ruthless grip upon him, and forces him to sin against his fellow.
We have Labor, Capital, Land. These comprise all that is required to make us a happy, prosperous people. We have by our ignorance and apathy permitted a social and political economy to be set up which keep all three idle and unused. The principal aim, then, of this union is to work for such changes as will marry the forcibly divorced factors abovenamed, and lead to the harmony and happiness which would be the fruit of such a union. We are political so far as aiming at replacing Conservative supporters of existing economic conditions by the return of men pledged to abolition of class rule and privilege and support of equitable laws and just administration.
We aim at the introduction of co-operation in all forms, based upon the idea of mateship. We want to abolish the sweater and the useless middlemen who sponge fat livings out of their fellow men.
I have deemed it necessary to thus state our aim in brief, in order that you may be the better able to judge of our progress during the past year, and understand why the Union did not do certain things many members expected it to accomplish.
Briefly, then, I may state that our membership has increased, and generally wages have been kept to old rates. In some cases an increase has been gained, due directly to the work of the Union, whilst in some few cases Unionists were displaced by non-Unionists at a reduction. In New South Wales the Government Labor Bureau was used in the interest of anti-Union employers, and thousands of men were sent on free railway passes to the country districts, and displaced local men, who had to tramp often hundreds of miles seeking work.
In the face of this, it was not wise to attempt to enforce a definite universal scale of wages, so that members were instructed to act together and make the best terms they could.
To counteract as far as possible the evil effects of the Labour Bureau, an office was opened early in the year in Sydney. Over 1,000 of the men likely to go to the country were enrolled, and we believe that much good was done by thus pledging them to unionism.
Towards the end of the year an effort was made to organise labor in some of the country districts, and a fair measure of success was met with.
During the term a good start has been made amongst women workers, and ’93 should see great advance in this direction. The Union was fortunate in securing the services of Mrs. Summerfield as organiser for this section of our organisation. Knowing that the registry offices, as at present worked, were a great evil to labor, particularly women workers, we tried the experiment of opening an office in Sydney, to be run in the interest of employers as well as employés. After three months we closed it, as we found that it was boycotted by employers, and also that employés were deterred from coming by threats of boycott from proprietors of private offices. After closing the office Mrs. Summerfield went through the private offices in Sydney and Melbourne as a person seeking work, and has thus, from personal observation, prepared herself for an exposure of the evils of our present system, or rather want of system. The result of her observations will be published shortly, and legislative action called for to at least minimise the bad effects of such places, or possibly to abolish them altogether.
Under the head of Co-operation, we have made a start. In Sydney we have established a laundry, the Union being the owner and employer, but all profits to be divided amongst the employés.
Mrs. Summerfeld visited Bourke and enrolled a number of women workers, including the employés in a local laundry. Next day, on their employer becoming aware of the fact, they were discharged. Bourke branch at once voted the necessary funds, and the new unionists were at once started on co-operative lines, their old employer being driven out of the field. Both laundries are working well, and doing an increasing business.
During the year the members of the Sewerage Miners’ Association came over in a body, and the Union provided the deposit money for them in tendering for contracts under Government. After four unsuccessful attempts they secured a contract in December, which they are working on mateship lines. A great deal of information has been collected as to the best methods of carrying out co-operative enterprises, and will be found useful during ’93, when we expect to enter into other branches on these lines, thus becoming our own employers.
As you are aware, the Hummer printing works, at Wagga, run and owned by the Wagga Branches of the A.S.U. and G.L.U., have been very successful, and shows a good profit for its first year.
The most important step taken by the Union in this new direction was a proposal made by us to Sir Geo. Dibbs, Premier of New South Wales, to the effect that if he would give us a grant of land of suitable area and character we would organise a settlement upon it on co-operative communal lines. The proposal was well received, and although the present law is against it the agitation has had the effect of causing the Hon. the Minister of Lands to promise to make provision for meeting our requirements under the new Act. In connection with this, we have also raised the cry of “The Land for the People” as a political watchword, feeling convinced that in this we have the support of all except the greedy monopolist. Daily it becomes clearer that the land question is the base of the labor question, and that unity in political action is essential to success.
Your Union, in conjunction with the A.S.U., has taken an active part in rallying the workers on the lines of New Unionism, feeling that just as the old flintlock, and even the muzzle-loader, has given place to the magazine rifle, with its smokeless powder, so must the one-time powerful and effective strike give place to political reform. The old cry of “Defence, Not Defiance,” must give place to Self-Help, Mutual Help, and active organised attack, not upon employers because they are employers, but upon the system that makes the many dependent on the few for the right to exist.
Becoming aggressive, we must attack and crush out all injustice. By the exercise of political power in our hands we can remodel our laws until Law and Order shall deserve respect, be voluntarily obeyed, and cease to be terms conveying to our minds the idea of tyranny and injustice. By the machine-gun of united organised effort we can burst the door of special privilege and secure equality of right and opportunity for all. Courage, patience, and strong sustained effort will reach the goal.
Whilst not neglecting political education and action, we must in the meantime prove ourselves able to lead in the work of social reform. We must start in the straight path that will lead to salvation. We must begin with ourselves if we expect others to follow. By practising at every opportunity, unity of effort in politics, unity in industrial co-operation, mateship in all things, we will pave the way for the spread of brotherhood and the annihilation of the present competitive, selfish social warfare.
Yours in unity,
W. G. SPENCE, Gen. Sec.
The Shearers’ and General Laborers’ Record (Newport, Vic.), 15 March 1893, p. 2 (columns 3-5)
A.S.U. = Amalgamated Shearers’ Union of Australasia
employés = an archaic form of “employees”
flintlock = a firearm that uses a flint striking ignition mechanism, such as a flintlock rifle or a flintlock pistol
Dibbs = Sir George Dibbs (1834-1904), a politician who was Premier of New South Wales three times (1885, 1889, 1891-1894)
Gen. Sec. = an abbreviation of “General Secretary” (the person in charge of an organisation, such as a trade union or a political party)
Geo. = an abbreviation of the name “George”
G.L.U. = General Laborers’ Union of Australasia
Hon. = an abbreviation of “honourable”, especially used as a style to refer to government ministers, or as a courtesy to members of parliament (as a style, it is commonly capitalised, e.g. “the Hon. Member”)
Nirvana = an ideal place, state, or set of conditions; a condition or state of complete bliss, happiness, and peace; heaven; derived from the Buddhist concept of Nirvana: a personal state of consciousness, of having extinguished feelings of both suffering and desire, and having escaped from the tangled web of normal human emotions and existence
s. = a reference to a shilling, or shillings; the “s” was an abbreviation of “solidi”, e.g. as used in “L.S.D.” or “£sd” (pounds, shillings, and pence), which refers to coins used by the Romans, as per the Latin words “librae” (or “libra”), “solidi” (singular “solidus”), and “denarii” (singular “denarius”)
wan = having a sickly or pale appearance; a poorly appearance suggestive of unhappiness or grief; a lack of energy or feeling (e.g. a smile or laugh, displaying little effort, energy, or enthusiasm); lacking good health or vitality (may also refer to something which is dim or faint, e.g. light, stars, sun)
[Editor: Changed “Nirvena” to “Nirvana”; “expeat to” to “expect to”.]