A Sea Change For Sailors
On November 11th, 1911, a frivolous little piece appeared on page ten of The West Australian.
Chief Steward and Baker at Loggerheads.
There was a considerable attendance of the public at the Fremantle Police Court yesterday to listen to the evidence in a case in which Frank W. Johnson, chief steward of the s.s. Koombana, was charged with having used abusive and insulting language towards Edwin Albrecht. . . .
Albrecht was a 28-year-old Berliner who had completed one Nor’-West voyage as Koombana’s baker. He alleged that between Shark Bay and Geraldton on the previous Monday, the chief steward had come into the bakehouse and had, without provocation, broken a loaf of bread on him, abused him verbally, and torn his shirt.
When Albrecht was cross-examined by Johnson’s solicitor Frank Unmack, he said he was not aware that there had been numerous complaints about his bread. He was, he insisted, a competent baker and a member of the Bakers’ Union. To the amusement of the gallery, Unmack then produced two loaves of bread which Albrecht acknowledged as examples of his work. Unmack declared: “Fine stuff, aren’t they? If the chief steward broke one of your loaves on you he must have had some trouble in doing it.” Laughter continued in ripples through the gallery as Unmack led Albrecht toward a begrudging admission that if his bread was soft and light, so too was his case. If, on the other hand, the loaf had caused pain or injury as it broke, there might well be complaints about his bread.
After corroborative evidence from other crew members, Frank Johnson took the stand. He admitted that, having been irritated by repeated complaints about the bread, he had called Albrecht a “German cow,” p114but he denied using other, more virulent expressions. Unsurprisingly, Fremantle’s Resident Magistrate Edward Dowley decided that the court’s time was being wasted. He dismissed the complaint without kind words to either party.
The matter should have ended there, but it did not. Albrecht, it appears, had friends in low places. The following day, after a meeting with their counterparts from the stokeholds of Suva, Kyarra and Kurnalpi, Koombana’s firemen called upon William Moxon, local manager for the Adelaide Steamship Company, to advise that the vessel would go nowhere while Frank Johnson remained aboard. They cited the poor quality of the food and the chief steward’s lack of respect for his fellow crew members. Moxon told the men that he would not, indeed could not, do what they asked. To remove the chief steward before any investigation would be a denial of natural justice, if not outright persecution. He asked the men to keep working while the matter was investigated. They refused, and so began the Koombana Firemen’s Strike of 1911.
At face value this squabble deserves neither a title nor a place in history. It might have been forgotten had it not coincided with, and threatened to derail, a critical industrial negotiation taking place on the other side of the country.
Relations between steamship owners and seamen had never been harmonious. Theirs was a history of fundamental disagreement and disputation, punctuated by interim agreements and brief respite. By 1910, the lines were very sharply drawn: the Commonwealth Steamship Owners’ Association represented all of the larger companies and their ships, while the Federated Seamen’s Union of Australia represented about 98 per cent of the seamen and firemen working on those ships. Battle lines notwithstanding, the political pendulum had swung in favour of the seamen. A government with clear sympathy for the worker now enjoyed a majority in both houses of the young Federal Parliament, and the Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration had by its recent rulings shown a keen interest in social justice. The time was right for the new industrial machinery to be tested. In the first week of December 1910, the Seamen’s Union reported that it had failed to reach agreement with the shipping companies, and that because the current agreement would expire at year end, the ships from January 1st would no longer be manned.
The union expected a response from the Arbitration Court and did not wait long to receive one. Court president Henry Higgins ordered a compulsory conference of the parties and scheduled it for New Year’s Eve. There would be no adjournments.
Certainly much work was done in the interim, but by any measure the eleventh-hour conference was a success. A draft agreement was tabled, the strike was called off before it began, and the parties agreed to submit p115to arbitration. Higgins must take some credit for this, but it was not his eloquence that kept the union at the table. It was his reputation as a reformer that persuaded the seamen to submit to his further influence.
* * *
Henry Bourne Higgins had been appointed president of the Arbitration Court in November 1907. Within a few weeks of his elevation, he had reserved a place in Australian history with a landmark judgment. In 1906, the Australian Labor Party had sought to introduce measures which would protect the interests of low-paid workers. But there was a problem: under the Australian Constitution, it was beyond the discretion of parliament to legislate on such matters. Undaunted, the legislature sidestepped the Constitution and introduced a strange, potentially troublesome piece of legislation. The Excise Tariff (Agricultural Machinery) Act 1906, which passed with the remarkable support of the Protectionist Party, created a new excise on locally made machinery which would be waived if the manufacturer paid wages considered “fair and reasonable.”
As expected, more than a hundred local manufacturers applied for the waiver on the grounds that the wages they paid were already fair and reasonable. And as expected, the applications made by larger companies were opposed by the unions. One of the largest was Hugh McKay’s Sunshine Harvester Company; its application became the test case.
The new law and the court case placed McKay in an invidious position. His company had no alternative but to apply for the waiver, because its liability for the new excise would exceed £20,000. Similarly, the court and its president were imposed upon, because at its heart the case was not about Sunshine Harvester or any company; it was about whether the wages paid in the industry as a whole were fair and reasonable. From Henry Higgins’s displeasure came a new direction. At the outset he declared that there would be no assessment of Sunshine’s profitability or of any employer’s ability to pay. Rather, he would establish a minimum wage based on “the normal needs of an average employee regarded as a human being living in a civilised community.”
The choice of words was new, but the principle was not. Higgins drew heavily from Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum, which in 1891 had defined the position of the Catholic Church on the rights and duties of capital and labour. Although Rerum Novarum defended the institutions of private property and inheritance, and did not reject the wage system, it insisted upon the worker’s right to fair reward. “There is,” it had declared famously, “a dictate of natural justice more imperious and ancient than any bargain between man and man, that remuneration should be sufficient to maintain the wage-earner in reasonable and frugal comfort.”
In Melbourne, Higgins turned to the practical challenge of defining a wage sufficient to keep an Australian family in “reasonable and frugal p116comfort.” Evidence was taken from wives as well as workers to roll a swag of necessities, contingencies and little luxuries. Clothes, boots, heat and light, furniture, life insurance, union dues, sickness, books, newspapers, alcohol, tobacco, transport: all were counted, as the basic needs of an Australian working family received scholarly consideration.
Sixteen years after Rerum Novarum, the first legal minimum wage was declared. Higgins ruled that an adult male Australian worker should receive no less than seven shillings per day, regardless of the employer’s circumstances. The sum of £2 2s., for a six-day working week, was deemed adequate to support a wife and three children. This was possibly the first such decision anywhere in the world. Although later overturned upon appeal, the Harvester Judgment remained tangible and influential, and the basic wage marked Higgins as a champion of the common man.
* * *
In October 1911, almost a year after the New Year’s Eve conference, the case of Federated Seamen’s Union of Australia v. Commonwealth Steamship Owners’ Association came to court. As hearings proceeded, the unionists became more comfortable with the process and authority to which they had submitted. In Justice Higgins they had found a sympathetic arbiter. By early November, as judgment approached, they were confident of success, but this Koombana trouble was reflecting badly upon the union and proving difficult to resolve.
When Koombana’s stokers declared that they would not work while Chief Steward Johnson remained aboard, the company quickly found men who would. On November 16th a new crew arrived from South Australia aboard the little steamer Karoola, but from that point forward, things did not proceed to plan. The new recruits had signed agreements in Adelaide, but upon arrival in Fremantle they declined to board Koombana until they had heard the views of the striking men. At a meeting attended by both old and new hands, most of the newcomers decided not to serve.
The show of solidarity may have buoyed union spirit in Fremantle, but had precisely the opposite effect in Melbourne, where the union executive was actively involved in the court proceedings and knew how much was at stake. In particular, the extension of the Fremantle strike raised the ire of Robert Guthrie, who was well placed both to form an opinion and to see that opinion prevail. Glasgow-born Guthrie was near the end of a long career as seaman, unionist, member of the Legislative Council in South Australia and now federal Labor senator. He was also general secretary of the Seamen’s Union. The executive had turned a blind eye to the shipping company’s attempt to recruit strike-breakers, but now had no alternative but to declare its hand. On November 21st, Guthrie delivered a blunt message to the Fremantle branch of the union and released the text of the message to the press:
p117The Adelaide Council has decided that the Koombana should be remanned, leaving the dispute regarding the Chief Steward for investigation.
The members’ action is detrimental to the best interests of unionism.
A special meeting of the men cannot reverse the decision of the Executive.
The Fremantle meetings were informal, and the men who signed the agreement in Adelaide and afterwards broke it are liable to suspension and expulsion from the Union.
Condemnation of the strike was now almost universal. Even Walter Barker, the partisan editor of The Hedland Advocate, joined the chorus of criticism.
This unfortunate strike has resulted in supplies being short from Onslow to Wyndham, and that phase of the question alone is not likely to rebound to the credit of the men. Apart from the pros and cons of the men’s grievances over the food supplied them, it must be apparent to all well-wishers of the Labor party that the task of Labor ministers and others will not benefit by tactics of the kind the Koombana men have been guilty of: the Labor members of parliament for W.A. (Federal and State) asked these men to go back to work and allow their grievances to be investigated, but they refused to do so p118unless the chief steward was removed. No class of employer (even with the strongest sympathies for Labor) will submit to the principle involved in the attitude adopted by these men, and we are pleased to see that the union executive in the Eastern States has repudiated the action of the Koombana men.
It is remarkable that the striking men, thus arraigned before the court of public opinion, did not capitulate.
Friday, November 24th was a day on which newspaper men east and west would have plenty to write about. In Fremantle, the offices of the Adelaide Steamship Company were busier than ever. Some strikers had finally dropped their objection and had agreed to serve, and new strike-breakers were being groomed. Thus far it made no difference; the company still could not muster a full crew. There were also meetings with Frank Johnson. Although the company had asserted publicly that it would not transfer him, it is almost certain that the advantages of a voluntary departure were impressed upon him. Late in the afternoon, it all became too much for the chief steward. He collapsed from stress and was driven away to a private hospital.
In Melbourne, it was judgment day in the Court of Conciliation and Arbitration. When Justice Higgins spoke, the confidence of the union executive was fully vindicated. To the consternation of the shipping companies, the union received almost everything it had asked for. It had won the right to an eight-hour working day at sea, and all of its proposed rates of pay had been accepted. The new monthly wages would be:
Ordinary Seaman, £6
Able Seaman, £8
Boatswain, or A.B. employed as lamp trimmer, £9
One small variation resulted from Higgins’s decision to introduce what might be called a youth wage. He ruled that an ordinary seaman under eighteen years of age should receive £5 per month.
There were other changes long sought. For a few years seamen had been paid monthly, but only by grace and not by any formal obligation placed upon the shipowner. They would now receive payment on the first of each month, as of right. So ended the age-old regime under which a sailor’s wages did not accrue until the end of his term, even if that term was for two or three years. Also welcomed was the ruling that any seaman could apply to have up to 75 per cent of his wages paid directly to dependent family.
p119In his judgment, Higgins wrote:
There is no doubt that in the matter of wages, as well as in the other matters, the seaman has had the fag-end of things. Owing, I presume, to the difficulty of meeting, of combining, of acting in concert, scattered as they are across the face of the globe, in a roving life and with scanty leisure, seamen have never been able properly to assert their collective interests.
It seems likely that two commencement dates had been pencilled in for the introduction of the award. The new wage rates would apply from January 1st, 1912, with the introduction of the eight-hour working day set back to July 1st to give shipowners six months to complete a radical redesign of their shipboard rosters. For both the court and the union, the Koombana dispute was a festering sore. Higgins knew that criticism of his judgment would be sharper and more difficult to deflect if the strike were to continue—if the striking firemen, having lost public sympathy, continued to flout the instructions of their leadership. If, on the other hand, the union leadership were to end the Koombana trouble and end it quickly, criticism of the award would be blunted and the reputations of both the union and the court would be enhanced. Higgins told the press:
The detention of the ship is serious, especially as the owners are under contract to carry mails. . . . I shall have this case put down for Thursday and if the trouble be not over by that time I must consider what I should do. I had hoped to make the increased wages in the Seamen’s Union award apply to December work . . .
By touting “December”, Higgins created a powerful incentive for the union to act decisively. The new deal so surpassed the old that early commencement would be a windfall for its members. But just as Higgins raised the possibility, he also raised the stakes.
I am inclined to think that, even after an award has been made, the Court has power to strike out wholly or in part the relief granted to a union if it appears that the men of the union, although taking the benefit of the award, are not prepared to take up the burden also.
Higgins’s public pronouncements were philosophical, almost circumspect, but his challenge to the union executive was simple and direct: the award would not be declared until the union could inform the court that Koombana had resumed regular service with a full crew. Thus, with both the prize and the measure of success now defined, and with December a few days away, the Seamen’s Union was left to prove itself worthy of the new paradigm.
For a union to intervene to break a strike by its own members was almost unheard of, but none who had followed the award proceedings p120doubted that this intervention would be for the greater good. Guthrie wasted no time. He cabled the Adelaide Steamship Company’s manager William Moxon to request that no further attempt be made to recruit or persuade. A full replacement crew would be delivered to Koombana in the shortest possible time, at union expense.
That afternoon, sixteen firemen left Melbourne. By express train they were whistled across Victoria to Port Adelaide to catch the steamer Riverina for Fremantle. Travelling with the men were two union officers, doubtless to ensure that upon this arrival in Fremantle there would be no hiccup, no hesitation, and no unsupervised breathing of the local air.
On the last day of November 1911, Koombana departed for the Nor’-West with passengers and mail scrambled, her chief steward somewhat chastened, and a full, fresh complement of firemen.
The deal was done.