AUSTRALIAN HISTORY - Trade War - Class War

extract from:

Builders Labourers & their Unions, 1787 to the Future,
 by Humphrey McQueen,
Ginninderra Press, Port Adelaide, 2011, pp. 101-7.
 Chapter ten

                         TRADE WAR – CLASS WAR


 The last shilling

Although the 1913 award was to run for five years, the Federation challenged its pay rate late in 1915. The cost of living had gone up twice as fast as the basic wage. Labourers now needed eighteen pence per hour to enjoy ‘frugal comfort’. To get that rise, the ABLF played the field.

The Victorian branch first approached the local MBA to pay two pence extra. The Masters agreed - but on conditions, which they wanted kept secret. The ABLF then met the Minister for Home Affairs to ask the Federal Labor Government to pay more. The Federation had two aims in seeking support from the Commonwealth. First, the union expected that an increase from the largest employer would pressure employers outside the MBA to match any increase from the MBA. Secondly, the union wanted to make the MBA pay without having to accept its deal.

 The last man

The war had increased the demand for builders’ labourers to erect training camps and dockyards. At the same time, military service reduced the number of men available. During the first eleven months of the war, 28,000 Victorians volunteered for the Australian Imperial Force, or seven percent of the State’s male workforce. During the winter of 1915, a recruiting drive in Victoria pushed the number of volunteers up to 26,000 in just two months. The MBA worried that they would be left without the labour they needed to turn a profit.

Hence, the MBA offered to exchange a wage increase for ‘absolute preference’ in the supply of labourers to Association members: ‘The Master Builder is willing to give us twelve shillings a day. I am positive of it, providing we allow him to have preference’. The MBA’s trade-off was typical of the conspiracies that trade associations exist to arrange.

Organiser Loughnan spelt out what was at stake. The MBA wanted the union to deny labour to 

 a body of men engaged in the industry – literally speaking they are privateers, jerry builders, land speculators. They have had our strength in the past. The sub-contractors for them have always paid the increased rate of wages to us. When there has been a strike, these men have been the first to pay the demands. Their strength really was our strength.

Loughnan revealed how the Victorians had been playing the smaller employers off against the larger contractors:

Well, we have kept them apart. There is a gulf and it will get bigger if this is brought in. If we grant preference to Master Builders, we organise the Masters. We do not expect to get anything from them for nothing. The preference they are willing to give us as unionists we do not want. We can demand that by the strength of our unions. Of course, it would mean a bigger bank balance, but if the Master Builders get this preference, it would mean the industry would belong to the building trades worker and employer.

The ABLF had two reasons for holding back. One, it owed a debt to the smaller builders, some of whom were tradesmen and a few were labourers who moved in and out of the union. Above all, the officials did not want to lose an ally against their main enemy.

The Federation knew that the labour shortage could not last. To line up with the MBA risked giving the best organised employers greater power over the labourers for years to come. The MBA was still opposing the 1913 Award through the courts. Hence, the labourers looked to the Labor government to rescue them by granting the wage increase. That concession would pressure the MBA to offer the 1s 6d in order to attract labourers. The Commonwealth agreed to 1s 5½d an hour.

Two months later, the ABLF applied for a compulsory conference with the employers. The Federation pointed to the ‘considerable danger of a stoppage of work owning to the increase of the cost of living since the award’. Higgins called the parties together for 17 December, but they failed to agree.

 The angel Mulvogue

The ABLF threatened to shut the industry down in the new year, with the Builders’ Labourers’ News spelling out why the Master Builders hated the Federation:

we have shown the employers that our organisation is capable of improving our conditions, which the individual cannot do. The builders’ labourers, on every occasion that we have crossed swords with our employers during the last six years, have always come out on top. The Master Builders’ committee recognised that our organisation is the dominant factor in the building industry at the present time. That it is possible for us to stop the whole of the building trade of Melbourne at a moment’s notice.

When Higgins warned the Federation that it had violated clause 8 of the Act, Victorian secretary Mulvogue claimed that he had never heard of that provision. He stretched the truth even further by telling the court ‘that he and the other officers had done their best to calm the men. But they were disappointed at the action of the employers, and would not listen to the officers’. In fact, Mulvogue had fueled their anger, telling his members that the warmongers had abused strikers as dis-loyalists who would be damned throughout eternity: ‘But if we submit and see our children starve, we are sure of salvation’. Faced with that choice, Mulvogue knew ‘one who is not going to get supplied with wings’.

Higgins gave an increase of a penny an hour on Commonwealth jobs, and promised to hear the case in February. In response, the ABLF withdrew its threat to stop all jobs from 1 January 1916.

‘Much suffering’

Higgins reminded his critics that, although the cost-of-living figures appear ‘dry and uninteresting’, they ‘imply much suffering, and perhaps permanent injury, to many families in a humble condition’. The employers replied that the war had hurt their incomes too. Higgins could not see how their losses were

grounds for whittling down the wage necessary for the frugal subsistence of families – an Award which makes no allowance for alcohol or luxuries. These men are supposed to get as a minimum a living family wage and no more. That wage must be kept.

A High Court judge assisting Higgins, Powers J, took a harder line, telling workers to buy cheaper foods since he could not grant them higher wages. ABLF officers replied that fish and rabbits had become as expensive as the more costly items. The price of rabbits – ‘an article of food largely used by workers’ - had shot up from sixpence to two shillings a pair.

The Victorians held a mass meeting at the Trades Hall on 16 April 1916 ‘to consider what steps we are to take to improve our conditions’. Mulvogue wanted to break from arbitration to get the extra money: ‘If you want to figure out a living wage, you should go to the employer’s home, and see what he is getting. He is getting plenty’.

On 18 May, Higgins awarded an increase to one shillings and sixpence to take effect from 2 June 1916. Making an award never ended a dispute. The union had to fight on the jobs to have the money paid. At the Albion Woolen Mills, only the threat of a stoppage won the new rate. On one big job, the men were out for a week to get what the law had given them. In Tasmania, the Federation struggled for nearly four months, as is shown in the next chapter.


From late 1915, the ABLF had linked its opposition to conscription to rank-and-file anger at Labor’s failure to control prices by amending the constitution. A column headed ‘The dead referendum’ ended ‘WILL THEY FORGET?’ From then on, the BL News set out to save the ship of the Labor government by throwing the captain overboard. The movement had split over economic issues before overseas conscription became front and center. 

At the NSW Labor conference during Easter 1916, ABLF federal president Millard led the attack against premier Holman and prime minister Hughes. Their administrations had sacked casual workers on the eve of holidays. Millard knew that his members were always ‘a week from starvation or charity’.

After the Federal Labor caucus opposed a plan by Labor prime minister Hughes to introduce conscription for service overseas, he called a plebiscite for 28 October 1916.

Mulvogue warned his members in that military conscription opened the door to industrial conscription. Workers stood to lose every reform while capitalists abolished unionism with a single blow. The Labor government had let contracts for military works that did not meet union conditions. For instance, labourers on the sewerage works at the Broadmeadows army camp had not received wet pay. Federal secretary Percy Smith warned that any nationalisation of industry for military purposes could be used against strikers. Hughes planned to raise a Naval Coaling Battalion to defeat the Coal Lumpers and the Wharfies.

 Workers’ army

Mulvogue opened the pages of the News to Melbourne’s radicals. Jean Daley pointed to the menace of women in war work undercutting wages. She called for six union organisers to recruit the women being brought into industry to replace men in the army.

The BL News published a ‘Recruiting Appeal for Class War’ from the Militant Propagandists of the Labor Party. They were a ‘loose fraternity of members of organisations affiliated with either the Trades Hall Council, the Political Labor Council or the eight-hours committee’. According to their secretary, the Propagandists aimed ‘to organise into one fighting force every rebel hungering for social justice’. They hoped not to be ‘divided by disagreement upon abstract matters of remote concern’. At Broken Hill, the president of the Builders’ Labourers, Mick Smedley, went a step further when he helped to set up a Labor Home Defence Army in July 1916 to wage the class struggle.

            Federal secretary Smith reflected on how the European war had affected ‘The Class War’. Since ‘there is no quarrel capable of provoking war amongst the organised workers’, all the blame for the slaughter rested with the capitalists. Smith saw that the old internationalism of the socialists had been ‘artificial’. The workers of the world needed a new kind of solidarity.

Tasmanian organiser Samuel Champ trumpeted a Wobbly tune when he told a rally in the Hobart Domain that their liberties had not been won

by mining magnates or stock-exchange jobbers, but by genuine men of the working-class movement who had died on the gallows and rotted in dungeons and were buried in nameless graves. These were the men to whom we owed the liberties we enjoyed today. Eight hours and other privileges in Australia had been won by men who suffered gaol and persecution.

At the Inter-State Trade Union Congress in May 1916, Champ seconded a resolution to confiscate rents, interest and profits over £300. Mulvogue argued that countries not pay their war debts as a path to international socialism. The capitalists were prepared to sacrifice the last working man but were not ready to give up their own first shilling.

Neither rhetoric nor rising prices convinced labourers to down tools on 4 October 1916 in a strike against conscription. The poor turn-out suggests that the militant calls in the BL News were in advance of the membership. In Victoria, the ‘NO’ case lost by 25,700 votes out of 682,000. However, the vote went narrowly against conscription in the electorates where most labourers lived.

Mulvogue reacted to the failure of the stop-work by stressing the helplessness of capitalists and rentiers – if only workers would strike. The reluctance of his members to do so on a political issue might have been the result of poor organisation around the sites. Or had the squeeze on incomes made them reluctant to sacrifice even a few shillings? Some might have feared being blacklisted as traitors.

A Hobart BL felt none of those concerns when he chased one Master Builder, Alderman Dunn, down Argyle Street.[1] The labourer kept shouting that Dunn ‘ought to be at the front, and get shot’, along with his sons. Bourgeois women handed out white feathers to shame men into volunteering. Here is an instance of a worker getting stuck into bourgeois men who were eligible to enlist but whose excuse was ‘Would-to-god I were not so rich’.

 Panel four

The good News

 The Victorians published a fortnightly Builders Labourers News from 24 December1915, edited by branch secretary, Ben Mulvogue. The paper informed members about their union and its activities across the country, educating them on class war and socialism.

Mulvogue encouraged his members to contribute items but told them to ‘write in ink’, because ‘pencil copy invariably finds its way to the WPB (waste paper bin)’. His reluctance to deal with ‘a thumb-nail dipped in tar’ is understandable. Nonetheless, in the days before biros, his ruling stopped many a labourer from sending in his thoughts.  

The paid advertisements give insights into the lives of labourers and their families. In the first issue, three businesses each took one-third of a page: Abbotsford Ale, Maples Furniture and a clothing supplier. Five others took small blocks: two hotels, a hardware shop, another clothier and a cycle maker. A third hotel and a leather merchant each ran tiny notices. Food was the only necessity not included. That gap suggests that labourers’ families bought unbranded items from corner-shops and door-to-door traders, or grew their own. 

            Under the War Precautions Act, the News had to register. In the run-up to the conscription vote in 1916, the October issue was an ‘Anti-Slavery Number’. All eight pages argued the ‘NO’ case. Mulvogue warned that once men of fighting age had been sent off as cannon fodder, the capitalists would flood Australia with cheap Asiatic labour. The censor banned the edition, which was its last.


[1] Humphrey McQueen, ‘As Tasmanian as apple pie: the 1916 lockout of builders’ labourers’, Tasmanian Historical Studies, 15, 2010, pp. 71-99.


See also BLF

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