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Silicosis, mechanisation and the demise of Sydney's rockchoppers' union, 1908-18.

In an article in 1988, this author brought to light the early twentieth-century struggles of Sydney's rockchoppers and sewer miners against terrifying occupational health hazards and risks. (1) These dangers overwhelmingly came from clouds of very fine silica dust created as these workers drilled, blasted and chopped through Sydney's sandstone. Most of this work was on sewer tunnels and water and sewer trenches, crucially important parts of rapidly expanding public works schemes that have contributed so much to improving Sydney's public health. The effects of certain explosives, poor ventilation and working in wet conditions added new hazards and compounded the risk from dust.

The dust lodged in these workers' lungs causing silicosis, an untreatable disease that manifests as a process of fibrotic scarring of the lungs. Scarring progressively reduces respiratory function so that shortness of breath gives way to asphyxiating, painful disability and, finally, death. At the same time, silicosis reduces the victim's defences against diseases like tuberculosis and pneumonia. On Sydney rock-cutting jobs, silicosis rapidly killed these men in large numbers. Three findings from recent medico-scientific research help explain how this occurred.

First, silicosis presents in three ways: chronic, accelerated and acute. Given what we know of their lives and work histories, these workers appear to have succumbed to the accelerated and, in particular, acute forms. Both manifest early after exposure but with different pathologies. Accelerated silicosis may occur within two years of initial exposure while 'acute silicosis develops rapidly after intense exposure generally to fine particles of freshly fractured crystalline silica' (2), the very work experience that killed Sydney's rockchoppers and sewer miners a century ago.

Second, recent research suggests that young silicotics are, indeed, more likely to die quickly from the disease. This confirms the mass of available medical evidence in Sydney at the start of the twentieth century as well as anecdotal evidence from all sides as to the inexplicably high number of otherwise vigorously fit, strong young men who succumbed quickly to this respiratory epidemic. Third, other factors that increase mortality rates include the extent of the disease present--itself dependent on exposure to silica dust--and occurrence of tuberculosis. These once again confirm expert understandings of the problem a century ago. (3) The speed and likelihood of disability and early death for these Sydney workers was thus far more dramatic than for those tragic victims of silicosis or coal miners' black lung elsewhere. (4)

A few Australian medical scientists and practitioners were world leaders in this field during those years and a series of government reports--including an important 1902 report of a New South Wales (NSW) inquiry--played pioneering roles in public policy development. Nevertheless, knowledge of silicosis and its contraction proved slow to permeate the ranks of many doctors, government officials and employers. Instead, many continued to ascribe occupational silicosis deaths to other causes including the then common tuberculosis and pneumonia. Other diseases did kill off many young rock workers already mortally stricken by silicosis but misdiagnosis distracted many from the real sources of danger. (5)

Occupational hygienists have since developed a six-level hierarchy of protective controls to confront such hazards. (6) The least ambitious and effective involves use of personal protective equipment such as masks. Above that sit administrative controls. These might include measures contained in legislation and government regulations, employer policies, union rules, arbitration awards and collective agreements. Then come, successively, 'engineering out' the problem through ventilation or, preferably, isolation. The second highest (and second best) level is substitution of a hazardous production process or product with a safer one. The highest is complete elimination or avoidance of that production process.

From the late nineteenth century, NSW governments came to realise that only ambitious public works programs of sanitary engineering could overcome the ever more dramatic public health crises facing Sydney. These works inevitably involved tunnelling and trenching through Sydney's sandstone bedrock. Elimination or avoidance of this activity was therefore not possible if this growing metropolis was to receive the adequate supplies of safe drinking water and the sewage removal system it needed. There would have to be substantial rock-cutting in sandstone, through tunnel and trench. Yet, by the 1890s, it was clear that Sydney's public health salvation threatened to come at the cost of the occupational health and, indeed, the lives of those doing that work. The ethical and policy question then became: under what conditions would those workers have to work?

Reports from government inquiries and public agitation by the labour movement, concerned doctors and parliamentarians called on employers to take greater responsibility for protecting the occupational health and safety (OHS) of these workers. Engineering-out the hazard through isolating the dust from the workers did not appear feasible at that time. The government's 1902 Report advocated mechanisation as a safer, substitute process for hand-cutting and, in the meantime, urged both provision of improved ventilation and administrative controls such as wider spacing between workers in trenches, shorter hours and higher pay for doing the more dangerous work. In 1907, a more modest government inquiry reiterated these calls. Later employee evidence under cross-examination was that masks and respirators were useless or worse. (7)

As it turned out, employers would only offer employees those working conditions that brought them the least financial cost. In evidence to the 1901/02 inquiry, one of Sydney's largest contractors, W.H. Gilliver, explained why he had rejected the idea of installing water jets to ventilate dusty shafts: 'A contractor does not take a job to slaughter men; but at the same time he has to make a living like other people'. (8) Whether public or private sector, employers mostly refused to provide protective controls except when forced to do so. When forced to make concessions, their main response was to pay higher wages--effectively death money. At this time, employer negligence and resulting silicosis epidemics also met workers facing similar dangers in Australia and abroad. As Marcus James points out, although there was wide recognition of these dangers in Australia, by 'the eve of ... World War I ... in no case had there been agreement on adequate preventive measures'. (9) What distinguished Sydney's rock workers were the higher mortality rates they faced and their successes in forcing change on their employers.

Aware that no-one else was willing or able to protect their lives, they successfully adopted active industrial relations strategies, both individual and collective. These workers built a tradition of union cohesion and workplace militancy through which they improved the terms and conditions of their employment--largely administrative controls but also elimination of certain hazards--and sought OHS-focused external controls. Their collective strategies, apart from episodic deputations and lobbying, initially focused on job control tactics that paid no heed to the employer. They also used unilateral regulation through which they forced employers to comply with union rules and, finally, in the early years of the new century, they engaged in collective bargaining.

My earlier article focused on these workers' successful attempts to reduce their exposure to sandstone dust. The rockchoppers' strike of late 1908 was the highpoint of a series of struggles they carried out that year through their small, compact and combative Rockchoppers and Sewer Miners' Union of NSW (RSMU). In that strike, they succeeded where much larger and more prominent unions of Hunter Valley coalminers and Broken Hill metal miners failed in their disputes at that time: in besting their employers and the anti-union NSW government of G.C. Wade and the very repressive aspects of his Industrial Disputes Act, 1908. Dying young and in large numbers, they had nothing to lose.

This article continues that narrative and also explains the RSMU's demise in 1917, a story I very briefly sketched in an intervening article. (10) In contrast to those earlier articles, for this study, the focus is on employer strategy and behaviour and, in particular, the choice to introduce mechanical rock-cutting as an anti-RSMU initiative. It explains the prime motivations for this choice, its timing and implementation as well as how employer anti-union initiative dovetailed with other employer strategic priorities. As well, the article weighs up contemporary employer claims of altruistic initiative; that mechanisation indicated that employers had made protection of these workers from silicosis their main priority. Thus alongside its contribution to examination of employer anti-union strategy and behaviour, this article also contributes to the growing literature on OHS within labour historiography and, in particular, research on dust diseases and attempts to prevent them. (11)

Employer initiative to mechanise rock cutting occurred within a complex and dynamic context whose main patterns continued from the previous decade. (12) First, there were the public health imperatives for large-scale public works construction. Then, there were controversies over using public sector employment (day labour) or private contractors for construction. In focusing on employer anti-unionism, we also need to keep a close eye on the union under attack, the RSMU, both to help explain employer choices and their effects.

This also requires an understanding of the implications--for employers as well as for these workers and the RSMU--of intense competition among labourers' unions. Although apparent since 1902, the increasingly inflamed ideological and political differences within the labour movement from 1908 further complicated and exacerbated this competition. In part, this was also reflected in different union responses to Wade's 1908 Act.

Sections of the labour movement remained unconvinced by its new 'labourist' experiment with parliamentarism--through a dedicated Labor Party--and an even newer state tribunal system for compulsory arbitration of industrial disputes. The movement's militant and socialist tendencies were particularly critical. Rather than trusting in state intervention, they preferred re-organisation of the labour force on a militant basis. For many, this was a question of industrial strategy and tactics but for others it included wider-ranging organisational matters including union structure and decision-making. The most coherent and militant of these tendencies were the revolutionary syndicalists of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) who advocated, among other initiatives, a revolutionary One Big Union (OBU) for all employees. While most of the union movement was hostile to Premier Wade's Act, it was unions influenced by these most militant tendencies, including the RSMU, that chanced their hand. Wade's attempt to militarily suppress these unions reinforced their positions. Moreover, the tribunal established under the 1908 Act had the power to reshape unionism by dint of awarding organising and representation rights to some unions at the expense of others.

When Labor won government in NSW in October 1910, it wrought a rapid change in favour of day labour but replacement of the 1908 Act with more benign legislation waited until 1912. The arbitration system's capacity to shape organisational choices--of unions and employers--increased with its longevity so that decisions of its highly interventionist Judge, C.G. Heydon, became ever more important. Heydon favoured compliant unions over militant ones. This only reinforced arguments of unionists hostile to the arbitration experiment and, by extension, labourism. By World War I, pro- and anti-labourist coalitions emerged but many unions and unionists accepted both specific criticisms of labourist policies and the logic of the experiment itself. Supporters notably included Labor parliamentarians, many leaders of craft unions as well as those in control of the Australian Workers' Union (AWU), a large union of pastoral workers. The labourist oligarchs at its head already had their sights on it becoming the OBU through amalgamation with unions of the unskilled and semiskilled. With Labor governments in the Commonwealth and NSW, these tensions over purpose and strategy continued to grow during the war, reconfiguring the movement's internal coalitions. Policy conflicts over the introduction of military conscription pushed these tensions beyond breaking point in 1916, rending much of the parliamentary leadership of the Labor Party from its union base and, in the process, imploding those Labor governments and the broader party. In the following year, widespread militant sentiment in NSW generated an unsuccessful general strike. Deregistration of the unions involved and parallel repression of the IWW forced labour's militant forces into retreat over the following few years. By then, the RSMU had vanished but the AWU was ever larger and more powerful. (13)

This article draws on a comprehensive set of original sources from a variety of different interests that, taken together, allow for highly reliable findings and conclusions. The two main public sector employers involved--the Metropolitan Board of Water Supply and Sewerage (the Water Board)--now Sydney Water--and the Public Works Department of NSW (PWD) each produced detailed annual reports for the NSW Parliament. These provided plentiful quantitative data on construction activity, accounts of each authority's formal aims, activities and views and, for the Board, reports from the engineer-in-charge that are also instructive as to the Board's employment policy and practice. (14)

Moreover, this article draws on the illuminating minutes of Water Board meetings, reports of which also appeared in the daily press. The Board often met twice weekly, dealt with problems and controversy in some detail and entertained controversy and debate from within the organisation itself. While there appear to be no surviving records of the contractors' organisation, the Public Works Contractors' Association of NSW (PWCA), the voices of individual contractors and their association emerge clearly in Board minutes, the local press, before government enquiries and hearings of wages boards under the arbitration system.

The article also draws heavily on the records of hearings of wages boards and the arbitration court. Through them, the attitudes and actions of employers, employees, unions and government officials come to life. These forums, like the hearings of various government enquiries consulted, provided evidence given under oath and open to cross-examination. Other government publications have also been useful as have the many daily and other periodical newspapers--from pro-business dailies through union newspapers to those of the socialist movement. Additional information and perspective from within the labour movement has come from examination of the minutes and reports of the Sydney Labour Council and other unions. Finally, the author has worked with relevant secondary literature--overseas and Australian.

Water and Sewerage Construction for Sydney, 1899 to 1918

Rockchoppers and sewer miners were important categories of 'skilled' construction labourers. The miners worked on shafts and tunnels (or drives) while much of the rockchoppers' work occurred in cutting trenches. Parts of a much wider labouring workforce on public works construction, they were also active, at times, in railway construction, building telephone tunnels and large building sites. Their particular unionism, however, developed in its most concerted form among those building Sydney's water supply and sewerage works.

Between 1888 and 1928, legislation demarcated responsibility for that work between two large public sector bodies. The PWD had the authority--and direct government funding via government borrowings--to build the larger construction projects: dams, storage reservoirs and major pipelines for water supply; and the major sewer mains, pipelines and outfall schemes. Upon completion, the PWD transferred those works (and debt) to the Water Board. A statutory authority composed of NSW government and local government representatives, the Board was responsible for constructing minor water supply and sewerage branch lines and, particularly, reticulation. For this work, it could use its limited access to loan funds. It also levied property rates and other charges in order to discharge its responsibilities for maintaining and administering the whole system. (15)

Sewerage work continued to dominate sanitary engineering in the metropolitan area. Successive construction of two major ocean outfall sewer schemes dominated PWD activity. Work on the Southern and Western Suburbs Ocean Outfall Sewer (SWSOOS) began in 1911 and involved cutting tunnels running more than 100 feet below the surface. The PWD, intending to push the project along quickly, hired a large workforce but, after 1914, wartime priorities delayed progress. Work on the Northern Suburbs Ocean Outfall Sewer (NSOOS) began 1917. It was a very difficult job with shafts up to 300 feet deep. (16)

As before, Water Board spending on sewer construction was higher than the PWD's. It also declined much less in response to wartime conditions. This allowed it to substantially improve Sydney's amenity through reticulation. In 1910, over 100,000 domiciles housing over half a million people were connected to the Board's sewerage systems. By 1920, these figures had risen by a half. (17)

A majority of Water Board members continued to prefer contracting but its engineers and those of the PWD strongly preferred day labour. Pro-business interests aligned themselves with the contractor side. The labour movement strongly supported day labour although more militant construction unions became increasingly disillusioned with it. With Labor in government from 1910 to 1916, PWD construction once again became the realm of day labour. Although the Water Board had much more autonomy on this issue, government pressure played a role. By 1915/16, all but three of its 161 sewerage reticulation works were under day labour. After Labor lost government, the Board reverted to contracting. (18) Yet, there was much more to the Board's enormous expansion of its day labour program than government pressure. As well, that strategic choice proved instrumental for another: the Board's mechanisation of this work. Together, they constituted the Board's longer-term strategic response to the RSMU.

The Work and its Dangers: Rockchopping and Sewer Mining in Sydney to 1918

Prior to mechanisation, rock miners and rockchoppers used a special rock pick and a 'gad', a handheld metal spike which they hit with a hammer to break up the rock. Sewer miners, in the PWD's early schemes, had to accurately cut cramped 'oviform' tunnels by hand ready for lining with brickwork. It was very demanding, skilled work learnt, like coal and hard rock mining, on the job after graduating from simpler tasks. From the 1880s, sewer miners increasingly used explosives instead of 'guttering and gadding'. This involved them placing explosive charges into holes they had previously drilled with a ratchet. Depending on the progress of the work, sewer miners might also do some rockchopping in the tunnels.

Rockchoppers cut trenches for pipelaying. They used the pick to cut a narrow 'gutter' in one side of a rock trench to prepare the way for removal of rock from the other side by blasting or 'gadding'. Whether in tunnel or trench, these workers then used a pick to 'scabble' a smooth finish. All these processes, and particularly blasting, created dangerous dust clouds while the explosives themselves created other health hazards for those re-entering too soon after blasting. Following blasting, 'spawlers' broke up fallen rock into transportable size and 'wheelers' removed rubble. (19)

Rockchoppers needed great strength and endurance but also the necessary skill and accuracy to achieve the smooth finish demanded. Like the sewer miners, they were skilled workers (if less so) and clearly recognised as such. Contemporary documents, including government reports even described them as 'artisans' although they had no real trade training in the manner of the traditional building crafts. Rather, theirs were difficult skills that combined strength, endurance, accuracy, coordination and judgement. Not just any pick-wielding labourer could become a rockchopper, and rockchoppers defended their turf. (20)

Although Sydney's silicosis epidemic came via combinations of hand-cutting and drilling and the use of explosives, Alan Derickson and David Seager respectively point out that silicosis-related mortality rates increased greatly after mechanisation of rock cutting and drilling in US metal mining and granite production from the 1880s. Machinery increased the quantity of dust and created much finer dust particles--those that most easily entered deeper into workers' lungs and were most likely to generate silicosis. (21)

Derickson also shows how emigration of occupational silicotics from the sites of their contamination in the USA and South Africa made the problem 'disappear'. Many left mining areas seeking, vainly, to recuperate or, if their symptoms were worse, to die, in the care of their families nearby, afar or even overseas. These return migrations meant the epidemic remained a multitude of private tragedies rather than a social problem requiring a social response. (22) In Sydney, diseased and dying rockchoppers and sewer miners remained far more visible, they managed to mount a cohesive public response and demanded social action. This social dimension became even more obvious once employers proved unable to staff their tunnels and trenches as potential workers refused to step into jobs of the diseased and dead.

In 1901, NSW Public Works Minister, E.W. O'Sullivan, set up a Board of Inquiry into the dangers of this work. A lifelong unionist, O'Sullivan ensured that union members gave evidence, alongside government officials, doctors and contractors. The inquiry noted some improvements, for example, in ventilation of PWD tunnels under O'Sullivan's day labour programs. Otherwise, evidence and findings of the inquiry damned employers and government inspectors alike. Its 1902 Report recommended immediate, practical steps for improvement. The major recommendation was for mechanisation of tunnelling to reduce or eliminate dust. The Report included, in its appendices, detailed accounts of different models of machinery suitable for this work (and their prices). In the meantime, it called, in the strongest terms, for substantial improvements in ventilation of shafts and drives. The 1907 report, finding few signs of progress, reiterated these calls.

As construction projects progressed from building the main tunnels to reticulation, the work itself shifted from tunnelling to trench cutting in the open air. Thus, after 1902, provision of ventilation became less pressing. Discussion turned again to mechanisation, at least a decade after the mechanisation of metal mining in Queensland. In the shorter term though, both the 1902 and 1907 Reports adopted union calls for administrative controls such as wider spacing between workers in trenches, safer use of explosives and shorter hours (and higher pay) for those doing the dustiest work. Indeed, the 1902 Report called for a six-hour working day--with no reduction in daily pay--for those mining sandstone. Many other workers had still not won the eight-hour day. The PWD, under O'Sullivan's control, quickly introduced the six hours and RSMU workers won it through job control from contractors. The Water Board initially rejected introducing the Report's recommendations but later had to concede the shorter hours. Nevertheless, the Board remained a heartless and disdainful employer of these workers despite the minority of Board members sympathetic to their plight. (23)

So well-known had these occupational dangers become by 1908 that, even with rising pay and some improvement in conditions, few wanted to replace those smitten by silicosis. The Board's President, Thomas Keele pointed out that, 'There was a difficulty in getting rockchoppers and the sewerage extensions, where rock had to be removed, were at a standstill'. Longstanding pro-labour Board member, Alderman R.D. Meagher, argued the point, stressing the high and early mortality rates facing these men: 'Under proper conditions, and with proper remuneration, there is plenty of labour available'. As the argument between them warmed, Keele insisted that the Board still continue to offer the eight-hour day. According to him, 'the men after working six hours, hung about the works, and there was a temptation to them to gamble and get into the hotels, which was worse for them than the extra hours of work'. (24) This reflected the attitudes of the Board's doctor, Dr Stokes, a practitioner notorious among Board workers for his hostility to employee interests. For Stokes, even in 1908, it was beer that was killing these workers, not sandstone dust. (25)

Labour shortages continued into 1913. In fact, in 1911 a NSW government enquiry on shortages of skilled labour found a deficit of some 400 rockchoppers (and sewer miners). This deficit was much larger than for any other category of 'artisan'. (26) What sustained these consistent shortages despite chronic under-employment and unemployment among construction labourers and coal and metal miners? Were these myriad individual decisions solely responses to calculable risks? Were only workplace militants prepared to take those risks, an apparently pure example of the employee voice/exit model? (27) All this sounds implausible. In fact, evidence suggests that the RSMU itself actively organised to sustain those shortages by, for example, rostering members in and out of work.

In 1913, in justifying a claim for greatly increased hourly wage rates (to 3 shillings (s)) per hour, the RSMU's secretary wrote to the press. He argued that much higher wages would allow members to spell themselves much more from the dangers at work: either three-hour days or six months on and then six months away. This fitted their tradition of taking off for other types of work, particularly in rural labouring. In response, an aggrieved PWCA secretary wrote of how RSMU members, in striking a job, would, after voting to close the job, leave in measured intervals, 'one by one, so as to evade the penalties against striking'. (28) In repeating this description before a royal commission that year, the PWCA admitted that this RSMU action was not for higher pay but rather improved OHS conditions. There is a sense from this exchange that the RSMU had developed a strategy of members taking spells away from dangerous jobs and also of making strikes look like turnover or absenteeism when striking was illegal. Both suggest the ability of these workers to use their union for organising apparently individualised labour market behaviour. In terms of OHS, the spelling conformed with emerging expert medical science, reinforced in the 1930s and still current today. (29)

Kosmas Tsokhas' discussion of the shearers' 1916 strike reinforces the plausibility of this scenario. Following the urgings of the revolutionary Industrial Workers of the World--whose industrial politics the RSMU somewhat shared--militant shearers shifted among jobs as a way of tightening labour supply. Putative strike-breakers were much less proficient than the strikers, a situation similar for rockchopping and sewer mining. Furthermore, like shearing contractors, Sydney's public works contractors faced financial constraints on their industrial relations choices from their commercial contracts whereas the Water Board itself did not. Therefore, in shearing and in rockchopping, militant unionism was able to motivate a mass of apparently separate choices by individual workers that, as a whole, created widespread disorganisation of each industry's production. (30)

Alongside these 'individual' responses, those workers also developed forms of informal combination on the job, putting into action pervasive norms that reflected their strong group identity. For example, when piece-work employment was prevalent, they responded to the dangers and distress after blasting by delaying re-entry and limiting their time in the drives. The time was theirs and they could use it as they liked. When working on time payment, they limited output to reduce the pace, intensity and dustiness of the work. Employers fought back with tighter controls, bonus schemes and extra pay to induce miners to take more chances. (31) The workers then added formal unionism to their strategic arsenal.

Unionism among Sydney's Rockchoppers and Sewer Miners, 1908 to 1918

The RSMU began in January 1908 when many militant rockchoppers and sewer miners left a large, longstanding union of labourers, the United Laborers' Protective Society (ULPS). It had soon organised all 500 or so of these workers on Sydney water supply and sewerage jobs. Attention shifted almost entirely to job-level action and ensuring that no workers came onto struck jobs, strategies these categories of workers had tried previously through (by then defunct) small, sectional, militant unions. In fact, RSMU members triggered the major 1908 strike by insisting that their union rules govern workplace health and safety and consequent workplace discipline. The rule in question banned the use of an explosive, rack-a-rock, the fumes from which caused sewer miners violent headaches, nausea and fainting upon re-entering the drives. In the absence of adequate ventilation--on which employers, public and private, continued to refuse to invest--its use was intolerable. Provision of adequate ventilation was an ongoing source of conflict between employers, employees and their union while government inspectors continued to display lack of interest and energy. (32)

In 1909, permanently-employed Water Board maintenance employees formed the Metropolitan Board of Water Supply and Sewerage Employees' Association (Water Board union) to take advantage of changes to the arbitration system. As a group, they identified with the Board and shunned confrontation. In early 1910, they also began enrolling the Board's casual and then construction employees. They received the Board's strong support in order to separate its entire workforce from troubling industrial currents outside. This brought the Water Board union into competition with the ULPS and RSMU. Continuing his wider jurisdictional depredations against the ULPS, Heydon handed over some of its organising territory to the Water Board union. (33)

For its part, after the 1908 strike, the RSMU continued its militant workplace practices so as to make gains and then diffuse them, particularly on contractors' jobs. (34) Hostile to Wade's 1908 Act, it initially did not register and refused involvement in tripartite wages boards established under that act. In desperation, the PWCA sought, and gained, a specialised wages board as a way of incorporating its adversary. The union at first boycotted that wages board too but, in mid-1910, ceded to pressure by sending its new president, H.J. Greville. (35)

Its initial boycott told against the RSMU in jurisdictional terms. In establishing each wages board, Heydon excluded those categories of workers already listed under existing boards or awards. During the RSMU boycott, Heydon awarded to the Water Board union all those rockchoppers and sewer miners that the Water Board itself employed. This left the RSMU with those working for contractors and the ULPS with coverage of day labour under the PWD. In 1911, in a rare decision favourable to the ULPS, Heydon had reconfirmed its coverage of all rockchoppers, sewer miners and other labourers on PWD sewerage construction jobs. As the PWD was about to start construction of the SWSOOS, this offered the promise of growing workforces and recruitment of members. (36)

With the PWD and Water Board increasingly opting for day labour on their expanding construction schedules, the RSMU suffered heavy membership losses at a time it could otherwise have grown rapidly. Up until 1911, its membership was between 500 and 600. It then hovered between 230 and 350 to the end of 1917 despite massive increases in Board sewerage reticulation. In comparison, with the PWD's shift to day labour, ULPS membership recovered from some 1,641 in 1910 to more than 8,000 in 1913 and thereafter. Rockchoppers and sewer mines accounted for only a small proportion of these gains that also brought in all the other labourers on those jobs. (37)

The RSMU had lost exclusive control over sewer construction, particularly for Water Board activity. This was to become a serious concern for a union basing its OHS strategies on workplace control and it raised new difficulties for communication and cohesion across jobs and into the wider labour market. It also created organisational and financing difficulties for this small union. Members held multiple union tickets as they shifted between jobs, employers and union boundaries. More importantly, it radically altered the strategic options facing the dominant employer in the industry, the Water Board.

In the face of RSMU militancy, the Water Board incrementally took over many contractors' jobs. Although the job, employees and work remained the same, formal employment, union representation and bargaining all shifted. As expected, the Board's engineers had the cooperation of its compliant house union in dampening conflict. These challenges to the RSMU help explain its decision to involve itself with state arbitration. This path offered institutional defence and potential for entrenching gains.

The RSMU's first award, in late 1910, formalised the remarkable gains its members had won through industrial action; gains they had also spread to workers doing similar work but under different awards. All sewer miners and rockchoppers working for Water Board sewer contractors were now to work a 36-hour week, normally over five-and-a-half days. For water supply jobs, there was a 36-hour week for trenches more than four feet deep and 48-hours for the shallower ones. Wages were higher than in comparable awards and the union became the wages pacesetter for construction labourers over the next few years. With pick and shovel workers mainly on one shilling (1s) per hour (8s per day), sewer miners and most sewer rockchoppers were to get a minimum 1s and eleven pence (11d) per hour (11s 6d). Those cutting the deeper water supply trenches received 1s 9d (10s 6d) and shallow water supply trenches 1s 3.5d (10s 4d) for an eight-hour day. In comparison most labourers were probably employed on or just above the state minimum wage of 7s per day which the arbitration court only increased to 7s 6d in October 1911. (38)

The award reflected the RSMU's strong stand on OHS and embedded many of the union's own OHS rules. It contained a series of OHS protective provisions and made employers supply better amenities on the job. This marked both the union and its award as pioneers in OHS regulation, particularly through administrative controls. Thus the award included a mandatory hour between blasting and workers re-entering shafts or tunnels, bans on them working overtime in rock and on using rack-a-rock. Extra pay for working in wet conditions was better than in similar awards as was the distance to be left between workers in trenches. Employers had a duty to supply sanitary accommodation and change rooms. However, the required forms of ventilation in the award still fell well short of the 1902 Report's proposals. Improvements in paid annual leave--to nine days--and safety standards entered through variations of the award over subsequent months. (39)

RSMU members pressed on, taking advantage of continuing labour shortages. During 1911 and 1912, they won higher wages, especially for particularly dangerous work in sandstone. They would win first on the job and then before the wages board. (40) Nonetheless, the RSMU was unsuccessful in trying to widen coverage to all categories of labourers on sewerage construction, a necessity for strengthening solidarity and effectiveness, the better to make and spread gains. Once again, however, union rivalries under the arbitration system proved an impediment.

In 1913, the rural-based navvies' union, the Railway Workers and General Labourers' Association, set up a Sydney branch. Heydon kept it away from the Water Board but the navvies' union competed with the ULPS and RSMU for those on contractors' and PWD jobs. Part of a very large union with a committed, enthusiastic membership, the Sydney branch came under the influence of militants who combined industrial socialism with a rank-and-file focus to unionism, making it the labourers' union closest in ideals and character to the RSMU. (41)

Faced with this competition, the ULPS concentrated more on organising on metropolitan construction where water supply and sewerage was the largest potential field. However, while ULPS officials had become increasingly distant from their fractured membership, it seems that ULPS members among PWD rockchoppers and sewer miners tried to maintain approaches developed within the RSMU. In 1912, for example, 200 of them working on the SWSOOS had struck for five days for higher pay. They did not bother informing the ULPS, organising a mass meeting locally as well as deputations without input from ULPS officials. (42) But, they were now more isolated from their fellows on RSMU and Water Board union jobs.

The navvies' union was intent on becoming the OBU of labourers and had, from 1912, unsuccessfully sought amalgamation with the ULPS. Thirst for the OBU also encouraged its amalgamation talks with AWU. As a concession, the AWU agreed to provide the navvies with their own autonomous industry branch. In mid-1916, the navvies' union--with 19,000 members now the largest union in NSW--dissolved itself into the newly-constituted Railway Workers' Industry Branch of the AWU (RWIB/AWU). On railway construction, many Sydney rockchoppers and rock miners--and those who worked alongside them in tunnel and drive--now came under AWU coverage and awards as had, through different processes, their fellows in rural NSW, in Queensland and in Victoria. (43) Yet, for now, the organising contours for Sydney water and sewerage rockchoppers and sewer miners remained as at 1911: the Water Board union covered those working for the Board; ULPS those working for the PWD; and RSMU those working for contractors. With the AWU now closer, the picture was becoming less stable.

Since the 1908 strike, inter-union rivalry and employer preferences had combined--within the developing arbitration system--to create division and competition among unions covering Sydney's labourers. This did not disappear with the birth of the RWIB/AWU in 1916. Heydon's decisions since 1909 had produced patterns of institutional constraint that increasingly frustrated the efforts of Sydney's rockchoppers and sewer miners to forge and maintain unity across jobs. Divided among employers, they came under separate unions and awards. The more embedded the arbitration system became, the more difficult it was for them to maintain organisational fluidity and compactness through the RSMU. What role had employer strategy and behaviour played in shaping all this? In particular, what was the role of the dominant employer, the Water Board?

Employer Strategy Changes Direction: The Push for Mechanisation from 1908

Circumstances apparently beyond its control had already caused the Water Board to shift from its longstanding expectation of the fullest managerial prerogative, one where it disdained meeting with representatives of militant workers. Together with other employers, the Board had tried sacking strikers but with labour supply so short, this worked against them. During 1908, the Board therefore engaged the RSMU in discussions and even in multi-employer collective bargaining alongside other public sector authorities and the PWCA. (44)

This made sense as the Water Board assumed greater responsibility, at arm's length, over industrial relations on its contractors' jobs. RSMU militancy drove up the price of contract tenders, reduced contractors' incentive to tender and made existing contracts unviable--encouraging some contractors to walk away prior to completion. At the same time and despite the rising pay and six-hour day for those categories of workers, contractors continued to face labour shortages. Whenever confronted with problems--rising labour costs, deadline delays, strikes or labour shortages--contractors turned to the Board for help. They rarely received any satisfaction. The Board's tendering process operated against its shadow estimates of what day labour would have cost. With contractors' costs rising and operations ever more unpredictable, Board planning, processing and management of contracting became more difficult. Before long, this impacted against the Board's preferences for contracting. During 1908/09, the Board had 130 contracts let out and a few under day labour. By 1915/16, the proportions had more than reversed.

When pressed, the Water Board preferred to meet union OHS-related demands with an offer of higher pay but for longer working hours. As Keele's and Stokes' comments show, the Board's highest levels maintained a refusal to acknowledge the scale of the epidemic and the Board's own responsibility in causing and perpetuating it. Contractors had a worse OHS reputation--for example for ventilating drives--but they much more readily admitted the silicosis dangers. Thus, a PWCA meeting could admit that, 'There can be no two opinions about the danger of continuous rockchopping. A man is sacrificing his life, and should be well paid.' (45) The financial constraints to improvements they faced derived from the Board's own approach to contracting.

Just prior to the 1907 Inquiry, the Water Board had finally made assurances that it would introduce safe mechanisation of rock cutting but it did nothing at a time when the PWD was prominently introducing mechanisation on its larger works. Only chronic labour shortages and a sustained tide of RSMU militancy--and the rising costs these produced--were sufficient to provoke the Board to action. Nevertheless, but a few years later, the Board would explain that its motivation for mechanisation had been a desire, 'to minimise as much as possible the risk run by workmen engaged in rock-chopping'. (46)

In April 1908, the Board approved a proposal from its Engineer-in-Chief, John Smail, for a public competition to find, 'the best method of carrying out rock excavation in open trench without injury from dust to the men engaged'. It carried a hundred-pound prize. (47) Board President Keele, in his singular way, foresaw that, 'mechanical engineers would design some apparatus, and this would avoid the high [wage] rates for labour and the continual trouble with the men'. (48) The Board had finally recognised that its organisation of production was unsustainable. Insufficient numbers of new workers were volunteering to replace the dead and dying. The Board intended to get a sufficient pool of labour, return workplace power to management, revitalise it option for contracting and get labour costs down.

Nevertheless, public opinion would not countenance the Board killing even more rockchoppers through mechanisation just to save money. The Board's new technology had to reduce the dust hazard--or at least appear to. International experience was mixed. In the USA, employers refused to invest in ventilation so that the introduction of 'dry' mechanised rock cutting and drilling had greatly increased risks and mortality rates. This explains the Board's choice of a competition rather than adopting existing technology. In reality, there were other options available but they required employer commitments to invest. In South Africa's gold mines, chronic shortages of highly skilled miners at this time encouraged mine owners to invest in dust abatement. This included ventilation of tunnels as well as the introduction of water into the production process to suppress dust. (49)

There were a number of wet-working options. Many were largely ineffective and only added a drenching to the hazards miners faced at work and, with it, higher risks of other respiratory diseases. The cheapest was to hose the rock surface prior to drilling or cutting or before spawling and removal. As sandstone does not absorb water, this treatment was also least effective. A better alternative was to keep drenching the surface by hose while drilling or cutting continued. Better still was incorporating a watering mechanism within the machine so that the water passed through a hollow section of the drill bit directly onto the point where drilling occurred. (50) Adding proper exhaust ventilation was most effective but employers in Australia were loath to invest in it.

In June 1908, the Water Board advertised the competition. Competitors had less than a month to enter. Entrants were to submit 'complete working drawings' of their proposals, which were to be 'original in design and application, as no machinery, plant or method at present on the market or in operation will be considered'. The winning entry also had to be superior in cost, economy, adaptability and ease of handling. Entrants therefore had to supply a full costing of its operation as well as indications of staffing levels needed. There was no expectation that the method chosen would be a machine but, for those submitting machinery proposals, the Board prioritised lightweight design--'for transport along line of work'--simplicity in design and assembly and strength. Entries had to be 'capable of removing rock with and without the aid of explosives' and yet leave the trench at an 'approved degree of smoothness and true to the grade of the proposed work'. (51) The winning inventor was a Board employee.

Despite the Water Board's apparent desperation to embrace mechanisation, it took two years between close of competition and workable prototype. During this time, the tight labour market continued to frustrate the Board and contractors. Workers, or potential workers, pursued the same effective (and healthy-preserving) individual and collective strategies that produced labour shortages and workplace industrial action. The Board's response was to take over an ever greater number of sewerage jobs for day labour.

Division and competition among labourers' unions again aided the Board. The RSMU covered contractors' employees; the Board's house union had those on day labour. This picture, rather than any fondness for day labour among the Board's majority, helps explain why the Board increasingly shifted its sewerage construction to day labour. The Board's minutes include many instances when a contractor 'could not get men to work'. By shifting the work to day labour, the Board removed the RSMU. The Board's president expressed his happiness that those now doing the work would be members of the Water Board union but working for the pay and conditions in the original contract--a result that, according to him, was 'favourable to the Board and to the men financially'. (52)

Nonetheless, day labour could not fully isolate the Water Board's workforce from RSMU influence--whether it came through job militancy or award pressures. After all, rockchoppers and sewer miners received their employment on a very temporary and casual basis and lost employment when work they were doing ceased for any reason. The same workforce, more or less, gradually moved through myriad paths among the various tunnelling and trenching jobs that opened up, irrespective of who the employer was: PWD, Board, contractor or other public sector authority. They apparently saw no reason to suffer more under one employer than another, nor to change industrial strategy and tactics. With a growing sewer construction workforce, the Board faced risks from employing a greater number of insubordinate employees and rising labour costs, two pressures it found distasteful. Removing its jobs from the RSMU--rather than that union from jobs--was a necessary first step.

In June 1910, Smail reported to the Board that a prototype of its new rock guttering machine had finally undergone successful trials after assembly at the Board's own workshops. In an upbeat piece, The Star newspaper reported that, 'The human rockchopper is jubilant to-day. Mechanism is to take his place in the trenches and no more need he fear the insidious rock dust'. When interviewed, Smail explained that the machine could do the work of three men but thought that employment levels, over all, would not decline. (53)

News of the successful trials came as continuing agitation by rockchoppers and sewer miners was inducing contractors to petition--as individual companies and through the PWCA--for revisions of their contract prices. The Water Board refused them. More contractors walked away from their jobs. Again, this presented the Board with a number of strategic options. One was to re-tender those jobs; another to take them into the day labour program. In September 1910, on Smail's suggestion, the Board decided to convert a troubled North Sydney contract job to day labour and use it to trial the economics and operation of the new rock-guttering machine. Diffusion of mechanisation appeared certain when, in December, the Board provided one of its contractors, T. Wright, with the drawings of the machine to have a machine manufactured to its specifications. Wright was to pay both the Board and the inventor for this intellectual property. (54) Diffusion took longer than expected.

Although the RSMU no longer formally covered Board employees, it continued to feature prominently in Board minutes during 1911 and 1912. Some of this reflected the operation of the arbitration system; some of it came from the contractors and their association and for the same reasons as previously. Left unsaid, but clearly inferable from Board minutes was that the Board's machine had not matched expectations. The RSMU's workplace power remained intact, bolstered by continuing shortages of its categories of labour. The Board explored two new options. The first, earlier in 1911, to import unemployed coalminers from Newcastle NSW, came to nothing. The second, later that year, was to buy and trial alternative machines. The idea included trialling models then operating at Sydney quarries, an industry whose industrial relations, incidentally, somewhat paralleled sewer construction. (55) This clearly proved more successful.

Over the following few years, the Water Board diffused mechanised rock trenching across its construction jobs. In addition, it introduced pneumatic drills with water jets for its sewer miners to bore holes. Use of this machinery also soon spread to contractors and onto PWD jobs. Employers expected the machinery would allow for quicker and cheaper construction, particularly, as the Board put it, the machinery, 'can be used by any workman of ordinary intelligence without danger'. (56) The task difficulties that had helped these workers keep their labour market tight were going to disappear even if OHS dangers might not.

The Water Board also expected that this mechanisation would greatly moderate any expectations that unionists might have for further gains. In fact, in mid-1913, Smail strongly argued that mechanisation should lead to reduced pay and longer working hours. The way he saw it, deskilling trench work would break the union's resistance. In any case, the Board itself warned against the risk of losing the advantages of mechanisation if the RSMU maintained its tendency, 'to claim the same short hours and high rates of pay' for mechanised work as pertained to hand rockchopping and sewer mining. The Board would refuse such claims for 'undue concessions ... in the interests of the ratepayers'. (57)

The Impact of Mechanisation on Work, Employment and Unionism

Gradual mechanisation of trench cutting after 1911 resulted in deskilling and an easing of the labour market. Labor's Works Minister, Arthur Griffith, the Board and its contractors all indicated that they saw mechanisation as a means of weakening the RSMU and rolling back its gains. Organising all sewer construction workers, including all those labourers who might compete with rockchoppers, thus became an urgent defensive task for the RSMU. However, employers held out and Heydon repeatedly rebuffed the union. Employers now sought to take advantage as the RSMU began to suffer organisational problems. (58)

A first sign of danger had been a 1912 Award through which the PWCA gained an eight-hour day (44-hour week) for machine drillers and trenchers on contractors' jobs--the first incursion into the 36-hour week. Wages of 1s 4d per hour brought those workers a lower weekly wage than those on the 36-hour week. (59) The RSMU's next award, (Labourers' Group No.2 Award), in September 1913, was worse. It included the 44-hour week for machine drilling and cutting and some rockchoppers and sewer miners cutting by hand. As well, it stipulated a longer working week for sewer miners in the larger drives, those over 30 feet in superficial area, where use of explosives was allowed--a stipulation in the Water Board union's award since 1910. A month later, an award amendment returned them to 36 hours. Across the award, for relatively similar work, different classifications of labour brought 30, 36 or 44 hours per week with machinery pulling towards longer hours. (60)

Changes to awards did not mean conditions deteriorated immediately. Neither PWD nor Water Board brought these new stipulations into force straight away. Only the Long Bay tunnel of the SWSOOS was large enough to qualify and here the union prevailed on Griffith to have the PWD continue the shorter hours and better pay. When, in 1912, a few Board contractors introduced mechanical guttering machines--together with an eight-hour day and lower wages--the RSMU members there threatened to walk off those jobs unless contractors removed them. After wages board intervention, they allowed machines, but only under the six-hour system. They also threatened to blacklist jobs if contractors introduced non-RSMU labour. The workers prevailed because of labour shortages--and the machines temporarily disappeared from some sites--but employers clearly intended to use the machines to reverse the direction of regulatory power. (61) Whereas RSMU militancy had brought in its wake improved conditions for employees in less active unions, contractors and government authorities now wanted to level down the terms and conditions in the RSMU award.

More fragmentary evidence, including cases before the Industrial Court, suggests that, between 1914 and 1917, the RSMU's remaining members kept up its traditions of internal democracy and militant participation in job-level activism wherever needed and possible. In February 1914, the PWCA led contractors in a campaign to cut wages and increase hours--to 48 per week--on a job at Manly. Their excuse was mechanisation. The PWCA had clearly planned ahead so that when RSMU members there struck the job, the PWCA put on replacements. Unfortunately for the PWCA, the replacements walked off the job upon discovering these circumstances. The dispute spread to other contract jobs. These strikes lasted until the workers chose to return to work--after having saved themselves from a total of 990 dangerous working days. (62) Such action became less common in successive years.

The full threat to the union came into the open in 1917, with rising unemployment in construction labouring. Both the PWD and Water Board laid off workers in response to declines in loan funding and the new NSW government's reductions in government spending. At first, a favourable new (wages board) award ratified the 36-hour week and higher wages for almost all rockchoppers and sewer miners. The award also obliged employers to supply and employees to use water with the new machines. It even specified more comfortable change rooms with some means for drying workers' clothes. There was also no mention of large as against small drives. (63) The PWD, which controlled only about 10 per cent of sewer construction at this time, refused to abide by the new award. Its senior engineers claimed that improved working conditions, particularly in larger drives, justified them insisting on longer hours and lower wages than before. They flouted the award even after the RWIB/AWU had had it confirmed in court. By now too, the Water Board had joined the fray. A deputation from the RSMU, the Water Board union and Labour Council gained the Attorney-General's support before the PWD.

The PWD returned to court. Explanations from union representatives that large drives only meant more miners at the face and thus the same dust exposure for each proved futile. Heydon found PWD arguments more persuasive. He then increased weekly hours of work to 44 for sewer miners on larger drives under both awards, and cut wage rates. (64) Heydon had pegged the RSMU award terms to those in the Water Board union's award. Significantly, the arguments with which the RSMU had mobilised to win special terms and conditions nearly a decade earlier were rapidly losing their influence as mechanisation spread. There had, indeed, been some improvements in OHS but by no means of the order asserted. Many rockchoppers continued to contract and die from silicosis over subsequent years even if wet-drilling and guttering reduced the full extent of the epidemic.

RSMU members remained remarkably quiet. The union appeared to have lost its self-confidence before the various attacks facing it and its members. After the 1915 election of William Carbine as the union's secretary, he had begun to steer it towards the increasingly oligarchic, industrially conservative AWU. This represented a major change of ideological and strategic direction for the union. At the end of 1917, the RSMU dissolved itself into the RWIB/AWU. (65) Unlike the navvies' union amalgamation the previous year, this brought virtually no press comment. In its place, we must rely on informed conjecture particularly given that other groups--such as coal and metal miners, building labourers and manufacturing workers--were able to maintain some labour market and workplace control in the face of mechanisation.

For these other groups, mechanisation mostly attacked only some aspects of vital, job-related knowledge. Thus, the sociology of underground coal and metal mining is replete with references to miners' 'pit sense', their ability to hear the rock 'talking'. This knowledge remained important even after mechanisation in those industries. Employers could not so readily replace a skilled mining workforce with an unskilled one and maintain productivity. Such a choice threatened employer assets embedded in tunnel walls and productive plant (as well as workers' lives). This was not the case for the mechanisation of rockchopping of sandstone trenches. Second, unlike some groups in manufacturing or construction, Sydney's rockchoppers could not call on the support of better-placed, more skilled or more powerful groups working alongside them. Nor, did they have the advantage of remote location. According to the Water Board and PWD, mechanisation of rockchopping also appeared to have removed much of the OHS risk attached to the work, a crucial factor that had provided the RSMU with the capacity to control both labour market and work. There were no barriers--occupational, spatial or institutional--between the newly mechanised work and the mass of relatively undifferentiated and, in 1917, unemployed construction labourers available. (66) Both wider and 'occupational' labour markets were running against the rockchoppers.

There were other important differences that made the anti-union impact of mechanisation more dramatic for the rockchoppers and the RSMU. Unlike in coal and metal mines, factory or mill, the industry's dominant employer--the Water Board--was mostly content to close down particular jobs for extended periods in order to break job-level resistance by these casually-employed workers. The productive output of those workers had no exchange value ahead of the completion of reticulation works. Time was mostly on the employer's side and there were always plenty of other jobs waiting to start. Furthermore, once Judge Heydon shifted union coverage of these Board employees to the Board's house union, much of this challenge also abated as it had weakened the RSMU. Construction contractors remained exposed between the RSMU's militant controls and commercial pressures under their contracts but the Board's wholesale shift towards day labour removed this pressure point too. In these circumstances, the labour market effects of mechanisation were much more dramatic. Individual resistance through restricting labour supply for this work--whether organised or not--would no longer work. This weakened rockchoppers' collective options, informal and formal. The effect was not immediate but it was almost irresistible. Rockchoppers could hardly argue against changes that reduced their exposure to the dust hazard.

At that time, with job-level action ever less effective and a workforce fragmented across three unions, heavier reliance on the arbitration system seemed a logical option. The RSMU had never been wealthy but, using direct action in a seller's labour market, it had not needed to be. After losing most of its membership, its annual returns to the Registrar of Friendly Societies and Trade Unions showed the RSMU quickly going broke when substantial finances were essential for arbitration work. The AWU boasted that its great wealth was a huge advantage for arbitration work. Its OBU rhetoric also proved a persuasive argument for amalgamation, one that had already won over thousands of construction workers.

What then was the impact of the Water Board's industrial relations strategies? What did mechanisation bring, beyond the RSMU's decline and demise? There are a couple of obvious and linked answers. In industrial relations terms, employers--public sector and private--had won back large levels of managerial control over labour supply, costs and discipline. For example, in February 1918, the PWD tried to impose the new, worsened conditions on the Manly end of the NSOOS. About 40 rockchoppers there stopped work over what apparently was their first loss of the six-hour day for that work. A deputation from the RWIB Executive to the PWD sought the restoration of the previous terms. They told of continuing appalling death rates on this work and the dangers from dust, even under the 36-hour regime. They were unsuccessful. The strikers, unwilling to risk their lives under worsened conditions, sought out surface work instead. Others returned inland to Cobar where metal mining was restarting. (67) The RWIB, unable to mobilise in defence of hard-won and vital gains, placed a black ban on the job. When work restarted, it was with non-union labour.

The second answer relates to OHS. An exhaustive Board of Trade inquiry later that year confirmed that these workers still ran a terrible risk of early death from silicosis. Two sets of government statistics found that they had death rates four and five times higher from respiratory diseases than other adult breadwinners. Anticipating Derickson by 70 years, the Report candidly admitted that migratory labour and mobility between occupations meant that many cases went undetected, unreported and hence uncounted. Against all protestations from Water Board and PWD officials alleging declining incidences of silicosis among rockchoppers and sewer miners, the inquiry found, 'evidence pointing emphatically to the excessive prevalence of the disease amongst [them]'. (68)

The Report trenchantly criticised pervasive OHS negligence and indifference among PWD and Water Board officials, particularly to their responsibility for protecting these employees from the dangers of hazardous airborne particles. The Inquiry came to even more damaging criticism of those officials, and notably Dr Stokes, for harassing witnesses sympathetic to workers. Amongst the latter was a prominent Nationalist member of the NSW parliament, Dr Richard Arthur, a longtime, vocal supporter of OHS improvements for those workers. Stokes had a history of trivialising serious workplace health risks facing different categories of Board employees. He and the others deliberately tried to mislead the Inquiry by tendering incorrect or incomplete information. Aghast, the Board of Trade recommended a completely different role for public employers, one, 'representative of the ethical and intellectual aspirations of the community, and as the trustees of the general public interests'. (69) The Water Board had clearly failed this test for many years. It had only committed itself to introduce a much safer technology late and only for the purposes of removing a militant union and recuperating both control over costs and its preferences to contract out.


For decades prior to the demise of the RSMU in late 1917, the Water Board had led other employers in the industry in ignoring the tragic health risks that rockchoppers and sewer miners faced. Whereas other employers--such as the PWD--were open to direct government pressure to improve protective controls--even if these were only administrative controls--the Board resisted despite its relative financial autonomy.

The Board disdained employee insubordination and was deeply averse to the implications of increased costs for it loan funds and property rates. These characteristics explain its unwillingness to accept the truth of the dust dangers and its own responsibilities in needlessly perpetuating them. It was only when these workers successfully combined individual and collective forms of industrial action--most effectively through the RSMU--that the Board realised that it had to make concessions. However, it invariably chose to concede higher wages, rarely lower hours of work and almost never the sorts of protective controls that would have done most to protect the health of those working in tunnel and trench: distancing workers; proper ventilation; and safe mechanisation. Labour supply and labour costs were its concerns, not OHS.

The Water Board's strategic decision to embrace mechanisation belatedly thus had nothing directly to do with protecting its employees' health, despite its subsequent public claims. It responded to the Board's desire to re-shape the labour market so as to guarantee a fulsome, continuous supply of much more dependent labour and, at the same time, severely debilitate the RSMU. In both, it was successful. Deskilling trenching brought much larger numbers of ordinary construction workers into the labour pool and eventually killed off the union.

This is a common picture within the historiography of employer strategies to mechanise production during that era. (70) There are however a few unusual elements. First, one of the Water Board's central concerns was to make it easier, once again, to tender more works out to contractors. In current terminology, this meant management intervention to regulate employment relationships along the Board's external supply chain. Second, it was intent on removing a noxious external influence--from its point of view--on its dependent and complacent house union. Breaking the external labour market power of the rockchoppers and sewer miners thus served its broader labour control interests, particularly given divided union coverage for Sydney's construction labourers. A third element has to do with the particular legitimation processes attached to this strategy. Mechanisation was an answer to a terrible OHS problem. It was not difficult for the Board to later frame its strategy in humanitarian terms but it was for anyone to argue, a priori, against it.


I would like to gratefully acknowledge the thoughtful and constructive feedback from this journal's two anonymous referees.

(1.) Peter Sheldon, 'Job control for workers' health: the 1908 Sydney rockchoppers' strike', Labour History, no. 55, November 1988, pp. 39-54.

(2.) Gregory R Wagner, 'Asbestosis and silicosis', Lancet, vol. 349, issue 9061, 3 May 1997, p. 1312.

(3.) T.P Ng, S.L. Chan and J. Lee, ' Predictors of mortality in silicosis' Respiratory Medicine, vol. 86, issue 2, March 1992, pp. 115-19; James F. Collins, Andrew G. Salmon, Joseph P. Brown, Melanie A. Marty, George V. Alexeef, 'Development of a chronic inhalation reference level for respirable crystalline silica', Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology , vol. 43, 2005; pp. 292--300.

(4.) David R. Seager, 'Barre, Vermont granite workers and the struggle against silicosis, 1890-1960', Labor History, vol. 42, no. 1, pp. 66-9.

(5.) Bryan Gandevia, 'The Australian contribution to the history of pneumoconioses', Medical History, vol. 17, 1973, pp. 368-79; Alan Derickson, 'Federal intervention in the Joplin silicosis epidemic, 1911-1916', Bulletin of Medical History, vol. 62, 1988, pp. 245, 246, 248-9. For Bendigo goldminers, Sandra Kippen, 'The social and political meaning of the silent epidemic of miners' phthisis, Bendigo 1860-1960', Social Science & Medicine, vol. 41, no. 4, pp. 492-94 at pp. 492-95. For similar patterns in the USA, see also Seager, 'Barre, Vermont'.

(6.) David Grantham, Occupational Health and Hygiene: Guidebook for the WHSO, D.L. Grantham, Brisbane, 1992, pp. 54-5.

(7.) Sheldon, 'Job control', pp. 41-4; 'Report of the Sewerage Works Ventilation Board of Inquiry', Votes and Proceedings of the NSW Legislative Assembly (NSWLAVP), 1902, vol. 2, pp. 1121-2; 'Interim Report of the Board of Trade on the Prevalence of Miners' Phthisis and Pneumoconiosis in Certain Industries', New South Wales Parliamentary Papers (NSWPP), 1918, vol. 5, pp. 363-4; Evidence of George Tennant (sewer miner), Metropolitan Water and Sewerage (General Labourers') Board [Wages Board], 5 May 1910, pp. 663-4. Consulted in the archives of the (then) Water and Sewerage Employees Union, 1984-86. The union, as the Australian Services Union (NSW Division), deposited these archives in the Mitchell Library in 2000.

(8.) 'Sewerage Works Ventilation Inquiry', p. 1043.

(9.) Marcus James, 'The struggle against silicosis in the Australian mining industry: the role of the Commonwealth Government, 1920-1950, Labour History, no. 65, November 1993, p. 77.

(10.) Peter Sheldon, 'System and strategy: the changing shape of unionism among NSW Construction Labourers, 1910-19', Labour History, no. 64, November 1993, pp. 115-35.

(11.) See eg James, 'The struggle against silicosis', pp. 75-95; David Palmer, '"Too many men on the scrap-heap": mining union struggles over health and safety at Broken Hill and Mount Isa between the world wars', in David Palmer, Ross Shanahan and Martin Shanahan (eds), Australian Labour History Reconsidered, Australian Humanities Press, Adelaide, 1999, pp. 51-74; Bradley Bowden and Beris Penrose, 'Dust, contractors, politics and silicosis: conflicting narratives and the Queensland Royal Commission into miners' phthisis, 1911', Australian Historical Studies, vol. 37, no. 128, October 2006, pp. 89-107. For a broad survey of OHS and labour history--which overlooks Sheldon's 1988 article--see Michael Quinlan, 'The toll from toil does matter: occupational health and labour history', Labour History, no. 73, November 1997, pp. 1-29.;

(12.) Peter Sheldon, 'In division is strength: unionism among Sydney labourers, 1890-1910', Labour History, no. 56, May 1989, pp. 43-59; Sheldon, 'System and strategy'; Peter Sheldon, 'Arbitration and union growth: building and construction unions in New South Wales, 1901-1912', Journal of Industrial Relations, vol. 35, no. 3, September 1993, pp. 379-97.

(13.) Jim Hagan, The History of the A.C.T.U., Longman Cheshire, Melbourne, ch. 1; Bradon Ellem and John Shields, 'Making the "Gibraltar of Unionism": union organising and peak union agency in Broken Hill, 1886-1930', Labour History, no. 83, November 2002, pp. 65-88. Sheldon, 'In division is strength'; and Sheldon, 'System and strategy'; Lucy Taksa, '"Defence not defiance": social protest and the NSW General Strike of 1917', Labour History, no. 60, May, 1991, pp. 16-33.

(14.) The Water Board was then known as the Metropolitan Board of Water Supply and Sewerage (MBWSS). It has had a series of names since then.

(15.) Peter Sheldon, Maintaining Control: A History of Unionism Among Employees of the Sydney Water Board, PhD thesis, Department of History and Politics, University of Wollongong, July 1989, pp. 34-5.

(16.) Sheldon, Maintaining Control, p. 91; Daily Telegraph, 4 November 1911, Press Cuttings Book (PCB), Sydney Water Archives.

(17.) Sheldon, Maintaining Control, pp. 91-2.

(18.) Peter Sheldon, 'Public vs private employers on New South Wales public works, 1890-1910', Australian Economic History Review, vol. 36, no. 1), March 1993, pp. 49-72; Peter Sheldon, 'The dimming of illusions: changing attitudes of labourers to direct government employment on NSW public works, 1899-1916', Australian Journal of Public Administration, vol. 48, no. 2, June 1989, pp. 139-45; Sheldon, Maintaining Control, p. 92.

(19.) Sheldon, 'Job control', p. 40; Appendices to 'Interim Report ... on ... Miners' Phthisis', p. 434.

(20.) Transcript, Water and Sewerage Employees Wages Board, No. 1, December 1913, pp. 5-6, 27, 29; Evidence of C. Chambers (Public Works Contractors Association), Minutes of Evidence, Royal Commission of Inquiry on Industrial Arbitration in the State of New South Wales, 1913, hereafter Piddington Royal Commission, NSWLAVP, Second Session 1913, p. 379

(21.) Derickson, 'Federal intervention', pp. 247-8; Seager, 'Barre, Vermont', pp. 63, 66.

(22.) Derickson, 'Federal intervention'; Alan Derickson, 'Industrial refugees: the migration of silicotics from the mines of North America and South Africa in the early 20th century', Labor History, vol. 29, no. 1, 1988, pp. 66-89; Alan Derickson, 'Occupational disease and career trajectory in hard coal, 1870-1930', Industrial Relations, vol. 32, no. 1, 1993, 94-110. See also Seager, 'Barre, Vermont'.

(23.) Sheldon, 'Job control', pp. 43-4; Bowden and Penrose, 'Dust, contractors, politics and silicosis' p. 90.

(24.) The Star, 7 March 1908, PCB, Sydney Water Archives.

(25.) Sydney Morning Herald, 10 March 1908, PCB, Sydney Water Archives; Peter Sheldon, 'Edward Sutherland Stokes', Australian Dictionary of Biography, Vol. 12, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1990, pp. 97-8.

(26.) John B. Trivett, The Official Year Book of New South Wales, 1912, Government of New South Wales, Sydney, 1913, pp. 847, 848.

(27.) See eg Richard B. Freeman, 'Individual mobility and union voice in the labor market' American Economic Review, vol. 66, no. 2, May 1976, pp. 361-68.

(28.) Sydney Morning Herald, 12 and 15 March 1913, PCB, Sydney Water Archives; see also Evidence of Chambers (PWCA), Piddington Royal Commission, p. 381.

(29.) Charles Badham, 'The International Silicosis Conference held at Johannesburg, August, 1930', Journal of Industrial Hygiene, vol. XIII, no. 5, May 1931, p. 172.

(30.) Kosmas Tsakhos, 'Employer organizations and the Australian Workers' Union in transition' Working Papers in Economic History, no. 113, Australian National University, August 1988, pp. 13-6, 22, 23-4.

(31.) Sheldon, 'Job control'.

(32.) Sheldon, 'Job control, p. 43.

(33.) Sheldon, 'In division'.

(34.) MBWSS Minutes, 20 September 1909; 9 February 1910; In fact, various issues of the NSW Industrial Gazette (NSWIG) continued to separately record 'industrial dislocations' for 'rock and sewer mining'. See eg vol. 4, (1913-4). pp. 1098-9.

(35.) MBWSS, Annual Report for 1908/9, 1909, p.88; Transcripts of the Industrial Court of NSW (ICT), 2/138, vol 85, 16 November 1910, pp. 2-9; 26 November 1910, p. 1; Government Gazette of NSW (NSWGG), (no. 54, 20 April 1910), vol. 2, 1910, p. 2173.

(36.) ICT, vol. 2/161, at p. 44: 18 September 1911, p. 18; re United Laborers' Protective Society and the Sydney Harbour Trust, NSWIG, vol. 5, 1914, p. 1408.

(37.) The Rockchoppers' and Sewer Miners' Union and Water Board union, the Metropolitan Board of Water Supply and Sewerage Employees' Association (MBWSSEA) had an agreement for membership transfer where members changed employers. MBWSSEA Minutes, 27 July 1911. For union membership numbers from 1908 to 1913, see annual 'Reports of the Registrar of Friendly Societies and Trade Unions' in NSWPP, eg for 1910, NSWPP, 1911-12, vol. 4, pp. 435-38; for 1911, NSWPP, 1912, vol. 4, pp. 1008-1011; for 1912, NSWPP, 1913, vol. 4, pp. 674-78. From 1914 to 1917, see tables in annual Statistical Register of NSW, eg for 1914, pp. 296-99; for 1916, p. 386-90; for 1917, pp. 172-75.

(38.) NSWGG, (no. 128, 17 August 1910), vol. 3, 1910, pp. 4514-5. For the NSW minimum wage, Peter G. Macarthy, 'Wage determination in New South Wales, 1890-1921', Journal of Industrial Relations, vol. 10, no. 3, November 1968, p. 199.

(39.) NSWGG, (no. 164, 26 October 1910) 1910, vol. 4, p. 5792. NSW Industrial Reports (NSWIR), 1911, p. 396.

(40.) MBWSS Minutes 22 February 1911; 15 March 1911; 11 October 1911; NSWIG, vol. 4 (1913-14), p. 1129; NSWGG, (no. 175, 6 December 1911).

(41.) Navvy, eg 26 October 1914, p. 7; 11 January 1915, p. 7. See Sheldon, 'System and strategy' for a fuller discussion.

(42.) Sydney Morning Herald, 2 February 1912, p. 9; NSWIG, vol. 4 (1913/14), p. 12; NSWIG, vol. 3, 1913, p. 344.

(43.) Navvy, 14 September 1914, p. 3; 9 August 1915, p. 4; 6 September 1915, p. 4. Labour Council of NSW (TLC) Exec. Minutes, 31 October 1911. For the internal Australian Workers Union debate over the amalgamation, Australian Worker, 27 January 1916, p. 19; 7 February 1916, p. 19. See also Australian Worker, 8 June 1916, p. 20; 13 July 1916, p. 20; 17 August 1916, p. 19; 19 October 1916, p. 23; 23 November 1916, p. 20; 2 December 1916, p. 21.

(44.) Sydney Morning Herald, 26 February 1908; The Star, 26 February 1908; Evening News, 27 February 1908, PCB, Sydney Water Archives.

(45.) Daily Telegraph, 28 February 1908, PCB, Sydney Water Archives. For similar and consistent admissions from contractors, see Evidence of S. Butcher and G. Maddison, 'Sewerage Works Ventilation Inquiry', pp. 1042, 1049-50, Evidence of J.C. Solomon, Piddington Royal Commission, p.374.

(46.) MBWSS, Annual Reports, 1912/13, p. 7 and 1917/18, p.2; Public Works Department Annual Report, 1911/12, pp. 59-60; 'Interim Report ... on ... Miners' Phthisis', pp. 362, 431-2.

(47.) MBWSS Minutes, 31 March 1908; Daily Telegraph, 9 April 1908, PCB, Sydney Water Archives.

(48.) The Star, 7 March 1908, PCB, Sydney Water Archives.

(49.) Derickson, 'Industrial refugees', pp. 82-86.

(50.) Badham, 'International Silicosis Conference', pp. 172-3.

(51.) MBWSS leaflet, PCB, Sydney Water Archives.

(52.) MBWSS, Annual Report for 1908/09, p. 88.

(53.) Star, 18 June 1910, PCB, Sydney Water Archives.

(54.) MBWSS Minutes, 16 June; 6 July; 13 July; 28 September; 5 October; 12 October; 16 November; and 21 December 1910. For the contractors' view on such circumstances, se Evidence of C. Chambers (PWCA), Piddington Royal Commission, p. 382.

(55.) MBWSS Minutes, 18 January, 22 February, 15 and 22 March, 5 and 11 April, 25 May; 21 June, 19 July, 3, 18 and 30 August, 28 September, 4 and 11 October 1911. For struggles over shorter hours and mechanisation in Sydney's quarries, see Evidence of N.P Richards and J.C. Solomon (both PWCA), Piddington Royal Commission, pp. 348, 371.

(56.) MBWSS Annual Reports, 1912/13, p 7; 1913/14, p. 7; 1914/15, p. 88; 1915/16, p. 6; PWD Annual Report, 1911/12, pp. 59-60

(57.) MBWSS Annual Report, 1912/13, p. 8. For Smail's views, see p. 74.

(58.) For Heydon, see eg NSWIR, 1915, pp. 39-40. NSWIG, vol. 3 (1913), pp. 774-5.

(59.) NSWGG (no. 49, 10 April 1912). See also International Socialist, 6 July 1912, p. 1

(60.) NSWIG, vol. 4 (1913-4), pp. 138-9; 'Interim Report ... on ... Miners' Phthisis', pp. 367-68.

(61.) Copy of Report of the Deputy Chief Engineer for Sewerage Construction, PWD, 24 July 1917; Appendices to 'Interim Report ... on ... Miners' Phthisis', pp. 433-5; Sydney Morning Herald, 15 March 1913, PCB, Sydney Water Archives.

(62.) NSWIR, 1914, pp. 150-1; NSWIG, vol. 3 (1913), pp. 25-6: vol. 4 (1913-14), p. 1099; vol. 5 (1914), pp. 163, 392, 398.

(63.) MBWSS Annual Report, 1917/18, pp. 6 and 58; PWD Annual Report, 1916/17, p. 16; Australian Worker, 3 May 1917, p. 23; NSWGG, (no. 18, 9 February 1917), 1917, pp. 967-8.

(64.) Letter from Under Secretary, Department of Attorney General to the Attorney General, 19 June 1917, 'Interim Report ... on ... Miners' Phthisis', pp. 432-3; Sydney Morning Herald, 26 February 1918, p. 8.

(65.) Australian Labor Party, Official History of the Reconstruction of the Labor Party, 1916, Worker Print, Sydney, 1917, Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW, 329.311A; TLC Half-Yearly Report to 31 December 1917.

(66.) For 'pit sense' and the like, see Jean Leger and Monyaola Mothibeli, '"Talking rocks": pit sense among South African miners', Labour, Capital and Society, vol. 21, no.2, November 1988, pp. 222-37; Beverly Sauer, The Rhetoric of Risk: Technical Documentation in Hazardous Environments, Lawrence Erlbaum, Mahwah, NJ, 2002; pp. 189-90. For discussion of labour market dynamics, see Bradon Ellem and John Shields, 'H.A. Turner and "Australian Labor's closed reserve": explaining the rise of "closed unionism" in the Broken Hill mining industry', Labour & Industry, vol. 11, no. 1, August 2000, pp. 69-92.

(67.) Sydney Morning Herald, 26 February 1918, p.8.

(68.) 'Interim Report ... on ... Miners' Phthisis', p. 412. For discussion of the effects of migratory patterns on reporting, see p. 397.

(69.) Interim Report ... on ... Miners' Phthisis'; pp. 397, 412-3. See also Australian Worker, 12 September 1918, p. 14; Sheldon, 'Edward Sutherland Stokes'. For examples of Arthur's championing of these workers' OHS, Labor News, 11 January 1919, Sun, 17 September 1920, PCB, Sydney Water Archives.

(70.) Greg Patmore, Australian Labour History, Longman Cheshire, Melbourne, 1991, pp. 131, 145; Christopher Wright, The Management of Labour: A History of Australian Employers, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1995, p. 24.

Peter Sheldon *

Peter Sheldon is an Associate Professor in the School of Organisation and Management at the University of New South Wales in Sydney. He has a long-term interest in the history of labourers' unions, occupational health and safety and the effects of the arbitration system. He also researches on contemporary employer associations and international comparative industrial relations.

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Author:Sheldon, Peter
Publication:Labour History: A Journal of Labour and Social History
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Nov 1, 2009
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