In the early decades in New South Wales, Master and Servant laws denied workers the right to organise. However, those in skilled or strategic jobs did form associations. Stonemasons were skilled and scarce, and in 1855 the Stonemasons’ Society in Sydney declared that – in six months’ time – they would work only eight hours each day. Some masons (building churches) jumped the gun successfully: later, the victory of the whole Society was partly offset by wage reductions. Nevertheless this was the world’s first eight-hour victory.
Wharf labourers also extracted better wages from shipping companies when labour was scarce in the 1880s – but lost their leverage in the wake of the failed Maritime Strike of 1890.
Meanwhile, in 1871, six unions had formed the Trades & Labor Council of Sydney. The council prospered until the 1890s when finances and membership collapsed. Recovery was painfully slow, and many workers and organisers invested their hopes and efforts into creating and supporting the Australian Labor Party, which formed in 1891.
The context of wage negotiations changed after Federation, as compulsory arbitration and conciliation came into force for most industries. This innovation was expected to reduce industrial disruption, but it also intensified tensions between union officials who preferred to negotiate than strike, and the rank and file who distrusted arbitration. Billy Hughes was an examplar of the former, as both a politician (representing Pyrmont and Ultimo) and an official in the Waterside Workers Federation (WWF). By the time he became Prime Minister he had lost the support of the WWF, from which he was expelled.
The most powerful unions in the 1910s were railwaymen, coal miners and wharfies. Their wages and conditions declined until 1917 when the rank and file ignored their leaders and embarked on the Great Strike. Despite popular support, the unions were crushed by state action and well-organised strike-breakers.
The most significant union in Pyrmont was the WWF, since many men were wharfies or (their natural allies) sailors. The split between union members and “blacklegs” damaged the interests of both until the breach was healed in the 1950s. Between the wars, working conditions were appalling. Under the “bull system” employers picked workers for each shift, from the many struggling for work. There was neither security nor decent conditions – until 1942-3, when violence and disruption of military cargoes on the waterfront prompted the federal government to intervene. A Stevedoring Commission which included a WWF member introduced rotating gangs (teams) of workers and a more rational and humane work regime.
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the WWF and other militant unions were constantly under fire from governments. The Communist Party was often accused of fomenting industrial trouble. Unionists often elected communists to represent them in industrial issues, but in politics most stuck to the Labor Party. Pyrmont youngsters were employed by the City of Sydney on Charlie Hackett’s recommendation, and Pyrmont was a leading centre of anti-communist unionism.
The unions were tamed in the 1980s by state action (privatisation and outsourcing) and new technology. Quarrying had already ceased. When cargo ships moved to Botany Bay, and containers transformed stevedoring, wharfies moved out of Pyrmont. The closure of the NSW Government Printing Office in Harris Street (in 1989) dispersed the peninsula’s last powerful union. They have played no significant role in the hi-tech industries that replaced the old work sites.