2001 conference – Vesteys and the single ‘white’ man’s wage: The first award in the Northern Territory

Bernie Brian
Northern Territory University

 Owing to the isolation of Darwin and environs, workmen by organizing have been able to enforce their demands to an extent which would have been impossible if surplus labour had at the moment of demand been available. But even after allowance for this strategic enforcement of demands, it has become well established that a substantial addition to the bare cost of living should be made to meet the peculiar disadvantages of employment in the Territory.1

On 15 March 1915, Justice Powers, Deputy President of the Commonwealth Court of Arbitration and Conciliation (hereafter the Arbitration Court) delivered the first award for the Northern Territory covering workers employed in the construction of the Vesteys meatworks in Darwin. Construction of the meatworks had started in 1914, attracting hundreds of new workers to the small frontier town. In his judgement, Powers stated that “The conditions in Darwin are so different from the conditions elsewhere in Australia”.2 Powers was not only referring to the difficult climate but also to the high cost of living, limited housing and isolation of Darwin from the rest of the country. What is interesting however, and the subject of this paper, is how the Judge had no hesitation in applying the same principles of wage fixation in Darwin that had been applied nationally since the advent of the “living wage” seven years earlier.

The literature on the arbitration system in Australia is immense.3 Labour historians and scholars of industrial relations continue to debate the advantages and disadvantages of the arbitration system for trade unions and the working class. Some time ago, Buckley and Wheelwright argued that workers gained little whereas, more recently, Hearn and Knowles argued that you have to look at individual industries like the pastoral industry where the Arbitration Court regularly granted improvements in wages except for during the Depression.4 By taking a regional approach and looking at the Northern Territory we can also see that for the first ten years of the application of the arbitration system, trade unions had considerable success in getting a favourable hearing from the Court because of the concern of the Court’s judges in incorporating the Northern Territory into the nation. To put it another way, the Arbitration Court became one of the principal tools of the state in the colonisation of Australia’s last frontier, the “empty” north. While much of the literature on the arbitration system examines the role of the Court in ameliorating class discontent, providing legal cover for the growth of trade unions and reinforcing the sexual division of labour, there has been less discussion on the role of the Court in nation building.

Approximately 4,000 kilometres by road from Canberra is the tropical city of Darwin. Today it is a city of bland, uninteresting buildings and endless car yards, but in the period before the First World War, Darwin was a scene of “wild west” pubs, horse drawn carts, unsealed roads and ramshackle corrugated iron and wood dwellings, housing a population that was, prior to 1911, dominated by the Chinese. In 1911, the number of non-Aboriginals in the Territory was just under 3,300 and 1,300 of these people were of Asian descent. The number of Aboriginals is unknown but probably ranged from 20 to 30,000 people.5 Where today, you can fly to Darwin in four hours, in the first half of last Century it took 10-11 days by coastal steamer. Apart from the primitive infrastructure and isolation, the climate made life difficult for working people, especially during the wet season from October to April, when the atmosphere becomes uncomfortably humid and enervating.

‘fair and reasonable wage’

In 1911, Darwin’s first union, a branch of the Townsville-based Amalgamated Workers Association (AWA), was formed to fight for jobs for “white” workers and for wages and conditions comparable to other parts of the country. In both cases, the workers had the support of the Fisher Labor government (1910-1913), the new administrators of the Territory.6 The Federal government had already granted the 44-hour week long before it became generalised in the rest on the country and in 1912, it sent Mr. Skewes, a Queensland Public Service Inspector, to Darwin to determine a “fair and reasonable” wage for labourers in the government service. In 1907, Justice Higgins had defined the “fair and reasonable wage” or “living wage” as one capable of satisfying “the normal needs” of a male worker, his wife and children.7 The importance of this for Darwin workers was that such a definition meant that they would have to be compensated for the higher cost of living in the town.

In his report, Skewes argued that the cost of living in Darwin was 37% higher than Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane and that Darwin wages should be adjusted accordingly with some deduction for what he considered the poor efficiency of Darwin workers. Skewes recommended that the wage of a government labourer be increased from just over 16d per hour to 17d per hour.8 Prior to Commonwealth administration the wage for a European labourer had been 12d.9 The Skewes’ Report is important because Justice Powers used its findings when he delivered the first award in 1915. Needless to say, the new rates had no impact on Aboriginal workers, whose “wages” were regulated by the Aboriginals Ordinance.10 The motivation for the government’s “generosity” on hours and wages for its European labourers was that it was essential to create conditions that would attract a permanent population of “white” workers to a region so close to the “hordes of Asia”.11

‘discredited mischief makers’

By 1914, Darwin workers had established a reputation for militancy as a result of a general strike the year before which was sparked by the decision of the local Administrator, JA Gilruth, to unilaterally cut the wages of some government workers. Gilruth justified the wage cut on the grounds that costs in the north were not “so excessive over the cost in the south as to warrant such an advance”.12  It is not the purpose of this paper to discuss this strike except to say that the decision by the Darwin AWA to reject arbitration established in the minds of southern union leaders like the AWU’s Ted Theodore, that his northern members were “discredited…mischief makers”.13 This reputation was enduring and invariably the failure of the Northern Territory to live up to the promises of developers was blamed on the trade unions. Like the situation in North Queensland however, reputations in the south were not always accurate. Doug Hunt has shown how, despite the famed militancy of North Queensland’s unions like the “Fighting AWA”, they were “consistently pragmatic” in their activities.14

By 1914, a new leadership had taken over the reins of the Darwin union (now the Australian Workers Union with the amalgamation of the AWU and AWA) and they were much more prepared to use the Arbitration Court to win their claims. The advantages for Darwin workers was that while many workers in other parts of Australia remained under the jurisdiction of the more conservative state tribunals, workers in the Territory by virtue of Commonwealth administration were subject to the more liberal federal Arbitration Court.15

There is no available record of Vesteys’ attitude to the Arbitration Court but some years later they made an appeal to the Federal government for the establishment of a local arbitration tribunal to facilitate the speedy resolution of all disputes. The delays caused by having the nearest tribunal separated by 12-days steamship journey often meant the intensification of any hostilities. Vesteys also inferred that the isolation of Darwin and the difficulty of finding replacement labour during an industrial dispute placed the unions in a strong bargaining position, making it even more important that disputes be settled promptly.16

‘a ruinous award’

In 1914, Vesteys began employing workers in Sydney to construct its meatworks at rates below the Skewes rate paid on government jobs in Darwin. Once workers arrived in Darwin and found this to be the case, they refused to work.17 After a series of abortive conferences, an agreement was signed between the company and the AWU Secretary, Harold Nelson, to pay the government rate while the matter was referred to the Arbitration Court.18 Frank Alcorta, one of the few scholars to have researched Territory labour history prior to this study, described the latter agreement as a “surrender” on the part of Vesteys because it “ensured a permanent infrastructure of high prices and high wages in the north which still continues”.19 What Alcorta fails to explain is that labour shortages in Darwin required Vesteys to pay higher wages to attract sufficient numbers of workers to the north.

The Arbitration Court did not convene any sessions in Darwin but Judge Powers, authorised a Darwin magistrate to take local evidence on the Court’s behalf. Nine people presented evidence on behalf of Vesteys and 36 on behalf of the AWU.20 The company argued that the climate in Darwin was not so difficult that workers deserved a “tropical allowance” and that they should be granted a “special award” that would take into account that the majority of workers in Darwin were single men.21 Common to the evidence of all union witnesses was that it was impossible to purchase the basic needs of a worker such as food and housing, let alone maintain a family, on the minimum wages paid in Darwin.

When he finally delivered his judgement, Judge Powers agreed with the union and found that the wage offered by Vesteys was “below what I find to be a minimum living wage” and “in fairness” there should be a “considerable increase” in the minimum wages in Darwin.22 In his ruling Powers accepted the argument that Territory workers should be compensated for the higher cost of living in the region as well as for the difficult climate and isolation so that workers and their families can live in “reasonable comfort”.23 Estimating that the cost of living in Darwin was 43% higher than in the southern states, Powers increased the minimum rates for a labourer from the Skewes rate of 17d per hour to 21d per hour or the equivalent of £3 17s for a 44-hour week. Although a 23% increase in wages appears quite extraordinary, the wage granted by Powers was well below the union demand of £4 5s per week.24 Powers also justified the increase on the grounds that the company had “not raised the defence that it cannot pay”.25

In 1930, the historian and later conservative parliamentarian, Archibald Grenfell Price, described the Powers award as “ruinous”.26 Yet it is interesting to note that at the time Gilruth did not object to the payment of higher wages. Gilruth however, argued that “white” workers tended to be less efficient in the Territory and he supported Vesteys’ argument that paying a worker a wage sufficient to keep a family was not applicable when the workforce was mostly single.27 Powers rejected this argument on the grounds that it was also the duty of the Court to “consider public interests”. In effect Powers was arguing that the national interest of colonising the Territory with “white” families was more important than any local interests.

Powers suggested that the main reason married “white” men were not attracted to the Territory was a lack of housing and he argued that it was the government’s responsibility to end this “great obstacle to settlement of the Territory”. While Powers did not visit the Territory, he would have known from evidence submitted to the Court that many of the new workers in the Territory were camping in vacant allotments in the town with no water or sanitation. Because of this, Powers argued that “[I]f a Daceyville [a public housing scheme] was justified in Sydney because rents were high, a Fisherville or a Cookville in the Territory may be worth the consideration of the Federal Parliament where houses are not available at any price”.28

Despite Grenfell Price’s description of the award as “ruinous” and Judge Powers’ intervention into social engineering, it was a relatively cautious judgement. The award was only given a life of six months and it only applied to Vesteys’ workers, who in fact were not the highest paid workers in Darwin at the time. Powers points out that the Darwin Council and other private employers were paying £4 per week.29 Powers also rejected the union’s claim for the award to be made a common rule so it would cover other workers in the Territory such as railway and waterside workers.30

However, the acceptance of the higher cost of living argument in a court of law meant that there was an eventual flow- on to other workers. The union understandably was very happy and Nelson told the Queensland AWU that “we have pinned No. 2 capitalistic scalp to our banner”. No.1 being the Darwin shipping agents who had recently been forced to accept union rules on the Darwin wharf.31

‘working man’s paradise’

When Powers finally visited Darwin in 1917 and reviewed the wages of construction workers, he granted a further 20 % increase on his 1915 award, arguing that the increase was justified because the company “can afford to pay them and…is willing to do so”.32 In another case dealing with the wages of non-government clerks, Powers “complimented” Vesteys on the high wages it paid and the fact that it had built “comfortable bachelors’ quarters for 300 of its men” and provided them with subsidised beef. Nevertheless, Powers felt that such high wages, which had resulted in Darwin being called a “working man’s paradise”, were justified given the difficulties of living in the north and he lamented that “‘White Australia’ did not extend to Darwin”. Powers further argued that “[I]n the paradise in question there is no gas, no electric light, no trams, no cabs or buses…and in the evenings picture shows and the public houses are the only places of entertainment”. He once again reiterated the views contained in his earlier judgement on the higher cost of living in Darwin and the fact that a lack of housing meant that many married men were also maintaining houses down south for their families. Powers also added that while Darwin was a healthy place to live and food was satisfactory, its remoteness and climatic conditions made life difficult. “Personally I feel bound to consider the existing conditions and disadvantages a man and his family have to submit to in fixing a basic wage”.33

The AWU continued to gain a favourable hearing from Powers until economic difficulties beset Darwin in the early 1920s. By then the meatworks had closed down with much of the blame being directed towards the union. The Acting Administrator at the time estimated that that two thirds of Darwin’s workers were left unemployed as a result of the closure of the works.34 Following the closure, the government had to provide free passage to many workers who did not have the steamer fare to return south. According to the meatworks manager, CWD Conacher, the immediate reason for the closure was the shortage of ships bringing regular supplies such as coal to Darwin.35 Only later did Conacher apportion some blame on the unions although he was restrained in his criticisms, arguing that in the post-war years there was “labour trouble all over the world”.36

As a result of the meatworks closure, Darwin entered the depression long before the rest of the country and economic concerns began to dominate the thinking of the Arbitration Court. Powers, who became President of the Court in 1921, also began to show through his more economically cautious judgements that he did not agree with his more liberal and interventionist predecessor, Justice Higgins.37

When Powers again visited the Territory in 1924, he was much more interested in the “reasons why in normal, or even depressed times, a very high basic rate is insisted upon by the unions; and the development of the Territory, it is alleged, is thereby prevented”. As a result he argued “that the basic wage for Darwin ought not to be fixed in the way it is usually fixed for other towns and districts in Australia”.38 Powers was only referring to how he would apply the statistician’s figures not to matters of policy, but it did indicate that the basis on which the Court determined the basic wage was gradually shifting from workers’ needs to the economy’s ability to pay. The closest Powers got to the sentiments of his earlier judgements was when he recognised that there had to be some allowance granted to compensate for the difficulties of living in Darwin, arguing that “young men cannot be expected to go to the Territory as workers for a few shillings more than Melbourne rates”. However, he left the decision on what this allowance should be to negotiations between the employer and the employee.39

Nevertheless, the AWU and the North Australian Workers Union that followed it in 1927, remained committed to the arbitration system. Harold Nelson’s outburst at the 1918 AWU Annual Convention, when he argued that arbitration was a “capitalistic machine” that had killed the individuality of members, should only be seen as rhetoric.40

There seem to be three main reasons why the Territory unions continued to support the arbitration system. Firstly, the unions often received a favourable response from the Court to their claims as a result of the Court’s concern for extending “White Australia” to the “empty” north. Secondly, as long as Territory unions were registered with the Court, they were protected from the competition of rival southern-based unions seeking to recruit in the region.

Thirdly, as John Merritt has argued in his history of the AWU, the minimum wages and conditions stipulated in Court awards protected workers from unscrupulous employers and was a major attraction or “sanction” to workers joining unions. Merritt argues that even in times when the “spirit of unionism” was in retreat, the AWU could sell the advantages of membership.41 Awards were particularly relevant for workers in isolated regions like the Territory where employers sometimes took advantage of a worker’s ignorance of acceptable wages and conditions and the lack of a continuous union presence to pay low wages. The unions were also assisted by the decision of the Arbitration Court to make most Territory awards “common rule”. When Judge Dethbridge declared the pastoral award common rule in 1928, he argued that the Court should assist the union in such a “sparsely populated and large district” to look after the interests of its members.42 It was of course a different matter for Aboriginal workers in the Territory, who were excluded from the arbitration system until 1965.43

The downside of the arbitration system for Territory unions was the cost and delays associated with dealing with an overly legalistic body such as the Arbitration Court.44 For Territory workers, the cost and delays were multiplied by the fact that the Court did not have a regular presence in the north, leading to consistent calls from Territory unions for a local arbitration tribunal.

NOTE: Bernie Brian was forced to withdraw from the conference shortly before this volume was printed.


* The subject matter of this paper is part of a larger doctoral research project on the history of the North Australian Workers’ Union. The author can be contacted at debandbernie@ozemail.com.au.
1 Justice Beeby, 20 September 1927, Commonwealth Arbitration Reports (CAR), vol. 25, 1927, p. 899.
2 CAR, vol. 9, 1915, p. 10.
3 For an introduction to the history of arbitration in Australia see Greg Patmore, Australian Labour History, Longman Cheshire, Melbourne, 1991, pp.101-126.
4 Ken Buckley & Ted Wheelwright, No Paradise for Workers, Capitalism and the Common People in Australia 1788-1914, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1988, p. 238; Mark Hearn & Harry Knowles, One Big Union: A History of the Australian Workers Union 1886-1994, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1996, p. 18.
5 Alan Powell, Far Country: A Short History of the Northern Territory, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, 1996, p. 126.
6 Frank Alcorta, “The Origins of Trade Unionism in the Northern Territory” in Labour History, no. 43, November 1982, pp. 23-35; National Archives of Australia (NAA), ACT: A1/15, 1912/4203, Secretary, Department External Affairs to Acting Administrator, 5 April 1911. In January 1910, the Commonwealth took over the administration of the Northern Territory from South Australia.
7 Ken Buckley & Ted Wheelwright, No Paradise for Workers, Capitalism and the Common People in Australia 1788-1914, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1988, p. 233.
8 NAAC: A3, NT1912/5020, Inspector Skewes Report on Rates of Wages to Artisans, Labourers, and Others N.T., 16 July 1912.
9 CAR, vol. 9, 1915, p. 6.
10 Rob Castle, Craig Clothier & Jim Hagan, “Wage Fixing for Aborigines in the Northern Territory Cattle Industry, 1911-1965” in Patrick Bertola & Janis Bailey (eds) Frontiers of Labour: Proceedings of the Fifth National Conference of the Australian Society for the Study of Labour History, Perth, Western Australia, 2-4 October, 1997, ASSLH, Perth, 1997, p. 44.
11 See Lyn Riddett, “Guarding Civilisation’s Rim: The Australian Inland Mission Sisters in the Victoria River District 1922-1939” in Journal of Australian Studies, no. 30, September 1991, pp. 29-44.
12 Annual Report of Northern Territory Administrator, 1913.
13 The Worker, 15 May 1913. For a description of the 1913 strike see Frank Alcorta, “Labor in the Northern Territory: A Descriptive Account of the 1913 Strike” in Northern Perspective, vol. 4, no. 2, pp. 9-13.
14 Douglas William Hunt, A History of the Labour Movement in North Queensland: Trade Unionism, Politics and Industrial Conflict, 1900-1920, PhD Thesis, James Cook University, 1979, p. 446.
15 Tom Sheridan, Mindful Militants: The Amalgamated Engineering Union in Australia, 1920-72, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1975, pp.63-64.
16 NAA, ACT: A1/1, 1932/661, memorandum, Department of External Affairs, 7 September 1916; Letter from Northern Agency Limited to NT Administrator 7 May 1917.
17 CAR, vol. 9, 1915, p. 3.
18 Northern Territory Times and Gazette (NTT), 26 November 1914.
19 F.X. Alcorta: Darwin Rebellion 1911-1919, History Unit, Northern Territory University Planning Authority, Darwin, 1984, p. 31.
20 CAR, vol. 9, 1915, pp. 11-17.
21 CAR, vol. 9, 1915, p. 4 & 6.
22 CAR, vol. 9, 1915, p. 3 & 11.
23 CAR, vol. 9, 1915, p. 24.
24 CAR, vol. 9, 1915, p. 22 & 25.
25 CAR, vol 9, 1915, p. 5.
 26 A. Grenfell Price, The History and Problems of the Northern Territory, Australia, The John Murtagh Macrossan Lectures, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, 1930, p. 47.
27 Annual Report of Northern Territory Administrator, 1914-15, p. 15.
28 CAR, vol 9, 1915, p. 7; Minutes of Evidence, Royal Commission on the Northern Territory, Government Printer of Victoria, 1920, p. 331.
29 The Palmerston District Council had raised wages from the Skewes rate of £3 2s. 4d to £4 in December 1914 because of the increased cost of living.
30 CAR, vol. 9, 1915, p. 27.
31 NTT, 26 November 1914; The Worker, 14 January 1915.
32 CAR, vol. 11, 1917, p. 547.
33 CAR, vol. 11, 1917, pp. 558-562. See also NTT, 22 March 1917.
34 Annual Report of Acting Administrator, 1920.
35 NTT, 17 February 1920; 12 June 1920 (Reprint from Argus). For further discussion on the closure see Lyn Riddett, Kine, Kin and Country: The Victoria River District of the Northern Territory 1911-1966, NARU, Darwin, 1990, p. 25; Alcorta, Darwin Rebellion, pp. 69-70; P.F. Donovan, At the Other End of Australia: The Commonwealth and the Northern Territory 1911-1978, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, 1984, p. 60.
36 Northern Standard (NS), 22 June 1928.
37 Sheridan, Mindful Militants, pp. 74-75.
38 CAR, vol. 20, 1924, p. 728.
39 CAR, vol. 20, 1924, pp. 736-737.
40 The Worker, 21 February 1918.
41 John Merritt, The Making of the AWU, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1986, p. 359.
42 CAR, vol. 32, 1932, pp. 5-6.
43 Castle, Clothier & Hagan, “Wage Fixing for Aborigines”, pp. 41- 56.
44 Merritt, The Making of the AWU, p. 363.