The Navvies' Strike

South Australian Register Monday 8 November 1880 p.4

In another column will be found some further particulars of the strike among the men employed on the Nairne Railway.

It is a very satisfactory circumstance, and it is exceedingly creditable to the men that thus far the proceedings have been carried on without any recourse to violence. Although, if the account furnished to our special reporter is correct, there may have been what amounted to legal intimidation at the outset, yet it would be unfair to make too much of the mere circumstance that the first malcontents carried sticks in their hands when they went along the cuttings announcing that a strike was on.

Different classes of men must, in justice, be judged by the habits and customs of their order, and not by the more rigid rules which may with propriety be adopted when judging of other members of the com- munity. However much any delay in the railway works is to be regretted, no one can question the right of the men to combine for higher wages, or rather for shorter hours at the present wages, if they are so disposed.

Their engagement with the contractors is terminable, or subject to modification, at a very short notice ; and though in engaging to work for a specific rate of pay upon a given contract there may be a sort of implied understanding that the conditions apply to the whole currency of the contract, yet we suppose the contractors, as well as the workmen, would feel at liberty to take advantage of any change in the condition of the labour market which might tell to their advantage.

As is the case in every strike, there are two aspects of the affair which challenge attention. The one is the purely personal aspect, which chiefly concerns the parties directly interested in it; and the other is the more general aspect — the effect which, this movement may have upon the particular work in hand and upon tbe labour market throughout the colony.

 With regard to the first of these aspects, there is not much to be said. So far as an outsider can put himself in the position of the men, and look at the matter from their standpoint, it is perhaps hardly rea- sonable to complain that they did not give some notice of their intention, to leave off work. They felt in all probability that their chances of success would be materially enhanced by their action being sudden and decisive. There can be no question that they have selected a good time for carrying out their purpose. With the harvest shortly coming on, they will experience little difficulty in finding work elsewhere, at any rate for a time, and so far they can afford to be independent, and to carry matters with a high hand. Still, this is only oneside of the question.

To be without work for only two or three weeks means of course a considerable loss of wages, and the special stimulus given to the labour market by the approach of harvest will only be temporary. In the event of the contractors determining to supply the places of the men on strike by the importation of men from the other colonies, it would be difficult for the navvies to find employment again on the line should they desire to do to in the course of three or four months time. As the men have taken, the step purely in their own interests they cannot fairly complain if the contractors are guided in the course they adopt by personal interest also.

No doubt compliance with the demands of the men would mean some amount of loss to Messrs. Swan & Walker, but we can scarcely believe that in tendering for so large a work as the Nairne Railway the contractors have not allowed a considerable margin for a possible increase in their working expenses consequent upon any material change in the state of the labour market. If it is true that the stoppage of the work for two or three months would be a profit rather than a loss to them they can of course afford to stand out against the demands made by the men. Nevertheless, we shall be very glad to hear that the affair is to be settled by arbitration, and if any one can be found in whom both parties have confidence we do not believe such a settlement will prove difficult.

We believe it to be a mistake in a climate like this to require men to work long hours, and if a com- promise can be agreed upon on the basis of the eight-hours system so much the better. So far as the men are concerned it is certain that if they hold out they will suffer considerable present loss. Those who have a little money will for a short time be able to give something towards the support of the others ; but the longer the strike is continued the less able will they be to adopt this course. It is a matter of comparatively secondary importance, so far as the public are concerned, that the railway works should be delayed for a few weeks, but there is another question which may become more serious. It is at present too early to calculate with certainty upon a good harvest.

Should the yield not be up to the average it will hereafter cause great inconvenience if now, just because there is a demand for labour, the action of the navvies should lead to large importations of men from Victoria. The upshot may be that in a few months we shall have a number of unemployed in our midst., and this would neither be good for the colony generally, nor would it be good for tbe workmen in the colony at the time. Hence, the strike has, as we have said, an aspect in which the entire community is immediately interested. It is for this reason we feel that no apology is due from us for venturing to interfere so far as very strongly to urge that an endeavour should be made to have the difficulty settled by arbitration.

The amicable relations which appear to subsist between Mr. Swan and the men, and the orderly behaviour of the latter, warrant the hope that an equitable adjustment of the differences between the two may be effected without much trouble. So far as we can judge, no great bitterness of feel ing has go far been engendered, and the men are merely taking advantage of what they regard as a favourable opportunity for bettering their position. That it would have been more straightforward for them to have given warning of their intention cannot be denied, but that is no reason why the justice or injustice of their demands should not be calmly discussed, and if possible referred to some competent and disinterested persons for final settlement.

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