On 15 February, representatives of the Agricultural Implement Makers’ Union (AIMU) visited Melbourne implement manufacturers employing non-unionised labour. Lists of non-union workers were provided to the employers, with an ultimatum that unless these men joined the union that day, there would be a strike.
At the Sunshine Harvester Works, union organiser JM Smith spoke with owner HV McKay. McKay declared that he would not force his workers to join the union, nor allow anyone else to interfere with their freedom to refuse the union. McKay then reported his decision to the works’ shop stewards, employees officially representing the union in the factory.
Excerpt from the Melbourne Argus, 16 February 1911
Failure of arbitration
The AIMU’s ultimatum expressed its long-growing frustration with employers’ refusal to respect the official conciliation and arbitration system. In 1907 the federal government passed the Excise Tariff Act, requiring agricultural implement manufacturers to pay an additional tax on their products unless they paid a ‘fair and reasonable wage’. A few months later, Justice HB Higgins of the Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration ruled on the meaning of ‘fair and reasonable’, setting out a scale of minimum wages.
Employers like HV McKay refused to abide by Higgins’ ruling. In 1908 McKay challenged the Excise Tariff Act in the High Court, and the law was overturned. This allowed McKay to continue paying wages well below Higgins’ standard.