A Rumpus in the Railways

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A Rumpus In The Railways  (1911) 
Sunday Times, 24 September 1911, page 1. Published by the Sunday Times office, Perth, Western Australia

A Rumpus In The Railways

Caused by Short's Ill-Timed Tyranny.

The Position Critical.

The Government Called On To Intervene.


There were serious developments yesterday in connection with the dissatisfaction existing in the railway service, and the men having been given what they consider another grievous cause of complaint, a grave crisis has arisen which, without very delicate handling, may possibly disorganise the whole of the traffic of the State within the next 36 hours. The result of the deputation to the Premier was not considered as satisfactory to the men as could be wished, but further developments in this connection are not likely to arise until after the interview with the Commissioner, which has been fixed for 2:30 on Tuesday afternoon. The latest development, however, has put the cost of living problem in the background for the time being.

Two of the employees of the Railway Department, Messrs Lewis and Burchill, have for some time past announced their intention of standing for Parliament at the forthcoming general elections, the former for Canning and the latter for Claremont. On Friday night each of these gentlemen got a note from the Commissioner telling them that he wished to see them on the following morning before nominating for the Legislative Assembly. Yesterday morning they attended at the Commissioner's office, when Mr Short informed them that they must resign their positions in the service if they intended nominating for Parliament, otherwise he must dismiss them.

Messrs Lewis and Burchill were surprised at such an unusual demand, and asked the Commissioner to put his intentions in writing. Mr Short made no demur, but gave each of them the following letter:

Commissioner's Office,    
Sept. 23, 1911.
Please note that it has been decided that all Government employees nominating for election to Parliament must resign their positions in the service.

In the event, therefore, of your so nominating I must request you to send in your resignation forthwith, otherwise I shall, with regret, have to terminate your services.

(Signed) J.T. SHORT,
Commissioner.
 

On the Triennial Conference of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Employees, now sitting in Perth, reassembling at noon yesterday, the matter was promptly placed before them, when it was decided to forward the following wire to all branches :—

Lewis and Burchill dismissed from department for nominating for Parliament. Conference adjourned until matter settled. Position critical. Advise your press, all members and other unions.
PHIL HUNT,
General Secretary.
 

It was further decided, before the Conference adjourned, that legal opinion should be taken as to the validity of Mr Short's action, and it was agreed to refer the matter to Sir Walter James, KC, and Mr Villeneuve Smith. Their opinions, it is anticipated, will be ready tomorrow (Monday) morning. Developments are expected when the conference reassembles on Monday morning, and in the meantime we have authority for stating that dissatisfaction is general in the metropolitan area at the action of the Commissioner.

A representative of "The Sunday Times" had an interview with Mr Phil Hunt, the General Secretary of the WA Amalgamated Society of Railway Employees, on the situation. He states that the men are very sore over the way Lewis and Burchill have been treated. "The Commissioner," he said, "had known for the past two months that the men intended contesting the seats, and yet he waited until two hours before the time fixed for the closing of nominations before he delivered his ultimatum. As a matter of fact both men nominated last Wednesday."

Do you know of any rule in the department which would cause the Commissioner to take such action?

"No," said Mr Hunt. "Several years ago, about eight or nine, the Commissioner tried to introduce a rule that no railway employee should nominate for roads boards, municipal councils, Parliament and such positions, but there was such a great uproar over it—not only in the department but through the Press—that it had been withdrawn. It had never been insisted on that a man should resign until he was elected. Sneddon contested the late Captain Oats' seat, went to the poll, was defeated and returned to his job without ever being asked to resign. Swan, Gill, Horan and Bolton, when they stood for Parliament, all got leave, and never had to resign their positions in the railway until they were actually elected."

"The Association," continued the General Secretary, "regard it as a very important principle that, because a man is working on the railway service, he does not sell his body and soul the the Government or the Commissioner, and we contend that if a man is possessed of brains and energy he has a perfect right to rise, always providing, of course, that in doing so he does not neglect departmental work."

Such is the position, and even a most casual observer must admit that it is an extremely critical one. What will be the outcome of it it is impossible to say definitely at the present juncture, though it is easy to surmise. The men have got their backs up this time, and it will require some tact to pacify them. We have come to the conclusion, from recent happenings, that Commissioner Short does not possess this tact, and the sooner the Government step right over his head and take this railway difficulty out of his hands completely the better. We do not want to see what is undoubtably threatened come to pass when it can so easily be averted.

"The Sunday Times" is supporting the Government because it believes that the policy of the Liberal Party is calculated to promote the prosperity of all classes of the people, and that the policy of the Labor Party isn't, but it hates injustice by whomsoever committed. That an injustice, and a grave injustice, is being done to the railway servants by the dismissal of Burchill and Lewis in the sinfully tactless and arbitrary manner in which it has been done, there cannot be the shadow of a doubt.

What possible defence can the Commissioner have for acting as he did? We might point out to him that the nature of the employment in the Railway Department is far different from that in other Government departments. There are Government departments where it might conceivably be impolitic to allow employees, probably in the possession of State secrets, to stand for Parliament without first resigning their positions, but that is not the same in the Railway Department, which is a purely commercial undertaking, run in some countries by private companies, and in this by the Government. What State secrets can be possessed by Burchill, who is a transport officer, or Lewis, who is a guard?

Mr Short's domineering and autocratic style is getting on the nerves of the men, and it is time the Government let him know that he is not altogether the supreme authority. The men believe they will get no satisfaction from Short over the wages question, and this is the sort of feeling likely to precipitate a crisis. Under the circumstances the Minister for Railways should not hesitate to step over the head of the Commissioner and do something to settle this terrible industrial unrest. Let Burchill and Lewis at once be reinstated, and only called upon to resign if they succeed in getting into Parliament, thus following the precedent established in the case of Messrs Swan and Gill. Let the government also tackle the wages question whole-heartedly, and it would soon secure an alteration of the present sentiments of a large and deserving body of men, at present murmuring discontentedly at the injustice of the Commissioner. The nettle must be grasped firmly or it will sting badly.

Another Dismissal.

Late yesterday afternoon Mr Phil Hunt, the secretary of the Railway Employees, received the following wire from Mr Bronte Dooley, at Geraldton (Dooley being another railway employee who had announced his intention of standing for Parliament) :—

Notice of dismissal by wire from Hume direct. Nomination in. Everything going well.

Mr Hume is the Chief Mechanical Engineer and the head of Dooley's department. This makes THREE dismissals in the railway service in the one day.

Ministers Out Of Town.

Owing to Mr Short's impenetrable reserve and the absence of the Ministers from town, it was impossible to get a statement last night from the powers that be. A man who ought to know something, however, stated that he understood that the men were to have been asked to resign several weeks ago, but through some misunderstanding or other the thing was delayed till the last moment. It is this that strikes one as being intolerably stupid, not to say tyrannical. Had the candidates been told five or six weeks ago that discipline demanded that they should not be servants of the department while conducting a political campaign, and given to understand that they would get their billets back after it was all over (supposing none of them to have been returned), it is quite likely that nothing would have been said. Anyhow, seeing that there has been no fixed rule on the subject, and that Short has made a huge blunder, to say the least of it, it is at least the Government's duty to assure the men that such of them as don't get in will be reinstated as if nothing had happened. In itself the grievance is not sufficent to justify a cessation of work, but coming at a time when the men are restless owing to Short's policy of procrastination regarding the wages question, it is just the sort of stupid bureaucratic blundering that may precipitate a strike.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1923. It may be copyrighted outside the U.S. (see Help:Public domain).