The Gas Employees Union was one the earliest associations of organised industrial labour in Australia. The New South Wales branch, which was established in the wake of the NSW Trades Union Act, 1881, granted workers the right to be represented by a registered union. The subsequent 1885 Factories and Shops Act provided for the inspection of factories, the setting of limits on hours of work and the introduction of compensation for injuries in the workplace. All of which was particularly relevant in industries that were inherently dangerous and demanded hard physical labour in trying conditions.
Industrialisation and the development of the factory system in the late nineteenth century brought more workers and a variety of trades and occupations together in a single workplace. The system made possible a labour movement dedicated to the improvement of workers’ wages and living conditions, through political and industrial action. Previously the withdrawal of labour was only feasible for highly skilled artisans, whose exclusivity afforded them protection through traditional craft guilds.
The opening of the AGL gasworks at Mortlake in 1886 represented a significant increase in the scale of production, easily eclipsing previous operations at Darling Harbour and earlier works at Balmain and Five Dock. Skilled and unskilled workers in the same workplace were separated by different rates of pay and terms of employment, but together each could forge agreements with management that might improve overall conditions. The key to achieving this was acting in unison and so loyalty to a trade union became central to workers’ identity.
The Federated Gas Employees Industrial Union of New South Wales was founded in 1885. It presaged the opening of the gasworks at Mortlake from where the majority of its members would come. Interestingly, the NSW branch predated its English counterpart, the Gas Workers and General Labourers Union founded in Deptford, near London in 1889. The Mortlake gasworks were modelled on those in nearby Beckton. The name of the Deptford Gas Workers Union is telling. It reflects a distinction between the gas workers, who considered themselves specialists and the general labourers, thought of as unskilled. The title “gas employees” is more inclusive, while the term “federated” indicates an amalgamation and a more egalitarian attitude. (Andrew West)