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Sydney Harbour Bridge

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Trade Unions

Unit 6 – Men of the Union – Working life during the 1920s

The 1920s was a period of expansion in the trade union movement. Steady economic growth was accompanied by increasing demands from workers through their unions, for a greater share in the new prosperity, particularly for better wages and a shorter working week.

Trade union
An organisation of employees, which acts collectively for mutual protection and assistance and is often concerned with wages and conditions of employment. Unions represent workers in dealings with employers and government. Many unions also offer extra services to their members such as advice about finance and access to h ealth services.

Industrial action in the form of strikes was a common feature of this period. One of the most famous was the Victorian Police Strike in 1923. A particularly bitter industrial dispute during this decade was the fifteen-month lockout during 1929–1930 of coal miners in northern New South Wales. The Rothbury Riot resulted in police shooting at miners, killing one man and seriously injuring many others.

Some Bridge worker unions did occasionally take strike action, but these disputes were usually quickly resolved. Dorman, Long & Co. Ltd., , the firm responsible for the construction of the Bridge, had managed to write into its contract an arrangement in which wage increases for workers would be funded by the government.

Towards the end of the decade, a period of severe economic decline set in. The collapse of the US Stock Market in the Wall Street Crash of 1929 sent shock waves around the world: the Great Depression had begun. Workers were laid off and wages and working conditions for those who kept their jobs deteriorated rapidly.

Stock Market
The system of buying and selling stocks and shares; also, a building in which these transactions take place (the stock exchange).

‘Crash’ refers to a situation when the prices of stocks fall dramatically, resulting in many bankruptcies. The most famous case was the Wall Street crash of 1929. Wall Street in New York is the address of the US Stock Exchange.

However, the NSW government, led by its Premier Jack Lang was determined to keep as many workers employed as possible. Instead of repaying its loans to Great Britain, the government used its income to fund major public works projects like the Sydney Harbour Bridge. So many workers kept their jobs and survived the worst effects of the Depression. On the Bridge the men had their working hours cut so that more men could be employed. For this reason, the Sydney Harbour Bridge earned the nickname the ‘Iron Lung’

Source 1 – Men of the union

At the time, 60 per cent of male employees were trade union members. Unions were concerned about the basic wage and the working week. The engineers provided a good example. When the Amalgamated Engineering Union gained its first award in 1921 they won reduced hours from 48 to 44 hours. In 1925 the state Labor government legislated for a 44 hour week …

Most Bridge skilled engineering workers belonged to traditional guild unions or the newer industrial craft unions that offered training and apprenticeships … Apprentices joined the Amalgamated Engineering Union (AEU) … It was exciting. Charles Brown, an apprentice boilermaker in the workshop, remembered:

Everybody that worked there was in the Boilermakers’ Union mainly, because they were mainly boilermakers – and the [Federated] Iron Workers. There was no set time for meetings but, if any sort of problem arose, where there was a need to approach management to iron it out, there would be a meeting. The chairman was the blacksmith on the job. And the meetings were always well attended. Everybody took a keen interest in it.

Source: Pylon Honour Roll p11

Source 2 – Union meeting of bridge workers


A lunchtime meeting of the Bridge workers who
were members of the Ironworkers Association.
Photograph: Mrs Tomrop, courtesy of Richard
Raxworthy. Source: J. Holder & G. Harris,
Sydney Harbour Bridge Workers: Honour Roll
1922–1932, Pylon Lookout, Sydney Harbour Bridge,
3rd Edition, 2007, p 10 at Pylon Honour Roll

Source 3

The Milsons Point boilermakers and their squads got good money. But they had to work for it. They didn’t get any tea breaks, any sick leave or any annual leave. And they didn’t get clean-up time or facilities, any retrenchment notice or any compensation pay, unless they were off for three days.

Up on the arch, the gangers had to fight for height money. They won, when Judge Swindell of the NSW Arbitration Court made the ‘tin hare’ decision. His Honour climbed onto the arch, took one uneasy look and said ‘give ’em what they want’. But they still didn’t have any safety gear. As Stan London said many years later, ‘you just got on with it’. All the men wore sandshoes and overalls, which they had to replace every few months. The engineers and holder-ups worked inside the dark, airless chords. (View an image of the bottom chord of the SHB: In summer, the steel was hot. In winter, it was cold and damp.

Source:Pylon Honour Roll p 13

Reduction of costs by laying off, sacking workers

The Court of Arbitration, established by the Industrial Arbitration Act 1901, was established to settle industrial disputes between employers and workers. It had a President (a Supreme Court judge) and two members representing employers and employees respectively.

The segments which form the arch members of the bridge.


Think about it

  • Why do you think the meetings of the Bridge worker members of the Boilermaker Union were so well attended? (Source 1)
  • What were the main advantages of union membership in those days?
  • What might have been the disadvantages of union membership?
  • Using sources 1–5 and your knowledge of the working conditions of the Bridge workers (Unit 3: ‘The Men who built the Bridge’) what issues would have been discussed at the lunchtime union meeting depicted in Source 2?
  • What did the Bridge gangers gain from Judge Swindell’s ‘tin-hare’ decision?
  • Why was the Sydney Harbour Bridge called ‘The Iron Lung’?


  • Visit page 13 of the Pylon Honour Roll site dedicated to the workers who built the Bridge
  • Make a list of the different unions to which the Bridge workers belonged.
  • What were the main issues involved in the industrial disputes of other workers mentioned earlier in this unit – the 1923 Victorian Police Strike and the Rothbury Coalminers dispute? How were these disputes settled?


  • Working in pairs conduct a union meeting debate between two Bridge workers. One worker is supporting strike action on the issue that is being debated and the other is opposed to strike action. In preparing your arguments consider:
    • What occupation/union is involved? What issue is being debated? What are the main arguments for/against strike action in this case?
  • Debate the statement: ‘The Bridge workers were better off than other workers in the 1920s and 1930s’.
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