Australian History, 1946.

The speedy introduction of shorter hours; direct action, arbitration or legislation.

by May Brodney

Source: "Reason in Revolt", Source documents of Australian Radicalism.
First Published: in The Forty-Hour Week, Victorian Labor College, Melbourne, 1946.
Transcription/HTML: by Kevin Goins.
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2007). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.



The immediate extending of the 40-hour week to all sections of industry and to all industries working a longer period is the demand of organised labor.

We are agreed upon the urgency of it, but we are not all agreed upon the means of accomplishing our demand.

The request of the A.C.T.U. for legislation on the matter seemed to be a commonsense way of achieving the 40-hour week.  The Government was asked to bring relief which was overdue partly because of the workers' acceptance of long hours for war-time production.

It is now clear that there will be strong opposition by anti-working class interests to any introduction of the measure by the Federal Parliament.  The position appears to be that even if the Government agreed to introduce and pass legislation for a shorter working week, this may not be the speedier way to achieve a shorter working week.  If the constitutional issue is raised, High Court action can take months even to reach a hearing by this Court.

There are still those who insist that the Government can and should introduce the measure.  This places them in the position of proving that it can be done.  Many of those urging this course are not people who are wholehearted supporters of constitutional means.  In fact they are quite obviously advocating this move, trusting that, because of its difficulties, the workers will be forced to take direct action in the demand for the legal enactment of their claim.


Direct action is probably the most effective method of achieving any demand, but it is also the most costly to the workers.  That is not to say that the cost is too high to pay for the success.  It may, in the long run, be less costly than to continue to work for excessive hours.  So many workers are employed at long hours that united action from them would result in a general revolt.  The question to decide is whether we should enforce a shorter working week by direct action.  We should not be afraid of the general strike because of its magnitude.  On the other hand we must be prepared for the situation which can develop out of it.  If organized Labor is not prepared to rise to the emergencies of a general strike, then a reactionary organization will undoubtedly do so.

This is the position we must face.  And those who propose generalised strike action should indicate what preparations are in hand to meet a possible revolutionary situation.  Because the general strike creates such a position.  A one-day stoppage is merely an irritation, and gets us nowhere.

The challenge of strike action is in this case not only to the employing class interests, but it is also to a Federal Labor Government.

A Federal Labor Government which has lost contact and sympathy with the working class demands is obviously worth little to the workers.

We have heard it asked by good unionists who are also good Labor Party supporters: “Why can't we get a 40-hour week from the Federal Labor Government?”  These unionists believe that we live in a real democracy, and if Labor is in power then Labor can do what it wishes.  If it doesn't introduce and pass the 40-hour week it is because it is letting down the men and women who placed the Government in power.

The Federal Labor Party had to take the Commonwealth Constitution as it found it.  And it found it with certain named powers.  And just as a newly elected union executive can do only those things which the rule book says it can do, the Federal Parliament can do only those things which the Federal Rule Book—the Constitution—says it can do.

The Federal Constitution denies to the Federal Parliament, whatever its political majority, the power to legislate directly on any industrial question—hours, wages or conditions.

It can legislate to prevent and settle interstate industrial disputes, and it is by this roundabout way that the Arbitration Court comes to deal with hours and wages.

The Federal Parliament has power to deal with external affairs, and under this power it can make (and has made) treaties.  Therefore, many say, if the Commonwealth has made a treaty or engagement I favor of a 40-hour week, by this means, also roundabout, the Federal Government can pass a law making 40 hours the standard working week.  But the Commonwealth has not made a treaty saying it would legislate for 40 hours.  All this treaty talk is very much up in the air and very confused.

The fact is that Parliament is not the supreme power that the average citizen supposes it to be.  Quite apart form constitutional difficulties there are other very real limitations on the power of Governments to legislate.

We live under a system of society in which the workers are the exploited class.  By their numbers they can, on occasion, elect a majority to Parliament, but the institutions which control our economic life can hamstring a Government elected by the majority of the people.

A New South Wales Government in 1932 was not allowed to legislate in the interests of the workers although it had overwhelming support fro the majority of electors.  It attempted to carry out measures to protect the interests of the majority, and it was the King's representative who broke the law to force that Government out of office.

More important still, it was the institutions of capitalism, the press and the vested interests based on a universal individualism and selfishness which made the defeat of that Government possible.  The Governor's act alone was not sufficient to remove the Labor Government from office.  The people were stampeded, and it is important also to remember that the institutions of capitalism were supported in discrediting the Government with the people by an anti-working class organisation calling itself “militant” and working class.  These same people are to the fore in urging direct action and in criticising the Federal Labor Government today.

That fact alone should not decide us against strike action, but we must be sure that organised labor is convinced that this issue will be and should be won by strike action.  A vocal minority should not decide the method.  It must have real and sustained support is it is to be successful.

The Federal Labor Government has now decided to intervene in the case for 40 hours brought by the Printing Industry Employees' Union before the Arbitration Court.  Surely our arguments are more potent today than they were in 1920 for a 44-hour week.  Surely we have enough faith in our industrial representatives proving to the satisfaction of the Court that the hours of labor must be reduced.  The arguments for a reduction of hours are overwhelming.

We would have little cause to doubt our success had we used the last quarter of a century in improving our educational and propaganda work in the unions.  But here again we were hamstrung because the task of breadwinning still consumes all the workers' time and energy in spite of that small measure of relief given as far back as 1920 by Judge Higgins when he gave judgment in favor of a 44-hour week.  Twenty-six years is a long time to wait for a further reduction.  In fact, it is too long, and further delays are not likely to be tolerated by a Labor Movement which has its mind made up on this vital question of a shorter working week.