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Fourth International, November-December 1947


Struggle for 40-Hour Week in Australia


From Fourth International, November-December 1947, Vol.8 No.9, pp.286-287.
Transcribed, edited & formatted by Ted Crawford & David Walters in 2008 for ETOL.


The following account of the victorious fight for the 40-hour working week has been contributed by a member of the Labor Socialist Group of Australia (Trotskyists) who played a leading part in the initiation and conduct of the campaign. – Ed.

The recent judgment of the Arbitration Court in favor of a 40-hour working week as from the first pay period in 1948 marked the virtual end of one of the most important struggles in the history of organized labor in Australia. Arbitrationists saw in the judgment a vindication of the Court. However, the truth is that the unions succeeded in “convincing” the judges only after a considerable number of workers had already won 40 hours or less by a variety of tactics, including collective bargaining, strike action, and mass pressure upon the Labor Governments.

The initiators of this fight for 40 hours were members of the Printing Industry Employes Union in Sydney. Shorter hours of work have already had a special attraction for printing workers because of the health hazards of the industry – lead poisoning, respiratory diseases, optical disorders, occupational deafness, and strain resulting from excessive concentration. During the war, the PIEU in Sydney established a Post-War Reconstruction Committee, the purpose of which was to draft a program of demands for achievement in the post-war period. Prominent in this program was a claim for a reduced working week.

Sun Workers Take Action

In October 1944, the PIEU Chapel at the Sydney Sun newspaper office launched a sudden strike for a 40-hour week and four weeks’ paid holidays per annum. Other unionists at the Sun, including members of the Amalgamated Printing Trades Union and the Australian Journalists Association, swung in behind the PIEU. The capitalist press barons immediately tried to produce the Sun in the other offices controlled by the Daily Newspaper Proprietors Association, but the workers everywhere refused to print the scab paper and were locked out. Soon the whole of the daily press in Sydney was closed down. By an overwhelming majority, the controlling body of the PIEU decided to support the newspaper workers. Arrangements were made by the bosses to produce a scab “composite” newspaper, bearing the headplates of all the capitalist daily rags concerned in the dispute. A labor force of staff men and bosses from some of the commercial printing offices went to work on the “composite” journal. Some of the staff men refused to scab. The workers engaged in the struggle quickly set about publishing their own newspaper (The News). All the work of planning and producing this large daily publication took only a few days.

Preventing an Extension

Use of the printing plant of the Communist (Stalinist) Party was obtained, together with stocks of newsprint and ink. With a great array of talent available among the striking and locked-out journalists, cartoonists, photographers and printers, The News was an instantaneous success, its sales averaging 110,000 a day during its brief life. Newsvendors co-operated by pushing sales of The News. Limited technical facilities and paper shortages prevented further expansion. The Labor Party’s weekly, Standard, and the Stalinists’ twice-weekly, Tribune, were published in enlarged editions, and were sold on the streets in great numbers. Both featured articles exposing the vicious nature of the capitalist press. In the war-time atmosphere nothing could have been more dramatic than virtual elimination of the capitalist journals and their replacement by working-class publications.

Because of the then current pro-war line of Stalinism, the attitude of the “Communist” Party towards the dispute was to accord a measure of support to the struggle, but to strive for a quick settlement, meanwhile preventing any extension to “vital” war industries. Rank and file members of the CP plied refreshments to those working on The News, but the Stalinist leaders took care to loan their printery only on the express stipulation that The News refrain from advocating any extension of the fight to new sections of workers. Undoubtedly the restrictive tactics of the Stalinists greatly delayed the general introduction of a 40-hour week.

Coinciding with the dispute was a meeting of 500 shop stewards, convened at the Trades Hall to hear a report by the prominent Stalinist, Thornton, on the World Federation of Trade Unions. Prior to Thornton’s address, a spokesman for the PIEU put the case for the newspaper workers, emphasizing that the time was opportune to secure 40 hours in all industries. Rising to speak, Thornton voiced his disapproval thus: “Comrade chair and comrade – There are some people in this hall who do not seem to realize that there is a war to be won.”

Control of the dispute was assumed by the Labor Council, which, at that time, because of the “war effort” policy of the dominant Right-Wing and Stalinist factions, had rightly become notorious as “the graveyard of industrial disputes.” Settlement terms were compiled and presented to Council for ratification. It was claimed that the press barons bad capitulated. The Stalinists interpreted the terms as a great victory. Mass meetings were convened to endorse the settlement. PIEU members met in the Town Hall, while other unionists assembled at the Trades Hall. The Trades Hall meeting was stampeded into quick acceptance of the terms, whereupon a leading Stalinist member of the Labor Council hurried to the Town Hall with the news and succeeded in persuading the PIEU members to agree to resume work.

Upon returning to their jobs the newspaper workers soon realized the true position. The bosses denied having granted any concessions, as claimed by officials of the Labor Council. Victory was clinched only after the women and girls had made a last-ditch stand, and after the Chapel officials had earned out further negotiations. The ultimate success of the newspaper struggle created a grossly anomalous position among the 9,000 members of the PIEU in New South Wales. Some 1,500 newspaper workers had won 40 hours; several hundred in the State Government Printing Office worked 42½ hours; a section in “Union Label” shops had secured 40 hours by collective bargaining; while most of the remaining workers in commercial and country printing offices were forced to continue on 44 hours. In the latter half of 1945 swift moves were made to end the hours anomaly. A ballot of the trade resulted in an overwhelming majority in favor of refusing to work more than 40 hours per week. The Amalgamated Printing Trades Union fell into line with the PIEU.

Marvelous Response

Zero hour for the working of 40 hours found a marvelous response from the commercial printers. This was all the more remarkable because they were dispersed throughout literally hundreds of offices in Sydney and Newcastle. After a period during which the printers worked 40 hours for 40 hours’ pay, the Master Printers received legal advice that if they continued to condone this set-up the Arbitration Court might consider 40 hours to have become the custom of the trade, and it might be possible for the Union to claim full Award rates for the new hours. Hence an ultimatum was issued, demanding a resumption of the 44-hour week. A huge mass meeting was held. Union officials advocated that direct action be abandoned and the dispute submitted to the Arbitration Court. This advice was overwhelmingly rejected. Except for a few small offices, some of which had conceded 40 hours, all the commercial printers were then locked out.

On October 23 (1945) at a critical stage in the dispute, a meeting of 600 union executive members and Labor Council delegates was held in the Trades Hall. It was decided to hold mass demonstrations for 40 hours on December 9. Support for the printers’ claims was declared, but the meeting, despite a strong demand for an extension of the struggle by a spokesman for the rank-and-file printers, limited itself to calling upon the Federal Government to implement a 40-hour week within six months after V-P Day, using the powers it possessed to ratify the 40 hours policy of the International Labor Office. Under the depressing effect of this decision, the struggle then moved toward a climax. The Federal officials of the PIEU came to Sydney. Another mass meeting was called. Officials made predictions that if the dispute were referred to the Arbitration Court a quick hearing was assured. It was decided to hold a secret ballot of the PIEU and the Amalgamated Printing Trades Union. The result of the ballot showed that a clear majority favored going back to work and submitting the case to the Court.

Meanwhile the Labor Council’s campaign was getting under way. A procession was held, followed by a big rally in the Domain.

A Marathon Hearing

The printers’ case came before the Arbitration Court, but the Commonwealth Government and the Australasian Council of Trade Unions intervened to make the case a general 40-hour hearing for all Federal unions. Thus instead of a quick “test case” the hearing became a marathon affair which lasted approximately two years. Union officials appearing before the Court emphasized that the workers had been promised “a new social order” after the war. However, the officials had great difficulty in substantiating this claim in evidence because they had failed to secure any written promise from either the Government or the employers.

As a result of the Court delays the Stalinists sought a revival of strike action, arguing that the judges were stalling in order that the coming of an inevitable economic depression would justify them in delivering an adverse judgment. By this non-dialectical approach the Stalinists showed that they had failed to assess the degree of mass pressure on the Court. Pressure on the Federal and State Labor Governments had become intense, and this situation of course, had repercussions in the Court. Shortening of hours was a burning issue on every job, in every union, and in every branch of the Labor Party. While Prime Minister Chifley could plead lack of constitutional power to legislate a reduction of hours, there was no barrier in the New South Wales legislature except the Upper House.

A few weeks after James McGirr succeeded McKell as Labor Premier of New South Wales, he introduced 40 hours for all State employees and workers operating under State awards. Once again was demonstrated the power of the NSW unions to influence the passage of reforms through Parliament.

Most of the capitalist class in Australia are perturbed at the tremendous victory which has sprung from the agitation for 40 hours. They dream of capturing lush overseas markets on the basis of intense exploitation of the toilers, and the shorter week is a blow at their plans. The coalminers are now demanding a 40-hour week and enthusiastic crowds who flocked to the recent six-hour demonstration in Sydney showed clearly that new struggles for shorter hours are not far distant.

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