History of the Australian Labor Movement - A Marxist Interpretation by E. W. Campbell. 1945

Chapter 4. The War Exposes The Futility Of Reformism And Anarcho-Syndicalism

A. The Attitude Of The Labor Party Towards The War.

When war broke out in August, 1914, the Cook Liberal Government had already decided to hold a Federal election on September 15. It wanted to get rid of the Labor majority in the Senate and had precipitated a double dissolution on the question of preference to unionists. With the declaration of war the Labor Party proposed a political truce. W. M. Hughes and other leaders made public statements offering to withdraw from elections for the duration of the war if the Liberals would do likewise. The Liberal Party, however, felt confident that it would win the pending elections and consequently rejected Labor’s offer. It so happened that this confidence had no justification, for Labor was returned with a majority in both Houses and formed the new government, which was led by Andrew Fisher.

The parties were not at all divided on the question of the war. In the election campaign both sides made it clear that they fully supported the war aims of the Empire. The attitude of the Labor Party was defined in a Manifesto which stated:

“As regards the attitude of Labor towards the war, that is easily stated. War is one of the greatest realities of life and it must be faced. Our interests and our very existence are bound up with those of the Empire. In time of war half measures are worse than none. If returned with a majority we shall pursue, with the utmost vigour and determination, every course necessary for the defence of the Commonwealth and the Empire, in any and every contingency, regarding as we do such a policy as the first duty of the government. At this juncture the electors may give their support to the Labor Party with the utmost confidence.”

The whole history of the Labor Party, from 1891 to 1914, prepared it for the adoption of just such a policy. The other attitude could have been expected from a non-socialist, bourgeois liberal labor party. The Australian Labor Party, as we have seen, right from its very inception turned its back on the class struggle, rejected socialism and working class internationalism. The Objective of the party, adopted in 1908, was:

“a) The cultivation of an Australian sentiment based on the maintenance of racial purity and the development in Australia of an enlightened and self-reliant community.

“b) The securing of the full results of their industry to all producers by the collective ownership of monopolies and the extension of the economic functions of the State.”

Nothing could reveal more clearly than this Objective how far removed was the Labor Party from Socialism. The class divisions of modern society are overlooked; the independent class interests of the workers ace ignored; and for proletarian internationalism there is substituted bourgeois nationalism of the worst kind.

Lenin was completely justified in writing as he did in 1913 that:

“The Australian Labor Party does not even claim to be a Socialist Party. As a matter of fact, it is a liberal bourgeois party and the so-called Liberals in Australia are really Conservatives ... The leaders of the A.L.P. are trade union officials, an element which everywhere represents a most moderate and ‘capital serving’ element, and in Australia it is altogether peaceful and purely liberal.” [1]

The Labor Party’s attitude of support for the imperialist war therefore flowed logically from its whole outlook and practice in the preceding period. It is true that the Australian Labor Party was not affiliated to the Second International and consequently was not bound to the Anti-War Resolution adopted by that body at Stockholm, 1910, and at Basle, 1912. But this in no way lessens the guilt of these Australian labor leaders who betrayed the workers’ cause and led them into the imperialist war.

True to its election promises to do all possible to win the war for the ruling class, the Labor Party, within a month of its return to office, introduced two Acts which were to play a prominent part in the future life of the Commonwealth. These were the War Precautions Act and the Crimes Act. Both were ostensibly war measures, but, as we shall see, free use was made of them to curb militant working class activity and to railroad insurgent elements into gaol.

The overwhelming majority of reformist trade union leaders shared the official labor outlook on the war. Many of them hastened to show their patriotism, not by enlisting, but by sponsoring resolutions calling on their members to forego overtime rates and other privileges for the ‘duration’.

So far as the rank and file workers were concerned there was no marked enthusiasm for the war. At the outset they were confused and led astray by their leaders and for a time were deceived by the bourgeois propaganda that it was ‘a war for democracy’, a ‘war to end all wars’ and so on. Many were forced into the army by economic pressure, many more were enticed to join up by the fallacious argument that if the Empire were defeated Prussian militarism would overrun the world and thus put an end to all their hard won liberties. The workers were too immature politically to realise, and the Socialists were not in a position to make them, that there was another alternative, namely, the defeat of both British and German imperialism by the international working class. This path was mapped out by the Extraordinary International Socialist Congress at Basle November 24/25, 1912, whose Manifesto declared:

“If a war threatens to break out, it is the duty of the working classes and their parliamentary representatives in the countries involved, supported by the co-ordinating activity of the International Socialist Bureau, to exert every effort in order to prevent the outbreak of war by the means they consider most effective which naturally vary according to the sharpening of the class struggle and the sharpening of the general political situation.

In case war should break out anyway, it is their duty to intervene in favour of its speedy termination and with all their powers to utilise the economic and political crisis created by the war to arouse the people and thereby hasten the downfall of capitalist class rule.” [2]

The Bolshevik Party was the only party in the International which led consistently in accordance with the spirit of this resolution. Under Lenin’s slogan, “Turn the Imperialist War Into Civil War,” the Bolsheviks did, with all their power, utilise the economic and political crisis created by the war to arouse the people, and thereby brought about an end to the class rule of the landlords and capitalists in the great Socialist Revolution of November, 1917.

The only opposition to the imperialist war in Australia came from a few small groups of international socialists, who lacked any mass influence, and the Industrial Workers of the World. On the Sunday following the outbreak of war the I.W.W. unfurled a banner over its meeting in the Sydney Domain on which was inscribed the challenging query, “War, What For?” A forceful team of speakers proceeded to answer from the platform that it was a war for markets, a war for sources of raw material, a war for profits, a war in the interests of capitalism and against the interests of the working class. The I.W.W. continued to voice its revolutionary opposition to the war until it was suppressed under Hughes’ Unlawful Association Act in 1916.

In view of the important role played by the I.W.W. in the struggle against the war and conscription, and in view of the big influence which it exerted for a time in the Australian labor movement, it is well to digress here and elaborate somewhat on the history of this organisation.

B. The Programme And Activity Of The Industrial Workers Of The World.

The I.W.W. was founded in America in 1905 by the Socialist Labor Party, whose leader was Daniel De Leon. De Leon called himself a Marxist, but his knowledge of Marxism was far from complete. He was a good example of the type of labor leader referred to by Lenin as having mastered only certain aspects of Marxism, only certain “... individual slogans and parts of the new world conception, or demands ...” [3] The Socialist Labor Party was a most sectarian body which carried out propaganda for ‘pure socialism’ and held itself aloof from the struggle for immediate demands.

A Socialist Labor Party was established in Australia in 1897, which also based itself on the one-sided doctrines of De Leon, and, like its American counterpart, segregated itself from the masses. Some two years after the establishment of the I.W.W. in America the Socialist Labor Party here fostered clubs to spread the new doctrines of industrial unionism. These early I.W.W. Clubs were subordinated to the S.L.P., which exercised strict control over their activities. Many clubs chafed under this rigid control and felt that insufficient scope was allowed for developing their propaganda for industrial unionism.

In 1908 differences of opinion concerning the future relations between the I.W.W. and the S.L.P. led to a split in the American organisation. The adherents of De Leon wanted to retain affiliation with the S.L.P. and to continue under its political direction. The extreme syndicalist elements, led by Trautmann, would not accept this. They considered that industrial action should take precedence over political action, and that the I.W.W. should not be tied to any political party. The opposing factions came to be known as the Detroit I.W.W. (De Leon followers) and the Chicago I.W.W. (Trautmann supporters), taking these titles from the names of the towns which they made their headquarters.

It was the Chicago, or extreme syndicalist, wing which gained the ascendency here in Australia. In 1908 a Local was set up in Adelaide which secured a Charter from the Chicago body authorising it to act as the Continental Administration for Australia, with the right to issue Charters to new branches which might be formed in other parts. In 1913 the Sydney Branch, which received its original Charter from Adelaide, became the headquarters for the movement in Australia.

The principles of the I.W.W., as set out in the preamble to the constitution in 1905, were as follows:

“The working class and the employing class have nothing in common. There can be no peace so long as hunger and want are found among millions of working people and the few, who make up the employing class, have all the good things in life.

“Between these two classes a struggle must go on until all the toilers come together on the political, as well as on the industrial field, and take and hold that which they produce by their labor through an economic organisation of the working class, without affiliation with any political party.

“The rapid gathering of wealth and the centering of the management of industries into fewer and fewer hands make the trade unions unable to compete with the ever-growing power of the employing class, because the trade unions foster a state of things which allows one set of workers to be pitted against another set of workers in the same industry, thereby helping to defeat one another in wage wars. The trade unions aid the employing class to mislead the workers into the belief that the working class have interests in common with their employers.

“These sad conditions can be changed-and the interests of the working class upheld only by an organisation formed in such a way that all its members in any one industry, or in all industries, if necessary, cease work whenever a strike or lockout is on in any department thereof, thus making an injury to one an injury to all.” [4]

Following the split in 1908 the Detroit faction disintegrated entirely and the Chicago faction remained as the I.W.W. It changed the set of principles adopted in 1905, by rejecting all mention of political action. The second paragraph of the preamble was altered to read:

“Between these two classes a struggle must go on until the workers of the world organise as a class, take possession of the earth and the machinery of production, and abolish the wages system.”

And two new paragraphs were added:

“Instead of the conservative motto, ‘A fair day’s wages for a fair day’s Work,’ we must inscribe on our banner the revolutionary watchword, ‘Abolition of the wages system.’

“It is the historical mission of the working class to do away with capitalism. The army of production must be organised, not only for the everyday struggle with capitalists, but also to carry on production when capitalism shall have been overthrown. By organising industrially we are forming the structure of the new society within the shell of the old.” [5]

By this action the I.W.W. became a purely industrial body, categorically rejecting even the necessity for a political party of the working class.

Concerning the methods of the I.W.W., Vincent St. John, its one time secretary in America, states:

“As a revolutionary organisation the Industrial Workers of the World aims to use any and all tactics that will get the results sought with the least expenditure of time and energy ...

“No terms made with an employer are final. All peace, so long as the wage system lasts, is but an armed truce ...

“The I.W.W. realises that the day of successful long strikes is past ...

“The I.W.W. maintains that nothing will be conceded by the employers except that which we have the power to lake and hold by the strength of our organisation. Therefore we seek no agreements with the employers.

“Failing to force concessions from the employers by strikes, work is resumed and ‘sabotage’ is used to force the employers to concede the demands of the workers.” [6]

The dogmas of the I.W.W. may be paraphrased and restated in a summarised form as follows:

a) There can be no peace in industry while capitalism lasts. Therefore, apart altogether from whether the objective conditions warrant it, the thing to do is to fan the flames of class war by strikes, sabotage, go-slow or any other means which present themselves.

b) Through the class struggle the workers will be brought together so that some day in some way they will spontaneously revolt and take possession of the means of production.

c) The concentration of production has rendered craft unionism obsolete. Therefore the craft unions must be supplanted by new industrial unions.

d) Sectional strikes have no value and should be dispensed with in favour of the general strike.

e) When the collapse of capitalism has been effected the new industrial unions will blossom forth as production syndicates, assuming the tasks of management in the new society.

It will be noticed that no consideration whatsoever is given to the question of the State – “The root question in all politics.” [7] The I.W.W. shared the opinions of the anarchists and anti-authoritarians, generally, on this vital issue. They regarded all forms of State power as being an abomination and thought that the rule of authority would be brought to an* end with the collapse of capitalism. They couldn’t conceive the need for the Dictatorship of the Proletariat in the period of transition from capitalism to communism.

Ridiculing the anarchists and their repudiation of politics, Marx wrote in 1873:

“If the political struggle of the working class assumes violent forms, if the workers set up their revolutionary dictatorship in place of the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, they commit the terrible crime of violating principles, for in order to satisfy their wretched, vulgar, everyday needs, in order to crush the resistance of the bourgeoisie, instead of laying down their arms and abolishing the State, they give the State a revolutionary and transitory form ...” [8]

“Engels enlarges on the same ideas in even greater detail and more simply. First of all he ridicules the muddled ideas of the Proudhonists, who call themselves ‘anti-authoritarians’, i.e., they repudiate every sort of authority, every sort of subordination, every sort of power. Take a factory, a railway, a ship on the high seas, said Engels – is it not clear that not one of these complex technical units, based on the employment of machinery and the ordered cooperation of many people, could function without a certain amount of subordination and, consequently, without some authority or power?

“... If the autonomists would confine themselves to saying that the social organisation of the future will restrict authority to the limits in which the relations of production make it inevitable, we could understand each other, but they are blind to all facts which make the thing necessary, and they hurl themselves against the world.

“Why don’t the anti-authoritarians confine themselves to crying out against political authority, against the State? All socialists are agreed that the State, and with it political authority, will disappear as the result of the coming social revolution, i.e., that public functions will lose their political character and be transformed into the simple administrative functions of watching over real social interests. But the anti-authoritarians demand that the political state should be abolished at once, even before the social conditions which brought it into being have been abolished. They demand that the first act of the social revolution shall be the abolition of authority.” [9]

The I.W.W. considered that the overnight ‘abolition of authority’ would leave the working class with purely economic functions to fulfil and that these would be carried out by the new industrial unions; hence, “By organising industrially we are forming the structure of the new society within the shell of the old.”

There were three main points in the I.W.W. creed which appealed to fairly wide sections of Australian workers:

1) the propaganda for industrial unionism;

2) the criticism of Wages boards and Arbitration Courts and

3) the denunciation of reformist union officials and labor politicians.

The workers were themselves becoming aware of the growing inadequacy of the craft unions in view of the rapid development of monopoly. They naturally lent a willing ear to any proposals designed to strengthen their ‘citadels’. The Wages Boards and Arbitration Courts had now been functioning long enough to reveal something of their true character, and workers generally were becoming fed up with the long delays associated with the ventilation of their grievances through the Courts. They were already beginning to contrast the meagre results obtained from arbitration with those achieved by direct action in an earlier period. Consequently they were in a receptive mood for the I.W.W. propaganda directed against the whole system. Finally there was the conduct of the Labor Party in office and its spineless subservience to the ruling class which turned many workers in the direction of syndicalism.

In 1914 there were four I.W.W. Locals active in Adelaide, Sydney, Broken Hill and Port Pirie, but its influence already extended far beyond its small membership. In evidence of this the Executive of the Melbourne Trades Hall Council was called on in 1907 to report on a proposal to reorganise the trade union on I.W.W. lines. The proposal was rejected but the I.W.W. itself was acknowledged to be “another phase of the unionist movement in which the distinctive badge of craftism is merged in the greater humanity ...” In the same year a Trade Union Congress was held in New South Wales and a resolution was put forward by the delegates from Newcastle recommending the adoption of the I.W.W. Preamble.

This met with considerable support, but it also encountered opposition from the craft union officials and aspirants for parliamentary honours who were present at the Congress. After considerable debate it was defeated. These initial setbacks did not arrest the spread of I.W.W. influence. In July, 1907, the coal miners in New South Wales and Victoria federated. Prior to this there had been three separate federations in the Northern, Southern and Western districts of New South Wales, as well as the Victorian organisation. The chief credit for bringing these bodies together into one Federation belongs to Peter Bowling, a miners’ leader and member of the I.W.W. In 1908 a strike took place among tramwaymen in Sydney and Holman, deputy leader of the Labor Party, claimed that the I.W.W. were responsible.

More evidence of the spread of I.W.W. influence was provided in 1909, when the Broken Hill miners went on strike. At the height of the struggle the leaders were arrested and charged with seditious conspiracy. Wade, the Premier, transferred the scene of the trial from the Barrier to Albury. This was regarded by unionists as evidence of the Governments intentions to secure a conviction by fair means or by foul. Feeling ran high in trade union circles and considerable support was found for the I.W.W. propaganda for a general strike. Peter Bowling moved in this direction at the Trade Union Congress which met in Sydney a few days before the trial was scheduled to take place. It was defeated by a narrow majority.

A few months later the coal miners came out on strike to rectify a number of outstanding grievances and again it seemed likely that the I.W.W. plans for a general stoppage would be realised. Peter Bowling exerted himself to bring this about. Negotiations were opened with the waterside workers as a first step in this direction. At this stage the Government intervened and proposed to the miners that they return to work pending a compulsory conference. This idea was rejected by the miners who continued the discussions with the wharfies with a view to extending the struggle.

In an attempt to intimidate the workers the Government caused Bowling and other strike leaders to be arrested and charged with violating the provisions of the Industrial Disputes Act. Under pressure bail was agreed to and they were turned loose. W. M. Hughes, who at the time was leader of the Waterside Workers’ Union, had one eye on the pending Federal elections in which he was a candidate, and was anxious to avoid becoming involved in the dispute. At the first available opportunity he broke off negotiations with the miners, who thereupon declared that they would continue the struggle alone.

This schism proved to be just what the Premier, Wade, had been waiting for. He immediately rushed through both Houses of Parliament a Bill to amend the Industrial Disputes Act. This new Coercion Act, or ‘Leg Iron Bill’ as it came to be known in union circles, placed strikes in certain specified industries in a special category and forbade them under severe penalties. Police were given exceptionally wide powers under this legislation and persons charged with offences against it were deprived of the right of trial by jury. No sooner was the ink dry upon the Governor’s signature of assent than Bowling and his colleagues were again arrested and thrown into gaol. This time bail was not allowed and the strike leaders remained in prison until they were sentenced to eighteen months’ imprisonment. Under these circumstances the strike soon collapsed.

This serious setback checked for a time the growth of the I.W.W. But with the outbreak of war it soon revived and began to make ever more rapid headway. Early in 1915 new Locals were established in Melbourne and Brisbane. In the following year branches were set up in Fremantle and on the Western Australian goldfields. Locals also sprang up at different centres in North Queensland. The I.W.W. was well on the way to becoming a nation wide organisation. Early in 1914 it began to publish a weekly newspaper, “Direct Acton,” which reached a circulation of 14,000.

The first lending article in this paper is most interesting. It not only offers a fair sample of the I.W.W. philosophy, but at the same time indicates how it was that the I.W.W. was incapable of providing the workers with a leadership alternative to the A.L.P.:

For the first time in the history of the working class movement in Australia,” this leader states, “a paper appears which stands for straight out direct actionist principles, unhampered by the plausible theories of the parliamentarians, whether revolutionary or otherwise ... (My emphasis. E.W.C.)

The I.W.W. thus rejected all parliamentary action. It made no distinction between reformist politics and revolutionary politics. This was one of the major theoretical weaknesses of the I.W.W. To reject politics entirely is to leave this sphere exclusively to the bourgeoisie, to leave them in undisturbed control of the State. The Australian workers had learned from their experience in the ’nineties just what this means, and had sought instinctively to overcome it by forming their own party.

The A.L.P. failed the workers, not because it engaged in parliamentary activity, but because, lacking in socialist principles, it raised this form of struggle to the level of an all embracing one sided, theory, and subordinated to it all other forms of the class struggle. This contributed to the A.L.P. sinking deeper and deeper into the bog of opportunism and to its coming more and more under bourgeois influences. The task confronting socialists was to rescue the workers movement from this swamp, to rid it of opportunism, to give it a conscious purpose and to reduce parliamentary action to its proper perspective as one of many (and not the most important) of the different forms of class struggle. The I.W.W. was theoretically and organisationally incapable of tackling this great task. It swung to the opposite extreme and rejected political action entirely. Thus, on spite of its revolutionary opposition to the war, it was unable to mobilise the Australian workers for a socialist way out.

Most of the propaganda and activity of the I.W.W. bears the same negative character as its attitude towards parliamentarism. It denounced craft unionism, it denounced arbitration, it denounced the Labor Party, etc. But the prosecution of the class struggle calls for much more than a bald denunciation of the evils of capitalism; it calls for constructive as well as destructive effort; it calls for ability to tackle and solve in a positive manner all the problems which con- front the labor movement at the different stages of its development. This is where the I.W.W. failed. Because of its own one-sidedness and sectarianism, because of its unsound theory it was unable to find a constructive answer to the difficult questions which history put before the Australian labor movement during the first imperialist world war.

The organisational structure of the I.W.W. reflected its unsound theoretical principles. On paper this scheme provided for six main production departments:

1. Agriculture;
2. Mining;
3. Transport and Communication;
4. Manufacture;
5. Construction;
6. Public Service.

Within these main departments room was left for industrial unions in the narrower sense. For instance, department 3 would be subdivided into unions for railwaymen, seamen, road transport workers and so on. These smaller bodies would have their own executive, which would be subordinated to the Department Executives. These in turn would be subordinated to the General Executive Council. These plans never emerged from the blue print stage of development. Only a mere skeleton form of organisation was actually created, with a General Executive in Sydney and a number of Locals scattered throughout the Commonwealth. Consequently the I.W.W. was not equipped to stand up to the political struggle which, notwithstanding its own doctrines, the State and Federal authorities forced upon it. When the leaders were arrested in 1916 the organisation was crippled. It attempted to carry on but lacked the necessary means. For a time “Direct Action” continued publication and Domain meetings were held as usual. But early in 1917 when a mass round up of members was carried out and Tom Barker and other leaders were deported the I.W.W. was finally crushed.

The I.W.W. was declared an illegal organisation in December, 1916, under the Unlawful Associations Act put through by the Labor Government of W. M. Hughes. But the twelve members, who had been arrested prior to this, were proceeded against by the Crown under the common law on trumped up charges of “conspiracy to commit arson and sedition.” They were sentenced by Mr. Justice Pring to terms of imprisonment ranging from 5 to 15 years. A vigorous campaign was launched among the working class, demanding their release. In 1918 a Royal Commission was appointed to investigate the case, but the twelve remained in gaol, the Commissioner, Mr. Justice Street, declaring that, “nothing could be done.”

However, organised labor showed that something could be done, and the sustained agitation resulted in a second Royal Commission being appointed in 1920. The new Commissioner, Mr. Justice Ewing, found that four of the Crown witnesses in 1916 were “liars and perjurers.” Three of them, David Goldstein, Louis Goldstein and Scully, were trying to gain immunity from prison in reward for their perjured evidence, while the fourth, McAlister, was himself a member of the I.W.W. and involved in a conspiracy to commit arson. “The conviction of the prisoners,” Mr. Justice Ewing said, “had perforce to depend to a very large extent upon the evidence of these witnesses.”

C. The Anti-Conscription Movement.

Early in 1915 the question of Conscription for overseas service came under discussion in Australia. Compulsory service for home defence was already on the Statute Book, Labor having been to the forefront in placing it there. As early as 1903 W. M. Hughes, supported by his colleagues, Watson and Spence, moved in Parliament for the adoption of compulsory military training. In the same year the Federal Parliament passed a Defence Act which empowered the Governor-General to call out the Citizen Forces for war service. This Act was amended in 1909 to render all male inhabitants between the ages of 18 and 60 liable to service in the Citizen Forces in time of war. In 1911 a Cadet system became operative for training boys between 14 and 17 years of age. A plan for adult training was scheduled to follow. A bitter controversy broke out around the principle of compulsion. Hughes and the main body of Labor leaders vigorously defended this principle and denounced its critics, who favoured voluntarism. The chief opposition to compulsory service came from small groups of socialists, who were opposed to all forms of militarism on grounds of principle, and religious sects like the Society of Friends.

The boys called up by the Act of 1911 were intensely hostile towards the system. Between July, 1911, when the compulsory training scheme began to operate, and March, 1915, there were no less than 34,000 prosecutions for refusals to attend drill. The unremitting socialist and pacifist agitation against the principle of compulsion in this period no doubt laid the basis for the organised opposition to Conscription which developed in 1916.

In February, 1915, the Australian Defence League, a bourgeois patriotic association with which Hughes and Holman were intimately connected, urged the Commonwealth Government to “draft the men of the nation for war and defence.” By July the leaders of various Chambers of Commerce and Chambers of Manufacturers had joined the clamour for Conscription. On the other side the adherents of No-Conscription became equally vocal.

The I.W.W., which had already taken up an attitude of opposition to the war, seized upon the public utterances of the Conscriptionists to further its own cause. In Melbourne the Australian Peace Alliance was formed, which, in addition to opposition to Conscription, advocated peace by international arbitration. A No-Conscription Fellowship was also set up, consisting of young men of military age who pledged themselves to undergo imprisonment rather than serve in the war. All over the country the pros and cons of Conscription were being debated.

In July, 1915, the Commonwealth Government passed a War Census Act, which the No-Conscriptionists rightly anticipated to be the first practical step towards compulsory overseas service. In the same month the Barrier Amalgamated Miners’ Association passed a resolution against Conscription. From then onwards the Unions and Labor Leagues began to take a more active interest in developments. In November, Hughes, who had succeeded Andrew Fisher as Prime Minister, promised the British Government another 50,000 men from Australia. Questionnaires and War Census cards were distributed to seek out eligibles in the community.

Unionists became alarmed at this turn of events and a deputation from the Brisbane Industrial Council waited on Hughes to elicit information concerning the Government’s intentions. Hughes was very evasive in front of the deputation, which was compelled to leave without getting much satisfaction. The War Census Cards were distributed, but, acting on the advice of their unions, 180,000 workers failed to fill them in, which nullified the whole scheme.

Up to this stage the Anti-Conscriptionists hadn’t succeeded in arousing much enthusiasm for their campaign. Their meetings were often poorly attended and were sometimes disrupted by gangs of drunken hooligans and small groups of misguided soldiers who were inspired and encouraged by the Conscriptionist press. But in January, 1916, Conscription became law in Britain and in consequence received more prominence in Australia. The Melbourne Trades Hall Council convened a special Conference in May to define the attitude of Victorian Trades Unions towards Conscription. It also debated a Resolution to send fraternal greetings to the workers in every country, imploring them to take action to force their governments to pronounce themselves openly on terms for peace. This important resolution, to which we will return later, was only defeated by the Chairman’s casting vote. The Easter Conference of the N.S.W. Labor Party pledged itself to fight against Conscription, but simultaneously pledged itself to support Hughes’ effort to raise an additional 15,000 troops by voluntary enlistment. The Victorian Labor Party Conference and the Hobart Trade Union Conference also carried resolutions opposing Conscription. On all sides the Anti-Conscription movement began to gain ground.

Following on a big pro-Conscription meeting staged by the Universal Service League in the Sydney Town Hall, the No-Conscriptionists organised a mass rally in the Sydney Domain. A real united front was brought into existence, and this became the chief contributing factor to the ultimate success of the “NO” campaign. The following organisations were among those to send speakers to the Domain meeting: The I.W.W., the A.W.U., the Trades and Labor Council, the A.L.P., the Australian Freedom League and the Australian Socialist Party. Although it would seem that no formal pact or agreement was entered into the united front was none the less constituted in practice. These organisations were normally separated by wide differences of opinion concerning ultimate aims and the methods of struggle to be employed in bringing about their realisation, and yet they found it possible to combine temporarily in a common struggle against the specific menace of Conscription. The fact that such diverse trends as socialism, reformism, syndicalism, trade unionism and pacifism were able to unite so effectively on this issue is of the utmost significance for the whole labor movement.

It disposes of the reformist fable that the united front is merely a latter day tactic of the communists for furthering their own ends. It proves beyond all doubt that differences on general questions of principle do not constitute an insurmountable barrier to common action on matters effecting the immediate interests of the working class. Each speaker from the Domain platform attacked Conscription from the viewpoint of his own particular organisation and the general effect was to greatly consolidate the “NO” forces. From then on the struggle became much sharper. The ruling class provoked larrikins and soldiers into attacking No-Conscription meetings. A biased and vicious censorship was operated against the anti-conscriptionist press, while civil and military police frequently raided socialist and trade union premises to seize documents and literature. This provocation led to the formation of a working class volunteer army at Broken Hill to combat Conscription and to defend the elementary rights of trade unions.

Hughes, who was still in London, had so far not committed himself definitely either way. On the one hand his long association with the Australian Defence League and his ardent support for the principle of compulsory military training in the past, led the Conscriptionists to believe that he would be wholeheartedly on their side in the struggle.

On the other hand, the No-Conscriptionists, recalling his unambiguous declaration of July, 1915, when the War Census Bill was under consideration, that, “In no circumstances would I agree to send men out of the country to fight against their will,” were equally certain that Hughes would be in their camp. “Pros” and “Antis” alike eagerly awaited the return of the Prime Minister to bring matters to a climax.

Hughes arrived back in July. The leading organ of the No-Conscriptionists, the “Worker” greeted his return with streamer headlines on the front page, “Welcome Back to the Cause of No-Conscription.” But Hughes, who was even then determined upon Conscription, would make no public statement on the issue until he had consulted Caucus. He soon discovered that most of his colleagues in the Labor Party were aware of the anti-conscription sentiment among the rank and file and consequently were not prepared to risk their political scalps by supporting the legislation which he had in mind.

For a time Hughes was in a quandary. It was conceivable that a Conscription Bill could be, forced through the Lower House with the support of the Liberals. But there still remained the insuperable obstacle of a Labor controlled Senate with a No-Conscription majority. Ultimately he sought a way out by means of compromise and made a proposal that a Referendum be taken for or against Conscription. In the campaign Labor members were to be free to take whichever side they pleased. After the ballot all would return to the Caucus fold, shake hands and agree to accept the people’s verdict. The object of this proposal was to avoid if possible a split in the Party which would jeopardise the life of the Government and bring to an abrupt conclusion Hughes’ career as Prime Minister. It was a typical opportunist attempt to find a solution to a difficult problem. It avoided the need for an immediate showdown and thus won the support of all members of Caucus. Hughes at the time was apparently quite confident that his Conscription proposals would be carried at the Referendum.

On, August 30 the first official announcement about the coining referendum was made. On September 1st, Hughes attended a meeting of the Executive of the Victorian Labor Party. He harangued this body for three hours in a vain attempt to convert members to his point of view. Undismayed at their adverse decision, Hughes hastened to Sydney to convert the N.S.W. Executive. He met with no greater success. By 21 votes to 5 the meeting rejected his proposals that they should support Conscription. The Queensland Executive, without even bearing the Prime Minister, arrived at a similar decision to New South Wales and Victoria. Not only did the New South Wales Executive refuse to support Conscription, it went further and rejected the idea that the politicians should be granted freedom of action on the matter. It demanded that they subordinate their will to that of the movement as a whole and come out openly and actively against Conscription. Hughes and a minority of his colleagues in the Federal Party ignored this edict and continued their activity in support of a “YES” vote. In N.S.W., Holman, who had replaced McGowan as leader of the Party and Premier of the State, was known to support Hughes. This attitude was shared by the majority of Holman’s Cabinet Ministers. In Queensland, while there were many Conscriptionists in the Party, they were not in a majority and submitted to the Caucus decision to oppose the Referendum and Conscription.

On September 15 the New South Wales Executive expelled Hughes from the Party and withdrew the endorsement of Holman and three other members of the State Parliamentary party at the pending elections. The remaining politicians were circularised and all who did not agree to oppose Conscription were dealt with in like manner. Holman and a majority of the Cabinet in New South Wales revolted against this attempt to bring them under the discipline of the movement and were ultimately expelled. Durack became the leader of the Party in New South Wales and Holman and his supporters went over to the Liberals and helped form a National Government in October, 1916.

The announcement that a Referendum was to take place was the signal for renewed activity on the part of “Pros” and “Antis” alike. The former had all the advantages of solid financial backing, free access to public halls and the full support of the capitalist press. The latter were not only denied these privileges but were further handicapped by a class biased censorship and numerous other restrictions imposed under the War Precautions Act. Nevertheless they struggled on until public sentiment began to change in their favour. Every means of intimidation and coercion against the anti-Conscription forces were resorted to by the Government. Hughes drafted a special War Precautions Act Regulation, whereby any intending voter at the Referendum could be interrogated as to whether he was subject to, and had obeyed, the proclamation calling up single men for home defence. The Regulation was only withdrawn on the eve of the ballot, after two labor members had resigned from the Ministry in protest against it. All Hughes’ machinations were in vain. When the poll was taken on October 28, Conscription was rejected. The “NO” vote totalled 1,160,033 and the “YES” vote 1,087,557.

When all the circumstances are considered the defeat of Conscription was a tremendous victory for the democratic forces in Australia, and in the first place for the labor movement. The result of the Referendum showed that whilst the workers and the middle classes were deceived about the real character of the war, and for the most part were not actively opposed to it, they were not so far carried away by chauvinism that they were prepared to sacrifice the last vestiges of democratic rights upon the altar of militarism.

The Conscription struggle had a profound effect upon the Labor Party. The developments in New South Wales have already been touched on. Holman and Co. were expelled. Similar happenings occurred in the Federal sphere and in other States, with the exception of Queensland, where there was no split. When the Federal Parliament reassembled after the defeat of the Referendum Hughes was admitted to the first meeting of the Labor Party Caucus. But it was only to hear a motion of no confidence moved against him. Refusing to listen to any debate Hughes stalked out of the meeting, calling on his followers in the Referendum campaign to do likewise. Twenty four members followed Hughes out of the Party meeting, while forty remained to carry the censure motion. Hughes formed a new Cabinet from the ranks of the renegades which was kept in office by the Liberals for a short time. Subsequently, however, Hughes emulated Holman and went over openly into the anti-labor camp, coalescing with the Liberals to form a Nationalist Party.

The No-Conscription struggle provided rich experience which helped to further advance the revolutionary education of the Australian working class, although, like the experiences of the 1890 strike, its full lessons have been but slowly mastered. It showed that on the one hand the masses were becoming more and more opposed to having their interests subordinated to the interests of the imperialist bourgeoisie, while on the other hand they were not yet sufficiently advanced to adopt the measures necessary to overcome this position. It showed up more clearly than ever the degree to which the leaders of the labor movement had become saturated with bourgeois ideology. The Conscriptionists like Hughes and Holman thoroughly exposed themselves and were driven from the movement. However, many of those who remained were no less opportunist, as their continued support for the imperialist war demonstrated. Some of them were subsequently unmasked in the years of the economic crisis, some of them continue the masquerade to this day.

The shortcoming of the Anti-Conscription campaign was that it remained a movement directed against only one aspect of the imperialist war and did not develop into a mass struggle against the war as a whole. Only a few members of the various socialist groups and the I.W.W. understood the connection between the struggle against Conscription and the struggle against the whole imperialist war. The I.W.W. participated in the campaign not merely with the object of defeating Conscription but to arouse mass hostility to the reactionary war. Its gross sectarianism, plus the ideological and organisational weaknesses mentioned earlier, prevented the I.W.W. from realising this revolutionary aim. Consequently the struggle against Conscription never grew over into a real antiwar movement which might have brought the working class on to the correct revolutionary path. This was just one more penalty paid by the Australian labor movement for its isolation from scientific socialism.

Mention was made in an earlier section of the Peace resolution introduced at the Melbourne Trade Union Congress in 1916. The Perth Conference of the Labor Party carried a somewhat similar resolution in 1918. The sentiments expressed in these resolutions, calling on the workers to bring pressure to bear on their respective governments to restore peace, provides further evidence of the backwardness of socialism in the Australian labor movement at this period.

The “Peace Slogan,” Lenin once wrote, “is meaningless unless it is accompanied by a call to revolutionary action against the imperialist war. It can only have the effect of throwing dust in the eyes of the workers, instilling in them false hopes that a democratic peace can be obtained without first overthrowing the imperialist government. The only slogan for revolutionary socialists in an imperialist war is to transform it into a civil war, into a fight for socialism.” [10] There is no evidence of any group in Australia having taken up and consistently advocated without any deviation such a policy. The I.W.W. and certain socialist sects may have come close to so doing at times, but for the reasons already stated, these bodies were not capable of rising to the necessary heights demanded by history. They did, however, pave the way for the development of a real Leninist Party in the post-war period.

D. The 1917 General Strike.

A second Conscription Referendum was held in 1917 and this time the “NO” majority increased to 166,588. But an event which overshadowed in importance the second Anti-Conscription campaign was the general strike which took place in New South Wales. Right on the heels of the first No-Conscription victory the New South Wales coalminers staged a very well organised strike for the eight hours bank to bank shift and an increase in wages. The success of the miners had a big influence on other unions and the I.W.W. propaganda for a general strike gained ground.

By this time discontent was becoming fairly widespread. Wartime profiteering, high food prices, long hours and speed-up methods in production, plus the refusal of the Arbitration Courts to increase wages sufficiently to offset the increased cost of living were the chief causes of industrial unrest. New South Wales, as the most highly industrialised State, was naturally the most effected.

From the beginning of 1913 to the end of the first quarter of 1916, New South Wales experienced 729 industrial disputes, involving a loss of 2,078,934 working days and £1,072,905 in wages, whereas, in the rest of Australia there were but 308 disputes causing a loss of 656,096 days, and £339,079 in wages.[11] Since the outbreak of war the cost of living had been steadily rising. By July, 1917, on the eve of the general strike, it was 30% or more above the pre-war level. The price of meat had gone up 62.5% and the prices of other foodstuffs and groceries 22.6%. The total combined average increase was 32.6%.[12]

Over the same period the living wage had only increased by 15.6% (In February, 1914, it was £2/8/- per week. In December, 1915, it was raised to £2/12/6, and in August, 1916, it was further increased to £2/15/6. It remained at this level until September, 1918, when it was raised again to £3)[13]

These figures indicate that the workers suffered a reduction of approximately 15% in real wages in the first three years of the war. But in actual fact their loss was even greater. If average weekly wages, and not the declared living wage, is taken as the basis for comparison, the reduction in real wages approximated 21%. (At the end of 1913 the average weekly wage in New South Wales was £2/15/9. By the end of 1916 it had risen to £3/1/11)[14] This represents an increase of 11% and since the cost of living had increased by 32.6% the drop in real wages was 21.6%.

The reason for the percentage increase in the average weekly wage being less than that of the declared living wage was that many skilled and semi-skilled workers had their margins reduced. The Arbitration Court began in this period to apply the rule of the “Diminishing scale of increases in ratio above the minimum wage,” i.e., as one judge expressed it, “In times like these the higher classes of worker can no longer claim, as a right, the same proportion above the minimum as prevailed before the war; all must bear their share, but those must bear most who are able to bear most.” [15] In various judgments, where the living wage question was involved, the Court recognised that a tremendous increase in the price of necessities had taken place, but it steadfastly refused to increase wages by a proportionate amount. It held that, the war had created an abnormal set of circumstances which justified a departure from the old principles of wage fixation based on the cost of living, and the workers would have to adapt themselves to a lower standard.

This view was first expressed by Mr. Justice Powers, and later approved by Mr. Justice Higgins. It is quoted in the judgment of the N.S.W. Court of Industrial Arbitration in its Inquiry into the cost of living and the minimum wage:

“I recognise that people cannot live in these days in reasonable comfort on the living wage prescribed, if they attempt to maintain the same regimen as in the days before the war and drought. If clothing goes up in price, ordinary people are more careful of what they possess and of new purchases. If butter goes up to a high price, other things are used in its place. If meat goes up in price less is used, etc ...” [16]

It was held out to the workers that this necessary adaptation to a lower living standard would be their contribution to the sacrifices which were expected from all sections in the community in the interests of winning the war. However logical these arguments may have seemed to the judges they failed to convince the workers. The latter saw employer after employer doubling his profits, company after company raising its dividend rates, and couldn’t escape the feeling that the sacrifice was altogether too one sided.

Figures like the following, which appeared from time to time in the financial columns of the daily press, added fresh fuel to the smouldering fire of working class discontent. Adelaide Steamship Company increased its profits from £4 000 in 1915 to £77,500 in 1917, and raised its dividend from 6% to 10%. Huddard Parker increased its dividend rate from 7 to 10%. Broken Hill South raised its dividend from 15% to 120%. Broken Hill North from 5% to 40%. Goldsborough Mart from 10% to 15% and Farmer & Co., also from 10% to 15%.

It only needed a slight puff of wind to fan the glowing coals of working class anger into a white hot blaze. This was provided, it will be seen, by the attempt of the Railway Commissioners to introduce a speed up system into the Randwick Workshops in July, 1917. This became the immediate cause of the general strike which flared up in August.

An upward tendency in the strike movement was manifest in the period preceding the outbreak of war. This upswing began in 1912 and continued during the next four years. The year 1914 was marked by a particularly sharp rise in the number of strikes, the number of workers involved and days lost through stoppages. The following table gives a clear picture of these developments. [17]

 No. of New Disputes.No. of Workers Involved.No. of Days Lost.
Year. Mining
Non Mining
All Indus. Mining Non-Mining All Indus. Mining Non-MiningAll
1908 130 51 181 30,000 13,000 43,000 131,000 107,000 238,000
1909 85 43 128 36,000 7,000 43,000 1,970,000 47,000 2,017,000
1910 39 42 81 7,000 7,000 14,000 62,000 39,000 101,000
1911 41 30 71 11,000 9,000 20,000 247,000 110,000 357,000
1912 75 35 110 27,000 4,000 31,000 68,000 28,000 96,000
1913 91 69 160 29,000 13,000 42,000 238,000 129,000 367,000
1914 220 93 313 56,000 19,000 75,000 732,000 179,1000 911,000
1915 225 89 314 66,000 28,000 94,000 310,000 160,000 470,000
1916 209 135 344 130,000 27,000 157,000 649,000 246,000 895,000

Commenting on these figures, the Industrial Gazette states:

“The number of dislocations reached its maximum in the year 1908. In each succeeding year the numbers decreased consistently until 1911. An upward tendency made itself apparent since the beginning of 1912. These fluctuations reflect fairly the industrial history of the State; its comparative prosperity from 1908 to 1910 temporarily checked by the general coal strike in 1909-10; the recovery of trade in recent years, and with it the corollary to prosperity, renewed efforts of the workers to share in the betterment of conditions.” [18]

From the foregoing it can be seen that the war broke out at a time when the workers were already beginning to struggle for an increased share in the prosperity of the country. The coal miners it would seem, were in the vanguard:

“The extraordinary increase in the number of dislocations in 1914 was contributed to in the main by the coal and shale mining industry. During 1914 a greater degree of unrest prevailed in the coal industry than for many years. In no year since the general strike in 1909-10 had so many working days been lost.” [19]

The preceding table of disputes shows that this unrest persisted during 1915/16. In November, 1916, it culminated in the successful strike for the eight-hour bank to bank shift and a 20% wage increase. From the same table it can also be observed that the mining industry accounted for the greater proportion by far of all the disputes taking place. From July, 1907, to December, 1913, the mining industry actually accounted for two-thirds of the total number of dislocations, three-quarters of the total number of workers involved, and nearly nine-tenths of the total working days lost. [20] A large number of these stoppages were local in character and short in their duration. They were caused mainly by disputes arising from the coal owners violation of local customs and working conditions.

A significant factor which emerged towards the end of 1916 was that unrest in non-mining industries was becoming far more widespread, as the following table reveals:

Year% of Total Disputes Taking Place in the Mining Industry% of Total Disputes Taking Place in Non-Mining Industry
1914 67.7 29.7
1915 70.128.3
1916 57.3 39.2

Questions arising from wages and hours provided the chief causes of disputes, except in the case of the mining industry, where, as already mentioned, local customs and working conditions gave rise to most of the friction. But even in the coal mining industry the major dispute, which occurred in November, 1916, centred around wages and hours.

In the non-mining industries, as the cost of living mounted so did the number of disputes concerning wages grow. In 1914 wages demands accounted for 21% of the total number of stoppages. In 1915 the percentage advanced to 29, and in 1916 to 39.6. In the latter year there was a particularly marked rise in the number of stoppages arising from demands for increased wages and special rates, as the following table shows:

For Wage Increases19151916
Number of Disputes1733
Number of Workers Involved7,9585,836
Number of Days Lost79,871102,865
Claims for special rates19151916
Number of Disputes815
Number of Workers Involved1,7541,358
Number of Days Lost8,41813,859

Such was the general picture of events leading up to the big strike which broke out in August, 1917. Since 1913 there had been fairly widespread criticism of the New South Wales Labor Government among the trade unions for its failure to implement any of the important planks in its platform. During the regime of this government, from the end of 1913 to November, 1916, the politicians and reformist union officials had great difficulty in restraining the workers from struggle and holding their militancy in check. A sidelight on their problems in this regard is revealed in a statement issued by W. Ainsworth, the Secretary of the Loco. Enginedrivers’ Association, during the big strike. “For months now,” he said, “my executive has been faced with the spirit of unrest and discontent. Personally, I have endeavoured, and I have used my hours of recreation for the purpose of allaying the troubles that were so evident ...” When the Labor Party split on the Conscription issue and Holman was expelled, he linked up with Wade to form a Coalition Ministry. At the elections, early in 1917, the newly formed “National” Party was returned to office. It now became more difficult than ever for the reformists to hold the workers back.

In June, 1916, the Chief Commissioner of Railways and Tramways bad introduced a time card system in the Randwick Workshops. The employees objected to this on the grounds that unreasonable speeding up of the labor process would follow. After a series of conferences between union officials and the Government the system was withdrawn. The Union claimed that the Government agreed that no further changes in the conditions of labor would be brought about during the war. On the other hand the Railway Commissioner claimed that the cards were only withdrawn temporarily until the system could be improved. In any case the cards made their reappearance in July, 1917, within a month or so of the return of the newly formed National Party. Holman, the leader of the party, was absent in England and Fuller was the Acting Premier.

On July 27 a mass meeting of members of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers, who were effected by the card system, was held in Sydney Trades Hall and it was decided not to work while the system was in force. On July 28 the officials of the A.S.E. conveyed this decision to the Commissioner. On July 30, E. J. Kavanagh, Secretary of the Labor Council, announced that, in view of the position which might arise, a joint meeting would be held that night of the representatives of the various Railway Unions and the Executive of the Labor Council. On the afternoon of July 31, a joint deputation of Labor Council and Union representatives interviewed the Commissioner and were told that under no circumstances would the card system be withdrawn. On the same night the delegates from the fourteen different Railway Unions assembled at the Trades Hall to hear the report of the deputation.

When informed of the uncompromising attitude of the Commissioner the meeting carried a resolution to deliver an ultimatum that unless the card system was withdrawn by Thursday, August 2, the whole of the unions concerned would stop work. On August 1, Kavanagh again saw the Commissioner and put before him the Unions’ ultimatum. Later in the day the Commissioner replied by letter, reaffirming his refusal to withdraw the cards. On the same day Fuller made a statement in Parliament upholding the attitude of the Commissioner. He also claimed that there was no intent on the part of the Commissioner or the Government to speed the men up and that if necessary a public inquiry would be held after the card system had been given a three months’ trial.

It seems that among the unionists concerned there was some confusion about the real meaning of the ultimatum, although the terms of the motion itself were quite clear:

“That we re-affirm the resolution carried at Monday’s meeting that an ultimatum be issued to the Government that unless the card system is withdrawn by next Thursday, August 2, the whole of the unions concerned will stop work.”

The unions represented at the meeting which carried this resolution were: The Amalgamated Society of Engineers, Australasian Society of Engineers, Boilermakers, Blacksmiths, Electrical Trades, Plumbers, Sheet Metal Workers, N.S.W. Govt. Tramways Employees’ Union, Amalgamated Rail and Tramway Service Association, Moulders, Carpenters, Timber Workers, Ironworkers, Coachmakers, and Metal Polishers. The resolution didn’t state whether all of these unions would stop work, or whether “the whole of the unions concerned” referred only to those directly effected by the card system. Apparently the latter was the case. It also appears that no steps were taken to inform the rank and file what they were expected to do in the event of the ultimatum being rejected. It seems, from what subsequently transpired, that it was left to them to act on their own initiative in carrying out the terms of the resolution. The union leaders knew full well, from the terms of the Commissioner’s letter and from Fuller’s statement in the House, that the card system would not be withdrawn. They should therefore have given clear instructions to their members about the stoppage which was scheduled for August 2. Instead of which the 1300 employees at Randwick went to work as usual at 7.30 and only ceased work at 9 a.m. when the members of the A.S.E. found that the card system was still in operation. About 3000 employees in the Eveleigh Railway Workshops also stopped work. Small groups of employees of various categories in other workshops and depots followed the lead of the Randwick and Eveleigh men. The total number of men usually employed in all these shops was 5,700. By the end of the day 4673 were on strike, while 1027 remained at work. Figures released some time later showed that the total number of men who came out in all departments on August 2 was 5780, while the total number within the potential range of a general rail and tram strike was about 42,000.

Late in the afternoon of August 2, a hastily convened conference of delegates from the fourteen unions likely to be involved was held in the Sydney Trades Hall. This meeting failed to formulate any concrete plans for handling the dispute. Hopes were still entertained that a last minute compromise could he arranged. In contrast to the indecision of the strike leaders was the prompt action of the Railway Commissioner who at once issued instructions reducing the speed of all trains and trains and curtailing services. This should have convinced the unions that the Government really meant business.

On August 3 a number of Enginedrivers, Cleaners, Moulders, Boilermakers and others were drawn into the dispute. Acting Premier Fuller heaped more fuel on the gathering blaze by a provocative public statement defining the Government’s attitude.

“There are in this State,” he alleged, “a limited number of men who for the time being are in control of several trade unions and who have lost all sense of patriotism and responsibility and are deliberately contributing to the success of the enemies of civilisation by their actions.”

This pro-German bogey was used extensively by Fuller throughout the strike to discredit the leadership. But not only was suspicion cast upon the motives of the leaders, the intelligence of the rank and file was insulted. “Nine-tenths of the men do not know what the strike is really about,” Fuller claimed, “they are being blindly led into this appalling conflict by a few dangerous leaders.”

Actually the reverse was the case. The workers, driven beyond endurance and smarting under many grievances, were spoiling for a fight and were pushing their leaders into action. The latter, reduced to flabbiness by long years of peaceful Arbitration Court practice, had no stomach for the battle. They constituted a greater menace to their own members than they did to the Government. Fuller again intimated that the Government was still prepared to hold a public inquiry after the card system had been in operation for three months. But there would be no compromise, the men would have to return to work on the Government’s own terms. Making a bid to win public support for the Government and to turn middle class sentiment against the strikers, Fuller concluded his statement with the peroration:

“The time has come for the people of this State to take a stand against those extremists who have for a long time been deliberately conspiring against public interest and who have been responsible for the industrial ferment which has disgraced this State from the beginning of the war. There is yet time to avoid a bitter struggle. The door is still open to reinstatement of sensible men. This door will be closed to many if they persist in their present attitude.”

Inherent in this statement is the threat to rid the Railway and Tramway services of “troublesome” elements who stood up for their rights, and to smash the existing unions, replacing them with subservient bodies of the company union type if they failed to curb these progressive elements. Later we shall see the lengths to which the Government was prepared to go in carrying out this threat.

E. J. Kavanagh, on the same day issued a statement on behalf of the Unions’ Defence Committee. This document shows the light in which the leaders viewed the struggle and their own tasks. Like the title assumed by the Strike Committee, it reveals how far the minds of the people in control were dominated by the paralysing notions of “defensive strategy” and, concomitant with it, compromising tactics.

“The Defence Committee has been appointed with the object of carrying on negotiations for a settlement of the dispute.” Such was the introduction to the Manifesto. The agreed basis for a settlement, it continued, was:

1. The Railway Commissioners to revert to the position as it existed on June 1.

2. The Government to grant a Royal Commission to enquire into the subject matters of the trouble.

3. That the men return to work upon the granting of this.

Kavanagh concluded his statement on behalf of the Committee with expressions of fear of “what might eventuate if a speedy settlement was not effected ... There was a possibility of the trouble extending throughout the whole rail and tram service ... Private employers must eventually be effected to a degree ... He had never known a body of men so determined and unanimous, etc.” Any hopes which the strike leaders entertained that the Government would be moved to compromise by such a “terrifying” prospect were without foundation. Fuller’s statement should have made it clear that only a very real and not a sham fight would bring success to the strikers. The leaders from the beginning had no intention of mobilising the workers for such a struggle, they hastened to assure the Government and the public at large that there was “no extreme socialism behind the dispute.”

On August 5, with several of their members already on strike, the Loco. Enginedrivers, Firemen and Cleaners’ Association and the Amalgamated Rail and Tram Service Association met and decided officially, to cease work. On August 6, Kavanagh, in the name of the Defence Committee, declared all coal in the hands of the Railway Commissioner “black,” and stated that the decision of the Loco. men and the A.R.T.S.A. meant that all rail and tram services would cease at midnight. But the weaknesses of craft and dual unionism resulted in a number of unionists not covered by these organisations remaining at work. Rail and tram traffic was severely crippled but not completely paralysed. Emergency measures were adopted by the Commissioner and the Government to operate a skeleton service.

Forty suburban trains came into Central and thirty-four went out, as against 660 normally. Sixty trams each with an escort of two policemen, operated in Sydney to take people home from work. The Railway Commissioner issued a further statement threatening victimisation to those who remained out on strike. The Government also made another pronouncement, claiming that,

“We are now dealing with what is in effect a rebellion against the orderly government of the country ... The Government makes a final appeal and gives every employee a chance to return to work by Friday, August 10. At the end of three months an enquiry will be held into the card system. After Friday none will go back on the old status. Strikers will be punished and loyalists will be rewarded. Volunteers will be enrolled.”

By this time the hold up was beginning to affect coal miners, metal workers, carters and drivers and other sections of the working class.

On August 7, the fifth day of the strike, eighteen unions and some 30,000 workers were already involved. Of the wages staff in the employment of the Railway Commissioners, 17,348, or 61% were on strike, while 10,819, or 39% were still at work. The confusion which marked the calling of the strike in the first place had not yet been overcome. Nor was it at any time cleared up during the course of the stoppage. There was a lack of unity and understanding among the craft unions involved. Where a clear call to strike action was given few unionists disobeyed their organisation. The number of such remaining at work would have been even fewer had more vigorous steps been taken by the leadership to clearly explain the issues involved. Fuller availed himself of this situation and sought to compound the confusion. He accused certain union executives of violating the rules of their organisation by ordering a strike without first conducting a secret ballot. “The men’s hearts are not in the fight,” he alleged, “they just don’t like being called scabs, but the Government would protect every loyalist.” Since the strike leadership failed to effectively combat this Government propaganda it resulted in a minority of the more backward elements remaining at work. Sufficient, it proved, to form a nucleus around which volunteer labor could be organised to break the strike.

On August 8 the “Case of the Loco, Enginedrivers, Firemen and Cleaners’ Association” was published by the Secretary. This document, among other things, reveals how ill-founded were the Government’s charges that the union leaders were bent upon fomenting “bloody revolution.” The highly respectable, staid and law-abiding reformist leader of the Locomen’s Association literally bristles with indignation as he hotly refutes the implication of Fuller that he and his colleagues are not staunch supporters and loyal defenders of the capitalist regime.

“I would like to say deliberately,” he says, “that the statement so monotonously repeated for specific purposes, that our fight is against the Government as a Government, is entirely wrong. We merely encounter the Government on industrial ground. We are disputing with them and are prepared to treat with them as employers of labor. We clearly recognise that they control the general destinies of the country, and to assert that we are actuated by a revolutionary spirit or that we desire to usurp the functions of the Government is positively absurd ...

“For months my Executive has been faced with the spirit of unrest and discontent. Personally, I have used my hours of recreation for the purpose of allaying the troubles which were so evident.”

The statement then goes on to list some of the major causes of discontent among drivers, firemen and cleaners, including the “Stand-back” principle, under which men ordered to report for work at 4 a.m. may be told to stand-back to 6 a.m. before starting, without being paid for waiting time; “Broken-shifts,” again without any payment for the time men are kept waiting around in country depots; “Short time,” some men being given only nine or ten shifts per fortnight; and “Discipline,” which was far too harsh; men could he dismissed with no right of appeal. Locomen had been trying for years to have these grievances rectified, their secretary stated, but the Commissioner had consistently turned a deaf ear to their complaints. This left them no option other than to join in the strike. A concluding and most significant phrase refers to the card system as “A spark that fell into a cauldron of seething discontent and industrial impatience.”

The most important event on this day, Wednesday, August 8, was the deputation to Cabinet of representatives of the Colliery Employees’ Federation, Coal Lumpers, Waterside Workers, Trolley and Draymen, Seamen’s Union, Meat Industry, Gas Workers and the Australian Workers’ Union. The spokesman for the deputation, A. C. Willis, told the Acting Premier that:

“Matters have reached a stage where it is thought by those in charge of the dispute that other unions should be called on to declare their attitude. We therefore met them today. We quite realise the gravity of the situation and are anxious to do something to bring the dispute to a satisfactory conclusion. We have no wish to discuss the merits of the dispute. Since it is now effecting others we think even at this eleventh hour we can put a proposition that will help you out of the difficulty. We suggest as a basis for settlement that:

1. The State Government ask Edmunds J. to act as arbitrator and to enquire into the whole grievance.

2. In the meantime the Card System to be discontinued.

3. That on Edmunds J. being appointed all employees return to work, or alternatively the enquiry be held while the men are still out. The strike in the meantime to be no further extended.

“We feel our responsibility as much as you do and if an honourable understanding can be reached even now, what threatens to be a great national calamity can be averted. You know as well as we do that unless something is done the mining and other unions will be involved in a few days. We want to avoid that. That is the reason we are here tonight. We are not here to threaten at all.”

Herein we are given another example of how far the minds of labor leaders at the time were dominated by bourgeois philosophy. The idea of a general strike was that it constituted a “great national calamity,” ranking with droughts, floods, bushfires and the blow-fly pest. Far from having any notions of extending the strike and converting it into a political struggle, the union leaders were most anxious to limit its scope and confine it within narrow economic bounds. The Government and not the union leaders were responsible for the manner in which the dispute spread. Had they wished they could quite easily have terminated the conflict at this stage. But having once embarked upon the struggle it seems that the Government was determined to “teach the unions a lesson they’d never forget.” After no more than ten minutes private discussion with Cabinet, Fuller curtly informed the deputation that there was “nothing doing” and that the strikers had better return to work as quickly as possible.

On August 9 the ranks of the strikers increased to 45,000, when coal miners, waterside workers and more trolley and draymen ceased work. But the Railway Commissioner was able to go on extending his emergency service. Seventy-four trains ran into the metropolitan area on this day including the Melbourne express and several important mail trains. Eight goods trains also left Sydney for various country destinations. There was also a progressive expansion of the City tram service throughout the day. At 8 a.m. there were 84 trams on the road. By 3 p.m. the number had increased to 175, or 56% of the normal service.

An important statement was issued by Claude Thompson, Secretary of the Amalgamated Railway and Tramway Service Association, setting out the reasons why this organisation had thrown in its lot with the strikers.

“The present industrial upheaval,” he declared, “which occurred in connection with the introduction of the card system has brought under public notice other grievances of a serious character. It is true that the initial source of the trouble was the card system, but the whole trouble has wider foundations.

It is the outcome of a whole series of pin-pricking and goading on the part of the Railway Commissioners. Had the dispute been confined to the card system there would have been no general cessation of work of members except those in railway and tramway workshops. But while this dispute was proceeding the doors of the Arbitration Court were banged in the face of this union. For upwards of three years our members have been groaning under an oppressive system. After long years of waiting we got an Award from the Court which was not satisfactory.

The Association tried to appeal but was thrown out of Court because some members were on strike. On the same day the Commissioner Was allowed to appeal. The Court applied the “Margin and Textile Judgement” (apparently the law of diminishing rates above the minimum. E.W.C.) and practically all men in per. way and inter locking sections had their wages reduced automatically. When this was known the indignation of members reached boiling point and it became impossible to restrain it. There were incessant demands for throwing into the melting pot our grievances with those endured by other railwaymen. The Amalgamated men will not return to work until the recent Award is withdrawn and our grievances rectified ..."

The facts set out in this statement, taken in conjunction with those contained in the Locomen’s Manifesto, create the impression that guerilla warfare between the Railway Commissioner and the Unions had been raging for some time. A climax was pending and the card system served as an excuse for both sides to seek a final showdown. The attitude of the Commissioner and the Government throughout seems to have been deliberately provocative. They evidently felt sure of their ground and were confident in their power to inflict a decisive defeat upon the unions. In all probability, however, they underestimated the great depth of the general discontent prevailing and didn’t foresee the extent to which the railway strike would find support in outside undertakings. But once having cast down the gauntlet there was no alternative but to go through with the fight to the bitter end. The unions on their part, having accepted the challenge, found themselves compelled to do likewise.

The Defence Committee issued a statement in reply to Fuller’s threat to enrol volunteer labourers. It further exposed the utter bankruptcy of reformist officialdom.

“The Defence Committee has carefully considered Mr. Fuller’s proclamation,” it declared. “It is a mixture of bluff, mis-statement and intimidation. The Commissioner cannot fill the places of 20,000 highly skilled workmen now on strike. Any attempt to introduce scab labour will result in disastrous injury to highly-priced machinery.

“The Government has no power to override the rights already conferred on railwaymen and tramwaymen, which are specifically protected by Act of Parliament and judgments of the Arbitration Court.

“The threat that the Government will fill the places of all men on strike by Friday next is simply an idle boast on the part of an anti-Labor government anxious to bolster up a dying fight.

“Since the men came out on strike against the card system, other unions have become involved, and the associated unions comprising the Defence Committee, have resolved none shall return to work until all grievances have been ventilated by a tribunal appointed for the purpose. The difficulty is not to prevent men from going in but to prevent men from coming out on strike in sympathy with the men already out. The Committee has no wish to call other unions out unless necessary.”

This statement shows how completely lacking were the strike leaders in any real working class understanding. It thoroughly exposes their inability to size up a situation correctly and to give the right lead. It was ridiculous to entertain the idea that the Government was bluffing when Fuller had so curtly dismissed the combined unions offer of conciliation, and was already in communication with country centres to recruit volunteers. Too much stress was laid on the Commissioner’s presumed inability to fill the places of 20,000 skilled men. More especially in view of the skeleton train and tram services which were even then in operation.

As to the effects of possible losses arising from unskillful manipulation of costly machinery by volunteer labourers, an elementary knowledge of the class struggle would have made it clear to the leaders that the employing class and their Government would regard such losses as a cheap price to pay for a victory which might conceivably lead to the complete smashing of trade unionism.

This document also reveals the naive faith in bourgeois legality and reliance upon capitalist institutions which characterises the reformists and arises from their basic misunderstanding of the role and functions of the State. “The Government has no power to override rights ...” “These are protected by Act of Parliament etc.” The strike leaders were soon to be given an object lesson in the “powers” of a capitalist government, they were soon to be shown in practice just how little protection is afforded by mere Acts of Parliament, unless the workers are strong enough and sufficiently determined to defend their rights. They were soon to learn in a concrete fashion just how little respect the bourgeoisie has for its own laws when it considers its own class privileges are at stake.

All the evidence pointed to the fact that the Government was in deadly earnest and was not indulging in any “idle boast” nor seeking to “bolster up a dying fight.” It was slowly but surely gathering the initiative into its own hands and preparing to deliver a crushing blow against unionism in general and against the railway and tramway unions in particular. Had the strike leaders possessed in atom of understanding of the laws of class struggle they would have been able to interpret matters correctly. Instead of discouraging other unions from coming out, they would have planned the extension of the conflict. They would have taken steps to see that this took place in an organised fashion, instead of being allowed to come about spontaneously. Instead of speculating on the Commissioner’s difficulties in recruiting sufficient volunteer labour, they would have organised a vigorous campaign to prevent this happening. But the leaders were lacking in scientific theory. Reformism and not Scientific Socialism dominated the movement and the workers had to learn the hard way, through the school of bitter experience.

August 10, “Black Friday,” the day of expiry of the Government’s ultimatum, dawned, but ranks of the strikers remained solid. The unions were notified that as from Monday, August 13, all rail and tram employees then on strike would be dismissed from the service and would forfeit all superannuation and other rights. Application would be made to the Court to cancel all Railway and Tramway Awards and to deregister the unions.

The next day the Defense Committee published a Manifesto, a dreary and most uninspiring document, detailing alleged examples of inefficiency and incompetency in the management of the railways. The central point in the Manifesto was the demand for a Royal Commission to investigate these charges. “The card system,” it was stated, “may appear to be a small matter, but in reality it is only the culminating point in a condition of general discontent – the last straw which broke the camel’s back. The men do not trust the card system because they know the inner workings of the Railway Department, the corruption, mismanagement and incompetence that exists ...”

This seems to have been the only attempt, and even then it was only half-hearted, to extend the issue of the strike beyond the card system. Little further mention was made of the grievances of the Locomen and the members of the A.R.T.S. Association. It is to be assumed that the strategy of the Strike Committee now was to lump all these questions together, attribute the lot to the unsatisfactory conditions of management said to exist in the Railway and Tramway Services, and to plump for a Royal Commission to clear everything up. This strategy, if such it can be called, only played right into the hand of the Government, which from the beginning had indicated its willingness to grant a Commission of Inquiry after three months’ operation of the card system. From now on the issue became largely a matter of whether the Commission would be appointed at once, while the men were still out and whether it would deal only with the card system or also cover the other matters raised by the unions concerned.

The Government remained adamant in its demand that the men return to work under the card system for three months when the promised Inquiry would take place. The other questions it held to be extraneous to the dispute and matters to be dealt with by the Courts. Thus the strategy of the Strike Committee instead of broadening the basis of the struggle only assisted the Government to further narrow it down. A Charter of Demands, embodying the grievances of all workers involved, should have been drawn up and made the fighting programme of the broad mass movement which was developing. From the facts set out in previous pages it is obvious that the demand for all round wage increases was the most vital economic issue involved. The political level of the struggle could have been raised by turning the Government’s propaganda back against it. By pointing out that the Governments, State and Federal, and not the Unions, were actually betraying the nation. That these Governments were engaged in an unjust reactionary war, that they were attacking the people’s liberties, sheltering the war profiteers and attempting to smash trade unionism – the backbone of Australian democracy, etc. In this way the Strike Committee could have wrested the initiative from the hands of Fuller and Co. and waged an offensive and not merely a defensive struggle. Marx once stated that the defensive is the death of an armed uprising. It can with equal truth be described as the defeat of a general strike.

The Sunday papers on August 12 carried this full page advertisement of the Government:


The enemies of Britain and her Allies have succeeded in plunging Australia into a general strike.

For the time being they have crippled our country’s efforts to assist in the Great War. At the back of the strike lurk the I.W.W. and the exponents of direct action. Without realising it many Trade Unions have become the tools of Disloyalists and Revolutionaries.

A great conspiracy has been fomenting for the past two years to prevent Australia rendering further assistance to Great Britain and her Allies. Every striker is playing a game for Disloyalists. Every striker is singing from day to day the hymns of the I.W.W. and marching to their music. The Government is not against the unions. All unionists who volunteer for work will be accepted as Unionists, and will be enrolled as members of the New Unions, registered under the Trades Union Act.


While in reality doing its utmost to confine the strike to the narrow economic issue which provoked it, in public pronouncements of this kind the Government sought to exaggerate its aims and to depict it as a major political struggle. None of the charges brought against the strikers in this proclamation could of course be substantiated. It was part of the Government’s own strategy to isolate the strikers and to mobilise public opinion behind its own measures by playing on the patriotic sentiments of the petty bourgeoisie.

On August 13 and 14, Ship Painters and Dockers, Marine Stewards and Engineers and Boilermakers at Mort’s Dock and Cockatoo threw in their lot with the strikers. The Railway Commissioner implemented his mass dismissal threat and the Government put through regulations acquiring the power to commandeer all private cars and motor vehicles for the duration of the strike.

The Railway Commissioner released a statement claiming that on August 2, the total staff employed in the Railway and Tramway Services, excluding those on active service abroad, was 39,945. Of this staff, he maintained, 19,322 remained loyal. Since August 2, 300 strikers had returned to duty and 800 men had been taken on in place of strikers. These figures do not tally with those given out on August 7, which showed 17,348 on strike and 10,819 still at work, or a total of 28,167. But these figures related only to the wages staff, therefore, is to be presumed that the later statistics included salaried officers. If we deduct the figure 28,167, given on August 7 as the total wages staff, from the 39,945 shown on August 14, as the total staff, we see that the number of salaried officers was 11,778. If we deduct this number from the 19,322 said to have remained loyal, we see that 7,544 members of the wages staff must have defied their unions’ strike decision, while a further 300 returned to work later. This analysis shows that the strike was only 69% effective among the wages staff or 51% effective if the whole of the services be considered. This shows how little justification there was far the complacency and optimism of the Strike Committee, who thought they had only to sit back and wait for the Commissioner and the Government to settle on their terms.

Further proof, if any were needed, of the Government’s serious intentions, was forthcoming when a camp was opened at the Sydney Cricket Ground to receive the first batch of volunteer laborers. Present day trade unionists should ponder well on this significant extract from an official report: “Volunteers were looked for in the country because the bona-fides of country residents would present less difficulty than those of city residents, seeing that the labor for the city had for long past been searchingly organised for trade union purposes.” This fact alone should stir the trade unions into doing far more to extend their influence in the countryside.

The Loyalist Camp at the Cricket Ground was the first and largest of a whole series to be opened up by the Government and the employers. Subsidiary camps were set up at Taronga Park, the Newcastle Sailors’ Home, Dawes’ Point Wharf, Mortlake Gasworks, and on the coalfields. These camps were all equipped on military lines with stores from Naval and Military Ordnance Depots. The maximum number of free laborers mobilised was about 7000. This peak was reached on September 26. The maximum number of men on strike was 68,000, on September 5. The ratio of volunteers to strikers was therefore a fraction over one in ten. And this was sufficient, it proved, to break the back of the strike. Of course if we add the 19,000 salaried officers who remained “loyal” to the Commissioner, we see that the actual strike breaking corps was an even more formidable force. The ratio being reduced to approximately 1:2½.

The upkeep of such a large body of strike-breakers cost the taxpayers of N.S.W. quite a considerable sum. The cost of recruiting loyalists and conveying them to the concentration camps (the term was coined by the Government itself) and returning them to their homes was £24,485, or £3/5/10 per head. The cost of administration of the camps was £41,908. The cost per man per week at the Cricket Ground was £1/15/9, or 5/1 per day. (The Army scale of victualling a soldier in camp today provides for an outlay of approximately 1/6½ per day.) According to the official report, “no scale of victualling was laid down for the camps, but instructions were given that the loyalists should be most liberally treated in respect of the food provided. It being recognised that generous treatment in this regard would be an important factor in making the camps popular with the men and that money judiciously spent in the purchase, preparation and serving of food was money well spent.” Hot meat, bread, butter, jam and tea were served three times a day. Vegetables were served twice and soups and puddings added to the menu occasionally through the week. The volunteers were treated to free films, vaudeville shows, etc., and banks and post offices were set up in the camps for their convenience. Medical arrangements were under the control of Major George Reed, assisted by students from the University medical school. Conjunctivitis, due to the straw in the bed tickings, gave them most work, except in the case of the Taronga Park Camp, where venereal disease was rife. Thanks to the Government Regulation taking over all motor vehicles, the Camp Commandant had a large fleet of lorries and taxies at his disposal to convey his charges, under heavy police escort to and from work. The Camp Commandant at the Cricket Ground was the Hon. A. K. Trethowan, President of the Farmers’ and Settlers’ Association, while Colonel Alfred Spain, of the Graziers’ Association was in charge at Taronga Park.

Feeling against the “loyalists” ran high. On September 6, one of them was shot through the hand while unloading a lighter at Dawes Point. The shot was fired from the window of a house overlooking the wharf and the marksman was able to retire undetected. This incident raised the question of where the “loyalists” stood in relation to the Workmen’s Compensation Act. The Government requested the Underwriters’ Association to quote a premium rate. The rate submitted was 1/- per week per man, with a disaster limit of £2,000. This was “regarded as high in comparison with the normal rates current, but having regard to the special risk of violence to which loyal workers were exposed daily while travelling to and from work, it was deemed desirable to accept the offer.”

On August 14 the first arrest of a union official in connection with the strike took place. W. Daly, Vice President of the Seamen’s Union, was charged with conspiracy to instigate an unlawful strike of seamen. The following day the Defence Committee offered to conduct a secret ballot to see whether their terms or those of the Government were acceptable to the men. The offer was curtly dismissed by Fuller.

It was at this stage that the Federal Government intervened. Regulations were introduced under the War Precautions Act making it an offence to interfere with interstate or overseas shipping traffic and setting up National Service Bureaux to organise volunteer labor in the event of the seamen joining the strikers.

On August 15 a deputation of “leading citizens” offered the Government the full assistance of the “great employers’ organisations” to break the strike. The Government thankfully accepted this offer and proposed that a sub-committee be set up to organise emergency transport. A Committee, comprising A. McNeil of Garretts Ltd., and Boyd Edkins, motor transport experts, and Frank Cridland, James McMahon and A. E. Rudder, horse transport experts, was established. Regulations taking over horse-drawn as well as motor vehicles were adopted. By this decree the teams and plant of 56 master carriers were taken over. The owners, of course, being guaranteed liberal indemnity in case of loss or damage. This proved to be a cardinal factor in the ultimate defeat of the strike, for had there been any breakdown in the transport of foodstuffs the Government might have been compelled to capitulate. Incidentally, as we shall see later, these emergency regulations were quite illegal and outside the scope of the Government’s Constitutional powers.

On August 16 Fuller made another appeal to the strikers to return on the Government’s terms. The next day Kavanagh replied, stating that the men were as solid as ever. “If must he borne in mind,” Kavanagh stated, “that even if the Commissioner were able to get the running staff into the same order as obtained prior to the dispute, this would in no way affect the issue. The men who really hold the trump card are the tradesmen and they are acting loyally towards their unions.” This was a gross underestimation of the serious menace arising from volunteer labor. The running staff, and not the tradesmen, really occupied the key position. If the Commissioner could keep a skeleton service operating, repairs and renewals could wait until the strikers were starved into submission. Instead of complacently accepting the position, and whistling in the dark to keep up their spirits, the Committee should have redoubled its efforts to pull the remaining members of the running staff out on strike. Without this victory was impossible.

On August 17, Kavanagh, Willis and Thompson were arrested and charged with conspiracy. The initiative was passing more and more rapidly into the hands of the Government. On the same day Bills were rushed through Parliament releasing Gas and Electricity Undertakings of their Statutory obligations to maintain supplies to the public. Another measure empowered the Government to employ inexperienced labor in coal mines. Fuller gave the miners until August 23 to return to work, otherwise loyalists would be put in their places.

On August 20 the meat-workers joined the strike and again the employers aided the Government to meet the emergency. A Committee of Master Butchers was set up which mobilised a team of amateurs to carry on slaughtering. On the same day the Federal Government took drastic action by empowering the Navy to take overall coal in the Commonwealth and to distribute supplies for industrial and other purposes. The Defence Committee showed the first open signs of weakness and took the first steps towards capitulation. It proposed to order a resumption if the Government would agree to modify the card system and guarantee there would be no victimisation. The offer was rejected and the Government again indicated that it would honour in full its promises to the “loyalists.”

On August 21 the Defence Committee sought to retrieve its “blunder” of the previous day. It issued a statement denying that it was prepared to accept the card system and called on all unionists to remain solid. Later, Fuller indicated that the Cabinet had reviewed the position and had re-endorsed his terms, i.e., that the men return to work at once under the card system, pending an inquiry after three months. The Government would make no pledges about victimisation. Loyalists would be protected. The Defence Committee, in reply, said that “The Government was demanding the complete humiliation of organised labor.” While expressing its “willingness to effect an equitable settlement,” the Committee was “determined to continue the struggle until justice was conceded.” This last sentence was no more than an empty phrase, since the Committee was not taking any effective steps to ensure victory. Having routed the Committee from its earlier defensive position and started it on the retreat, Fuller hastened to press home the advantage. “So far as the original cause of the dispute – the card system – is concerned, this could be settled tomorrow,” he declared. “The main difficulty now is the Government’s pledge to the loyalists. This will be honoured in full.”

Feeling well on top of the situation by August 24, Fuller announced that the Government would not negotiate further with the Strike Committee, which from now on would be regarded as an illegal organisation. The Committee responded with a Manifesto, which gave further proof of the spineless character of the leadership. The shameful defensive strategy unfolded itself a stage further on the way towards total submission.

“The Committee has met and adjourned indefinitely,” the Manifesto opened up. A cowardly step, obviously designed to escape the penalties attached to being associated with an illegal body. “We are willing at any moment to resume work, and will agree to any other method of recording time, free from the degrading, features of the Taylor system ... This is not a dispute engineered by a few leaders, but a free and spontaneous protest by vast bodies of men against unjust and degrading conditions. About 100,000 workers are affected by this unhappy dispute. Against this unparalleled array the Railway Commissioner and associated employers have been able to secure a couple of thousand so-called “volunteers.”

“This struggle was thrust upon us. We are acting only in self-defence. We are striving to prevent the ruthless breaking down of that honourable status of labor for which Australia is celebrated all over the world. And we are now ready as we have been all along to meet the Chief Commissioner fairly in the matter, to resume work under neutral conditions and to pledge ourselves faithfully to abide by the decision of an independent tribunal on the system in dispute.”

Had the Government not already been in possession of ample evidence of the weakness in the ranks of the strike leadership, this Manifesto would have supplied it. It is almost grovelling in its tone, and downright stupid in its appeal to the better nature of the Cabinet and the Commissioner’s sense of fair play. A grossly exaggerated importance is attached to the number of men on strike, and a wicked attempt made to belittle the significance of the strike breaking force at the Government’s command. The hundreds of thousands of strikers were immobilised due to poor organisation, lack of discipline and bad leadership, whereas, the few thousand volunteers constituted a powerful force, because they were well organised and distributed under the disciplined control of a Government which was carrying out a planned offensive against the Unions.

On August 27 Fuller published a statement purporting to outline the political aspects of the strike.

“Those who are at all impressed by the arguments of the strike leaders,” he said, “must accept the Government’s assurance that the card system is only a pretext for a general industrial upheaval. The Government has in its possession ample evidence that long before the cards were introduced a scheme was secretly originated aiming at the holding up of the whole of Australia by means of a general strike. The scheme for a general hold-up came off some months before the secret strike committee was ready. This general strike was organised to take place at a later date, but the men responsible for it could not control the Red Rag element and all that has happened is that the strike took place months before it was originally intended. This is why the Government says there can be no compromise in a dispute of this kind.

“Once the strike is used for other than industrial purposes, once it is used to take government control out of the hands of Parliament, a Government can only face the position squarely, and say that, whatever the consequences may be, a strike of this nature must be fought to a finish.”

Of course there was no evidence to substantiate these wild charges. The Government was unable to produce a single document, or a solitary concrete fact to bolster up its ridiculous allegations. Certainly the I.W.W. had carried on propaganda for a general strike, and this propaganda had been meeting with more and more response in the ranks of organised labor. But the sectarianism of the I.W.W. prevented it from establishing any durable connections with the mass movement. In addition to which it was dissolved by Hughes in 1916. Among the most thankful people in the community at this action were the law abiding craft union officials who dominated the Defence Committee. It is a far step from I.W.W. propaganda for a general strike to “gigantic conspiracies,” “secret plans” and “underground strike committees.” A gulf which even the Fuller Government made no serious attempt to bridge. So confident were the strike leaders in their own lily-white purity that they replied to Fuller, stating that if he could prove his charges of I.W.W. influences in the dispute they were prepared to order an immediate resumption and would be most thankful to him for having shown them the error of their ways.

The morale of the strikers remained at a high level. Every day brought forth new examples of solidarity. Even the block boys, employed by the City Council, objected to pursuing their usual calling while horses driven by free laborers remained on the streets, and, in defiance of their own union officials, struck work.

On August 31, R. D. Meagher, Lord Mayor of Sydney, offered his services as mediator between the Defence Committee and the Government. His attempts broke down. The Committee was now prepared to return under the card system if guarantees were forth coming that there would be no victimisation and Inquiry would be held into other matters in dispute. The Government was bent upon forcing complete and unconditional surrender.

While the Lord Mayor was engaged in fruitless negotiations with the Government a mass meeting of 5000 strikers was held in the Town Hall, which expressed strong disapproval of the Government’s attitude and reaffirmed the intention of the men to continue their resistance. Mr. Corcoran, of the Boilermakers’ Union, who moved the main resolution, expressed the “tailism” so typical of reformist craft union officials. He repudiated the suggestion that the strikers were misled by paid agitators, but went on to point out that “The leaders did not take the initiative, the men in the workshops did so and forced their officers to act. The strike leaders were only doing as they had been told, etc.”

All of which, unfortunately, was only too true. Spontaneity, which dominated the movement in the ’nineties had not yet been overcome. While it reigned supreme a heavy toll was levied on the movement as a whole.

August 31 also saw the first open breach appear in the ranks of the unions. The Australian Workers’ Union broke the united front of labor when Bodkin, the Secretary of the Railway Workers’ Branch, instructed his members in the Irrigation Area that they were to handle all goods, irrespective of whether they had been declared “black” or not.

Fuller informed Mr. R. D. Meagher, on September 3, that he was wasting his time drafting new terms for a settlement, since the only ones the Government would consider were its own. In reply to this the Defence Committee issued a statement as follows:

“After careful consideration of the latest declaration of the State Cabinet, the Committee regrets that it now becomes necessary to make it known to the Government and the general public that we are resolved to carry on the fight to the bitter end. We have declared our intention of asking other unions, including the A.W.U., not to handle anything which has previously been handled by “black” labor.”

Again empty words, mere phrases without any real meaning, since the Defence Committee took no steps whatsoever to prepare for a “fight to the bitter end.” If this meant anything at all it meant calling for an extension of the strike, and such was the temper of the workers and the morale of the strikers, that such a call would have aroused enthusiastic response. Even A.W.U. members would have answered it over the heads of their chicken-hearted leaders. And even at this late stage such action could have won back the initiative for the strikers and possibly turned the tide in their favor. Instead of which the Committee winds up on a note discouraging other workers from joining the struggle. “The policy of the Strike Committee,” it reads, “in regard to all work on goods declared “black” remains unaltered. But extensions of the dispute are likely to occur owing to the great difficulty of holding men engaged in other industries at work.”

These fears of the Strike Committee were soon confirmed. That very day employees at George Hudson’s timber yards came out, as did the workers at the Mortlake Gas Works. But so highly organised were the Government’s “emergency services” by this time that within an hour the places of the latter were filled by 250 “loyalists.”

On September 6 the Industrial Commission took a hand and conferred for two days with the Defence Committee to get them to accept the Government’s terms of surrender. After all the brave talk about waging a “fight to the bitter end,” the Defence Committee decided to accept the Government’s humiliating conditions on behalf of the unions concerned in the railway strike. These were:

1. The card system as existing on August 1, to be continued. At the end of three months a Royal Commission to be held.

2. The men to be given the opportunity to initial their own cards each day.

3. The Unions to submit full lists of their grievances to a Special Commissioner for Conciliation to be appointed under the 1912 Act.

4. Such grievances as fall within the jurisdiction of the Court shall be referred to the Court at once.

5. Such as do not, will be referred by the Commissioner to the Cabinet, which will amend the Act to give the Court jurisdiction over industrial, but not administrative matters.

6. Railway Commissioner to have discretion in filling vacancies, but in making appointments prior consideration to be given to applicants who were employed before August 1.

7. It is mutually understood that work shall be resumed without resentment and employment offered without vindictiveness.

When these terms were put before mass meetings of railway workers on September 10, there was a tremendous outcry. Great hostility towards the Union leaders and the Defence Committee was expressed. Especially was there opposition to any thought of going back until the unions on strike in other industries had been given opportunity of settling their affairs with employers. A suggestion was actually made, but not pressed very strongly, that the combined unions should carry on the fight under other leadership. The men were far from convinced that they were yet beaten. The implied threat of victimisation in the terms of settlement didn’t make it any easier for the Strike Committee to have its “sell out” accepted. The Defence Committee’s own official statement reveals the general dissatisfaction with the terms:

“A majority of the unions directly involved agreed to accept. Several absolutely refused. Some deferred their decision to a later date. The Committee believes there is a grave danger of a renewal of the whole dispute.”

The return to work was just as disorganised as the initial exodus. When the members of those unions who had decided on a resumption reported for duty they found they were expected to fill in a form headed, “Form of Application for Re-employment of Men who left Duty on Strike.” As a concession to the mass protest which greeted this the words, “Who Left Duty on Strike,” were deleted. Even so hundreds refused to fill in these forms. Figures published by the Commissioner on September 12, claim that 9,849 of the men who reported for duty were prepared to fill in the forms whereas 10,652 refused. However, when it became obvious that no unanimity existed the men began signing the amended forms at the rate of 1000 a day.

It took another month to force the workers in other industries back to work. The miners only resumed on October 3, while the seamen and wharf laborers remained out until October 18. Kavanagh and his colleagues were then released. The Court found them not guilty on two charges and on a third count remanded them to appear if called on. Their arrest on trumped up charges had served its turn. It had robbed them of what little heart they might have had for the struggle and ensured that their influence would be exerted in favour of a speedy capitulation.

The struggle at times presented the Government with some complicated legal problems. These are dealt with in the official report, [21] and provide in their way a most interesting sidelight on the role of the State in capitalist society.

“Amongst the problems which confronted the Government from the beginning of the strike were:

1. What legal position would be created by the Government taking over private property and services and managing, using, and conducting same, without the consent of the owners of such property or services, in order to allay public alarm and prevent great public loss?

2. To what extent the controllers of public utilities should he relieved of their Statutory obligations when operating under conditions which could never have been contemplated by Parliament as within the bounds of reasonable probability at the time when it legislated for the regulation of such utilities?

“It was of course obvious with respect to the first question that the appropriation of private properties and services would be illegal and might be restrained by injunction; that private rights could not be rightly invaded, that notwithstanding considerations of State necessity the law recognised no distinctions between offences committed in the name of the State and those committed by a private citizen.

“The Executive showed that it was prepared to do acts which constituted infringement of private rights, but the support which it received after it declared this attitude made it unnecessary to take any steps in which it was not voluntarily and unanimously supported by those whose rights were effected.

“It was recognised that there are times of civil commotion ‘when for the sake of legality itself the rules of law must be broken.’ ...” (My emphasis, E.W.C.)

The question of the legality of the Government’s action was later raised before the Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration, during an appeal to cancel the registration of the Miners’ Federation. The Arbitration Court referred the matter to the High Court. The High Court was specifically asked to determine whether the proclamation taking over the coal mines was valid, which, under the circumstances was a most embarrassing question. But calling on the wisdom of Solomon the High Court answered that, “The necessities of the case put before it did not require that any specific answer be given.” This left it up to Mr. Justice Higgins, who presided over the Arbitration Court. There was no ambiguity about his answer. “The proclamation,” he said, “was wholly invalid and was not worth the paper it was written on.”

Another interesting sidelight comes from the case of the Fellmongers. The employers in this industry required the men, as a condition of their re-employment, to sign a pledge that they would not oppose the employers’ application to the Court for the deregistration of the Fellmongers’ Union, that they would resign from this union and join a new union to be established by the employers. The case was referred to the Arbitration Court and the judge, Mr. Justice Heydon, delivered a very interesting homily on the equal rights of employers and employees before the law. His discourse quite unwittingly proves how the scales of justice are heavily weighted against the workers. It is seldom that the curtain is lifted to give such a clear picture of the real content of bourgeois legality. The labor movement should move a vote of thanks to Mr. Justice Heydon.

“It is all right for the employers to appeal for deregistration, “ he said, “but the workers have the right to oppose this. They also have the right to say whether or not they will belong to any union ...

“There is nothing wrong in the employers trying to get rid of the union if it has done wrong. However, what may be, right in itself may be done in a wrong way. The method may be unjust even though the end be defensible.

“A man who commits murder is liable to be put to death, but only after due trial and sentence, and only then by the hands of the officer of the law. He may be hanged, but he may not be lynched. Now what the employers have done here is to try to lynch the union.”

Whereas, we presume, following the argument through, it should have been legally strangled together with all the other unions which participated in the strike.

The Government and the employers tried hard to press home their victory and to deprive the unions of their power to struggle for many years to come. A number of loyalist unions were set up to replace the old established organisations. A supreme effort being made in this regard in the Railway and Tramway services. But the loyalist bodies failed to flourish. Only one has been kept alive to perform its original splitting functions in the Railway service. But the N.U.R. today is nothing more than an aggravating parasite on the body of authentic unionism. Other unions soon recovered their strength and the strike wave which broke out again in 1919 was responsible for the loss of almost as many working days as were lost in 1917. A feature which strikes one about the Australian labor movement is its amazing powers of recuperation.

Union after union has at one time or another received a severe drubbing at the hands of the employers or the government, but most of them have been able to recover fairly quickly and within a year or two resume the battle more full of fight than ever. This constitutes a happy omen for the future.

E. The Attempts To Form One Big Union.

Among the several weaknesses revealed by the 1917 strike was the lack of unity among the various craft unions. This factor seems to have attracted more attention than any other in the period immediately following the collapse of the struggle. Various schemes for strengthening the organisation of the industrial movement were brought forward in the unions and Labor Councils. From the debates and discussions which followed there emerged the plan to form One Big Union.

This was not the first occasion on which Australian unionists were attracted to the idea of a unified trade union movement. In 1891, at the Ballarat Intercolonial Trade Union Congress, William Lane’s scheme for an All-Australian Labor Federation, was adopted. This plan never materialised, outside the State of Queensland. The conditions were not then fully ripe. But subsequent developments, as we have seen, only confirmed more strongly than ever the need for a more closely knit organisation of labor on the industrial field.

In August 1918, a Trade Union Congress was held in Sydney with delegates from 150 organisations in attendance. The O.B.U. plan was placed before Congress and endorsed. The plan opened with a preamble, which was obviously inspired by the teachings of the I.W.W. However, it was a modified version of both the 1905 and 1908 I.W.W. preambles. It indicated that Australian militants had learned something from their own experiences and mistakes. This preamble gave the movement a definite socialist objective. It called for “a complete change, namely, the abolition of the capitalist ownership of the means of production and the establishment of social ownership.” It also took a step forward from the syndicalist and sectarian position of the I.W.W., by recognising the need for political as well as industrial action. The proposed organisational structure was a slightly modified version of the I.W.W. plan.

The scheme was discussed by similar Conferences of the unions in other States, and ultimately an All-Australian Congress in Melbourne ratified the plan. However, like the Ballarat scheme, which preceded it by 27 years, the O.B.U. never materialised. It was wrecked by the opposition of craft union officials, the labor politicians and the A.W.U. bureaucracy. At first the A.W.U. was quite enthusiastic about the O.B.U. and boosted it through the columns of the Worker. But when it became quite clear that the A.W.U. clique were not going to be the dominant force inside the new organisation they turned from support to bitter opposition to the whole proposals. The nearest the O.B.U. came to taking on any substance was when the Miners’ Federation adopted the plan and changed the name of their organisation to Workers’ Industrial Union of Australia; Mining Department. But this change of name by one union didn’t build a new union. Other unions did little or nothing at all to ratify the decision of the All-Australian Congress and the O.B.U. scheme eventually collapsed.

The chief fault with the O.B.U. was that it aimed at wiping out at one stroke all craft differences, by compelling the craft unions to sink their identity in the new organisation. Craft traditions and prejudices were far too strong and too deeply ingrained to be removed overnight in this easy fashion. Industrial unionism is undoubtedly an advance on craft unionism, which no longer corresponds to the conditions of modern industry, but industrial unionism cannot be achieved outside of, nor over the heads of the craft unions in Australia. Industrial unionism will only be realised through those who are conscious of its benefits continuing to work within the existing craft unions, striving for ever closer unity, amalgamation, federation and absorption, in accordance with circumstances as they develop. Paper schemes which fail to take into account the state of the movement as it exists, and which seek to supplant this movement by something entirely new, are bound to fail, no matter how “scientific” they might appear to be.

In summarising the history of the war period we see that the Australian labor movement was given the opportunity to thoroughly test the two extremes of Reformism and Revolutionary Syndicalism. Both proved equally barren, because both are equally the products of spontaneity, which condemns the labor movement to bourgeois domination. The common source of reformism and syndicalism is revealed by Lenin:

“Bourgeois ideologists, liberals and democrats,” he wrote, “who do not understand Marxism and the modern labor movement, are constantly jumping from one helpless extreme to another. Now they explain that it is all because wicked persons ‘incite’ class against class, and now they console themselves that the workers’ party is a peaceful party of reform. Both anarcho-syndicalism and reformism must be considered as the direct product of this bourgeois world outlook and influence. They both seize upon one side of the labor movement, raise this one sidedness to a theory and declare as mutually exclusive such tendencies or features of the labor movement as form the specific peculiarity of one or other period, of one or other of the conditions of activity of the working class. But real life and real history include in themselves these various tendencies, just as life and development in nature include in themselves both slow evolution and rapid leaps, breaks in gradualism.

“The Reformists consider as phrases all arguments about ‘leaps’ and about the principles underlying the antagonism of the labor movement to the old society. They accept reforms as a partial realisation of socialism. The Anarcho-Syndicalist rejects ‘petty-work,’ particularly the utilisation of the parliamentary tribune. In practice these latter tactics amount to waiting for ‘big days,’ and exhibit an inability to gather the forces for big events. Both the Reformist and the Anarcho-Syndicalist hinder the most important and urgent business of uniting the workers in big, strong and well-functioning organisations, capable of functioning well under all circumstances, imbued with the spirit of class struggle, clearly recognising their aims, and trained in the real Marxian world outlook.” [22]

The bankruptcy of reformism and syndicalism, which was revealed during the war, emphasised the need in Australia for a party of a new type. Such a party was formed in 1920, when the inaugural conference to found a Communist Party was held in Sydney.


1. Australia Marches On, by L. L. Sharkey, P. 6/7.

2. Collected Works of V.I. Lenin, Vol. XVIII. The Imperialist War. Appendix 11, page 468/9 Martin Lawrence, London.

3. Differences in the European Labor Movement.

4. The History of the, American Working Class by Anthony Bimba, p. 23011231. International Publishers Co., Inc. U.S.A., 1927.

5. Ibid, p. 231.

6. Ibid, page 232.

7. Lenin’s Lecture on the State,

8. State and Revolution, Lenin, p. 46/7. Lawrence & Wishart, London. Pop. Ed.

9. State and Revolution, Lenin, p. 47/8.

10. Lenin on the “Peace Slogan”

11. New South Wales Industrial Gazette, Vol. 10, p. 924.

12. Ibid, Vol. 12, p. 37.

13. New South Wales Government Year Book, 1939-40, p. 631.

14. Ibid, p. 639.

15. N.S.W. I.G. Vol. 12, p. 3.

16. N.S.W. I.G. Vol. 110, p. 920.

17. N.S.W. I.G. Vol. 9, p. 421, and Vol. 11, p. 550.

18. N.S.W. I.G. Vol. 4, p. 1083.

19. Ibid, Vol. 7, p. 554.

20. Ibid, Vol. 2, p. 556.

21. N.S.W. I.G. Special Supplement to Vol. 13, No. 2, February, 1918.

22. Lenin: Differences in the European Labor Movement, Marx-Engels-Marxism, p. 81/2. Lawrence & Wishart Edition, 1941.