The Trade Unions: Communist Theory and Practice of Trade Unionism, Lance Sharkey. 1961
The miners’ struggle of 1949 provided a number of lessons for the working class, the most important one being the real role of the Industrial Groupers and the Rightwing in the A.L.P. and the trade union movement.
The Federal Labor Government set out to break the strike in order to put an end to the postwar militancy of the working-class in its struggle for improved conditions, and to deal a blow to militant and communist leadership of trade union struggles.
Their aim was to safeguard capitalism just as the Scullin Labor Government had done in another critical situation. Scullin forced the so-called Premiers’ Plan on the working class during the economic crisis of 1930-33, in order to safeguard the interests of the bankers and monopolies. Scullin enforced heavy cuts in wages for those workers fortunate enough to retain employment, placing the burdens of the economic crisis on the shoulders of the toilers, as the Communist Party defined it at the time.
In addition, the meagre old-age pensions were cut while unemployment relief was 8/- for a single man and correspondingly small “doles” for families. At its peak, the unemployed army exceeded 500,000.
Defending capitalist interests in 1949, the Federal Labor Government declared a “state of emergency” and proceeded to attack the unions concerned in the struggle. It froze trade union funds.
Eight trade union leaders were sentenced to imprisonment for periods of six or twelve months.
Five other union officials were fined £100 each, the Miners’ Federation and the Waterside Workers’ Federation were each fined £2,000 and the Federated Ironworkers’ Association £1,000.
Members of the Central Committee of the Communist Party and other Party members were brought before the Arbitration Court, the Party’s headquarters were raided by the police and files and documents were confiscated.
These punitive actions were taken under legislation specially introduced by the Chifley Government to beat the miners.
The Labor Government trampled on its own platform, which declares that troops must not be used in industrial disputes, and sent soldiers to work open-cut mines.
The A.L.P. sent right wingers to the strike centres to split the solidarity of the workers and force them to capitulate.
The right wingers raised a hue and cry that the miners’ struggle was a “Communist plot to destroy arbitration”, the “traditional” policy of the A.L.P.
Was there any truth in this catch-cry?
Let Dr. J. W. Burton, who held high office under the Federal Labor Government at the time, testify.
In his Chifley Memorial Lecture, 1958, Dr. Burton said:
“Labor in Australia since about 1949 has time and again compromised principle under certain pressures. In the domestic field, the use of troops during the coal strike in 1949 on the grounds that it was Communist-inspired, and despite certain knowledge to the contrary, (my emphasis, L.L.S.) was a disgraceful compromise with principle in the face of an election.”
-- “The Nature and Significance of Labor,” Dr. John W. Burton, B.A., Ph.D., Chifley Memorial Lecture, 1958. p. 11.
Another equally false cry of the right wingers was to the effect that the strike leadership refused to negotiate a settlement at any stage.
Long before the strike commenced, the union tried, in vain, to negotiate a settlement of their claims. In the course of the strike various moves were made by the union and by people outside the industry to negotiate a settlement but neither the owners nor the Government would agree. Submit to the arbitration tribunal, was their reply to every move to negotiate on the miners’ claims.
The Chifley Government, under pressure from the industrial groupers in the A.L.P. and in the Government itself, set out to defeat the strike in order to weaken the working class, not only to win an election.
The Chifley Government lost the following election and the fundamental cause was its attack on the workers, together with its red-bogey mongering. The A.L.P. has since been unable to regain Federal office for a decade.
It certainly sacrificed itself on the altars of capitalism!
This struggle revealed the true nature of the rightwing A.L.P. leadership, once more, as a liberal bourgeois party that, in critical situations, defends capitalist interests against the working class.
The 1949 miners’ strike provided a lesson that no trade unionist, who has the interests of the workers at heart, should forget.
One mistake made in the strike was its undue prolongation; it is always right to call off a strike when it is clear that a point of exhaustion may be reached, to preserve unity and conserve the organisation of the workers.
This mistake followed from another, an underestimation of the ability of the rightwing to undermine the struggle of the workers and a belief that reformism can be easily destroyed. Certainly, it is necessary to combat the strike-breakers, but it is equally necessary to make an objective analysis of the situation and the balance of forces at each stage and to evolve the necessary policies to safeguard the workers’ interests in all situations.
However, the cause of the defeat of the miners in 1949 was not the policies or mistakes of the unions, but the anti-working class attitude taken by the top Rightwing A.L.P. leaders.
The 1949 miners’ strike, despite its defeat, opened the way for long service leave in the coal industry and its subsequent introduction to most other awards. The Miners’ Federation was not smashed as the ruling class planned, but continues to be one of the most militant unions in Australia.
As the capitalist offensive developed, following the miners’ strike, the resistance of the workers grew, and the need for trade union unity became more apparent. In this period, a variety of forms of struggle, such as rolling strikes, stay-in strikes, one-day stoppages and so on were employed by the trade unions. Pressure grew on the Australian Council of Trade Unions and reformist unions to support the strikes and help organise the resistance.
Two nation-wide strikes, waged by the Waterside Workers’ Federation in this period, had particular significance. At the end of 1954 the W.W.F. came out on strike against the operation of legislation passed by the Menzies Government that gave control over the recruitment of labour on the waterfront to the ship owners. Later, at the beginning of 1956, the Federation again waged a national strike for increases in the hourly rate of wages for wharf labourers, a struggle which fitted into the general trade union demand for increased wage margins.
Both of these struggles were remarkable for their unity. The waterside workers were firmly united and enthusiastic for the struggles and for the policy of the union leadership. The A.C.T.U. and Trades and Labour Councils supported the strikes and the Labor Party was sympathetic. Moreover the W.W.F. waged a big propaganda campaign to explain the issues to the farmers and other sections of the people.
These developments were in marked contrast to the miners’ strike in 1949 in which the reformist trade union leaders joined with the Labor leaders and the Chifley Government to isolate the militant unions and defeat the miners. Their policy caused grave disunity and weakened the trade union movement as a whole.
The struggles of the wharfies helped consolidate unity in the trade union movement.
The fact that the struggles were waged under the control of the A.C.T.U. had advantages and disadvantages for the workers. A.C.T.U. support helped widen the unity of the trade union movement for the struggle and on the other hand the reformist leaders were in a position to order a return to work, which they did before the full demands of the wharfies were realised. However, significant gains were made by the workers.