Into The Mainstream by Tom O’Lincoln

The Communists on the Offensive

At the end of World War II, there was an explosion of industrial struggle. As early as 1944 a journalist had written:

New South Wales, during the 20 months ending August 31, had 1,432 industrial disputes (depriving) the neutral citizen of meat, bread, laundry, newspapers, tyres, theatrical entertainment, hospital attention, buses and trams, coke for stoves, potatoes, restaurants, hot baths, country and inter-state travel and other amenities.[1]

In the three years 1945-47 nearly 5.5 million working days were lost in strikes. By comparison only about 2.5 million days had been lost in the three last pre-war years of peace. The general ferment was so intense that in September 1946, the Communist newspaper Tribune could report that the Leichhardt Boy Scouts' Band in Sydney was on strike and had black banned its scout hall. [2]

After years of wartime sacrifice, workers felt it was time for some reward. Moreover, they were in a strong bargaining position. Industry was booming as it rushed to meet a sudden demand for consumer goods and the unions felt an immense determination to hammer home this advantage:

... all members of the work force retained vivid, and usually bitter, memories of the depression years. This meant not only that the victims of that economic disaster were determined that it should never happen again, but also that the attitude of organised labour was coloured by a desire for something akin to revenge, for a squaring of those industrial and social accounts left suspended with the outbreak of war. This time, it was felt, the bosses, the financiers, or however "they" might be described, were not going to get away with it. [3]

At the start, the Communist Party was not behind the unrest. Indeed it was not doing all that much to encourage it. Until 1947 the CPA considered itself to be in a united front with the ruling Labor government and was unlikely to foment industrial unrest for its own sake. On the other hand the Australian Communist Party, unlike some CPs in Europe or even the British CP which was working hard to elect Attlee, made no particular effort to restrain strikes either. Communist union officials more or less followed the tide of events; just how militantly they performed depended on the particular situation, as we will see.

The central issues were wages and hours. The ACTU was pressing for a 40 hour week, and individual unions and workplaces were fighting for shorter hours and substantial wage rises. The Federal Labor government, backed by the mostly Labor State governments, tenaciously resisted the union pressure on both fronts. Arbitration and conciliation proved a tortuously slow means to winning claims. Workers therefore turned to strike action on a massive scale. The first major battle occurred in the Victorian metal trades.

The metal employers locked out 20,000 engineers and ironworkers at the end of 1946, in a dispute over wages. Within two months the lockout was abandoned, but the unions now pressed home their advantage, turning the lockout into a strike. At the end of five months, the unions had won a major victory. They won wage gains which flowed on to other sections of industry, and the outcome undoubtedly hastened the granting of the 40 hour week in 1948.

The behaviour of Communist union officials varied. The leading Communist in the Amalgamated Engineering Union (AEU), "Red Ted" Rowe, took a militant line throughout. He fought against other more conservative members of the AEU Commonwealth Council to ensure continuing support for the Victorian strikers. In this, however, he was in complete agreement with Joe Cranwell, an ALP member, who was also on the Commonwealth Council.

By contrast Ernie Thornton, Communist leader of the Federated Ironworkers Association, took a less aggressive stance. At the national conference of his union, Thornton

seemed to imply that the Victorian dispute had gone on too long, that union tactics had failed and that the strike should be brought to a speedy end. He referred to the disheartening effect such a long drawn out dispute had on the rank and file, to the weakening of union organisation and to a backlash effect against communists. [4]

Thornton was hardly a more fainthearted person than Rowe. The different stances arose out of the different positions of their two unions. The AEU possessed sizeable financial resources. It spent well over £100,000 from its supplementary fund, as well as selling and spending £120,000 of Commonwealth Bonds. At the end of the dispute, it was about to begin drawing on a £9 million fund held by its parent organisation in Britain. Moreover, it was comparatively easy for the skilled engineers to find other work during the stoppage, and a majority of them seem to have done so.

By contrast the FIA was a poor union, its members without the easily saleable skills of the engineers. Its industrial militancy was correspondingly fragile in a dispute which lasted five months. In the Victorian metal dispute, it is clear that Communist officials were more influenced by their immediate environment than by an official party policy.

By the following year that was beginning to change. In 1948, a second important dispute occurred in Queensland in the railways, and the CPA intervened in a much more coherent way.[5]

At the start of February 1947, 3000 railway employees, together with tradesmen and their assistants, came out on strike demanding rates of pay equal to their equivalents in other States. The strike occurred against the background of great bitterness among Queensland workers. Both in agriculture and in industry the economy was depressed and half of Australia's unemployment was in Queensland. Railway workers were also particularly angry over poor safety conditions, which the government seemed reluctant to do anything about.

The rail strike met severe repression by the Hanlon Labor government. Other railway employees were stood down in an attempt to create divisions among the workforce. Legislation was rushed through to give the police authority to enter homes and eject any non-resident, to arrest without warrant, and to act against anyone suspected of aiding strikers. Picketting was banned. And on St. Patrick's Day a small demonstration was violently dispersed, police taking the opportunity to strike down Communist MLA Fred Paterson who was watching the demonstration from across the road.

This latter incident brought a wave of revulsion against the police, with even the conservative Daily Telegraph being moved to criticise them. The unions responded with a demonstration of eight to ten thousand people in the city square.

The police violence hardened the strikers' determination. New groups of workers were drawn into the dispute. Waterside workers struck in all Queensland ports and Seamen banned shipping, and all interstate rail shipments to the State were banned. It was widely considered that this blockade was the turning point in the dispute. After two months, the workers accepted terms in early April which represented a significant victory.

The Communist Party played a more prominent and more concerted role in this dispute than in the Victorian metal trades struggle. Ted Rowe came to Queensland to lead the strike, along with Alex Macdonald, the Communist Queensland branch secretary of the FIA. They brought a high level of organisation to the strike. At the same time, it was the strong CPA influence among Seamen and wharfies that made it possible to organise support from these unions in such an effective manner. The State government paid its own tribute to the importance of the Communists by singling them out for repression. Everyone injured in the attack on the St. Patrick's Day demonstration was a Communist.

Almost simultaneous with the battle in Queensland there was another major clash in Victoria. The new Liberal-Country Party government there had seized on a transport strike as a pretext to introduce an Essential Services Act. This Act declared strikes illegal unless they were authorised by a secret ballot conducted by the Chief Electoral Officer. Even if a secret ballot had been held, the government still had powers of direction, and anyone failing to obey a direction could be prosecuted.

A number of militant unions threatened industrial action if the Act were proclaimed or operated. When the Government did proclaim it, the unions called a stoppage, and a rally at Yarra Bank which was attended by some 10,000 people.

The influence of the CPA was evident in the co-ordination of action by different unions and in the publicity campaign. The Engine Drivers and Firemen threatened to withdraw key workers from the Latrobe Valley power stations, and Seamen threatened to cut off coal supplies. Meanwhile a massive publicity push was organised with frequent leaflets and a newspaper called Trade Union News. Ted Hill reported that the first eight-page edition began distribution at 7:30 am, and within an hour 75,000 copies had been distributed.[6]

The union paper enraged the employers and government by the unforgivable act of publishing the Essential Services Act word for word. Until then the press had suppressed the details, but now the government was forced to admit there were objectionable clauses in it.

The strength of the union response produced a split in the government. The Liberals came under pressure from retailers who feared a long disruption of trade, while the Country Party was free from such direct pressure. The balance was probably tipped in favour of conciliation by unrest in the police force, who were angered by changes in regulations. Premier Hollway approached Trades Hall, which in turn conveyed the government's terms to the transport unions. Summonses against unionists would be adjourned, with an undertaking they would be permanently shelved. Proposed amendments to strengthen the Act would be dropped. The Act was a dead letter from that day onwards.

In the period that followed the war, the unions had so far won every major strike. There were also many minor victories. At the same time, and no doubt owing in large part to the industrial militancy, the Federal Arbitration Court granted the 40 hour week in 1947. To Communists and industrial militants generally, the picture was one of continual success, achieved through militant action — usually in opposition to Labor governments. And increasingly, it was the Communists who appeared in the leadership.

As the confidence of the militants grew, the hostility of governments and employers hardened. As the CPA became more prominent in the struggles, the party was more and more singled out for attacks by governments, employers and media. An all-out confrontation seemed increasingly likely, and indeed, it took place in 1949. Before looking at the events of that year, however, it might be well to look at the evolution of Communist Party political and industrial policy after 1947.

The Cold War and the Left Turn

AS THE class struggle was reaching its height in Australia, the Cold War was beginning between Russia and the west. Stalin summoned the Communist Parties to a new militant opposition to western governments. Labor governments were not exempt.

The new turn was welcomed with enthusiasm by the Australian party leadership. Even before the shift in Soviet policy the CPA leaders had been under pressure to adopt a more militant stance. Jack Blake, Victorian secretary, had called as early as 1945 for a "consistent campaign of enlightenment on the essence of the class collaborationist views of the Labor Party leadership".[7] In the following year Blake led his home State into virtual opposition to the Central Committee, as Ralph Gibson relates:

In 1946 we had got out of step with the Central Committee of the Party. In preparing the draft resolution for the State Conference of that year, we took the stand that in the new circumstances of the Cold War the united front of the working class could be built only from below and only against the Labor Party leaders... The Central Committee called for a change in our draft but we then circularised it unchanged in a clear breach of discipline. [8]

Richard Dixon intervened in the Victorian Conference to reassert the official line of unity with the ALP leadership. But his words must have rung hollow in the following period, as Labor governments attacked every major union campaign. In the course of 1947, the party began to reconsider its position. Dixon told the Central Committee in February that "we must present the Party as the alternative. . .in order to establish socialism we must defeat reformism." [9] By May, Lance Sharkey was taking a harder line at the Congress:

...when the Labor Party tends ever more in the direction of the camp of the imperialists and ever more clearly embraces the sabotaging role of social democracy, it is clear that we cannot pursue a policy that strengthens the reformist grip over the trade union masses. On the contrary, we must work to separate the masses from the right wing leaders in the trade unions and elsewhere. [10]

The CPA therefore anticipated the official declaration of the new Soviet policy, which was elaborated in September 1947. In that month the founding conference of the Communist Information Bureau announced that the world was being divided into two camps. One was the "imperialist and anti-democratic camp" led by Washington, and the other was an "anti-imperialist and democratic camp" led by the Soviet Union. A major attack was made on the "right wing socialists" — by which the social democratic and labour parties were meant. The Communist Parties were to adopt a more independent posture, to "take the lead of all forces that are ready to fight for honour and national independence". There was to be a new militancy on all fronts:

The principal danger for the working class to-day lies in underestimating their strength and overestimating the strength of the imperialist camp. [11]

There was now an inter-action of domestic experience and Kremlin directives, which led to an acceleration of the CPA's militant turn. The ALP began to be criticised in sharper and sharper terms. Queensland party leader Jack Henry announced that "conditions are maturing for a very big break with reformism". The Central Committee reported that the "Federal and State Labor Governments (were) pursuing a bourgeois-liberal policy" and had "allied themselves with the employers".[12]

The Queensland rail strike provided much of the justification for the new policy. The strike breaking tactics of the Hanlon government were held up as proof of the bankruptcy of Laborism, and at the same time the success of the strike was considered proof of the potential of militant policies. Jack Henry said it showed "the tendency of the reformist union officials and reformist workers to come over and fight very unitedly side by side with the Communists" in the face of attacks by press and government. [13] Dixon hailed the strike as a:

classic example of what Marx and Lenin described as the intertwining of the economic and political struggle, of the raising of the economic struggle to the level of the political struggle against capitalism. We must aim in strike struggles not only to achieve economic gains, but also to draw the masses into the fight against reaction and to the side of the Communist Party. [14]

The urgency of stepping up the struggle arose, in the Communist view, from the imminence of a new economic depression. This new depression had been predicted by the Soviet economist Varga, but it was not only Communists who believed it was coming. The Melbourne Chamber of Commerce felt in March 1948 that there was "no dispute... that the well-being of the economy is in jeopardy", and an ALP newspaper said "all kinds of people — workers, businessmen and university professors — are talking about another depression".[15]

The CPA expected the coming depression to bring with it a political radicalisation, and lead masses of workers to support its policies. The Communist treasurer of the Sydney watersiders warned that "there is no fury like the lash of dying capitalism" but predicted that "the working class will move to the left, to communism; there is nowhere else for them to go".[16] The party leaders announced hopefully:

...if we warn of the perspectives ahead, if we lay down the measures to meet it, then when that perspective develops, as we know it must, it will be to the Communist Party that the workers are saying in their tens of thousands: "You were right. And from now on it is the Communist Party who leads our union".[17]

One consequence of the new orientation was a turn to aggressively independent electoral campaigns. The party announced that Communists would give second preferences to the ALP, and where no CPA candidate was standing would give first preferences to Labor where their opinion was sought.[18] The party was no longer campaigning for the return of an ALP government.

Another interesting, if unsuccessful CPA move was a bid to win trade union financial support. Taking to heart a declaration by Sharkey that "to affiliate the trade unions to the reformist party strengthens reformist ideology",[19] Ernie Thornton moved to put the sentiment into practice in the Ironworkers union. In 1949 the FIA decided to alter the terms of its affiliation to the Labor Party. Individual members would pay a political levy, to go either to the ALP or CPA as they indicated. Where no indication was made, the levy would be used as decided by the FIA National Council. Branches of the union would affiliate to the ALP on the basis of the proportion of their membership which had directed their levy to that party.

The Labor Party refused to allow affiliation on this basis, and the scheme also ran into trouble in the Arbitration Court, so that it was ultimately abandoned. It remains interesting as a kind of high water mark in the tide of worker and Communist militancy in industry after the war.

The new leftwing orientation also found its reflection in the work among women, which was centred among housewives. Runaway inflation, lack of childcare, and the lack of even minimal amenities in some of the new working class suburbs had produced a considerable ferment among housewives after the war, and at first the Communists had worked to build influence within the established Housewives Association. Later they formed their own breakaway New Housewives Association. Some indication of the scope of the party's work can be gained from the NHA's claimed 50 branches in NSW with 3000 members. [20] In Melbourne a leader of the original Housewives Association conceded that the breakaway group had branches in 32 suburbs. [21]

Whether working through one of these two organisations, or directly, the CPA women showed a notable militancy in this period. NHA members addressed factory meetings on issues concerning women and on general political questions. In Sydney a group of women stormed into the gas company to protest against rising gas prices and were able to force the manager to see them. In Melbourne a hundred wives stormed the Prices Branch office demanding controls on meat prices. And the agitation around rising prices reached higher levels in a mass demonstration in Sydney in 1948, which Tribune claimed numbered 10,000 and which won support as far away as Melbourne, where building workers in Moorabbin held a one-hour stoppage to coincide with it. [22]

And finally the radicalism of the period found a remarkable kind of documentation in a heated exchange of polemics with the Communist Party of Great Britain. In the post-war years the British party had first called for an all-party "national government" at a time when the workers were preparing to sweep Labour into power. Then, when forced by events to modify their approach, they moved to a position of virtually uncritical support of the new Labour government. To this the Australian party took exception, and in 1948 they wrote a letter to say so.

The CPGB had stated that Britain under Labour was in "transition to socialism", claimed the Australians; it had backed the government's attempts to boost exports to the point of raising the slogan "Produce or Perish"; and it had "consistently opposed the strikes of the workers":

Their own documents relate that, in the big dock strike, in which they came out in opposition to the striking workers, Party speakers were in danger of being lynched by the workers, and that the strike ended in the hands of the Trotskyists and other rotten elements.
The same applies to the opposition of the Party to a number of strikes in the coal industry.

Finally the CPGB was guilty of "referring to the British Empire in the past tense, insufficient struggle on behalf of the independence of the colonies; and worse still, the example of the British comrades which led to opportunism and confusion in a number of the colonial Communist Parties".[23]

The British Party denied the substance of the charges, and the Australians wrote back with extensive documentation. However what matters here is not so much who was right and who was wrong, but the spectacle of the Australians delivering the British a lecture on militancy and class struggle (a lecture at which they are said to have been no little annoyed). Not only was the CPA turning to the left, but in doing so it was obviously prepared to go farther than some of its fellows abroad.

A kind of conventional wisdom has grown up about the militancy of the late forties and especially about the defeat of the coal strike of 1949. There is a three-stage argument which goes roughly as follows:

1. The Communist Party was in continual decline from the end of the war onwards.

2. The Communist Party adopted an ultra left policy, overestimating its influence and being sectarian toward the ALP. Such a policy is always wrong, but was particularly wrong in a time when the party was in decline.

3. This ultra left policy was the cause of defeat in the coal strike.

Undoubtedly there is some truth in each point. But they are certainly not the whole truth. The conventional wisdom stresses the dangers of ultraleftism and sectarianism toward the ALP. But it omits or underplays other problems both in the strike and in Communist practice in the post-war period, particularly the problem of bureaucratic and manipulative practices on the part of the CPA union officials.

The coal strike will be dealt with shortly, as will the problems of union bureaucracy. For now let us consider two questions. Was the CPA in continual decline from 1945; and was the left policy of the party as entirely mistaken as most writers contend?

The State of the Party

ALISTAIR Davidson writes that "the party declined in strength between 1945 and 1956", implying a steady decline, and notes:

In 1945 there were 16,280 members; in 1946, 13,450; in 1947, 12,108. The heavy government onslaught on the party in 1948-52 further reduced the party to about 6,000 members. [24]

Other writers point out that the CPA was up to 23,000 members during the war, and went downhill from there. Historians have therefore drawn the conclusion that the coal strike of 1949 was "an act of bravado and adventurism when the party was in decline", as Robin Gollan puts it. [25] But a closer examination reveals a more complex picture.

The massive wartime recruitment was artificial and took place largely among the middle class. Eric Aarons commented in 1946 that "Many members recruited during the People's War had a rather one-sided view of Party traditions".[26]They had joined a party associated with the glorious Russian ally, and equally significant they had joined a party which was discouraging strikes because of the war effort. It was not likely that all of them would be suited to a party caught up in fierce class struggles, and the departure of some of them was probably not a great loss.

By contrast, the end of the war brought the return of numerous war veterans to the party, a (literally) battle-tested cadre.

Most important of all, the party held its numbers after 1947, and consolidated its membership, at least in Sydney. In that city, the number of new members was higher for 1948 than for 1947 or 1946 — suggesting an upswing in the party's fortunes. And fluctuation (turnover) of membership fell from 23% in 1946 to 19% in 1947 and 11% in 1948. [27]

The financial base of the CPA allowed Tribune to move from weekly to twice-weekly production. No doubt this had a lot to do with the easing of wartime shortages of newsprint. Even so, there is no sign of decline here.

The real mass character of the CPA of the time is illustrated by the Sydney branch structure. There were five branches at the Chullora railway workshops alone in 1948. [28] The East Sydney area boasted eight branches with a total of 200 members. [29] A Sydney district conference held in 1947 was attended by 136 delegates representing 113 branches. [30]

Historians also suggest that the CPA's trade union base eroded steadily from the end of the war, and Gollan argues that the 1949 ACTU Congress "provided the clearest evidence" of this decline. [31] Before considering Gollan's claim, let's look at the trends from 1946. Davidson, who accepts the thesis of continual decline, nevertheless records the following:

It was symptomatic of worker support for communist policies that, until the 1947 Congress, communists continued to strengthen their positions in the very unions that were striking, while losing support in the ACTU itself and in the Trades Halls.

He then goes on to devote considerable space to the ACTU and Trades Halls, where the party's influence certainly began to wane as soon as the wartime honeymoon with the bourgeoisie came to an end. In these bodies, the high temples as it were of class collaboration, that was to be expected. But for communists what ought to be central is strength among the rank and file. And this strength was by no means quickly eroded after 1947. Indeed, Davidson must note one page later that in 1948 "quick gains were made" in industrial struggle. And one page after that he says that despite a determined offensive by the Industrial Groups, "the communists continued to hold their own for a while. Groupers were beaten in elections for low level positions in some unions".[32]

Now what of the 1949 Congress? Gollan himself quotes Tom Wright of the Sheetmetal Workers, a Communist official:

At the two preceding Congresses, the left wing succeeded in leading the discussions and carrying the day on all vital questions of policy. At the 1949 Congress the left wing had approximately the same number of delegates as in 1947, but there was a large increase in delegations under right wing leadership. [33]

This assessment, which Gollan does not challenge, suggests that the Congress results reflected more a mobilisation of the right than an erosion of the CPA's own base. The two are not the same.

The general picture then is of a party which, between 1947 and 1949, was holding its position both in numbers and in influence among rank and file workers. To be sure, it was soon to suffer massive setbacks in both areas, but the party cannot be faulted for not having a crystal ball.

The Charge of Ultraleftism

THERE remains the charge that the CPA badly misread the political situation and adopted a political line which was ultra left and sectarian. Looking back at the defeat in the coal strike, CPA leaders have assigned much of the blame to the "Left line" which the party adopted from 1947.

We recall that the "Left line" was based on two premises. One was that a new depression was in the offing. A new economic crisis was expected to lead to a radicalisation and move workers toward the CPA. The second premise was that the Labor Party was more and more openly becoming a tool of the bosses: one reason being that the coming economic crisis would eliminate any basis for reformism, another being the growing political polarisations of the cold war. The CPA believed it could, and must present itself as a political alternative to Labor on every front.

The first premise was of course badly mistaken. Australia was about to participate in a world-wide economic expansion. But as we have seen, no one could have foreseen this development; in fact even bourgeois economists reckoned with the prospect of economic downturn.

As for the Labor Party, it was doing its best to fulfil Communist predictions.

Militants remembered that in the last depression, the Scullin Labor government had presided over a wage cut, and that the Lang Labor government had evicted the unemployed and sent the police to break up their demonstrations. In the performance of post-war ALP governments, State and Federal, they saw little promise of anything better if a second depression occurred.

Chifley maintained wage-pegging after the war, until forced to abandon it. He fought long and hard to delay a victorious end to the Victorian metal trades strike. In Queensland during the rail strike, the

Hanlon government invaded strikers' homes and beat up picketers and demonstrators. Under these circumstances, a certain hostility to the ALP leaders did not seem unreasonable. Now what exactly do CPA leaders feel was wrong with the "Left line" of those days?

Ralph Gibson attacks it as embodying the view that "the united front of the working class could be built only from below and only against the Labor leaders".[34] Given the record of the Labor leaders, does this seem unreasonable? Was it even remotely possible to build a united front with Chifley or Hanlon, except at the expense of workers' interests?

Gibson cites a particular example of the evils of leftism: the Victorian draft resolution of 1946 which was rejected by the Central Committee. Gibson probably picks this resolution, written before the actual left turn was taken, because he prefers to attack its author Jack Blake than to attack the Central Committee of the late forties. This is consistent with the decision of the party leaders, taken in the early fifties, to make Blake and Jack Henry the scapegoats for a policy which was in fact the policy of the whole leadership. But that need not concern us now. Blake's views of 1946 are the same as the Central Committee's views of 1949, and may be examined in their place.

Blake himself has identified the particular passage which the Central Committee and Gibson disliked:

The sentence in question... read: "The workers will gain from Labor governments, only that for which they are prepared to unite, organise and fight." My line of thinking was directed against the wartime wage pegging regulations which the Chifley government continued to maintain in force. [35]

Now there is nothing very radical in the sentence Blake quotes. In the face of Labor's consistent and vehement opposition to strikes and union demands, how could any militant worker expect to make gains without a fight? Miners reflecting on the 1949 coal strike could only have considered Blake's prediction an accurate one. And as for Blake's enthusiasm for fighting the wage pegging regulations, for which he was condemned as ultra-left ... on this question the workers had the last word.

The wage pegging regulations were finally ended as a result of the Victorian metal trades dispute, precisely because the metal workers were "prepared to unite, organise and fight", not only against the employers but against Chifley.

I dwell on this question to make it clear that the long-standing condemnation of the CPA "ultraleftism" of 1947-49 is in reality also an attack on militancy itself. In building up the conventional wisdom about the "ultra left policies" of that period, the CPA leaders simultaneously established the ideological basis for the right wing trade union practice which they followed in the fifties and sixties.

That is not to say, of course, that the party policies of the late forties were free of ultraleftism, or of sectarianism toward the Labor Party. Many of their formulations, and no doubt some of their practice, was overly aggressive and overly confident. But what is certainly needed is a more balanced view than has been presented in most histories.

The Coal Strike: Anatomy of a Defeat

EARLY IN 1949 Communists and other militants in the leadership of the mining unions began planning for a major dispute.

They believed a new depression was imminent, and this shaped their thinking considerably. At the start of the last depression, precisely twenty years earlier, the coal owners had used a lockout to gravely weaken the unions and drive down wages and conditions. Now the employers were again becoming aggressive. The militants believed that the unions must take the offensive themselves while conditions were still reasonably favourable.

The Miners' Federation adopted three main proposals. A log of claims was to be drawn up. An intensive campaign was planned to explain the log to the rank and file, build support, and prepare them for struggle. Finally, an attempt was to be made to win support among other workers.

The log boiled down to four demands: long service leave, 30 shillings per week rise, 35 hour week, and provision of amenities. These claims were endorsed by the Coal Mining Unions' Council (CMUC) and served on 22 April, and a campaign to build support on and off the coalfields was launched immediately.

The coal owners proved very hard-nosed, but F. Gallagher, chairman of the Coal Industry Tribunal, announced he would grant some form of long service leave and would publish a draft award setting out the terms. This move might have postponed the dispute, had not the employers gained a no-strike order from the same Gallagher. The no strike order polarised the situation and made a strike inevitable. On 16 June, aggregate meetings of miners voted for the strike by 7995 to 882.

At first miners believed the government might intervene in their favour, but they were soon disillusioned. Ben Chifley declared he would come in "boots and all" against the strikers, and the government froze union funds and jailed union leaders. Finally on 27 July, troops were sent into the open cut mines. The amount of coal the troops could mine was trivial, but their presence convinced miners that they were up against the full power of the state.

The miners were also facing a united front of the government, the media and the bulk of the trade union officialdom. With coal shortages leading to massive layoffs in mid-winter, public opinion also swung against them. By mid-July the strike front began first to fray, and then to crack.

First small mining communities on the fringe of the struggle began to weaken: Collie in Western Australia, Blair Athol, Ipswich, Tasmania. But by the end of the month trouble was also brewing in the Northern District of NSW. Beginning in the town of Muswellbrook, Northern District miners began to demand new aggregate meetings to reconsider the strike. This demand was taken up by the Northern District Executive, a body on the right wing of the national union. The call for new aggregate meetings began to gain support throughout the union.

The central leadership held out against this demand for a time, but the pressure mounted. The Northern District Executive called a conference of lodge delegates, which displayed such strong sentiment for aggregate meetings that the militants dared not openly oppose them. A motion calling for an end to the strike was narrowly carried.

The militant Central Area Committee attempted to counter this development by calling meetings in Bulli and Wollongong — expecting pro-strike motions to be carried. They were disappointed. Militant motions were only narrowly carried at Wollongong, and were overwhelmingly lost at Bulli.

The central leadership was now forced to call aggregate meetings. They put forward a recommendation to remain on strike for another week, hoping to find a face-saving formula to resolve the strike in the meantime. They hoped to gain approval for this recommendation, though the vote was expected to be close. They were disappointed. The recommendation was rejected by 6974 to 2378, and every district voted for a return to work except Wonthaggi.

What Are the Lessons?

COMMUNIST Party leaders have devoted much attention to the lessons of the coal strike. Predictably, they place the blame on "ultra left and sectarian" policies. Let us look at some of their arguments. Laurie Aarons writes:

The Communist Party over-estimated the level of political awareness of Australian workers and the support for revolutionary socialism. We under-estimated the influence of reformism and the effect of a Labor government's strike-breaking, whose severity surprised communists and militant ALP workers. [36]

And for Ralph Gibson, the main problem was lack of unity with the ALP and the entire trade union bureaucracy:

Looking at the strike in retrospect, one compares it with the waterside workers' national strike of 1956, which, following years of united front work led by Jim Healey, was supported for three weeks by the ACTU, by all Trades and Labor Councils, by the whole Federal and State Labor Party machine, and by a large section of the general public. [37]

Gibson admits that "such a high degree of unity would not have been possible in 1949", but insists that "much more could and should have been done to find a broad basis for the waging of the struggle". He blames the CPA's failure to do so on its "Left line".[38]

It might be well to point out at the start that one cannot, as Aarons seems to do, reduce the failure of the strike to wrong policies by the CPA. Gibson points out that the party was in a minority in the union leadership, nor was that leadership always in control of events. It came under considerable pressure from the rank and file from the start. Idris Williams reported on 9th June:

Since we adjourned last Thursday's stopwork meeting, we have had hundreds of protests from lodges against adjournment. It may be that the rank and file will take charge itself, and as a consequence we will have a worse situation to face than otherwise. [39]

One lodge called on miners everywhere to hold weekly stoppages, to force the leadership to hold these meetings. [40]

However, to the extent that the CPA or Miners' Federation leaders were responsible for the defeat, it is not quite for the reasons advanced by Aarons and Gibson.

Gibson insists that more could have been done to broaden support. In a sense this is undeniable: more can always be done. But just where could that broader unity have been built? The Federal Labor government was quite consciously out to smash the miners and the Communists. ALP parliamentarians were touring the coalfields, spruiking against the strike. The ACTU leadership devoted its energies to securing a return to work. Some ALP union leaderships were dominated by groupers. Under the circumstances, a "broader basis for the struggle" would clearly have to be built among the trade union and ALP rank and file. Any strategy for breaking a section of the Labor Party or Labor trade union leadership away from Chifley would depend on pressure from that rank and file.

This would be precisely that "united front from below" which Gibson does not approve of. However the strike leaders did in any case make a considerable effort to build unity on that basis. A full two months before the strike a major campaign was underway to build support throughout the working class:

It was not long before tens of thousands of Sydney's industrial workers were acquainted with the miners' campaign and ready to support it with enthusiasm ... At one rally in the Sydney Domain on 15 May, over 4000 people attended and carried a resolution calling on the Federal Government to grant the claims of the mineworkers. [41]

In the course of the strike considerable opposition developed within the ALP to Chifley's actions. When a special regional ALP conference was called in Maitland to organise the anti-strike campaign, it only narrowly endorsed the government's stand. On 21 August about 200 ALP members met in Sydney to form a Committee for the Defence of Labor Principles and Platform. It won support from a number of branches, especially in East Sydney and Lithgow.

Probably the CPA and the miners could have done much more to exploit this situation, to "drive a wedge between the right and left wings of the ALP" as one writer puts it. [42]This however raises further questions.

To what extend was the unrest in the Labor Party the product of agitation by the CPA and the Miners — to what extent do they deserve credit for it? The conventional accounts do not even raise these questions, let alone answer them.

Aarons' suggestion that the CPA underestimated the severity of ALP strikebreaking is transparently wrong. For the previous two years, party leaders and publications had repeatedly stressed the reactionary nature of the Labor leaders. Blake, as we have seen, stated that nothing could be won except in struggle against them. The party declared that a depression was imminent, and severe repression inevitable if the workers did not act quickly to forestall it.

Moreover, they believed their rhetoric. Edgar Ross, CPA member and editor of the miners' paper Common Cause, was so convinced that fascism was coming that he buried his books. [43] It is unlikely that Ross or any other CPA leader had illusions about the ALP's capacity for strikebreaking.

The Price of Bureaucracy

AARONS' argument is transparent, but it is significant all the same. For it reflects the actual line of argument which CPA officials took when speaking to miners before the strike began. There was a widespread belief in the ranks of the miners that the government did not want a prolonged dispute, and would step in and force the coal owners to meet the unions' demands. CPA officials encouraged this illusion, though their entire political perspective suggests that they could not have believed it themselves. Idris Williams told one meeting:

We are not asking you for a general strike. If members demonstrate they are united and strong, I think the authorities will settle this within a week. [44]

It is hard to avoid the impression that the CPA wanted this strike at all costs, in order to achieve a confrontation with the ALP. And the party was prepared to lull miners into a mood of overconfidence in order to get it. This impression is quite consistent with a general pattern of manipulative and bureaucratic behaviour both before and during the strike. Seeds of doubt about the democratic principles of Communists had already been sown before the dispute began. L.J. McPhillips, a Communist official in the Ironworkers union, had been jailed in early April. Phillip Deery recounts the response from CPA officials in the Miners' Federation:

In an unprecedented move Williams and Parkinson recommended a general twenty-four hour stoppage in the coal industry without consultation or ratification from the general secretary, the Central Council, or the membership ... the political nature of the attempted stoppage demonstrated that union officials who were also communists were prepared to allow their ideological affiliations to impinge on union policy and even determine industrial action. This was remembered by union moderates in the months to come. [45]

The union leaders effectively kept information from their members about the actions of Chairman Gallagher of the Coal Industry Tribunal. Gallagher had proposed to publish a draft award on long-service leave, but the fact was obscured by the no-strike injunction which was granted immediately after. The union leaders made no serious effort to inform their members about Gallagher's proposal.

Of course it is unlikely that Gallagher's proposals would have been accepted. Knowledge of them would not, in itself, have postponed the strike — for the no-strike injunction made it inevitable. (Though at one meeting where they were discussed some 30 percent voted against striking, an unusually high figure.) But the failure of the officials to make these facts clear was later used by the right wing as a handy stick to beat the left with. At Muswellbrook, the centre of early back-to-work agitation, one miner told a meeting:

We struck before we knew what Mr. Gallagher was going to give us. Now, no-one knows what we are fighting against. [46]

This statement was unreasonable, but it could be damaging in a situation where the officials' credibility was in doubt.

One of the major issues in the last weeks of the strike was the reluctance of the leadership to hold aggregate meetings. They resisted the demand for such meetings, in the hope of holding the strike front for another week or two. They were apparently animated by the belief that the coal owners or the government were themselves about to crack. But by refusing to call meetings, they only played into the hands of the right wing.

As early as July 30, representatives of mechanics and shotfirers had seized on the refusal of the more militant unions to call aggregate meetings as a pretext for walking out of the CMUC. Two days later a meeting of AEU shop stewards from all Northern District Collieries declared no confidence in their representatives on the CMUC over the same issue. On the same day, 300 miners signed a petition calling for meetings, and a miner was quoted in the Maitland Mercury as declaring, "Why should we sit down while these men in Sydney won't give us aggregate meetings?" [47]

This denial of democracy became a very sore point. Deery records: In a recent interview Frank Manning said numerous rank and file miners — "and I was at the grass roots level, I was one of them" — kept asking him for aggregate meetings. After the strike Manning realised, along with many other communists in the industry, that the meetings should have been called earlier. [48]

When the Northern District conference of lodge representatives called for a return to work, the Communists resorted to a very dubious bureaucratic manoeuvre. The Northern District Board of Management, which they controlled, met within thirty minutes and rejected the decision of the conference — an entirely unprecedented move.

Their justification was that the large minority of the lodge representatives who had voted against the resolution represented a larger total number of miners. This was a shaky argument. It was true that most large lodges had voted to stay out. But on the other hand some of the representatives who had voted against a return to work did not reflect the views of their members.

All in all, the CPA and their allies in the Miners' Federation established a pattern of manipulative and bureaucratic behaviour which must have contributed greatly to the collapse of the strike.

Alas, if only it were an isolated case. But this very style of work, in the unions and in the party, was an important reason for the massive defeats the Communists were about to suffer from one end of Australia to the other.

1. Quoted in Tom Sheridan, "Labour v. Labor" in Iremonger, Merritt and Osborne, eds., Strikes, Studies in Twentieth Century Australian Social History, Sydney 1975, p.181. Much of the account of the Victorian metal trades dispute is derived from this article.

2. Tribune, 17/9/46.

3. Sheridan, op. cit., p.177.

4. Ibid., p.214-5.

5. Most of the account of the Queensland rail strike follows Margaret Cribb, "State in Emergency", in Iremonger et al., op. cit.

6. E.F. Hill, "Defeat of the Essential Services Act", Communist Review, January 1949, p.9. I have relied on Hill's article for much of this account.

7. J.D. Blake, "Unite for Postwar Progress", inCommunists in Congress, Svdnev 1945, p.9.

8. Ralph Gibson, My Years in the Communist Party, Melbourne 1966, p. 150.

9. Quoted in Phillip Deery, "The 1949 Coal Strike", unpublished Ph. D., LaTrobe 1976, p.80. Deery's thesis contains important material not included in his published work, Labour in Conflict, Sydney 1978.

10. "The Report of L.L. Sharkey to the 15th Congress of the Australian Communist Party, May 1948" in For Australia Prosperous and Independent, Sydney 1948, p.12.

11. "Declaration of Information Conference", in Communist Review, April 1951, p.745-6.

12. Quoted in Deery, op. at., p.70.

13. Ibid., p.96.

14.\ Ibid., p.94 and 88.

15. Ibid., p.99.

16. Ibid., p. 106.

17. Communist Review, July 1948, p.198.

18. Communist Review, April 1949, p. 108, emphasis added.

19. L.L. Sharkey, op. cit., p.25.

20. Guardian, 26/11/48.

21. Guardian, 5/11/48.

22. Guardian, 27/2/48.

23. "Letter to the CPGB", Communist Review, September 1948, p.272.

24. Alistair Davidson, The Communist Party of Australia, Stanford 1969, p. 120.

25. Robin Gollan, Revolutionaries and Reformists, ANU, Canberra 1975, p.247.

26. Communist Review, April 1946, p.114.

27. Tribune, 8/12/49. On this see also Alan Barcan, The Socialist Left in Australia 1949-59, Australian Political Studies Association, Occasional Monographs, No.2, Sydney 1960, p.23-4.

28. Tribune, 17/11/48.

29. Tribune, 9/6/48.

30. Communist Reviews March 1947, p.147.

31. Gollan, op. at., p.247.

32. Davidson, op. cu., p. 133-5.

33. Quoted in Gollan, op. at., p.247.

34. Gibson, op. cit., p. 149.

35. Jack Blake, "The 1949 Coal Strike", Australian Left Review, No.70, August 1979. p.13.

36. Tribune, 15/8/79.

37. Gibson, op. at., p. 148-9.

38. Ibid., p. 149.

39. Quoted in Deery, op. cit., p.209.

40. Ibid., p.209 fn.

41. Quoted in ibid., p. 175.

42. Ibid., p.263.

43. Ibid., p.l08fn.

44. Ibid., p.217-8. Deery suggests that Williams himself may honestly have believed this line, but that other CPA officials, who also pushed it, certainly did not.

45. Ibid., p.201-2.

46. Ibid., p.360.

47. Ibid., p.377.

48. Ibid., p.377 fn.