Lessons from the 1969 General Strike in Australia: Unity wins — every time!

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Fifty years ago, class struggle was breaking out across the world. The suffocating atmosphere of repression following the second world war led directly to a collective climate of revolt as the working class decided “enough!” Whether it was the women’s liberation movement, the gay rights fight, the opposition to the Vietnam war or the mass solidarity with the Anti-Apartheid resistance in South Africa, rebellion was in the air. In close parallel, the fight for Indigenous land rights was simmering — following the successful “citizenship” referendum in 1967. Of course, many of these upsurges were inspired by those overseas, such as the U.S. Civil Rights movement and the French uprising of 1968. It was a turbulent time for capitalism everywhere.

The Australian union movement was not immune from this and had begun to respond with its own breakouts. One of the most important of these was the fight against the so-called Penal Powers under the Arbitration (now Fair Work) Act. Strikes attracted fines, which were routinely imposed by compliant, pro-employer judges. First made law under Australian Labor Party (ALP) Prime Minister Ben Chifley in 1949, these powers hampered organising and imposed a tax on class struggle. By the late ’60s, the unions also raised the call: “Enough!”

This did not come out of the blue. The influence of the communists, by then divided into two jostling factions, was key. It all came to a head on May 15, 1969. That was the day that the Secretary of the Australian Tramways and Motor Omnibus Employees Association (ATMOEA), Clarrie O’Shea, was sent to jail for contempt of court. The ATMOEA was at the sharp end of the fines regime, and both its leaders and members had had enough. With the union’s bank account seized, O’Shea was ordered to produce its account books. He refused, and so was carted off to jail. But the government had overreached, as it was about to find out. The unions, from bottom to top, were furious.

The getting of wisdom. In May this year, the Rail Tram and Bus Union (RTBU) organised an anniversary commemoration of the General Strike that followed Clarrie’s jailing.  Working class historian, Humphrey McQueen, gave a keynote speech. He encapsulated the theoretical underpinnings of what happened next like this:

“[There are] three pillars in the wisdom of our class. The first is that every contest over wages and conditions is decided by the relative strength of the contending classes. To be at our full strength, we have to bind together our creativeness on the industrial, political, intellectual and cultural fronts.

The second pillar of class wisdom is that: We won’t get from the courts what we can’t hold at the gate.

The state is not our friend. On the contrary, the state organises capital and disorganises labour. Sometimes, the state disorganises our class by organising us into the ‘proper channels’ of arbitration and the parliamentary road to nowhere. At every turn, we struggle under a covert dictatorship of the boss class…

A third pillar is our ability to make a critical analysis of capitalism’s political economy.”

It was these principles, advocated by the communists and even, in 1969, by some members of the ALP, that were foremost in workers’ minds when O’Shea ended up in Pentridge prison. As McQueen said: “every shop steward could tell you why there can never be a fair day’s pay under the rule of capital.”

And so the long-sleeping dragon of union militancy was awoken. The employers and governments across the country were completely blindsided by what its compliant judges and its repressive laws had fed: near universal, white hot anger.

Clarrie had marched to the court, accompanied by thousands of workers. He and the ATMOEA leadership knew that, not only did they have right on their side, they had might on their side. The power of the union movement.

O’Shea had probably not entered the gate at the prison before the first walkouts occurred in workplaces across Melbourne, organised and motivated by those who had been at the court. Trams, trains and government buses were out. Soon word spread to other major cities and towns. The next morning there were no government trains, trams or buses from Brisbane to Adelaide, with some private bus depots joining in. Forty unions then organised a 24-hour strike, and then another. 

In the end, at least a million workers were on strike for at least part of the revolt, which by then had spread to Western Australia, Darwin and the industrial towns of north Queensland, as well as many regional centres in New South Wales and Victoria. For the federal and state governments, the jailing of this prominent, militant union leader had turned into an instant disaster. As it was for the employers.

With the upheaval showing no sign of abating, a retired advertising executive paid the fines against Clarrie and the ATMOEA in full. He had “won it in the Sydney Opera House Lottery.” Many, including O’Shea and the judge who jailed him, the despicable John Kerr, believed it was federal government money funneled through the spy agency, ASIO.

Clarrie O’Shea was free, his union free of court debt and the union movement was, well, moving! The penal powers were defeated, and rarely, if ever used again. A determined, solid front of unionists had firmly put the lid on them.

Fifty years on. Fast forward to 2019 as Humphrey urged those at the May gathering to draw the lessons by grasping what went into preparing for the strike: “We’ve a duty to broaden an appreciation of what happened in 1968-69 … Only by making sense of what was then possible and necessary will we be able to draw useful comparisons with today. O’Shea strikes can’t be conjured out of the air, not even by screaming through a megaphone. Class wisdom is measured not by brute strength but by how we sharpen our tools. Minimum harm to the workers. Maximum harm to the boss.”

The Morrison government is on the brink of enacting its so-called “Ensuring Integrity” Act. When bolted on to the so-called “secondary boycott” rules, which outlaw solidarity strikes and the infamous Prices and Incomes Accord rammed down the throats of rank-and-file unionists in 1983, this would set unions on a road to the time, not only before 1969 but all the way back to the nineteenth century, when much of what unions — and unionists — did was outside the law. This is because, as Humphrey said: “Nor can the boss class ever give up.”

The corollary of this is that we can never give up.  And we need not fall for the propaganda that unions “only” represent 10 or 11 percent of the workforce. This still makes our movement the biggest membership organisation in the country, by far. Our collective power, aimed in the one direction, could easily defeat Morrison and the bosses’ attacks. Their “integrity” is our compliance with their onerous, unjust laws. Our integrity is standing side by side and declaring “Enough,” just as working people did 50 years ago. 

As Humphrey McQueen said: “There is an irreconcilable conflict between Capital and Labour.” That is why the union movement needs to rid itself of the dead hand of arbitration and return to the days of active class struggle, when we won fights, made gains and defended them. Understanding this is the necessary sharpening of our tools!

He concludes: “To the class question of whose side are you on, Clarrie’s life was his answer, and it remains our inspiration.” To that I’d add that we are on the side of a million workers who gave a message to the capitalist state in May 1969 — enough!

Peter is a member of the Rail, Tram and Bus Union. He was Section Secretary of the Suburban Guards Section of the Australian Railways Union and led a two-week strike in 1987. Contact him at peter.murray@ozemail.com.au

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