• No results found

Working Class Solidarity, Fact or Fiction ?

Chapter Two examined the impact of the 1949 Coal Strike on the Illawarra community and its varied responses to the strike. The main objective of this chapter is to establish whether or not there was labour movement solidarity in the Illawarra region at the time of the 1949 Coal Strike, and if so, what effect the strike had on that solidarity.

In considering the question of whether or not there was labour movement solidarity at the time of the 1949 Coal Strike, what is really being asked is, 'Did the labour movement speak with one voice?' To understand the issues which were responsible for the structure and policies of the labour movement at the time of the strike, a knowledge of the history of the labour movement is essential.

With the rise of the factory system, there was a massive shift of labour from the agrarian sector to the large urban centres, where workers found themselves confronted by stringent controls which were imposed by a powerful capitalist class. Many workers began to agitate for the right to vote, believing that this would make it possible for them to improve their working and living conditions. They saw that their strength lay in their numbers, in collectivism. So they formed trade unions to strengthen their bargaining power with the employers. They realised that the influence of organised industrial action at the right time and place, gave them far greater power than any individual action could achieve. 1 This was the origins of the modem labour movement, with collectivism as its cornerstone, a foundation upon which to build. The labour movement as a collective body, realised the need to regulate market forces if they were to benefit the workers. The approach to this was through the formation of unions and the establishment of a political party, in order to gain political representation in parliament. For this purpose the Australian Labor Party was formed, as a major compon~nt in the political wing of the labour movement. 2

To be electorally viable, the Labor Party had to become a populist party, rather than a single class party. For most unionists this did not pose a problem. It was both understandable and acceptable, coinciding with their views, which were essentially Labourist, the major principles of which were, the White Australia Policy, Tariff

1 Jim Hagan, The History of the A.C.T. U., pp. 3-4.

2 Bede Nairn, Civilising Capitalism, pp. 6-7.

Protection and Compulsory Arbitration. The Labor Party was prepared to operate within the existing capitalist market system, working to gain what they believed, to be a fair deal for workers within the capitalist system.3 They believed in 'civilising capitalism', as Bede Nairn termed it.4

Not all agreed that capitalism could be 'civilised', and a serious division arose in the labour movement over the issue. The Labor Party was prepared to work within the existing capitalist system. There were those, however, who did not believe that working people could receive justice within the capitalist system. They believed that the only acceptable solution to the dilemma, was the total destruction of capitalism, with the means of production transferred to the state and the workers. Yet that it was because of this dichotomy, that the underlying division within the labour movement at the time of the 1949 Coal Strike originated.

The political wing of the Australian labour movement at the time of the strike was essentially made up of two parties, the Australian Labor Party and the Communist . Party of Australia. Whilst on some occasions, these two parties did observe a form of

uneasy truce, they did not speak with one voice. Clearly the basic philosophies of government, of these two parties were radically different.

It is true that the Chifley Labor Government while in office, attempted to carry out nationalisation in the areas of health and banking. It was Chifley' s belief that this was essential to the efficient running of the nation and the overall well being of the majority of the Australian community. However, in both cases he was unsuccessful, mainly because the forces marshalled against him were formidable, both politically and economically, in a classic example of right-wing solidarity.5

The CPA, however had an entirely different view about capitalism. There was no place for capitalism in any form, civilised or otherwise. The aim of the CPA was the destruction of capitalist society, to be replaced by a state controlled industry and economy. 6 There were other areas of difference between the ALP and the CPA. But this difference in political ideology was in itself sufficient to guarantee that there was little hope of solidarity or accord between them, and it should not be forgotten that both the

3 Hagan, op cit, p. 14.

4 T. Irving, 'Labourism: A Political Genealogy', Labour History, No.66, May 1994, p. 8.

5 Tom Sheridan, Division of Labour, pp. 27 - 9; Brian McKinlay, A Century of Struggle, pp. 123 - 5;

Robin Gollan, Revolutionaries and Reformists, p. 161 - 2.

6 Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto, p. 95 - 6.

ALP and the CPA were competing for the loyalty of the same share of the electorate, the working-class. This fact helped to ensure the continued bitter rivalry between them. So, within the political wing of the Australian labour movement, there was a serious division between the two political parties that could be said to constitute the political arm of the labour movement. What then of the parties themselves ? Did they present a united front at this time? Was there solidarity at the various different levels within the organisations, or was there also disunity here ?

The Australian Labor Party is essentially made up of politicians and rank and file members, who could be considered to fall into three separate divisions, Federal, State and Local. At the time of the strike and for its duration, the ALP, at Federal and State level presented a remarkably united front. During the strike there were two particularly controversial issues for the ALP, the National Coal Emergency Bill and the introduction of troops into the open-cut mines. Both of these were seen by many members of the Party as a repudiation of Labor principles. However, in both cases, Labor politicians displayed remarkable solidarity against the CPA and the Miners' Federation. The use of troops in open-cut mines engendered public solidarity by Labor politicians. 7 It is perhaps significant, however, to note that this was the public persona. Although Doris Blackburn was the only one to vote against the National Coal Emergency Bill in Parliament, the impression of total solidarity within the Chifley Labor Government was also something of a myth. There was a small group within the caucus, led by Eddie Ward, who were not happy with the fund freezing legislation, and who did not accept the existence of a Communist conspiracy. However, only one spoke out publicly at the time against the conspiracy theory. Alan Fraser, Labor member for Eden-Monaro, in a public broadcast on Saturday 3 July 1949 on radio station 2CA, said, 'If the Government had information that this was a Communist conspiracy •.• then let it act on that and freeze their funds, rather than send miners' children to school hungry.' Two weeks later he spoke out again, this time criticising the gaoling of union leaders. 8

At local branch level, however, it was an entirely different matter. Although the majority of rank and file members supported the political decisions of the Chifley and McGirr Labor Governments, there were nevertheless many members who voiced strong disapproval and abhorrence at the actions of their political representatives at both

7 Sheridan, op cit, p. 292.

8 ibid, p. 294.

Federal and State level. What should be remembered is that at local branch level the majority of members were workers, and more significantly active trade unionists. Those members experienced the hardships arising from the confrontation, but more importantly they were confronted by the dilemma of mixed loyalties. For many the problem of whether their first loyalty should lie with the party or their union was a great trial. At a later point in this chapter, evidence will be given to support the argument that there was division within the ALP at branch level. This will have particular relevance to the Illawarra at the time of the strike.

What then of solidarity within the CPA? The generally accepted view, or at least the public rhetoric of the reactionary right-wing press, and a view that was not denied by the CPA, itself, was one of total solidarity, of total acceptance by the rank and file membership of the Party leadership. After 1946 the CPA leadership elected to follow the directions of the Cominform, whose policies were essentially those of Moscow.9 In spite of the public perception of the dominance of the CPA, Communist unionists remained a source of concern for the leadership during the period of the Party's ascendancy in the Australian labour movement. The contention appears to have stemmed from two separate aspects: what Sheridan has described as, ' the ideological illiteracy of most rank and file Communists and the demands made by each union on its Communist members.' 10

The first problem arose from the unsophisticated nature of the majority of the members of the Party. They were in most cases unable to grasp the subtleties of Communist ideology and doctrine. Usually they were instinctive activists, who considered themselves to be at the forefront of the workers' struggle against injustice and the tyranny of the ruling classes. One former Communist intellectual said, 'most Communist trade unionists were militant unionists first and Communists second.' 11

The second problem created for the party by the unions, concerned the party hierarchy at a higher level. It resulted from the pragmatic approach which Communist union officials were often forced to adopt in order to maintain their position within the union, and their influence over the membership. It is clear that on occasion this

9 ibid, p. 227.

IO ibid, p. 230.

11 Ian Turner, Room for Manoeuvre, p. 134.

approach did not correspond with the official ideological approach of the party on industrial policy.12

People outside the Communist Party and especially anti-Communists were often taken in by the seemingly monolithic solidarity of Communist delegates at A.C.T.U.

congresses and Trades and Labour Councils. The commitment of some members, however, did not always adhere slavishly to the ideological expectations of the party.

Nevertheless, most Communists had an awareness of the need to exhibit party unity in the public eye. 13

Having briefly examined the issue of solidarity within the political wing of the labour movement, the next step is to consider solidarity in relation to the industrial wing of the labour movement during the 1949 Coal Strike.

The industrial wing of the labour movement was composed of a number of different organisations and groups, many of which functioned on three different levels, Federal, State and Local.

The Australian Council of Trade Unions( ACTU) formed in 1927, was the peak governing body within the trade union movement. The ACTU Congress consists of representatives from all affiliated unions and State Trades and Labour Councils. The ACTU Executive is elected from the Congress. 14

The structure of individual trade unions differs from union to union. Most, however, operate at three distinct levels, the "shop floor", where rank and file members are represented by shop stewards, who are elected by the members, the regional or State level and finally the national executive or Federal level. Unions raise their finances generally through subscriptions levied on the members. Many are affiliated to the ALP, and as such have formal representation in the running of the party.15 Trades and Labour Councils, (TLC) are the peak confederations of trade unions in a state, and as such have direct representation on the ACTU Executive.16

Having briefly described the function and structure of the main organisations within the industrial wing of the labour movement, the next step is to consider the issue

12 P. J. Morrison, The Communist Party of Australia and the Australian Radical-Socialist Tradition 1920 -1939, PhD Thesis 1975, p. 326.

13 Sheridan, op cit, p. 232.

14 Hagan, op cit, p. 81

15 Dean Jaensch & Max Teichmann, The Macmillan Dictionary of Australian Politics, p. 226.

16 ibid

of solidarity in relation to the individual organisations, and then with respect to the industrial wing in its entirety.

In 1945, the ACTU had adopted a policy which was intended to transfer the responsibility of fixing the level of the Basic Wage from the courts to a committee with direct trade union representation. This shift in policy could, in part at least, be attributed to the influence which the Communist Party had in the labour movement, and also in the Congress. By late 1949, Communist influence was beginning to wane with the influence of the Industrial Groups increasing within the union movement. Their increase in influence had arisen from the Labor Party's endeavour to counter the Communist influence in the labour movement. During the 1949 Coal Strike, the ACTU Executive supported the Chifley Labor Government. 17

The ACTU Executive's support of the government during the 1949 Coal Strike meant that it opposed the unions involved in the strike and also those who supported the strikers, and so immediately a division in the industrial wing of the labour movement can be seen.

Amongst the trade unions there were also divisions, with some union executives supporting the striking Miners' Federation, notably some of the more militant and left-wing unions, such as the Waterside Workers' Federation (WWF) and the Federated Ironworkers' Association (FIA). The more moderate and right-wing unions, such as the Australian Workers' Union (A WU) supported the government. Clearly, there was not unity within the unions. There are many examples of different unions opposing one another throughout the duration of this strike. Some individual unions, notably the Amalgamated Engineering Union (AEU), suffered division within itself, at different levels.

What is clear is that the trade union movement did not speak with one voice, either leading up to or during this strike. Even individual unions were not always of one accord. However, the level of division, or solidarity varied, and so, one of the questions which this chapter will endeavour to answer, is. What conditions sustained or diminished solidarity ?

On Thursday 16 June 1949, aggregate meetings of mineworkers were held throughout Australia, to vote on the recommendation of the central executive of the

17 Jim Hagan, op cit, pp. 204 - 5.

Combined Mining Unions Council. The recommendation was that, if no satisfactory progress had been achieved with regard to their log of claims, which had been placed before the Coal Industrial Tribunal in April of that year, by Monday 27 June, then an indefinite strike would commence, until such time as a satisfactory resolution to their demands had been met. The figures in Table 1, show the results of the voting at those meetings.

Table 1. Voting Figures of Aggregate Meetings, 16 June 1949.18

YES. %. NO. %. TOTAL.

NSW. Northern. 3,788 90.8% 382 9.2% 4,160 NSW. Southern. 1,219 99.5% 6 0.5% 1,225 NSW. Western. 1,082 94.3% 66 5.7% 1,148

Victoria. 175 99.4% 1 0.6% 176

Tasmania. 220 100% 0 0% 220

Queensland. 1,423 84.8% 255 15.2% 1,678

Collie W.A. 88 44% 112 56% 200

TOTAL. 7,995 90.7% 822 9.3% 8817

The figures in Table 1, give the perception of solidarity in the miners' ranks. Only in Collie in Western Australia was there any serious departure from the overall trend. What is seen is a massive vote in favour of the Central Executive's recommendation to take industrial action in the form of a general strike, commencing 27 June 1949. The majority in favour of the strike at national level was just under 10 to 1. In the Southern District, the majority was 203 to 1.19 By any standards this would be perceived as a great display of solidarity. However, it should be noted that although there was a 99.5%

vote in favour of the recommendation of the Central Executive at the aggregate meetings held in the Southern District, of the 2,551 members of Southern District local lodges, only 1,225 members actually voted, less than 48% of those entitled to do so.20 This, however, compares quite favourably with the state average, where of the 18,119 mineworkers employed, only 6,533 voted, 36.06% of the membership.21 While these figures in themselves do not necessarily mean that the solidarity of the miners at this time was in doubt, it does, however, raise serious questions regarding the supposed

18 Edgar Ross, The Coal Front, p. 29.

19 South Coast Times, 23 June 1949, p. 8.

20 Membership Returns Southern District Local Lodges, 24 June 1949, University of Wollongong Archives, D 12/3 7.

21 Joint Coal Board, Second Annual Report, 1948 - 49, p. 54.

militancy of the rank and file members of the Federation. That militancy and concern for the ongoing struggle against the coal owners was portrayed in left-wing journals such as Common Cause, the official organ of the Miners' Federation, as almost legendary.

From the voting figures of the aggregate meetings held in the Southern District, it would be hard to dispute that there was anything other than great solidarity and militancy amongst at least 48% of the membership. But what of the other 52% ?

There were undoubtedly a variety of reasons why 52% of the rank and file of the Miners' Federation did not vote. It is conceivable that many knew that the result of the vote was never in doubt, and therefore felt that it was unnecessary for them to vote, as it would have little effect on the outcome. Sheridan suggests that the widespread rain and danger of flooding may have contributed to the low tumout.22 There was no doubt a percentage of the membership who had legitimate reasons for not having attended the meetings, such as ill health or personal problems. It is also possible that because the voting was not conducted through a secret ballot, that some members who may not have agreed with the decision to take strike action, did not vote for fear of personal ridicule, and other forms of persecution. Apathy, as a cause for the failure of members to vote cannot be discounted. Clearly we have no way of knowing exactly why more than half of those entitled to vote, failed to do so. These are put forward as possible causes. There were, no doubt, others.

Early signs of division within the labour movement were evident when, at a meeting held at the Crown Theatre, Wollongong, on Thursday, 16 June, the president of the Southern District Miners' Federation, Bill Parkinson during his report on the progress of negotiations on their log of claims, stated that the ACTU. had gone back on its promise of support for the miners' claims. He said that the ACTU had refused to attend the initial conference, because it claimed the dispute was not in their hands. He then went on to accuse the ALP of also reneging on its promise of support for the miners in their claim.23 What can be seen here is evidence. of a division between the national peak union organisation, the ACTU, and the leadership of the Miners' Federation, as well as an accusation of the ALP distancing itself from the mineworkers.

Despite the impression of a growing rift between the Miners' Federation and the political wing of the labour movement, there seemed to be solidarity within the union

22 Sheridan, op cit, p. 286

23 South Coast Times, 23 June 1949, p. 8.

movement itself. On Tuesday, 21 June, a meeting of over 500 local unionists from a number of different unions was held in Wollongong. The meeting was addressed by Mr.

Idris Williams, general president of the Miners' Federation. Also present was Mr. G.

Grant, general secretary of the Federation. The responsibility for the impending strike they said, was due to the intransigence of the government and the Coal Industry Tribunal, and not the miners as the right-wing press had claimed. The Miners' Federation was prepared to meet and talk with the Government at any time in order to settle the dispute and so avoid a strike. This, they said, was the reason why the strike had been called for Monday, 27 June, in order to allow time for negotiation. He added that he deeply regretted any hardship which the miners' struggle for justice might cause other workers and the general public. The meeting endorsed almost unanimously the Federation's proposal for a general coal industry strike commencing on 27 June 1949.

The perception of community solidarity with the miners was enhanced by the presence of a comparatively large number of women of all ages at the meeting.24 What can be deduced from this meeting is that there was a sustained level of solidarity amongst some of the more militant left-wing unions in the Illawarra, throughout the strike. It should be noted that most of those unions had communist controlled or influenced central executives.

The split between the industrial wing and the political wing of the Australian labour movement became a yawning chasm, when on Wednesday, 29 June 1949, Dr. H.

V. Evatt, the Federal Attorney-General, steered the National Coal Emergency Bill through Federal Parliament in almost record time.25 This was the type of government action which not only helped to sustain solidarity at the grass-roots level of the labour movement, but did much to raise it.

A meeting held by the Wollongong branch of the ALP on the night of Monday, 4 July passed a resolution endorsing the Chifley Labor Government legislation, freezing the funds of the Miners' Federation, and those of any other union which was involved in the strike, or was prepared to give the striking unionists support. It was claimed by Mr.

R. D. Venables, the branch Secretary, that the motion had been moved and seconded by trade unionists who had been stood down as a result of the coal strike. 26 This helps to

24 l "b"d l 'p. . 7

25 Common Cause, 2 July 1949, p. 1.

26 South Coast Times, 7 July 1949, p. 13.