A brief history of working class struggle in Australia: Part III
The Inter-war Period
The third part of our history of working class struggle and organisation in Australia since European settlement.
Parts 1, 2 and 3 are available on the Working Class United website (see links below).
A brief history of working class struggle in Australia:
Part III - The Inter-war Period
We left our discussion of working class history in Australia in our last article at the outbreak of the Russian Revolution towards the end of World War One, with the suppression of radical trade union the IWW and outbreaks of strikes all over Australia.
One outcome of this was the formation after the war of the Australian Communist Party by former members of the IWW and other radicals. Despite an enthusiastic start, once it joined the Third International (the organisation set up and controlled by the Bolsheviks) it became so influenced by the dictatorship in Russia, and the union movement in Australia was so controlled by its own bureaucrats and the ALP, that it became a tiny party on the margins of the working class. In an attempt to counter the possible threat to its support that this represented however, and also in the words of its own leader "to prevent revolution by force", the ALP introduced a policy in favour of socialisation, despite having no intention of ever implementing it, and abandoning it once the working class no longer so openly militant.
The idea of industrial unions was largely abandoned, despite the initial success of the IWW, and trade unions became the dominant form of permanent organisation for workers. On top of the IWW's defeat, this was brought on by the registration system which favoured registration of smaller shop, craft or trade unions. The result was the division and weakening of workers' organisations, but despite this and the continuing burden of the ALP, the interwar period was not devoid of workers' struggle. Throughout the 1920s there were many strikes (such as the 1923 wildcat strike by the Victorian Police) until finally the government managed to control them with the 'Dog Collar' Act of 1928. It imposed a license on wharfies to work, essentially attacking unionism under the pretence of freedom of contract, and lead to the formation of the ACTU as an attempt to resist these attacks. Rather than confront the employers however, after the election of the ALP to power in 1929 the ACTU did very little for its members, backing the government even when it directly attacked workers. The Great Depression laid bear the inadequacy of both the traditional unions and the ALP to win or even maintain the conditions of the working class.
Outside the unions however, workers had not given up. A great deal of organisation took place amongst immigrant workers, such was Italians, spurred on by the arrival of radicals seeking refuge from Mussolini, and some gains were made, often against opposition from union bureaucracy. One impressive example was the 1934 Queensland canecutters' strike to force the burning of cane in order to prevent Weil's disease amongst the mostly immigrant workforce. While the AWU had signed agreements with employers to essentially 'black ban' immigrant workers and refused to take any action, workers began organising outside the union and struck. The strike was short but very militant, involving groups of workers riding around in trucks and overturning scab trucks, and due to its effectiveness spread quickly. In less than a month the demands were won, at a time when the official unions had become apathetic, trusting too much in ALP politicians and long drawn out strikes that demoralised workers.
Meanwhile, as unemployment rose, particularly during the Depression, the unemployed began to organise into unions of the unemployed, often involving those formerly involved with the IWW. Since most were not tied to the trade union movement, and those that were had only very loose ties, they engaged in very militant struggles over rent and food prices, attacking local councils and private landlords in order to gain concessions, sometimes resulting in outright riots. All this came to an end with the Second World War, as once again the country became consumed by jingoistic nationalism.
For Parts I & II, see