1949 coal miners strike: A turning point in Australian history

1949 coal miners strike: A turning point in Australian history

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60 years on – The lessons for today

The 1949 coal miners strike saw 23,000 workers withdraw their labour between June 27 and August 15 of that year. The dispute dominated Australian politics at the time and saw elements of revolution and counter-revolution which has been a rarity on Australian soil. It also marked a turning point between two distinct periods in working class struggle.

By Stephen Jolly, Socialist Party

Prior to the 1949 strike, there had been a swing to the Left in local and international politics. 1945 saw the barbaric fascist and military dictatorships of the Axis powers defeated by the Allies. The key role of the Soviet Red Army in crushing the German Nazis lifted the spirits of workers throughout the world and boosted the stocks of the Communist Parties everywhere.

The mass of ordinary people demanded a share of the fruits of this victory after six long years of world war. Australia suffered less than others, nevertheless 40,000 died out of a population of only five million. As far as the working class was concerned it was now time to go on the offensive and demand better wages and living conditions.

After the war, social democratic parties won landslide election victories in several countries. Workers saw these parties as better placed to implement the reforms they were asking for. In places like Greece the struggles were at a much higher level and there were revolutionary movements of the working class.

The Stalinists in the East and the capitalist governments in the West did all they could to betray or limit these movements – but in the West at least the social democrats had to proceed carefully and with a democratic veneer.

In Australia the Australian Labor Party (ALP) won the 1946 Federal election with a massive 49.7% of the first preference vote in the House of Representatives and 52% in the Senate. By way of comparison, the Rudd landslide of 2007 saw only a 43% first preference vote.

The Communist Party of Australia (CPA), which stood to the Left of the ALP, had a strong industrial position. Just over half of all Australia’s trade unions were led by CPA members or supporters. The party also had 23,000 members at its 1943 peak which would be equivalent to 92,000 members today! The CPA also had a MP in the Queensland parliament and control of some local councils.

The coal miners had genuine industrial concerns. Their union, which was led by CPA members, had relatively moderate demands such as a 35-hour week, long service leave, and a 30 shilling a week pay rise. They also had serious safety concerns as about 25 miners were being killed at work every year.

The government – like all ALP governments – were more interested in the needs of big business, in this case the mining companies, than workers. The difference between then and now was that the ALP in those days still had a mass working class base. While the leaders of the ALP supported capitalism, thousands of radical workers and young people made up its base. Today the party has been emptied out and it has moved even further to the Right.

Even in 1949 the ALP were unashamed about their support for the bosses. In the run-up to what seemed to be an inevitable strike, the Chifley Labor government introduced a wad of anti-union legislation. A Joint Coal Board, which had no union representation, was established and the body had strong powers to run mines and if necessary, set hours, and to repress unions and their members. The keenness of the government to put the miners’ union and CPA in its place was an added overlay to this dispute.

The alliance between the ‘democratic’ capitalist countries and Stalin’s USSR was unravelling in the post-war environment. The Cold War was beginning and capitalism in Australia could not afford a strong communist party and militant unions – not economically and not ideologically. The Chifley Labor government wanted to flex its anti-communist muscles.

On the other side, the CPA was keen for the union to enter into battle with the mining companies, notwithstanding the heavy backing for the bosses from the Federal government. The CPA at the time thought Australia was moving into a period of revolutionary upheavals. It was with this in mind that CPA prepared to lead an indefinite strike in the coal industry.

Unfortunately this perspective was to be mistaken. Since 1947 the post-war leftward political wave had began to slowly subside. Strike figures dropped off from the middle of that year and CPA membership actually fell to 16,000 in 1945 and 13,000 in 1946 – about a quarter of the ALP membership.

CPA votes in various elections between 1943 and 1945 fell from 22% in working class seats to 12% in the period between 1946 and 1947 in the same seats. It was during this period of an ebb in struggle and a rising Cold War hysteria that the CPA decided to launch the miners union into an indefinite strike against the bosses who were backed up by the ALP government and the state machine.

Internationally, the ebb coincided with the imminent victory of Mao’s Red Army in China and the Communist Party peasant-led struggles in parts of Asia, especially Malaysia. Under the influence of these regional developments and encouraged for a time by Moscow, the CPA underwent a brief ultra left turn. They thought that they would follow the lead of their sister parties and potentially take power in Australia.

The Trotskyists at the time were organised in the small Workers Party. They were highly critical of the CPA leaders’ strategy but were far too small to have any effect on the struggle or on a significant section of the CPA rank and file.

At the same time the key Australian Railway Union (ARU) and the Australian Workers Union (AWU) were under rightwing ALP leaderships. The miners were behind the eight ball as neither of these two important unions would support the strike. In hindsight, a militant campaign of more limited industrial action and a campaign to win the rightwing unions to a new leadership might have led to a better result in these difficult circumstances.

It was clear that the mining bosses were itching for a fight after they refused a lower offer from the union in late June 1949. The union decided to retaliate with all out strike action which was launched on June 27.

The government almost immediately banned collections to support the strikers. On July 5 the union was forced to hand over its money to the Industrial Registrar and the next day the CPA offices were raided and several union leaders were arrested. Within a fortnight seven miners’ leaders received jail terms of between six months and a year. “The Reds must be taught a lesson”, the Prime Minister told the Labor Caucus at the time.

When the NSW railway union decided to transport coal and thereby scab on the strike it was an important turning point. Soon after the AWU also scabbed further undermining the strike.

Thirty-five years later, the militant Builders Labourers Federation (BLF) was defeated when craft unions united with the bosses, the police and Labor governments by agreeing to scab on BLF members who were barred from sites until they joined another union.

The winning over of other unions in and around their industry is the key to victory for any group of workers in battle. Unfortunately this didn’t happen during the 1949 miners’ strike and it didn’t happen during the 1986 BLF deregistration defeat.

Despite the scabbing from right wing unions and the arrests of their leaders, the miners were defiant and the strike continued. The government were forced to up the ante. Chifley showed his commitment to crushing this dispute and seriously weaken the CPA by sending in 2,500 troops on August 1. The troops started work on open cut mines at Newcastle, Muswellbrook and Ben Bullen. Soon after more troops started work at seven other mines.

The combination of forces stacked up against the miners was too much. With the troops carrying out their work and the right wing unions scabbing on the strike they were forced to concede defeat. At the next miners’ union election, the members punished the CPA for their mistaken perspective and the rightwing won. The Right were however unable to consolidate their control of the union and the CPA regained their position at a later election.

As CPA leader Lance Sharkey wrote later: “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.”

However in the same article, Sharkey vaguely alluded to mistakes made by the CPA: “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.”

The defeat of the strike had an effect on the class as a whole. Overall strike figures dropped after the dispute and the CPA began to haemorrhage members. The party progressively shifted to the Right until it formally closed down in 1991. A section of the party joined the ALP on a pro-capitalist platform.

Often after a defeat or stalled mass movement, demoralisation seeps into the working class and this allows victories for the Right in elections and for the bosses industrially.
At the December 1949 election the Liberals swept to power under Menzies and stayed there for 23 years. As far as the bosses were concerned the ALP had done their dirty work and it was now time to support the Liberals.

The Chifley ALP government set a dangerous precedent of using troops to break strikes. Menzies followed this lead and troops were later used by the government at the Waterfront dispute at Bowen in 1953. They were also used at disputes during 1951, 1952 and 1954 against seamen and waterside workers. Liberal Prime Minister Harold Holt also used the navy to break the Seamen’s Union of Australia in 1967.

Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser used the RAAF to transport passengers during a Qantas dispute in 1981 and in 1989 Labor Prime Minister Bob Hawke used the air force to break the Pilots’ Federation strike.

A similar development took place after the ACTU stopped the spontaneous protests that occurred after ALP Prime Minister Gough Whitlam was sacked in 1975. This stymieing of action acted to demoralise the class. The election that followed saw the Coalition win and Malcolm Fraser became Prime Minister for the next eight years.

The 1949 coal miners strike is rich in lessons for labour movement activists today. It was not only the first time that troops were used during an industrial dispute in Australia, but it highlighted the role that the ALP played in doing the dirty work for the bosses.

How the CPA earned the support of thousands of workers in unions and workplaces throughout Australia needs to be studied by all serious socialists. This support was less strong on the political front – but still much stronger than the socialist left has today. The deep roots that the CPA had within the working class have not yet been replicated since by the Left. The Socialist Party however is committed to replanting these roots both in the unions and in local communities.

It is crucial that we learn the lessons of the 1949 coal strike and study the tactics of the CPA. We need to ensure that we repeat the successes of the CPA while not repeating their mistakes. Sixty years on from 1949 we salute the heroism of all those involved and pledge to continue the fight for justice in our workplaces and for a socialist world.

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Struggle in the coalfields – A mighty history

For generations the coalfields have been one of the bastions of working class radicalism in Australia. The relatively good wages the workers are paid are a direct result of their willingness to stand up and have a go. But they have had to fight every single step of the way.

Historian Ian Turner wrote, “The first significant organisation among less-skilled workers was the one formed by Hunter River district coal miners. Then, as later, miners lived in isolated and self-contained communities, centred on the individual pits. This, and the difficult and dangerous nature of their work, created in the miners a militancy and a solidarity…” As early as 1850 they were able to wage a successful pay campaign because they were organised.

In 1886 they won the 8-hour day (48 hour week). Yet only a few years later the employers struck back. One of the most famous 1890s strikes occurred when the mine owners at Broken Hill repudiated their agreement with the miners’ union. This strike was essentially over management attempts to introduce individual contracts and break the power of the unions.

In 1909 there was a lock out of Broken Hill miners. The company, BHP, announced a wage cut. The Arbitration Court found against BHP. The company however defied the court and a Liberal/Labor coalition government sent police in to protect strike breakers. Twenty-eight union leaders including Tom Mann and Harry Holland were jailed.

In the same year on the NSW coalfields there was a strike for a minimum wage and 8 hours bank to bank. The full weight of industrial legislation was used against the miners. Secretary Peter Bowling and other union leaders were arrested (some were brought from Newcastle to Sydney in leg-irons).

In 1916 the 44 hour week, plus 8 hours bank to bank, was won after a militant campaign of direct action – “If you want a 44 hour week, take it!” – was a campaign heavily influenced by the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Indeed the miners’ union actually transformed themselves into the only existing department of the IWW inspired One Big Union – the Workers Industrial Union of Australia – a name that was retained in Broken Hill until the mid 1980s.

In 1929 the bosses attempted to impose a 20% wage cut. A lock out lasting 16 months occurred in the course of which the towns of the Hunter coalfields were put under occupation by the police. A 28 year old miner, Norman Brown, was killed and many others wounded after police fired on a demonstration at Rothbury. The bitter defeat in this battle ultimately led to Community Party members Bill Orr and Charlie Nelson winning the leadership of the union.

A partial victory at the Wonthaggi mine in Victoria, in a dispute during the mid 1930s, is generally acknowledged as being one of the turning points in the revitalisation of the union movement after the hammering of the depression years.

But perhaps the most famous of all the miners’ struggles was the 1949 coal strike, around demands for a 35 hour week, long service leave and a wage rise of 30 shillings a week. In one of the most shameful acts of betrayal by the Labor Party (and there have been plenty of them over the years), the Chifley Labor government froze union funds and put troops to work in the open cut mines to break the strike.

Since then there have been many national coal disputes over various issues, Notable have been the winning of the 35 hour week in 1973, the storming of the national parliament by miners and steel workers in 1982 and the 55 day sit at the Preston mine in 1983- the worlds longest to that date.