1949 coal strike: Labor's 'boots and all' sell-out

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1949 coal strike: Labor's 'boots and all' sell-out

By Kim Bullimore

June 27 marks the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the 1949 coal strike. The strike dominated Australian politics for two months, attracted international attention and revealed to many workers the true nature of the Australian Labor Party.

The June 27-August 15 strike by 23,000 miners, often depicted as a fight between the ALP and the Communist Party of Australia (CPA), was a struggle by the workers against the capitalists, the latter aided by the ALP.

In a speech delivered two weeks before the strike began, Labor Prime Minister Ben Chifley proudly declared: "No government in the history of Australia has ever given to private industry so much assistance and advice and help as has been given by the commonwealth Labor government".

ALP and capitalist propaganda depicted the strike as a "communist conspiracy" in which the miners had been duped by Communist Party union leaders. While the CPA did have some influence in the coal unions, the accusation that it controlled the unions was far from the truth. The Coal and Shale Employees' Federation consisted of many of the most militant rank-and-file unionists, but there were only two CPA members on its central executive.

In 1947, federal parliament passed the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Act, which embodied many of Chifley's ideas on industrial relations. This included the establishment of the Joint Coal Board and Coal Industrial Tribunal.

The board was to regulate and rehabilitate the coal industry within the framework of private ownership (however, the board could take control of and operate mines if necessary), while the tribunal was to arbitrate industrial matters which affected the coal unions. It could set work hours, and fine and imprison individuals if they didn't follow tribunal directions.

Poor conditions

The Joint Coal Board contained no union representation. Its main goal was to provide sufficient coal, conserve coal resources and provide coal as cheaply as possible. A report by the board in 1947 decreed that the "welfare of mine workers and families is regarded as subsidiary to these three basic objectives".

In 1947, the union stepped up its campaign for improved pit conditions. Miners worked in high temperatures (up to 54° C) with poor ventilation — which caused lung disease — a lack of sanitary amenities and the ever-present danger of cave-ins. An average of 25 miners were killed every year. At the Wonthaggi mine in Victoria in 1947, 891 out of 1000 workers had experienced an accident.

The mine owners claimed the miners were the "most pampered employees anywhere in the world".

In March 1947, the miners lodged a claim with the tribunal for a 35-hour week and a 30-shilling increase in wages. In February 1948, the union asked the tribunal to include long service leave as a normal condition of employment.

The miners' demands were quite modest. The ALP's platform in 1949 endorsed the Convention of the International Labour Office, which stated that mining industry hours should be 30 hours a week. The miners' request for a wage increase was 10 shillings less than the Australian Council of Trade Unions' submission that year on behalf of all workers. On the eve of the coal strike, productivity in the coal mining industry was at its all time high.

The miners' patience wore thin after two years of stalling by the tribunal. In February 1949, the union decided a "new" approach was needed. It chose the path of direct action rather than arbitration.

In April, Chifley's Labor government began a propaganda campaign. With the possibility of a strike looming in May, the tribunal decided to brandish a big stick by threatening to accept the owners' request that pit top stop-work meetings be made illegal. The attempt to ban meetings was a direct challenge to the union's right to consult with its members. The union proceeded with meetings to seek endorsement from members for a strike.

In the days before the strike, the union attempted to negotiate with the tribunal and mine owners, offering to drop the wage claim and work a 40-hour week for a year, if the owners and tribunal agreed to a shorter week in principle. The union also offered to negotiate on the use of mechanical equipment to extract coal pillars, which the owners had been demanding.

The owners rejected the union's proposals and, on June 27, the miners struck.

Officials jailed

Two days later, the Labor government rushed through legislation that made it illegal to give strikers and their families financial support (including shops that let miners buy on credit).

On July 5, union officials were ordered, under threat of imprisonment, to hand over union funds to the industrial registrar. At the same time, the High Court rejected an appeal by the unions. On July 6, union officials were arrested. Two days later, union and CPA headquarters were raided.

In the last week of July, seven union officials were sentenced to 12 months' jail and one to six months. The court also imposed fines on another five officials and three unions (the Miners' Federation, Waterside Workers' Federation and Federated Ironworkers Association).

Arthur Calwell — a cabinet minister under Chifley who later became federal Labor parliamentary leader — threatened to put communists and their sympathisers into concentration camps. Chifley told the Labor caucus, "The Reds must be taught a lesson".

On June 30, the government placed full-page advertisements in newspapers declaring: "This is a strike against arbitration! It is a communist inspired strike!"

In the face of government repression and propaganda (which included newspaper advertisements, public meetings by Labor politicians and even airdrops of leaflets), six mass meetings of striking coal miners held on July 10 voted to continue the strike.

While the NSW core of miners held strong, cracks began to appear on the periphery. The ACTU sided with the government, helping to isolate the Miners' Federation from smaller ancillary unions. While supposedly supporting the miners' claims, it attacked the strike and attempted to blame the miners for the reactionary response of the government.

On July 15, coal that had been black-banned by the miners' union was transported by the NSW branch of the Australian Railways Union, in defiance of the ARU's federal body.

The Australian Workers Union, whose members worked in open-cut mines in South Australia and Victoria, were the next to split the ranks. The open-cut mines in NSW and Queensland were seen as the key to breaking the strike, and the government began negotiations with the AWU to work the mines.

Troops

Even though the AWU's Queensland secretary offered to "not hesitate to throw its weight on the side of the nation to save Australia from Communist domination", the Labor government decided the better option was to send soldiers to work the open-cut mines. It was later revealed that Chifley had contemplated using troops from the onset of the strike.

On August 1, troops armed with machine guns, bayonets and rifles entered the coalfields. Within two weeks, the strike was broken. For many workers, the tactics used by the ALP during the strike came as a shock, because they believed the ALP was a party of the working class. Chifley's betrayal tore away their illusions and revealed Labor's true colours as a party that furthers the interests of the capitalists.

The lessons that workers learned during the 1949 coal strike are still relevant today. The ALP has used, and continues to use, the force and institutions of the capitalist state (the army, police, and judiciary) to subordinate the interests of the workers to those of the capitalists.