The CPA and the unions

Issue 

By John Percy The Communist Party of Australia developed a strong base in important industrial unions during the 1930s. As the depression eased, CPA members recruited from the unemployed and trained in action through the struggles of the Depression, had got jobs in industry. This working class base, which became the core of the CPA, grew and was consolidated during the 1940s. The work of party members in unions was well organised. CPA union leaders became astute tacticians, learning how to organise union struggles, and how to win strikes. They developed strong working class support and respect as workers' leaders. The CPA's trade union work in the '30s and '40s holds many useful lessons for socialists today and for the future. At its formation the CPA also had a union base, but its strength was greater in the labor councils than in the unions themselves. Jock Garden was secretary of the NSW Labor Council, and most of his executive joined the CPA. In 1921 the council had 30 communist union delegates. The secretaries of Newcastle and Brisbane labor councils were also CPA members. Fifteen per cent of the delegates at the 1921 trade union conference which recommended that the ALP adopt a socialisation objective were communists. But Garden's boasting at the Fourth Comintern Congress in 1922 that the CPA "had control of 347,000 trade unionists" was not based on real communist support in the working class. As Alastair Davidson wrote in his history of the CPA, "The CPA policy of concentrating activity in the labor councils resulted in its neglect of rank and file activity in the unions and its failure to attempt to capture positions on union executives". After a few years the CPA lost its initially quite good position among workers. This was partly because of the ebb of the post-war revolutionary sentiment, but it was also a result of the mistakes of the Garden leadership. There was a tendency to substitute revolutionary phrase-mongering and sloganeering for the building of a rank-and-file base. For example, the party made a stupid intervention in the 1923 coal lock-out calling for a general strike against the wishes of the miners and the Miners' Federation leadership. With the departure from the party in the mid-'20s of Garden and many of the trade union and labor council officials, the CPA's connections with the union movement were greatly reduced.

The Militant Minority Movement

The foundations for the very impressive gains made by the CPA in the trade unions in the 1930s were laid by its work amongst the unemployed, and in the Militant Minority Movement (MMM). As Australia entered the Depression the old union leaders proved incapable of adequately defending the workers they were supposed to represent. Trade unionism, on its own, proved totally inadequate to even fend off the bosses' attacks. But as the economy slowly improved, militancy was stepped up and fighting leaderships were elected in some powerful unions. A number of these militants were members of the MMM. The MMM, the movement of rank and file trade unionists formed by the CPA in 1928, was based on the British MMM model. In 1930, the CPA started paying more attention to organising through the MMM. It aimed to win a hearing for revolutionary views, to recruit to the party, to organise the ranks and sometimes the community, and to eventually replace the old, incompetent leaderships of unions with communist union officials and organisers. The membership of the MMM often overlapped with that of the Unemployed Workers Movement according to Bob Gollan in Revolutionaries and Reformists. "One reaction of unionists and their officials was to avoid the unemployed like the plague — they constituted a threat to their own jobs. By contrast, the UWM and the MMM stated a class position: that all workers had common interests which could be protected only by united action." MMM members participated in anti-eviction battles, free speech fights and community self-help projects. Thus "individual communists emerged as popular leaders, experienced in political struggle, who later moved into positions of authority in the labour movement, in particular in the unions". The MMM published the Red Leader, a weekly newspaper, of which more than 9000 copies were being sold each week by 1934. At its peak it had over 30,000 readers. The MMM was initially strongest in the traditionally militant unions; it was strong on the NSW coalfields and at Wonthaggi in Victoria, and also on the waterfront and in the railways. In the early '30s it was able to win positions at a local and state level, for example in the Victorian Tramways Union, and the Victorian Federated Engine Drivers' and Firemen's Association. Discussing the work of the MMM during the long miners' strike at Wonthaggi in 1934, Richard Dixon, CP assistant secretary and later party president, wrote that 400 of the local miners were members of the MMM. A retired miner who participated in the events claimed that 700 Wonthaggi miners eventually belonged to the MMM.

Trade union base

Communists Bill Orr and Charlie Nelson were elected as federal secretary and president of the Miners' Federation in 1933 and 1934. This first significant communist union election victory was a direct result of the strength of the MMM. Ralph Gibson writes in The People Stand Up that the unemployed of the early '30s provided from among their leaders "many who later filled important trade union positions. The highly democratic grassroots organisation of the unemployed threw up many talented new leaders. Many of these moved into industry as the depression began to lift and more jobs became available. This was a period when new militant personnel were badly needed in the unions. Many of the union officials at this time were not only right wing, but incompetent, and it was urgent to fill their places. Leaders of the unemployed, largely Communist Party members, commended themselves to their fellow unionists as people who could do the job required." Thus Ernie Thornton of Collingwood Unemployed, became the state, and then federal secretary of the Ironworkers' Union in 1936. George Frank, of Richmond Unemployed, finished as federal secretary of the Carpenters' Union (later called the Building Workers Industrial Union). Jim Munro, of North Melbourne Unemployed, became an organiser of the Timber Workers' Union. Tom Hills, who led the unemployed in Port Melbourne, was prominent in Waterside Workers' Federation activity. Brand, leader of the Brunswick Unemployed Single Men's Group, became president of the Victorian Branch of the Ironworkers' Union when Thornton transferred to the national office in Sydney. "Looking round the Trades Hall Council chamber any Thursday evening in the 1930s", Gibson commented, "one would see a great many faces familiar from the days of the unemployed battles, mainly much younger faces than the Trades Hall average." Dixon, writing in 1970 about the party's industrial work in the 1930s, estimated that, "By the beginning of 1937 there were more than 20 Communist trade union officials and upwards of 1000 Communists holding executive or local union positions throughout Australia". Tom Wright, CPA secretary in the late '20s, was elected NSW secretary of the Sheetmetal Workers' Union in 1935. In 1937 Jim Healy was elected secretary of the Waterside Workers' Federation. In 1938 Don Thompson was elected secretary of the Building Trades Federation in Victoria. Between 1939 and 1942, Elliott V. Elliott became federal secretary of the Seamen's Union, a left leadership won control of the NSW Clerks Union, and J.J. Brown was elected Victorian state secretary of the ARU. By 1942 Communists led by Sam Lewis more or less controlled the Teachers' Federation. The workers' movement was significantly reorganised and strengthened by the Communist Party's successes. The unions with new Communist leaderships were winning some gains in the second half of the '30s, trying to restore what had been lost by workers during the Depression. Ralph Gibson states in his book The Fight Goes On, there were two great infusions of members into the CPA: "First came the Party members who organised the unemployed in the depression. Many of these later became a leading force in the trade unions as they entered industry with the partial revival of employment ... "Then there was the infusion in the war years 1941 to 1945 — a double infusion of factory workers influenced by the changed political climate and of members of the armed forces." ubh = The popular front Well, what happened between these two infusions? The CPA gained more influence in the trade unions, as outlined above. It built and consolidated its organisation in all states. The party press was better established by 1939: Tribune's circulation was 20,000; the Victorian Guardian, 10,000; and the North Queensland Guardian and the People's Star of South Australia, 5000 each. Many successful campaigns were organised such as the Movement Against War and Fascism and the Friends of the Soviet Union. But most CPA historians agree that the party grew only slowly between 1935 and the outbreak of war. At the party's Twelfth congress in November 1938, it was claimed that membership was 3000 in 1932, but had only risen to 5000 by 1938. However, a major political somersault — the popular front — had been ordered by Stalin. Dimitrov launched the new line at the Seventh (and last) Congress of the Comintern in 1935. Stalin had started to change tack in 1934 following the disasters which resulted from the application of his third period or "social fascism" line — the smashing of the German working class and the coming to power of Hitler. But in trying, belatedly, to counter the monster that had been unleashed, Stalin introduced a major revision in Communist theory. The new line went far beyond a united front of workers' parties to fight fascism, which Stalin had rejected for Germany. It not only proposed the inclusion of capitalist parties in the popular front, it went even further and sanctioned the participation of Communist parties in capitalist governments. The basis for this line was Stalin's determination to subordinate everything to the diplomatic needs of the Soviet Union even though this did not achieve the desired result. It did not provide the best defence for the Soviet Union and it also meant that the needs of the revolutionary struggles in other countries were put way down the list of priorities. The immediate results of these policies, in the strategic countries for which they were intended, were disastrous; the working class in France and Spain suffered major defeats. In countries on the periphery of world politics, such as Australia, the same popular front line was adopted. CPA propaganda increasingly adopted a vulgar nationalist character. An election leaflet in 1937 warned of the danger to the British Empire. Some CPA anti-Japanese literature even took on a racist character. The CPA tailed behind the ALP. In the 1937 elections the party talked about electing a "fighting Labor government" which would legislate "a better life" for he people. "It is a gross error", party secretary J.B. Miles said, "to see the Labor Governments as administrations which never benefited the workers or always betrayed the workers". In addition to the pressure of the Australian labour movement bearing down on the CPA — its tendency to adapt to the ALP, to cave in to what were seen as "Australian traditions" or "the Australian reality" and to support the ALP for other than tactical reasons — a second factor came into play and was formalised with the popular front line. From then on this became the new orthodoxy in the Communist movement, and it conflicted with the traditional Leninist views on the state and the class struggle dynamics of the revolutionary process. In many Communist parties such as the CPA, both positions could coexist side by side, sometimes even in the same document. But in the CPA for the next 30 years the norm in practice was the popular front line rather than the class struggle line. This was the fundamental impact of Stalinism on the CPA; it was a right-wing influence, not an ultra-left impact, as some writers have tried to maintain. The third period line was an exception. For example, John Sendy in Comrades Come Rally goes even further than most and identifies the party's supposed errors as Leninist. "The attitude of the CPA towards the ALP, while marked by chops and changes, has been immature and impatient and heavily influenced by the tactics adopted by the Bolsheviks against the Mensheviks." But the lack of any significant immediate results stemming from the application of the new line in Australia is a bit awkward for orthodox CP historians. The party didn't grow much! Bill Brown, in his The Communist Movement and Australia, puts forward the excuse that "sectarian tendencies were not adequately eradicated in the immediate years" after the Seventh Comintern Congress. CPA writers sometimes point to the growing number of positions won in the unions. But it's clear these victories were the fruits of the previous period, from the successes in the UWM and the MMM and the strength the CP developed in the ranks of the unions. They weren't the result of the rightward turn, the popular front line instituted from 1935, or from using the code words — "a correct united front approach to the ALP" — adopted by the CPA. There's an important lesson here which is ignored by most of the fake left union officials from the '50s on — the need for unity in struggle, rather than unity in inaction with the ALP leadership.

Lessons for today

We can learn many lessons about practical trade union work from the CPA' experiences in the '30s: how to organise the militant unionists on the job, city-wide and nation-wide; the importance of politicising workers' struggles, of injecting class politics into union activities; the value of industrial rather than craft unionism; the need for shop committees, uniting workers in the factory irrespective of the craft union they belonged to. But the key lesson is the need for independent leadership, independent of the reformist misleaders of the trade unions, and independent of the ALP. Reflecting on this period and the CPA's "independent leadership" policy, Dixon later wrote: "We saw in this the possibility of a whole new mass movement and of leadership in the anti-capitalist struggle. We were out to build unity on the factory floor, at the gate, and locally in unemployment committees. We were for workers electing leaders from their own ranks and keeping control of struggles in their own hands. This policy, despite its shortcomings, brought positive and lasting results for the workers. Attacks were made on them such as had never been known before but we rallied large sections of working people into the struggle."