‘Free Clarrie O’Shea’: When unions broke the rules to change them

Clarrie O'Shea being led away by the Victorian police.

Fifty years ago, an industrial penal powers dispute provoked the biggest strike wave in Australia's post-war history.

On May 15, 1969, Clarrie O’Shea, Victorian secretary Australian Tramway & Motor Omnibus Employees’ Association (ATMOEA), was jailed for refusing to pay fines imposed under the anti-union penal powers of the Conciliation and Arbitration Act.

Over the next week, more than 1 million workers went on strike to demand freedom for O'Shea and the repeal of the penal powers.

Tribune, the newspaper of the Communist Party of Australia at the time, reported on May 21, 1969: “The long struggle of Australia’s organised workers against insidious arbitration laws devised to steal away their only truly defensive weapon — the strike — has exploded in unprecedented, nationwide direct action.”

The campaign to repeal the penal powers had been building up in the years prior. Militant unions had been preparing members for a major confrontation to defend the right to strike against the anti-worker Arbitration Commission.

The industrial situation in Australia was a powder keg just waiting to explode: O’Shea’s jailing provided to the spark that set it off.  

The ATMOEA had been taking strong industrial action to improve the wages and conditions of its members.

The courts responded by imposing 40 fines totalling $13,200 and issuing summonses for O’Shea to appear — which he ignored.

After a campaign to educate union members about the issues at stake, and having won guarantees of support from other unions, O'Shea appeared in court on May 15 and was arrested.

That morning, 27 unions rallied in solidarity with O’Shea, who led the march of about 5000 workers to the court.

I was a Melbourne University student at the time and I remember attending the rally and being inspired by the “grey army” of militant workers marching through the city streets, chanting “All the way with Clarrie O’Shea!”

The next day, half a million workers went on strike across the country. The Western Australian Trades and Labour Council, the Queensland Council of Unions and the United Trades and Labour Council of South Australia all called state-wide general strikes.

In Victoria, there were two 24-hour stoppages involving 40 unions. All trains and trams ground to a halt, power was cut off, the delivery of goods was severely restricted, and TV and radio broadcasts were disrupted.

Workers around the country took “illegal” industrial action, held spontaneous stop work meetings, participated in go-slows, and marched and protested in the streets.

In defiance of threats and intimidation from the courts and Liberal-Country Party governments, unions simply ignored the country's anti-strike laws.

The Australian Council of Trade Union (ACTU) executive instructed its affiliates to not pay any more fines issued under the penal powers. This was a direct challenge to the Industrial Court and the federal government: either cease collecting fines or face even greater industrial struggle if union officials are sent to jail.

The ruling class were shocked and dismayed. The growing confrontation was becoming a threat to the “established order” of class society. A retreat was clearly necessary.

On May 20, a former newspaper executive acting “on behalf of a public benefactor”— which many believe was ASIO — paid ATMOEA’s fines. O’Shea was released and the workers’ movement had scored a historic victory.

On his release O’Shea, said: “My release is a great victory for workers. I am certain that all workers remain adamant in their opposition to the penal powers, which are designed to suppress the workers.

“The infinite power of the workers when they are really aroused has frightened the life out of the government and the employers ... I am certain the workers will continue the struggle for the abolition of all penal powers.”

Although the penal powers were not repealed, they were never used again in their original form.

However, after a cooling-off period, the ruling class once again moved to restrict and outlaw industrial action.

In 1977, the Malcolm Fraser Liberal government introduced even harsher anti-union legislation, particularly laws outlawing “secondary boycotts” (solidarity strikes). These laws are still in place. 

The right to strike has never been formally legal in Australia. Industrial action has always been taken within strict boundaries that severely limit its effectiveness.

It has only been the strong tradition of union organisation and militancy that has allowed workers to take action to defend their rights and conditions, going right back to the Shearers’ strikes of the 1890s, the strike waves around the end of World War I and the industrial struggles after the 1930s Great Depression and World War II.

Conservative governments have not been the only ones to use penal powers against unions.

The Ben Chifley Labor government sent troops against striking mineworkers in 1949 and the Bob Hawke Labor government used industrial laws to deregister the Builders Labourers Federation and smash the 1989 pilots’ strike.

The lessons from the 1969 O’Shea dispute are clear.

At the time, the union movement had a well-prepared strategy to defy unjust laws and take on the courts and the government.

Members were consistently mobilised for years leading up to 1969, helping to change the balance of class forces in the country.

When the tramways union was singled out, other unions came behind it to prevent the government from crushing the union.

Today, after years of Coalition government and big business attacks, the union movement faces a major challenge to its right to organise.

The so-called Fair Work Act, introduced under the previous Labor government, and the Australian Building and Construction Commission are stifling industrial action and once again threatening unions with huge fines and jail.

Importantly, the campaign to free O’Shea demonstrated the need to tackle repressive industrial laws head-on with united industrial action.

The only way to decisively change the rules is to break the rules.

[Jim McIlroy is a long-time union activist and a member of the Socialist Alliance.]