The spirit of Eureka and Australia’s working-class struggles

December 1, 2017

This month we celebrate the 163rd anniversary of the Eureka Stockade.

It is important to celebrate and mark historical anniversaries, especially one such as the Eureka Stockade, whose legacy has played such a pivotal role in the struggles of Australia’s working people for a fair, just and democratic society.

But it is not enough to just remember these events as historical abstractions, confined to some bygone era. We must also draw the lessons and connections to the struggles we are fighting now. We are the inheritors of that history and we should hold high the ideals of the working people who have fought before us.

The struggle of the workers on the picket line in Longford against ExxonMobil, one of the world’s largest multinationals, and their fight to defend the wages and conditions of not just themselves, but of all Australian workers, exemplifies the spirit of the Eureka rebels today.

Tradition of struggle

“Remember how the miners at Eureka’s Stockade fell!
If need shall rise, ere Union dies, we’ll fight like them as well!”

Those rousing words of C Drake, written in 1890, remind us that the tradition of courageous and militant struggle shown by the Eureka rebels in Ballarat has always had a powerful influence on Australia’s working class and our unions.

Indeed, the Eureka rebellion is the spiritual birthplace of Australia’s union movement as we know it today.

The diggers’ major grievance, which would lead them to that fateful day on December 3, 1854, when dozens of them lost their lives in the attack on the Stockade, was the oppressive conditions of the miner’s license. It was an immediate and day-to-day concern.

Our unions, too, fight to improve the day-to-day, immediate conditions of workers. But like the struggle of the Eureka rebels, in reality we fight for so much more.

In 1854, they rebelled against a brutal British colonial government that imposed taxes in the form of a miner’s licence on the impoverished miners scraping out a living, while the ruling classes, the rich squatters and aristocracy, paid no tax.

Replace squatters and aristocracy with multinational corporations, and you see just how little has really changed in 163 years.

They rebelled against constant police harassment and abuse, and they demanded the right to vote and to decide how laws that affect them should be made. The struggle of the diggers was for justice, for democratic rights, and independence. At its core was a vision for a fairer, better society for ordinary people.

The union movement also fights for more than just wages and conditions. It fights for justice, equality, democratic rights and fairness. And at its core lies a vision of a better society for ordinary working people.

Eureka flag

For well over 100 years Australia’s working class has raised the Eureka flag as an inspirational symbol of what we fight for in our struggles.

One of the first recorded instances of Australian workers rallying under the Eureka flag was in 1891, during the Great Shearers’ Strike in Queensland. At least 3000 striking shearers gathered under the flag at the shearers’ camp near Barcaldine in protest against attacks on their union wages and conditions.

They carried the flag through the town on May 1 in one of the first May Day marches in the world. And it has continued to fly over the countless struggles of working people and communities around the country ever since.

As a construction worker, I take great inspiration from the history of the militant Builders Labourers Federation (BLF), which adopted the flag on the hundredth anniversary of Eureka in 1954 and proudly rallied under it throughout the struggles of their remarkable history. It is a tradition that has carried on to the CFMEU today.

But it is not just a flag for construction workers. It was there when meatworkers in Brisbane picketed in the 1960s. It was there when shipbuilders went on strike and occupied the dockyards of Cockatoo Island in Sydney Harbour in 1989.

It was there when the entire union movement and wider community fought to defend the wharfies and the MUA in 1998. It was there in the massive rallies around the country when we took on the John Howard government’s WorkChoices in 2006 and 2007. It flew high above the camp of the maintenance workers at CUB in their 180-day epic struggle last year.

Today it flies high at the camp of the coalminers at Oaky North in Queensland who have been locked out of their workplace by multinational mining giant, Glencore, for more than 140 days. And of course, it flies proudly at the camp of the Longford maintenance workers in their determined and courageous fight against ExxonMobil.

It will continue to fly over the struggles of Australia’s working class in the future, because the Eureka flag is unashamedly the working people’s flag of struggle.

Whenever ordinary working people come together to take a stand for their rights and liberties, for justice and a fair go, the example of the Eureka rebellion will be relevant.

The flag the rebels raised 163 years ago, that flag of resistance and defiance, will continue to inspire unity, solidarity, and courage in our collective fight for workers’ rights and against unjust laws.

Union challenges

There is no denying the working class and the union movement in Australia face challenges at the moment. Industrial relations laws in Australia are some of the strictest and harshest in the developed world. The right to organise has been severely curbed. The right to strike is practically non-existent.

We have political task forces like the Australian Building and Construction Commission, whose role is to intimidate and threaten workers who dare to take a stand for safer workplaces, and which has the power to reduce construction workers to second-class citizens by denying us the right to silence; a basic democratic right granted to even the worst criminals.

We are facing corporations that are unscrupulously terminating enterprise agreements so they can savage hard-fought for wages and conditions of workers around the country.

Giant oil and gas multinationals are making billions from Australian resources and are getting away with paying no tax, while ordinary working people are squeezed with higher and higher energy bills and our public schools and hospitals are denied the adequate funding they so desperately need.

Workers and young people face precarious futures as good full-time jobs are being destroyed by casualisation, part-time work, and dodgy subcontracting arrangements, not to mention automation and the offshoring of jobs.

But despite all the challenges, and despite all the attacks, working people can overcome them.

When workers stand together, shoulder-to-shoulder united in struggle, when we come together to fight for the best interests of all working people, when we stand defiant, determined and united, and when we remember the spirit of Eureka, we have the power to not only defeat the attacks of multinational corporations and change governments, but we have the power to change society for the better.

In 1891, Henry Lawson wrote a poem that I think captures, not necessarily the tasks that face us ahead, but the spirit in which we need to face them.

“So we must fly a rebel flag
As others did before us
And we must sing a rebel song
And join in rebel chorus
We’ll make the tyrants feel the sting
Of those that they would throttle
They needn’t say the fault is ours
If blood should stain the wattle!”

[This article is based on a speech Dirk van Dalen gave at the Spirit of Eureka dinner in Melbourne to celebrate the anniversary of the Eureka Stockade.]

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