From Clarrie O'Shea to the ABCC - the struggle for union rights


The campaign against the jailing of tramways union leader Clarrie O'Shea, in Melbourne in May 1969, for refusing to pay fines imposed under the infamous anti-union penal powers of the time is rich with lessons for today's campaign against the Australian Building and Construction Commission's (ABCC) witch hunt of construction unionists.

The historic fight for union rights in Australia was part of the popular struggle for democratic rights in colonial times during the 19th century. From the Eureka Stockade to the 1890s shearers' strikes, the campaign to build the Australian workers' movement won ground-breaking gains in the international arena.

During the 20th century, a series of major industrial battles established strong union organisation across Australia. But from the start, the legal right to strike was restricted. During the 1960s, the imposition of the anti-union penal powers increased to the point at which an all-out confrontation was inevitable.

"Historic strike wave defies penal system: 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 into unprecedented, nationwide direct action", reported the May 21, 1969, issue of Tribune, the newspaper of the Communist Party of Australia.

One million workers stopped work around the country to demand "Free Clarrie O'Shea and repeal the penal powers". On May 15, the day O'Shea was jailed, 5000 workers marched through the streets of Melbourne, and surrounded the Arbitration Court building.

The confrontation so shocked the ruling class that an "anonymous benefactor" paid O'Shea's $8000 fines, and the union leader was released, to head off further class polarisation. While the penal powers were not repealed, they were never used again.

This struggle has clear lessons for the current campaigns against the ABCC, and in solidarity with construction union official Noel Washington, who faces jail for refusing to testify to this new industrial police force.

Years of preparation by the militant unions, especially in Victoria, preceded the mobilisation in support of O'Shea in the 1960s. A widespread education campaign among the union membership was linked to a gradual escalation of industrial action against the penal powers.

A similar strategy of education, plus increasing political and industrial action, will be required to prevent the conviction of Washington and force the Rudd Labor government to completely abolish the ABCC.

The principle of solidarity among the whole union movement, encapsulated in the slogan "An injury to one is an injury to all", is essential to win this campaign.

Washington represents a vital test case for union rights under the Labor government. It is crucial to win this campaign as part of a broader struggle to repeal all of Howard's Work Choices legislation, and defend the right of unions to organised freely in this country.

[Jim McIlroy is a member of the Democratic Socialist Perspective and the Socialist Alliance. This article is based on a presentation he gave to a September 17 Brisbane forum organised by the Socialist Alliance.]