Key Communist role in post-war unions detailed

Tuesday, December 3, 2013
CPA offices in Woolloomooloo Sydney vandalised in the 1950s. Photo via The Guardian.

Conflict In The Unions: The Communist Party of Australia, Politics & the Trade Union Movement, 1945-60
By Douglas Jordan
Resistance books, 2013
312 page, $30

Conflict In The Unions is an important new book examining the union activity of the Communist Party of Australia during a very turbulent time in Australian and world politics. The book looks at the period of 1945-'60, when the Cold War reached its height.

Author and former Victorian tramways union militant Douglas Jordan has done a great service to the study of Australian labour movement history with this detailed analysis of the achievements and challenges that faced Communist unionists. It captures the extreme pressure they worked under it he face of escalating right-wing attacks.

Today, when the Australian union movement has been generally weakened and on the defensive, it is crucial to closely study the experiences of Communists and socialists in the unions. Jordan's account looks at a a time when Communist Party influence in the unions was at its height, but starting to wane.

Trade union membership has, today, slipped from well over 50% of the workforce to less than 20%. Socialist and left-wing influence in the unions is significantly lower than the '40s and '50s. So we need to analyse the lessons from a period when the CPA had thousands of members in unions, including many elected delegates and officials.

“In 1945, after more than two decades of intense activity, the CPA was a leading force in the Australian trade union movement,” Jordan notes. “A significant part of its membership was experienced cadres who were confident that they could continue to build the party's influence in the trade unions.

“During this period the party put considerable effort into educating both old and new members into the postwar struggles armed with a belief that a new social order was about to emerge.

“It was an era of intense political activity and communist union activists were prominent in all of the postwar struggles.

“The CPA was an active and enthusiastic supporter of the [post-war] strike wave and of the right of workers to restore their living standards. One measure of this was that from August 1945 until the end of 1947, nine communist-led unions representing only 26 per cent of the workforce were responsible for 84 per cent of strikes.”

Nevertheless, tensions existed between CPA union leaders and sections of the rank and file, as well as between leaders of the Communist Party and the party's union officials. As the Cold War intensified over coming years, these tensions grew as the anti-Communist offensive in Australia and internationally deepened.

Sharp shifts in the policy of the Stalinist leaders of the Soviet Union caused particular problems for the CPA. For several years from 1948 on, the international Communist movement was instructed, as it was for part of the 1930s, to see the main enemy as social democratic parties such as the Labor Party.

This worsened tactical difficulties over industrial conflicts with the Chifley Labor government. This led to the 1949 coal strike, which was infamously broken when the Labor government sent soldiers into the mines.

A combination of conflict and collaboration with different sections of the ALP was a major part of the CPA's approach throughout its existence. However, as Jordan explains, in the immediate post-war period, “The CPA policy of political trade unionism was not limited to the ALP's mild reform goals. It envisioned a more active role, where trade unions would use their industrial strength to pursue their political ideals.”

For many Communist activists, “in order to maintain their roles as union officials they had to repeatedly demonstrate that their roles as orthodox trade union officials surpassed their opponents. At the same time, the party leadership was constantly demanding that the trade unions increase their involvement in political campaigns and that communist union officials prioritise this activity.

“The dilemma between the two approaches was never fully resolved by many communist union officials.”

Jordan uses party newspapers and journals, other CPA primary resources and considerable research into writings on the period, to show that, with all the limitations and distortions of policy imposed by national and international pressures, Communist union activists played a crucial part in changing the face of Australian industrial and general politics.

In doing so, they advanced the class struggle in this country over decades.

The author analyses three key areas of struggle: the peace movement; post-war immigration; and Aboriginal rights.

Anti-war activities by Communist unionists in the '40s and '50s mainly involved petitioning, distributing literature and passing resolutions against nuclear weapons.

However, a move by CP-lead unions to ban the building of the Woomera Rocket Range in 1947 failed after the Chifley government outlawed industrial action at defence establishments. Moves by several CP-led unions to ban the transport of war materials for the United States-led invasion of Korea in 1950 were rejected by the unions' members.

Nevertheless, the CP leaders of these unions — the Miners Federation, the Seamen's Union and the Waterside Workers' Federation — were all re-elected in subsequent union elections. This showed that rank-and-file unionists supported Communist officials, even if they did not always agree with all of their politics.

In regard to immigration policy, Jordan writes: “From its inception, the CPA adopted an internationalist perspective. It broke decisively with the dominant working class racism prevalent within the Australian labour movement.

“From the 1920s onwards, it condemned the White Australia Policy as antagonistic to working class interests.”

However, “Between 1948 and 1952 the CPA reversed its previous consistent internationalist outlook on migration. It condemned East European and German refugees who arrived as part of the mass immigration program.

“These refugees were strongly anti-communist and had refused to return to their countries now ruled by Soviet imposed regimes. This provided the only basis for the CPA's opposition to their arrival.

“In order the buttress its campaign the CPA utilised many of the traditional labour movement arguments against migration.”

In contrast, however, “the CPA welcomed the arrival of migrants from other countries. It honoured its commitment that once in Australia they should have the same rights as other workers. The CPA remained a multi-ethnic party and many of the new arrivals joined because of its internationalist outlook.”

On the crucial issue of Aboriginal rights, Jordan states: “Almost from its inception, the CPA was the most consistent working class supporter of Aboriginal human rights ...

“For most of the 1950s the CPA was the only organisation in the labour movement that consistently supported the struggles by Aborigines for an end to the oppressive regulations that governed every aspect of their lives.”

Almost alone, the CPA campaigned in support of the Pilbara strike by Aboriginal station workers in 1946. And Communist-led unionists backed strikes by Aboriginal workers in Darwin in 1950-'51.

The CPA often had difficult winning Australian workers to a more developed program of political unionism. But there is no doubt such activity in the post-war period laid the groundwork for later advanced political struggles, such as the Seamen's Union bans on military supply ships during the Vietnam War and the Green Bans of the NSW Builders Labourers Federation in the '70s.

From the late '50s onwards, the CPA gradually accommodated to the Labor Party and class-collaborationism. This deepened with its gradual decline and eventual dissolution in 1990. But the impact of the CPA's union activities remains as a key part of the best traditions of the Australian labour movement.

The challenge of rebuilding a renewed militant and revolutionary working class movement is now more urgent than ever. Jordan's book on this critical period of CPA initiative during the early Cold War years provides important information and analysis that can assist in such a task.


From GLW issue 992