From general strike to referendum – Wollongong workers and the threat of communism

Saturday, April 26, 2014

A new documentary film Radical Wollongong, produced by Green Left TV, will premiere in Wollongong on May 18, followed by screenings in other cities and regional centres.

The film features activist participants from Wollongong's radical history of strikes and community rallies, from miners’ struggles to Aboriginal justice and environmental protection.

Here, co-producer John Rainford gives an insight into the 1949 coal strike and the attempt to ban the Communist Party of Australia.

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In the immediate post-war years there was a wave of strikes in Australia in response to poor working conditions and the victimisation of unionists. One of the first was at the Port Kembla steelworks, led by the communist-controlled ironworkers union and supported by the communist-influenced miners’ and seamen’s unions.

The Ben Chifley Labor government was quick to sack strike leader Ted Roach and other communists on the Stevedoring and Maritime Industry Commissions when they refused to call off the strikes.

One industry where attempts to prevent strikes during the war invariably failed was coalmining. After the war, the Miners Federation, like their fellow miners in Britain, demanded that the pits be nationalised. The government instead set up the Joint Coal Board and the Coal Industry Tribunal, but the demand never went away for the militant miners.

Edgar Ross, a central committee member of the Communist Party and editor of the miners’ union journal, Common Cause, wrote in the Communist Review: “For the mineworkers, the sands are running out. The historic moment of their tactical advantage is about to pass, and they still have much to achieve while holding determinedly to their basic trade union rights of organisation and struggle and playing a more conscious role in wider national issues.”

On June 27, 1949, the Miners Federation began a nationwide coalstrike in support of their demands for increased wages, long service leave and a 35-hour week. With the Cold War well underway, many on the right saw the strike as an attempted communist insurrection.

It took the Chifley Labor government just one day to rush through legislation, wholeheartedly supported by the Liberal Party, the National Emergency (Coal Strike) Act aimed at breaking the strike by freezing the union’s funds.

But the miners and other militant unions were one step ahead. They had withdrawn their funds from the banks and placed them beyond reach of the authorities. For refusing to reveal the funds’ whereabouts, a number of officials were sentenced to jail terms of up to 12 months. Included among them were Maurie Fitzgibbon, secretary of the southern district miners and Roach, assistant general secretary of the wharfies.

During the seven-week strike some 500,000 miners were thrown out of work. Many industries came to a standstill and electricity supply and transport were reduced. The strike came to an end when Chifley sent in troops to work open-cut mines.

In the December 1949 federal election Robert Menzies announced that if returned to government, the Liberal-Country Party coalition would declare the Communist Party subversive and unlawful and be dissolved.

After winning the election, a Dissolution Bill was introduced four months later. When it was declared unconstitutional by the High Court, Menzies took the issue to a referendum in September 1951.

Thanks to a tireless grassroots campaign, the referendum was defeated -- but not by much. Western Australia, Queensland and Tasmania voted yes: NSW, Victoria and South Australia voted no. The no vote won by a margin of just 52,082. The Communist Party’s preparations for going underground once more were clearly justified.

[The film will premiere in Wollongong on May 18, see page 23 for more details. For more information about the film, visit Radical Wollongong.]

From GLW issue 1006