Tom McDonald on the 1969 Penal Powers strike

When Clarrie O’Shea, Secretary of the Victorian Branch of the Tramway Union, was jailed in 1969 for refusing to pay fines imposed on his union because his members had been involved in strike action, a national one-day strike by one million workers took place.

Tom McDonald, in a speech to SEARCH Forum on the 50th anniversary of the strike, speaks to the importance and relevance today of that strike. 

It was a magnificent demonstration of working class solidarity. It was also a national protest against the Penal Power laws of the Menzies Government which were designed to destroy militant unionism. It also showed that workers were prepared to defend the trade union movement and workers’ right to strike. The day after the strike an anonymous person paid the fine. The Government decided to modify the penal power laws. The power of working class solidarity forced the employers to abandon the penal powers laws. Now I want to focus on why the national stoppage was so successful and later on what were the flow-on affects. By 1969 workers had come to hate the penal powers laws.

Vast number of workers had the experience of their union being fined because they took strike action to try to win a wage increase, a safer workplace or better conditions of employment. On other occasions unions had to order their members back to work to avoid huge fines. During the 1960s four hundred and fifty-four fines were imposed on unions. The employers’ strategy in the 1950s largely focussed on seeking to destroy unions by having them deregistered and setting up scab unions and jailing union leaders. For example eight union leaders were jailed in the 1949 miners’ strike. These actions contributed to the build-up of workers’ hostility to the employers’ attempt to destroy unions. Let me describe how the employers tried to destroy the Building Workers Industrial Union (BWIU), my union prior to it becoming part of the CFMEU. In the late 1940s a Royal Commission was held into the activities of the BWIU.

It was followed by an application to the court that resulted in the BWIU being deregistered for 13 years (1949 - 1952) because it engaged in major industrial action to have fares and traveling time pay restored to carpenters and joiners, which had been taken away by the employers. With the help of employers and the far right Industrial Groupers in the Trade Union Movement, a breakaway Carpenters Union was created and recognised by the NSW Labor Council (now UnionsNSW) and the Industrial Relations Commission. A bricklayers scab union was also set up. At the time, every other union in the building industry in NSW was from the far right and the BLF was led by thugs. The South Australian Carpenters section of the BWIU broke away and supported the scab union. The Western Australian branch also broke away and became a state union.

The BWIU had to develop a new strategy if it was to survive and in the long term that strategy had to help seek to advance the creation of one union of building workers. And that’s what finally happened. We modified our demands and campaigned around basic but important issues for building workers such as safety and other things - bigger lunch sheds, fly screens, fire heaters and refrigerators, no working in rain or in excessive heat conditions. Our strategy was to involve the Right Wing unions and the scab carpenters union in those campaigns because it brought all building workers on the job in action together and workers were able to see how weak and ineffective Right Wing leaders were and how the militant officials of the BWIU gave real leadership. On some occasions the right wing never turned up for these meetings. On major projects such as the Opera House, Oil Refineries, and Power Construction sites, site committees were established (some of which were not recognised by the Right). Out of all this, rank-and-file leaders emerged in Right Wing Unions and some of those became leaders in those unions. Of particular importance was the emergence of the Mundey lead BLF and the Vaughan-led Painters Union. This story I have just told demonstrates that militant unions like the BWIU could not be destroyed by having them deregistered and where they had the support of their rank-and-file members. I am very proud that the BWIU in NSW only ever had a Left Wing militant leadership in its lifetime.

The BWIU experience, in my opinion, led to the employers deciding to focus on developing a new strategy to undermine and curb the power of militant unionism. And as a result the employers changed their strategy and then focussed on seeking to bankrupt unions through the use of Penal Powers penalty laws which escalated from 5 fines in the 1950s to 454 fines in the 1960s. By 1969 there was widespread opposition to Penal Powers throughout Australia. Workers were looking for effective leadership. Union leaders like Laurie Carmichael (AMWU) came forward because they realised that an explosive situation existed which required decisive leadership from the Left of the union movement and the Clarrie O’Shea issue would be the spark to unite workers across Australia in a solidarity action. The Left unions called on the workers to down tools and attend demonstrations throughout Australia. And the powerful response from the workers sent shockwaves through the employers and they abandoned the use of penal powers. The Left unions were targeted by the employers because their wages strategy was to seek award wage increases but also to seek over-award wages and entitlements. The Right Wing Unions were prepared to accept wages and conditions that were determined by the Industrial Relations Commission as a floor and also as a ceiling. The employing class wanted to make the award wages and entitlements as low as possible and as the ceiling. The O’Shea victory put the employers on the defensive and they developed over time a new strategy.

They were not able to finalise that new strategy because of internal conflict in the Liberal Party over whether they seek to destroy the award system and the industrial relations system or whether they seek to reform the system. So it wasn’t until 1993 that the new strategy called Fight Back, which was designed to destroy our unique arbitration and award system was made public, in the Federal Elections. It later became known as Work Choices (2007). They lost both elections. The people rejected their reactionary policies. John Howard and the employers were successful however in changing the wage fixing principles that guided the Industrial Relations Commission in making its decisions. For example: The Family Needs Basic Wage was abandoned, as was the Comparative Wage Justice principle along with the right to engage in industry and national bargaining. The comparative wage fixing principle enabled the unions, in particular the militant unions, to use the power of the organised working class in a way that those gains could be flowed onto all workers, via the award system. In conclusion – I think it’s fair to say that Clarrie O’Shea’s jailing followed by 16 years of Labor Governments gave us the time to use our industrial as well as out political power to create a safety net of far reaching entitlements that our enemies have not been able to dismantle. It also gave us the time to restructure our trade union movement into a number of super unions as well as the time for our union movement to close ranks and to become more united than ever before. So we owe a lot to Clarrie O’Shea!

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