Clarrie O'Shea and the 1969 victory for union rights

By Ian Jamieson

Forty years ago, on May 19, 1969, Victorian tramway workers union secretary Clarrie O’Shea was jailed for refusing to obey a court order that his union pay $8100 in fines under the penal sections of the Conciliation and Arbitration Act. Within six days, he walked out of the gates of Pentridge prison in Melbourne a free man after a massive industrial campaign demanding his release.

Up to a million workers throughout Australia walked off the job in an escalating campaign for his release and in opposition to the penal powers. They acted in defiance of the federal Coalition government and in a number of cases their own union officials. Victoria was paralysed after two 24-hour stoppages and a walkout involving 40 unions. In WA, SA and Queensland, the Trades and Labour Councils called on all workers to stop work and express solidarity. Fifty thousand Tasmanians (about 80 per cent of the state’s work force) defied the Tasmanian TLC and walked off the job. The strike extended to several regional centres in NSW, Queensland and WA, and defiant rallies and marches spread as angry unionists took to the streets.

Resentment against the penal powers had been mounting since their introduction by the Menzies Coalition government in 1956. Frustration had also been building within the union movement over the introduction of “bans clauses”, inserted into awards by the Conciliation and Arbitration Commission to prevent industrial action. Unions defying the commission amassed 799 separate fines amounting to nearly $300,000 under the penal power provisions. The Victorian branch of the tramway employees union (ATMOEA) itself accumulated 40 fines amounting to $15,619 over five years for taking industrial action and, on occasion, even contemplating its use.

Menzies’ penal powers had been used as a weapon by big business and their governments to limit the ability of unions to organise strike action. The penal powers were part of the arsenal of legal restrictions that have continued in various forms right up to the recent “Fair Work” laws of the Rudd Labor government. Other legislation used against unionists includes sections 45D and 45E of the Trades Practices Act, introduced by the Hawke Labor government to prohibit solidarity action between unions, and the operation of the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC).

Government retreats

However, in 1969 the scope and scale of opposition to the penal powers alarmed both big business and capitalist politicians. The pressure to release O’Shea was relieved only when the Victorian ATMOEA branch’s fines were paid “on behalf of a public benefactor” whose name has never been released, although many believed the “benefactor” was the McMahon Coalition government. The penal powers became a dead letter, unable to be used effectively against unionists. They were repealed 20 years later by the Fraser Coalition government.

The victory of the campaign to free Clarrie O’Shea opened up further avenues for the union movement to claw back gains that had been lost in the 1950s and ’60s. The metal trades unions began successful campaigns on wages and conditions and the NSW Builders Labourers Federation used green bans in collaboration with local community groups to save heritage areas in Sydney.

Why was the O’Shea campaign victorious? O’Shea, backed by defiant union members, steadfastly refused to pay the fines and built up a campaign of opposition within the Victorian union movement. Although not all unions within the Victorian Trades Hall Council agreed with the stance of the ATMOEA, paying lip service only to the refusal to pay fines, 27 “rebel unions” were determined to organise the campaign that came to a head in 1969.

Another factor was the involvement of O’Shea’s party, the Communist Party of Australia (Marxist-Leninist) and union figures in the Communist Party of Australia. Unions were also responding and reacting to the deepening radicalisation of young people in the late 1960s, driven forward by opposition to the imperialist war in Vietnam. Union leaders to the left of the ALP were gaining confidence in their ability to mobilise the ranks of their unions in strike action against the anti-union laws.

Rudd Labor’s anti-union laws

Contrast this to the current “campaign” of the unions against the new round of anti-union laws introduced by the Rudd government. Labor’s Fair Work legislation differs little in content from Howard’s Work Choices laws. Unionists’ right to strike is severely curtailed and limited to bargaining around enterprise agreements. Access to work sites by union officials is permitted only if the employer agrees. Non-union workplace agreements can still be sought by employers. Working people can still be arbitrarily dismissed by small employers.

Labor has also left intact the coercive powers of the ABCC. The official web site of construction unions and the ACTU implores us to email Kevin Rudd and local MPs, sign a petition, stay informed, tell friends and ... watch a video. Yet the potential to defeat the ABCC and the new laws continues to be shown. Hundreds of thousands marched against the Work Choices laws in 2005-06. Twenty-five thousand construction workers attended rallies around Australia on April 28, protesting fatalities in the industry that the ABCC deliberately ignores.

However, the campaign against anti-union laws is weakened because union officials refuse to break from the pro-capitalist politics of the ALP, with its phoney “neutral umpire” arbitration system. Using the anger against anti-union laws in a cynical manoeuvre to campaign for the election of the Labor Party has allowed these laws to remain essentially intact. The lessons of the defeat of the penal powers in 1969 can be successfully applied only if there is a concerted attempt to educate, organise and mobilise the ranks of the union movement to defend essential rights, not sacrificing them to the political fortunes of Labor Party politicians, who are quite open in their support of a system that uses anti-union laws to defend the bosses’ profits.

[Ian Jamieson is a member of the Maritime Union of Australia and the Revolutionary Socialist Party. He is a former president of the Tasmanian Mining Industry Union Council representing all Tasmanian miners in the early 1990s.]