Magazine of Socialist Action in Australia

The 1969 penal powers general strike

Reading Time: 7 minutes

This year is the 35th anniversary of one of the most important and victorious strike movements in modern Australian history – the general strike movement in response to the jailing of Tram Workers’ Union leader Clarrie O’Shea in 1969.

Ruben Montero analyses the events in an article first published in 1993 in the Militant – the predecessor to The Socialist.


The background to the events of 1969 goes back to Morts Dock in Sydney in 1955 when rank and file ironworkers went out on strike in defiance of their right wing leadership.

Boilermakers at the dock took up collections for their workmates in an act of class solidarity that so angered the ironworkers officials that they reported the boilermakers to the Commission, complaining that they were interfering and prolonging the strike. The boilermakers union was fined $1000 for this “outrageous” act.

The union challenged the decision in the High Court, which found that there was nothing in the constitution of the Arbitration Commission that gave it the power to fine a union for such action.

This caused an uproar amongst employers and the Liberal Party hierarchy was ordered to take action. Employers feared the rising post-war militancy of the workforce and sought to shackle the union movement to an elaborate industrial relations system (a trend that developed further during the Hawke Labor years).

Menzies’ Attorney General, Spicer, lamented that: “Australia has become the most highly unionized industrial country in the free world. We have had a sustained experience of full employment and this has greatly strengthened the bargaining power of the individual employee.

“There is a potential in the industrial movement of this country for the exercise of power unsurpassed in any other democratic country. In addition there is probably more political activity on the part of the organized trade union movement and individual unions in this country than in any other and the tendency is for major industrial issues to become political issues.”

Two months after making this statement Spicer became the first Chief Judge of the industrial court.

In May 1956 Harold Holt introduced legislation that created a clear division between the award making machinery (Arbitration Commission) and the power to enforce decisions (Industrial Court).

For those found guilty of ‘contempt’ the new industrial court could impose the following penalties: $1000 fine on a union; $400 fine or imprisonment for one year on an officer of the union; $100 fine on a rank and file member of the union.

Employer offensive

The stage was set for a major employer offensive. Between 1956 and February 1969 unions were fined on 799 separate occasions at the cost of $750,000. In its magnanimous impartiality, the Industrial Court also directed the penal provisions against the bosses. It was estimated that fines paid by employers equaled 0.8% of fines paid by unions!

The tramways union played a key role in the events of 1969. The union’s decision to fight the penal powers began to take shape following harsh treatment during a prolonged strike in 1964. A dispute over the introduction of driver-only operations resulted in 200 union members striking for 14 weeks (ironically nearly 30 years later one person operations are now commonplace). During this struggle the union was fined $15,619.

Surprisingly the Arbitration Commission upheld union objections to the fines in three hearings but the Tramways Board then went to the High Court, which found in its favour. The Arbitration Commission responded by deleting bans clauses from the award. The Tramways Board caved in and trammies went back under the original conditions.

The ACTU and the VTHC refused to take action over the fines and the trammies decided to pay their fine at $100 per week. In an act of provocation the court demanded an immediate $3,000. The demand was ignored and the High Court responded by serving writs on the union, raiding the union offices, taking an inventory of its property and confiscating all the unions? bank accounts.

The final straw came in late 1968 when workers at Glenhuntly Tram Depot called a stoppage to discuss what action they would take against a driver that was accused of scabbing. The meeting have him 24 hours to make a public apology. He refused and a secret ballot was held which voted 111 to 338 to blacklist him. Members rostered to work with the scab refused and 15 conductors ended up being suspended.

These individuals were ordered to appear before the industrial court to show cause as to why they shouldn’t be held in contempt of court. This attempt to intimidate rank and file workers backfired as one by one they stood before the court and defended their actions.

The court decided to drop the charges and fined the Tramways Union $2,400. The union decided not to pay the fine and late in 1968 the Commonwealth Police began shadowing the union’s Secretary Clarrie O’Shea. He was summoned to appear in court four times between January 17th 1969 and April 30th. Each time he failed to appear and a new date was set. The fifth hearing was set for May 15th.

Clarrie O’Shea jailed

A committee of 27 ‘rebel’ left wing unions had previously been set up in response to the continued right wing policies and inaction of Trades Hall. They called a mass delegates meeting for the day of the hearing that was attended by 5,000 delegates.

At this meeting, the following motion was passed unanimously: “We express full support for the Tramways, Boilermakers and any other union that makes a stand against the penal powers. We determine that any attempt to take direct punitive action against any union funds or property or person of any official will be met with an immediate 24 hour stoppage of work by all workers represented at this meeting and call upon all other workers to stand up and defend unions?.”

Thousands of rank and file workers joined the delegates in a march to the courthouse led by Clarrie O’Shea. Angry workers attacked police barricades set up to stop the march approaching the court. Inside the court, O’Shea faced Justice Kerr (who was later to add to his infamy as the Governor-General who sacked the Whitlam Labor Government in 1975).

After refusing to take the oath, O’Shea went onto challenge the authority of the court. He refused to present the union books, in line with the wishes of the members, and was formally arrested and sentenced for contempt of court on Thursday May 15th 1969.

Over the following six days this spark became a wildfire of workers anger that swept the nation throwing fear and confusion into the employers’ ranks. A control center was set up in the offices of the Builders Labourers Federation and calls from factories and building sites jammed the switchboards. Workers began walking off the job as stewards returned to their workplaces.

A general strike paralysed Victoria on the Friday and militant protest marches were held throughout the State. Despite teaming rain, thousands of workers marched through Melbourne to a mass meeting at Olympic Park and called on officials to meet again to plan further actions. A meeting of officials of the 27 rebel unions, acting on the rank and file resolution, gave the government an ultimatum: “Release O’Shea by 1pm Monday or we stop again on Tuesday”.

Rank and file militancy spreads

The Victorian Trades Hall Council played a treacherous role by refusing to support any action and directing affiliates and rank and file unionists “..that they are in no way obliged to participate in this unauthorized stoppage.”

Despite this, the militant spirit of Melbourne workers was also reflected in regional centers. The Geelong Trades Hall Council supported the stoppages and in the words of the Secretary: “The response of the rank and file in Geelong was great. The GTHC made its hall available for the first stoppage and it was nowhere near big enough. The stoppage on Tuesday was just as big! Although some unions were not officially involved, in some cases large numbers of their members did not attend work and attended stopwork meetings.

A similar situation prevailed in other regions such as Bendigo, Ballarat, and the La Trobe Valley.

The tremendous upsurge in Victoria was echoed throughout Australia. 24 hour stoppages were called by the following Trades and Labor Councils: West Australian TLC, South Australian TLC, Queensland TCL, Newcastle TLC, NSW South Coast TLC, and Canberra TLC.

The NSW TLC refused to call a stoppage, yet despite this, thousands walked off the job on the Friday and approximately 5,000 marched through Sydney. By Tuesday, seven transport unions and 6,000 waterside workers had walked off the job for 24 hours. A meeting of 13 NSW ‘rebel’ unions called a 24-hour stoppage for the Thursday.

Like their counterparts in NSW and Victoria, the Tasmanian TLC also refused to sanction any action. But again, 22 ‘rebel’ unions representing 50,000 workers (80% of Tasmania?s workforce) met to organize a general stoppage. Some unions, such as the Tramways Union, stopped work on the Friday.
During those six days, over one million workers stopped work!

Bosses retreat

The magnificent demonstration of working class militancy led to a humiliating backdown by the employers and their minions. Mr Dudley MacDougal, a former advertising manager of the Financial Review, decided to pay all fines from his own personal savings – a total of $8,600. It was an obvious face-saving retreat and many workers wished to carry on the battle.

A resolution carried by a mass meeting in Newcastle expressed the mood of many: “it is our opinion that such payment of the fines owing not be accepted by the Trade Union Movement as a means of resolving the issue, as this would simply rescue the Federal Government from the position it created for itself”

While not scrapped, the Penal Powers were subsequently shelved for many years until resurrected and further strengthened in more recent years.

The Penal Powers struggle was a tremendous learning experience for a large number of Australian workers. Lessons were learnt in regards to the class interests served by the judiciary, the arbitration system, the police and the government. While only a partial victory, it gave great confidence to workers generally and militants in particular. Within months, Melbourne workers and students, protesting against the war in Vietnam, were involved in one of the most militant demonstrations that Melbourne had ever seen.

Lessons for today

There are many lessons for today to be drawn from the penal powers in 1969. The past decade of ‘Accord’ (1983-96) has seen an unparalleled decline in union militancy, side-by-side with ongoing attacks upon workers? real wages, jobs and conditions.

The ACTU and most union leaderships have poured cold water on any attempts to fight these attacks with industrial action. Those unions, which have attempted to fightback have been vilified and isolated. Time and again workers have been left thigh and dry while their leaders council ‘restraint’ and reliance upon the courts for settling disputes.

Such signs of weakness have only emboldened the bosses to go still further with their attacks. Despite the fact that the notorious Sections 45 D & E of the Trade Practices Act (which outlaws solidarity, secondary boycott action on the part of unionists not directly involved in a dispute) were put in place during the Fraser years of government, it was only during the years of the Accord that the bosses have had the confidence to actually use them.

The fact that they have been allowed to get away with this, has in turn led to the introduction of further state based anti-union laws (and the Federal Workplace Relations Act in 1996 ? editor). Sitting back and awaiting Labor’s long-promised eradication of them has been shown to be useless.

Despite the excuses of our current labour movement ‘leaders’, 1969 showed that such laws can be beaten, if only a serious mass industrial campaign is waged against them. As the ACTU has shown itself both unwilling to, and probably incapable of, leading any serious fight, the task then falls, as it did in 1969, to the left unions to instigate such a campaign.

But as the years since 1969 have also shown, what is also needed, besides the scrapping of all such laws, is for the whole bosses’ system to be consigned to the dustbin of history, so as to ensure that workers are not forced to fight the same battles yet again in the future.


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