Magazine of Socialist Action in Australia

History: Australian trade unions in the 1930s depression

Reading Time: 6 minutes

The great depression was like a ‘king-hit’ to the Australian trade unions. At first many union leaders did not even realise what was happening, but as the full extent of the catastrophe became clear, they had no real idea of how to deal with the situation. This led to the meteoric rise in influence of the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) in the unions, by way of the Minority Movement, over the decade that followed.

The years leading up to the depression had seen a steady expansion of Australian industry and consequently the trade unions. It’s interesting to note that as with the 1950s and 1960s immigration was one of the major factors behind the economic expansion.

However from 1927-28 on, the economy began to slide. As a result the employers went on to the offensive and in 1928-29 three decisive battles took place – on the waterfront, in the timber industry and in the coal mines. In each of these battles the workers were defeated.

The Waterside Workers Federation temporarily, and the Timber Workers Union, for decades was all but destroyed. The Miners Federation, though battered, remained intact and it was developments in this union that were to be the pacesetter for many others, for it was here that the CPA achieved their first success. But that was still a few years away.

The general reaction amongst union officials in the wake of these battles was a mood of widespread defeatism. Further, this defeatism lingered right through the depression years. As historian LJ Lewis put it, the union leaders “…continued to lament that responsibility for their sufferings lay with the workers themselves, since leaders could only go so far as their following would permit. Certainly, it could be construed that with minor exceptions, meetings were poorly attended, voting numbers at ballots were low … and only isolated militant groups showed an obvious will to resist wage cuts and other inroads into their conditions. In explaining the general apathy, some leaders blamed the easy-going conditions of the twenties and especially their effect on younger men who had not learned the value of unionism. But in fact the rank and file had not been drawn into participation in the trade union movement and now officials did not offer policies to stir the ‘ticket unionist’ because the union had failed to protect their interests. Most union officials saw strike action as being out of the question: they feared disorder to the arbitration system and the Labor Party…” Present day union activists will readily relate.

Employers also attempted to divide workers by using migrants as scapegoats. This was despite the fact that immigration had been one of the major contributing factors to the economic growth of the 1920s. The drop in strike activity was also a feature. In 1929, 1,296,676 strike days were lost in Victoria. In 1930 only 7,744 days were lost. There was an increasing use of penal legislation against the unions.

Another interesting parallel to today was the refusal of union leaders to hold mass meetings. They blamed the rank and file for “apathy” yet it was the leaders themselves that were the main contributing factor to what apathy existed. Rather than placing faith in their own rank and file they looked to the election of the Labor Party as the best solution they could come up with to the crisis. And indeed Labor governments were in fact elected at both a state and federal level.

However because Labor (despite then nominally having a socialist programme) supported the maintenance of the profit driven capitalist system, disillusionment with its failures soon set in. The economic basis for giving reforms to the workers that had existed in the 1920s had collapsed. As a result Labor governments attacked workers in struggle.

Unions such as the Wharfies, the railway workers union (AFULE) and the Electrical Trades Union disaffiliated from Labor, the Liquor Trades Union demanded the removal of the Victorian Labor Premier, and splits occurred within the party itself (notably the Jack Lang split in NSW). A further result was that ‘Independents’ stood for parliament – in the 1932 Victorian state election, two Independent Labor and one Independent MP were elected.

While there were a number of similarities to the situation today, there were also very important differences. As with now, the position of big business was that wages had to be cut. However union officials (both left and right wing) refused to accept the argument.

“Recovery could not be achieved and must not be attempted – as they said was being done – by sacrificing the workers standard of living. Lower wages and longer hours, in their view, must inevitably result in more unemployment and worsening of the depression. From this fundamental position they moved forward to arguments based on a belief that in fact increased wages and a shorter working week were keys to recovery.” (LJ Lewis)

A favourite authority in the union leaders demand for higher wages was the US auto tycoon, Henry Ford, who had raised the wages of the workers he employed. Ford workers today may find that a little ironic but it’s not the only irony in the situation. Whilst there were still shortcomings in their arguments, in that wage rises alone can not solve capitalism’s economic ills, the position of the 1930s trade union leaders was leagues in front of their modern day counterparts.

The whole basis of the 1980s Accord between Labor and the ACTU, and all the subsequent variations of class collaboration unionism, was precisely “that wage cuts will save the economy” – the same argument the bosses were putting forward in the 1930s (and still today)! That shows how far the union leaders of today have degenerated.

The contrast is probably most clear in respect to the position of the ACTU. In September 1930 the ACTU executive along with other leading union officials recommended that “…federal cabinet should establish control of the whole resources of the country, that state parliaments should be abolished, and that the Commonwealth government should declare … a state of national emergency, nationalise banking and the means of exchange, establish a maximum 40 hour working week and increase the basic wage by 25%.”

A year later in October 1931 the ACTU was calling for a 35 hour week and a 25% improvement in 1930 wages and living standards. Can you imagine the ACTU leaders of today calling for such things? (!)

Now it is quite true that no serious attempt was made to mobilise workers around these demands, or even to resist the 10% wage cut implemented by the Arbitration Commission in 1931. However the fact that at least verbal opposition to was put forward to the programme of the capitalists undoubtedly had a much better effect on workers’ consciousness (in the sense that at least an alternative was put forward) than the situation today, when the union leaders simply echo the analysis of big business and the major parties like a chorus line.

However “verbal opposition” was not enough for the more far thinking workers. With the glaring inadequacies of the ALP and union leaders exposed, a vacuum was created and into it stepped the Communist Party. They entered the depression with 250 members in Australia and a few years later had roughly 3,000.

Unfortunately this period also coincided with the Stalinist takeover of the Communist movement internationally. Had it not been for the fact that the Stalinists from 1928-34 considered every other section of the labour movement apart from themselves in essence ‘fascists’, they could well have emerged from the depression with tens of thousands of members.

What the CPA did emerge with however was a solid base in the union movement. They set up rank and file groups to oppose the leadership in a whole host of unions and brought them together in an umbrella organisation known as the Minority Movement. By the end of 1933 they had won the leadership of the Miners Federation. Their prestige was further enhanced by their victory in the Wonthaggi mines dispute shortly afterwards, generally regarded as a turning point in the revitalisation of the unions.

From 1936 on, key positions in unions such as the Ironworkers, Waterside Workers Federation and Seamen were won by CPA members and by 1945 they either controlled or had influence in unions covering 40% of all unionists.

While on the surface things today can look quiet in comparison, similar processes are at work. The current conservative union leaders are living on borrowed time. It is only a matter of time before workers get fed up with constant attacks on their living standards. At a certain stage workers will seek out more militant leaders in the unions in an attempt to reverse the trend.

But as the past also shows the creation of a fighting leadership requires organisation, it will have to be patiently built. Just like in the 1930s in order to transform the unions into militant organisations rank and file groups will have to be created and the unions will once again have to adopt socialist solutions to the economic crisis.

This article was written by Paul True and originally published in The Militant (predecessor of The Socialist) during the 1990s.


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