Magazine of Socialist Action in Australia

History: How the ‘penal powers’ were defeated

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Australian workers have a long history of using strike action to advance their working conditions. In retaliation, employers and governments have waged a battle to undermine the right to strike.

Going right back to the strikes of the 1890s, all the members of the shearers strike committee were arrested and jailed for conspiracy. As the refrain in the Ballad of 1891 says “where they jail a man for striking it’s a rich man’s country yet”.

In the 1940s and 1950s both the Chifley Labor and Menzies Liberal governments allowed “no strike” clauses to be inserted into Awards. These “penal clauses” allowed for workers who took strike action to be brought before the Arbitration Court and fined.

Between 1956 and 1968 trade unions were fined a total of 799 times! In 1964 left wing unions like the Builders Labourers Federation, the Waterside Workers Federation and the metal workers union called for a mass campaign of industrial action to repeal these penal powers.

Disappointingly, the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) refused. The ACTU did not support the policy of refusing to pay the fines, instead relying on the arbitration system to settle disputes.

Despite the reluctance of the ACTU, by 1968 conditions were developing for a major confrontation. Growing numbers of younger workers wanted to get rid of the penal powers and were pushing the union movement into a more militant direction.

There was an explosion of strikes in the metal industry and the bosses increased their use of the penal powers. Late in 1968 the leaders of the metal workers union resolved to no longer pay the fines. In support of the metal workers stand, twenty-seven “rebel unions” split from the Victorian Trades Hall and resolved to take action independent of the ACTU.

Through strike action the tramways union had won penalty rates for Saturday and Sunday work. In doing so they had accumulated 40 fines. In early 1969 the secretary of the union, Clarrie O’Shea, was jailed for refusing to pay the fines. Immediately workers walked off the job and a general strike of 200,000 paralysed Victoria the next day.

On the day O’Shea was jailed the ACTU was meeting and refused to even discuss it! The following week over a million workers went out across Australia. The bosses and government were in a panic. As a way of cutting across the rising anger of the workers, a stooge of the bosses paid the union’s fines and O’Shea was released from prison. Nevertheless, over 100,000 workers went out on strike again the day after his release demanding an end to penal powers.

The ACTU were forced to fall into line and finally agreed to the policy of refusing to pay the fines. The O’Shea strikes broke the back of the penal powers forcing parliament to amend the Arbitration Act, making it virtually impossible for “no strike” clauses to be inserted into agreements.

Following this victory, a renewed sense of confidence developed and workers went on the offensive. Wages as a percentage of the economy reached the highest level ever. In the early 1970s union membership was high and the unions exercised a high level of influence in many workplaces.

Unfortunately, over the past 40 years there has been a shift away from strike action and trade union militancy has receded. As a result, employers and governments have used the opportunity to wind back the right to strike. Their success has seen wages as a percentage of the economy decrease and profits rise.

Right now, it is mostly illegal to strike in Australia. Legislation passed by both the Liberals and Labor in recent years has outlawed strike action and brought back the threat of heavy fines and prison terms for those who breach the laws. Just as in the past, the ACTU refuses to challenge these laws and instead focus on getting the Labor Party elected – the same party that has attacked the right to strike in the first place!

One clear lesson we can take from the penal powers strikes of 1969 is that it is only by direct confrontation that we can turn the situation around. If we want to put an end to the corporate domination of our lives and really tackle wealth inequality, then we need to win back our right to strike. We will only succeed through defiance and by using the strike itself!

By Michael Naismith


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