newsletter from Sydney Trades Hall; home of the largest collection of trade union memorabilia in Australia. Banners, posters, badges, photos, and much else.
This Month: The Union of Australian Women; 1949 Coal Strike; and some more badges for our collection.
Sign for the former office at Sydney Trades Hall
Union of Australian Women
Radio Theatre Sydney was the venue on 25th August 1950 for the inaugural meeting on the Union of Australian Women (UAW)
I think the Radio Theatre would have been the recently renovated home of radio 2UW in the Globe on George St Hood Collection. State Library of NSW
Histories of the UAW emphasise the background of pre-war struggles for equal pay and the post war reconstruction where women saw the chance to build a new society.
Disillusioned by the onset of cold war, rising prices, shortages that were maintained, and profiteering by corporations, women’s groups reorganised to fight back.
Similar political and economic developments in many countries after World War II led women’s activists to push for international struggle. In Paris in 1945 the Women’s International Democratic Federation (WIDF) was formed after a conference of women from 41 countries.
(More Than a Hat and Glove Brigade. page3)
In 1946 a group of Sydney women were the major organisers of the New Housewives Association which aimed to combat rising prices and attacks on women’s wages (some of which had made it to 90% of the male rate by this time). Price control was their major issue. The New Housewives Associations formed soon after in most states and were affiliated to the WIDF.
The name change to the UAW was aimed at broadening the appeal away from seemingly “simple” housewifely concerns. The UAW immediately affiliated to the WIDF and set the first major aims:
To win and defend women’s rights;
To defend the rights of all children to life, happiness and education;
To safeguard peace.
Tribune 30 August 1950 page 2
Tribune 19th August 1950
An article in The Age from 1 August 1950, reporting on an inaugural meeting of the UAW. This is referred to as a provisional group in the recognised histories, with the official branch established in early September (Curthoys and McDonald: More than a Hat and Glove Brigade. Sydney UAW 1996)
Age 1 August 1950
1956 saw the first national conference and a national committee, program and constitution were adopted.
(from Three Decades of Struggle p6)
Many of the women involved were of the left, or were members of the Communist Party, but all insisted that the organisation would not and could not be a CPA run organisation as this would alienate many from joining. The CPA was run by men and its bureaucratic and “Stalinist” rules would have stifled the UAW.
(from More Than a Hat and Glove Brigade p43)
The first conference was addressed by Henrietta Greville, 89 years old, who had been the first President of the Australian Workers’ Union Women’s section in 1890. Greville said that she wished to thank this body [the UAW] from the bottom of her heart, and urged them to fight for peace above all, “for it is the wives who suffer most in war.” (from page 7 of More than a Hat and Glove Brigade.)
(Workers Star 1st September 1950)
Henrietta Grenville was an organizer for the AWU in the 1890s and joined the ALP in 1891. Vinter notes that she organized the Women Workers' Union and for some time acted as its delegate at the Trades and Labor Council. became part of the radical group centred around Bertha McNamara's bookshop in Castlereagh Street. In 1908 she became an organizer for the White Workers' Union and attacked the poor working conditions and wages of female shirt-makers. She was a part of the Workers Education Association (WEA) in 1914, studying economics, was branch secretary in Lithgow from 1918 and the first female President from 1920. Greville was one of four women chosen by the ALP Women’s Central Organising Committee to stand in the 1917 federal election. Greville won 11000 votes (but not the seat) in the seat of Wentworth, the highest vote of any female candidate.
Mary Vinter says that “In her later years she identified more with the Communist Party of Australia, managing one of its bookshops at Rockdale and helping on the Release Sharkey Committee. In the 1940s she also worked for the Rockdale branch of the Original Old Age and Invalid Pensioners' Association”. Henrietta lived until 1964 when she was 102
In April 1950 Menzies had launched his bill to ban the Communist Party and this became law in October 1950. The High Court defeat of the legislation lead Menzies onto expand his red scare campaigns and to a referendum. The Coal Strike of 1949, the defeat of bank nationalisation and the general cold war atmosphere made Menzies confident in his anti Communist and anti ALP campaigns. The Vote No movement was stronger than he anticipated. The UAW set up a Vote No Committee urging other women’s organisations to do likewise. The UAW had had further reason to be worried, as it was seen as a group aligned to the Communist Party and thus would have been banned as well.
Gwen George, NSW branch secretary of the UAW remembered going to Dorothy Hewett’s place in Redfern where they “worked out a pamphlet “Why I a Woman am voting No in the Referendum.” It was a comic strip sort of thing…several thousand copies were printed and scattered all over Australia and it did have a big input into the referendum and Dr Evatt said a pamphlet like this could change and swing the referendum” (page 9 of More than a Hat and Glove Brigade)
More on the grass roots activities of the UAW next month.
The 1949 Coal Strike
Pamphlet in Sydney Trades Hall collection
The conditions in coal mines had always been appalling. Dark, dangerous, dust filled, prone to collapse, with terrible pay and conditions. Two of the best descriptions of life underground that I can think of are Zola’s Germinal and Orwell’s day in the mine as written in The Road to Wigan Pier.
Australian miners have suffered equally. Mining accidents (so called), dust diseases, terrible pay, poor living conditions and poor diets meant dreadful lives for miners and families.
The Great Depression and the slow recovery through the late 1930s didn’t improve things at all for coal miners. Dymphna Cusack’s attempts, when a NSW Teachers’ Federation rep, to get better basic health and nutrition to held starved children and their families in the Hunter Valley are worth a read. See her book A Window in the Dark. The local ALP MP said that 30% of children were malnourished around the Abedare Colliery.
As demand picked up for wartime production miners were ready for an improvement and the Communist led Coal and Shale Industry Employees (Miners’ Federation) was pushed by its members to take up the battle. Initially as the Nazi Soviet Pact was in place the CPA members opposed the war, whilst working miners were not so convinced.
(Noel Butlin Archive. Coal and Shale Industry Employees collection)
The attack on the Soviet Union changed the attitude of the CPA immediately, but this did not necessarily impress the members, who were now being called on to curb any militancy without seeing much benefit. A union congress in February 1942 ‘declared full support for the war against fascism’. Regulations were accepted providing for industrial conscription. ‘The freezing of wages and rationing of goods were accepted, support extended to war loans and an advisory panel set up with trade union representation. In return, the Government accepted the principle of compulsory unionism.
Coal production did stagnate and decline during the war, and this was partly attributable to the members skeptical attitude to any authority, be it union or government.
By 1945 members were looking for the promised improvements that the ALP government Ministry for Post War Reconstruction was planning.
The improvements were too long coming and too minor for many. The 40-hour week eventually arrived after prolonged arbitration, and because of worker action, rather than by government action. Rationing remained as a supposed support for the British, which frustrated many. The ALP popularity and promise of the light on the hill was fading before Chifley used the phrase.
Miners in the Hunter region still remembered the Rothbury killing from 1929 and the sustained attacks on them from the NSW government. The Federal ALP government did not prosecute the mine owners.
Jim Comerford, unionist, writer and historian, said (as quoted by Heaton)
“it was not easy to get rank and file support for the official policy of the union … In fact, distrust of authority and the upper echelons of our society was a common feeling among these men and their women folk. They were cynical about the war-time appeals made to them by those same authorities who between the wars had compounded their hardships and sufferings and who by every stratagem and device available to them had resisted any legitimate claim for improvement of their lot. The moods of cynicism and bitterness were only heightened by the unscrupulous miner bashing promoted by the less responsible newspapers like the Sydney Daily Telegraph”
Heaton points to the campaign that began in 1937 for a return to pre-lockout wage rates and improved conditions, leading to a lengthy strike in 1940 affecting many thousands of workers whose industries depended on a supply of coal. Determined industrial action had gradually won the miners many of their claims, including a 40-hour working week, paid holidays, supply of individual safety equipment, and recognition of work-related lung diseases under the Compensation Act. At every stage, implementation of the Arbitration Court decisions had been delayed and frustrated by the mine owners’ tactics.
Jim Comerford image from SMH
By the end of the war an increase in accidents, exhaustion, factional powerplays by anti-communist groups, and the struggle to discipline growing recalcitrant elements of the union forced its leadership to focus on a post-war program to redress their long-standing grievances.
The 1949 strike was preceded by two years of miners demanding improvements such as a 35-hour week, a 30-shilling increase in wages, and the inclusion of long service leave as a normal condition of employment.
The events of June 1949 directly resulted from the employers initialling agreeing to “consider” the union demands, spending two weeks organising an increase in coal reserves and then going back to the union with insulting offers that worsened conditions. The miners’ said enough was enough. The ballot saw a huge majority in favour of the strike. Of the 23,000 miners in Australia, over 18,000 were in the Hunter region at this time.
That the government was anticipating this response is perhaps shown by the very quick legislative response and the quickness of their getting defence force members into the mines.
Two days after the strike began, the Labor government passed legislation that made it illegal to give strikers and their families financial support (including credit from shops). On 5 July, union officials were ordered to hand over union funds to the industrial registrar. On the following day union officials were arrested and the respective union and CPA headquarters raided. Shades of Billy Hughes when the First World War began, when he introduced legislation aimed directly at the Waterside Workers’ Federation (WWF), when he was still a member.
Noel Butlin Archive E165-3A - Australasian Coal & Shale Employees' Federation
flyer 'Dusted to Death!'
Australasian Coal & Shale Employees' Federation
A strongly anti union newsreel here sums up the mood the government was generating
Phil Deery argues that Chifley was clearly all ready to send troops in from the start of the strike, rather than being, as he had earlier thought, reluctantly dragged to that point. (See his great paper in Labour History no 68, May 1995 (pp80-97). ) The swiftness of troop organisation and movement, and the troops travelling to the Hunter with weapons indicates a preparedness for action. The troops seem to have been younger, rather the experienced troops from the war.
Deery has focussed on how prepared Chifley was for a crucial battle with the CPA leadership, and the CPA generally. At stake for him was the leading role of the ALP in the labour movement, which was seen as threatened by the rise of the CPA during World War II, and the cold war attacks on the communist movement were part of this struggle.
The union leaders were vilified by the press, but their own members who remained wary even though they had voted for the strike, by pamphlets circulated within the union from those who sought to undermine the elected, were also wary of them, and wary of politicians. Perhaps the members saw, as Heaton says, had decided that, faced with unwavering government opposition to their cause, they could not win.” (Heaton: Bitter Fruit)
At the end of July, seven union officials were sentenced to 12 months' jail and one to six months, with fines being imposed on other officials and three unions. Chifley told the Labor caucus, "The Reds must be taught a lesson", while Arthur Calwell threatened to put communists and their sympathisers into concentration camps. On 1 August 1949, 2500 soldiers commenced coal mining at the open cut mines of Minmi (near Newcastle), Muswellbrook and Ben Bullen, with seven more fields operated later.
Prime Minister Chifley confronted by coal miners, NSW, 1949 (Flickr Commons/Chifley Research Centre/John Faulkner)
Deery’s focus on why Chifley did it is particularly interesting. The battle for the leading role in the labour movement was a big part.
Chifley and the ALP had plans. Post War reconstruction was about reshaping our society into a more equal world, from an ALP social democratic point of view, not a socialist or communist approach.
The aim of full employment was front and centre, as Stuart MacIntyre argued in Australia’ s Boldest Experiment, so the huge role coal played in keeping energy and transport going was central to this goal. High productivity generating wealth for all was needed to prevent a return to pre-World War One and Great Depression conditions. These had to be avoided as they were recent memories for people and politicians. The Strike seemed a threat to a lot of those plans.
Troops as scabs 1949 (although the source is a little dodgy)
Many have wondered how Chifley, a man who said that he was drawn to politics to better the lives of workers because of the traumatic experiences of the Great Strike of 1917, where he had been summarily dismissed by a conservative government, could attack workers in this way. The post war aims as outlined were part of this, but I think perhaps his strong religious faith as a Catholic in the essentially social conservative ALP were part of his approach. Communism was not something the church and his beliefs would look to. Liberation theology was a fair way off.
The seven week strike was not long in some ways, but the bitterness that lead to it, and the attacks by a workers government on workers was resented. Many Communist party union leaders were defeated in union elections after the strike. Chifley and the ALP were soundly defeated in the federal election later in the same year, ushering in 23 years of Liberal Country Party Federal Government, and with it further attacks on unions and the Communist Party.
For much more detail see
Phillip Deery (ed) Labour in Conflict: the 1949 Coal Strike. (Sydney: Hale and Iremonger, 1978)
Phillip Deery. Chifley, the army and the 1949 Coal strike. Labour History no 68, May 1995 pp80-97. https://www.jstor.org/stable/27516355
J D Blake. The Great Coal Strike. CPA August 1949; at https://www.marxists.org/history/international/comintern/sections/australia/1949/1949coalstrike.htm
Barbara Heaton. Bitter Fruit: the 1949 Coal Strike and Its aftermath (in Radical Newcastle edited by James Bennett, Nancy Cushing and Erik Eklund pp132-143 (Sydney: NewSouth Press, 2015)
Barbara Carol Heaton. Coal miners during World War II: ‘A history of unrest and turmoil: coal miners during World War II’, Honest History, 4 August 2015 http://honesthistory.net.au/wp/coal-miners-during-world-war-ii/
Fred Moore, Paddy Gorman, Ray Harrison. At the Coalface : the human face of coalminers and their communities : an oral history of the early days. (Sydney: C.F.M.E.U. Mining & Energy Division, 1998)
David Glanz. 1949 coal strike: How Chifley lost Labor’s supporters at https://www.solidarity.net.au/reviews/1949-coal-strike-how-labor-lost-its-supporters/ where there is an interesting letter from Fleur Ellis, daughter of Miners’ fed journalist Edgar Ross. The article is a review of the ABC documentary Infamous Victory. An excerpt from that documentary here https://dl.nfsa.gov.au/module/1749/
Alastair James Grant Buchan The impact of the 1949 Coal Strike on the Illawarra community and its responses. Bachelor of Arts (Hons.) thesis, Department of History and Politics, University of Wollongong, 1998. http://ro.uow.edu.au/theses/880
What’s New at Trades Hall
We love to keep our collections growing, especially as there are no other dedicated trade union collections in Australia. Much has been lost, but we are trying to keep some together for history, to remind current campaigners what has been before, and to inspire future actions. This month we have a few more badges and a great ribbon.
The Boot Trades were a strong union until much manufacturing “disappeared” in Australia. This ribbon is from the Victorian Boot Trade Employees. The union used Employes rather than Employees on early badges as well
The Red Cross Queen competition was well supported by unions, as were other such events such as the May Day Queen competition. I think the red cross competition was established during WW2 as a fundraiser?
The Mill and Mill Employees Assn had a broad base across many urban and regional areas, as flour mill sites are now seen across many towns. They are often sites for regeneration as function areas, apartments and cafes. In Bathurst Tremains Mill seems set to become a museum of the milling industry, as well as apartments.
banner by Edgar Whitbread. First paraded 1912 (Trades Hall Collection)
Other “new” badges include one from Victorian Railways Union
A damaged but still readable 1917 badge from the Carters and Drivers, struck in honour of the 1917 general strike, that saw Merv Flanagan, a member of the union, murdered by a scab (who was never charged)
The Hospital Employees Federation Shop Steward badge. This name was officially adopted in 1959, although the union had been operating in similar form since at least 1911.
The Shop Assistants Union was first registered in NSW in 1902, and federally in 1907. It became the Shop Distributive and Allied Employees Assn in 1950.
The Mining Employees Union (not coal miners) became part of the AWU.
We have the union banner, a rare one in the Australian banners as it was made by Tutills, the British banner maker and is of silk. It has been restored
And the Jewellers’, Watchmakers’ and Allied Trades Union became part of the AMWU in 1975, after having been registered federally in1912.
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