This coming May marks an anniversary of monumental importance to the RTBU and indeed to our entire union movement.
On the 15 May 1969, Clarrie Lyell O’Shea, Secretary of the Victorian Tramways and Motor Omnibus Employees’ Association (ATMOEA), entered a courtroom of the Commonwealth Industrial Court. O’Shea would be ordered to produce his Union’s financial books to determine their ability to pay $11,000 in crippling penal fines for illegal striking.
This was Australia under almost twenty years of conservative government, with some of the most draconian and repressive labour laws in any country in the Western world. The right of working people to strike was effectively criminalised by these penal powers, shackling them to the dictates of the boss and often appalling wages and conditions.
ATMOEA in Victoria was among a number of militant left-wing “rebel” unions that had never accepted being cowed by these penal powers, and had spent the past twenty years doing all they could in united action to educate working people to the nature of the penal powers’ attacks on their rights, and mobilising together to oppose them. O’Shea, a lifelong unionist and militant from the now historically distant Communist Party of Australia (Marxist-Leninist), had joined the tramways aged 20 and was very much a product of his fellow workers’ proud trade unionism and traditions as he was a leader of it.
O’Shea refused to be sworn in on the stand, affirming his responsibility as a unionist to his members’ funds as much as their wages and conditions, and was promptly jailed for contempt by a judge named John Kerr. Thus began the 1969 General Strike of workers across Australia demanding Clarrie O’Shea be freed and the penal powers be abolished.
Within 24 hours, half a million workers were striking and marching in all of Australia’s major cities and towns. The militancy and daring hope of the post-war labour movement, combined with a mass movement of defiance against a war in Vietnam, the students’ power, Aboriginal rights and women’s liberation movements bared their fruits as working people and their allies downed tools and took to the streets across the breadth of an island continent.
Within one week, Clarrie O’Shea was released from Pentridge Prison. The Tramways Union paid not one cent of its penal fines and the penal powers were a dead letter for all time.
This year on 15 May marks 50 years since this historic event. In order to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1969 General Strike victory and Clarrie O’Shea’s example, the RTBU is hosting a commemorative function on the evening of Wednesday 15 May.
With working people and our movement facing more challenges than ever before from the unjust laws and greed of capital and the bosses, 1969 is history we must remember and live more than ever. Together with today’s leaders, historians and veterans of the strike, we’ll remember and celebrate the millions of ordinary men and women who made history and struck a triumphant blow for democracy and the right to strike in Australia – and most important of all, remember the lessons of 1969 that we must break the rules to change them.
I urge all RTBU members and their families to join us for this great event on May 15.