To celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the gaoling of Clarrie O’Shea, then Secretary of the Tramways Union (ATMOEA), the fight against the penal powers and the subsequent general strike, the RTBU commissioned union comic, writer and illustrator Sam Wallman to produce the following 10 panel series to retell Clarrie’s story for unionists today and into the future.
Australia by 1969
By the end of the sixties, so popularly known as the era of prosperity after the end of the Second World War, Australian workers and their unions were held in a tight chokehold. By 1969, the conservative Liberal Government had been in office federally in Australia for almost twenty years. Anti-worker legislation zig-zagged its way through the courts and parliaments, and the jewel in the conservative crown was known as the ‘Penal Powers’.
The Penal Powers imposed crippling fines on unions and their members for striking. First legislated by the Chifley Labor Government in 1949, the penal powers’ strike fines were greatly strengthened by Robert Menzies’ government in 1951, imposing £500 on organisations, £200 or 12 months’ imprisonment for an official and £50 for a union member for ignoring a court’s order to cease striking. These penal powers effectively made striking illegal – over 13 years, unions were slapped with almost 800 crippling fines.
The penal powers were, in many respects, very much a product of Australia’s system of arbitration for adjudicating on industrial relations. Arbitration, established from federation, was a system of courts designed expressly for adjudicating on disputes between employer and employee – while nominally impartial, the system quickly proved itself to be invariably on the side of the bosses and employers in all disputes. Arbitration ruled in employers’ favour in most instances regardless of the merits of their workers’ grievances, and so proved to be another instrument of the capitalist ruling class. “Having no parallel elsewhere in the world,” wrote the metals union official, Jack Hutson in his 1966 book, Penal Colony to Penal Powers, “the (arbitration) system is as native to Australia as are the platypus and the kangaroo – and is in its way just as curious.” In 1956, Australia’s Boilermakers’ Union had successfully argued against the dual powers of arbitration as both adjudicator and penalizer in a legal bid which went all the way to Britain’s Privy Council. Their temporary victory lead Menzies to separate the arbitration system into two parts in 1957: the Conciliation and Arbitration Commission, and the Industrial Court which retained the power to impose penal fines.
The imbalanced and class-driven nature of these post-war penal powers can be seen in the fact that between 1958-1968, workers and their unions had been fined 799 times, a total of $282,410 Australian dollars (nearly $3,386,000 in today’s terms). In comparison, employers in the same period accrued a mere $2,978 Australian dollars (around $35,700 today). The fines left workers and their organisations with no choice but to either abandon their human right to withdraw their labour at work and submit to the bosses’ dictates, or face paying punitive and bankrupting fines imposed by the state.
The right to strike was effectively criminalised in post-war Australia. Workers were furious – at a time when less and less of the post-war economy’s bountiful prosperity was flowing to them for their toil, they were regularly punished and fined excessively for doing something as simple as stopping their work.
Withdrawing our labour is one of the most fundamental tools working people possess. Without this option, workers and their unions are forced into a corner.
The late sixties was also a time of stirring anger at the many lingering injustices in the world, as growing street opposition to the Vietnam War, conscription and an array of sweeping social struggles had produced a potent atmosphere of activism, a thirst for change and hope for a better world. And so a powder keg of struggle and resistance lay waiting to be lit.
By 1969, one of the unions to have accrued the most penal strike fines was ATMOEA, the Australian Tramway and Motor Omnibus Employees’ Association.
ATMOEA and Clarrie O’Shea
ATMOEA, or simply the Tramways Union, had accumulated forty fines alone by 1969 in just five years.
Formed in Victoria in November, 1910 by about 110 tramway workers who met at the Malvern Fire Station, ATMOEA was one of the latest-coming industrial unions to be formed in Australia. Drivers and workers in the tramways had made repeated efforts to unionise ever since horse-drawn buses had given way to their cable trams in 1883, but this had always produced a merciless response from the tramways employers, with militants being sacked wholesale and the bosses setting up fraudulent company unions to keep their workers tame. One attempt by about 20 trammies workers to form their own union in the late 19th Century had seen every one of them promptly sacked from the industry. Any assumption that the working lives of trammies was relatively assured or easy-going is misplaced – poor pay and heavy overtime, often inefficient and chaotic conditions and victimisation from the Tramways Board keen to sack any employee who stepped just an inch out of line – this was the reality of their working days. Even a State Government inquiry in 1898 which found appalling problems in the tramways did not produce any changes. In this regard, the long, painful but ultimately triumphant effort by tramways over fifty years to win the right to unionise and bargain should be seen as the struggle of many generations of tramway workers against unforgiving employers.
In 1925, a young man named Clarence Lyell “Clarrie” O’Shea started work on the tramways as a conductor at Preston Depot. He quickly proved himself an able advocate for his fellow workers and rose through ATMOEA’s ranks, becoming his depot’s delegate in 1932, ATMOEA’s federal president in 1942, Victorian branch president in 1946 and finally Victorian branch secretary from 1947 to 1970. After becoming secretary, Clarrie overhauled the Victorian branch’s rules to ensure all office-bearing roles were elected by its membership, consistent with his militant belief in the elective principle. He went on to be re-elected branch secretary four consecutive times. Clarrie was especially impacted in his worker militant outlook by Jim Bergen, a fellow workmate. Jim, a former mineworker and concrete-layer on the tramways with a past in the revolutionary and militant Industrial Workers of the World whilst living abroad in America, had been a tireless fighter for ATMOEA’s successful formation in 1912.
Clarrie was a personally genial and humourous man to be around who loved a punt at the Yarra Glen Races. He was great company, said his contemporaries, except that his determined and particular view of politics would often lead him to an argumentative and stern demeanour. If Clarrie’s interpretation of Marxism, as imparted by the rigours of “Mao Tse-Tung Thought” made him come off as dogmatic, then it was typical of his whole generation of union militants who, rightly or wrongly, looked to “Red China” and the so-called socialist countries as their source of inspiration for a better world. What was not in doubt, however, were Clarrie’s elementary working class instincts as a militant unionist.
He proved staunch and unblinking, reared in the conviction that the exploitation of working people by the capitalist and employer, their dispossession from the fruits of their labour and wealth was the world’s underlying injustice, and could only be overcome in a struggle to overthrow the capitalists’ system itself. To Clarrie, workers’ right to strike could never be compromised. His attitude was summed up by his adage he was happy to proclaim: “All bosses are bastards!”
The struggle against the penal powers
In the years leading up to the General Strike of 1969, left-wing unions, communists and delegates began to organise rank-and-file workers around the issue of the suffocating penal powers, explain to them how these powers criminalised their right to strike and how they might overcome them. “The penal powers are an attempt to stifle even this (the workers’ economic) struggle let alone other more socially significant struggles,” Clarrie would write. “They show the nature of the state machine of the capitalists.”
The eventual uprising didn’t come from nowhere – it was the result of years of conscious and deliberate planning, organising and determination. In Victoria, this work was carried out in the main by the 27 “rebel” left-wing unions, which in turn belonged to an even larger group of militant unions organised as the Trade Unions Defence Committee. In 1967, the 27 “rebel” unions had been expelled from Trades Hall by the Hall’s conservative and recalcitrant leadership of “Groupers”, right-wing, Catholic unionists who pursued class compromise with employers.
All the while, the courts attempted to drain unions of their funds – relentlessly fining them for carrying out their day to day activities in defence of wages and conditions. Clarrie O’Shea and his union dragged their feet. They adopted the strategy of paying-off their rapidly accumulating fines at a tokenistic rate of $100 a month.
But under pressure from the Industrial Court to pay up in full, ATMOEA eventually ended their cat and mouse game – they put their collective foot down and swore to never again pay a single cent.
In response to their refusal to pay their fines, the union’s bank account was seized, and Clarrie O’Shea was called to the Industrial Court to produce the accounting books. After ignoring several of the courts demands, O’Shea eventually resolved to appear before his summoned court hearing on Thursday, 15 May.
At a mass meeting at Melbourne’s Festival Hall that morning, some 5,000 trade unionists resolved to support O’Shea with strike action should he be gaoled by the Court. O’Shea then marched to the Industrial Court, flanked by thousands of workers and unionists.
Entering the courtroom O’Shea faced the presiding Judge, Sir John Kerr. Despite his past career as a labour lawyer, the heavily-drinking Kerr had a well-earned reputation as a conservative and reactionary. He would one day reach the apex of his service to Australia’s ruling class when, as Australia’s Governor-General, he would dismiss the elected Labor Government of Gough Whitlam in 1975. Expected to take his oath and then be asked to produce ATMOEA’s books, O’Shea refused to take an oath or to disclose the whereabouts of the unions remaining funds. “I do not wish to be sworn,” O’Shea stated. “I challenge the authority of this court…because I am a paid servant of my members, I am directed to protect their interests at all times.”
“I do not want to hear any speeches from you,” Kerr replied. After adjourning court for half an hour, he threw O’Shea in prison for contempt, and so Clarrie was transported to Pentridge Prison on Sydney Road in Coburg. He was told he would remain in jail indefinitely – to be freed only when he ‘purged his contempt’, by revealing where the unions funds had been stashed.
No sooner was O’Shea’s penalty passed then the news spread like wildfire to the thousands of unionists who were assembled outside the court. They quickly resolved to return to their workplaces, down tools and organise a complete stoppage across the state.
The response from the public was immediate, sheer and electric. It rippled outwards, from the front of the courtroom, across the nation.
Victoria saw immediate walk-outs, followed by 24-hour work stoppages, orchestrated by 40 unions. Many other workers took wildcat action, without the approval of their union, or regional labour councils as they did in Victoria. An Australia-wide General Strike took full force, across a wide array of industries.
Everyday people – those who do all the work – also have the power to shut everything down. In total, around one million people stopped work. Unionists were conscious not to jeopardise essential services like hospitals – but otherwise, everything, from trains and trams, gas and electricity, factories, mills and stores, froze.
Meanwhile, Clarrie O’Shea, who suffered from a heart condition, suffered a “turn” or “minor heart attack” after being taken to Pentridge. This was concealed from the public by the authorities until after the general strike’s end, but O’Shea was transferred to Pentridge’s sick bay where he spent the duration of his imprisonment. Every half hour, prison wardens – themselves workers – would appear at O’Shea’s side, carrying bundles of telegrams, cards and letters from around the world, often addressed to ‘Clarrie O’Shea, Temporary Inmate, Pentridge Prison’. A sympathetic prison cook would relay messages and updates from the kitchen’s radio to Clarrie: “They’re all out in Newcastle! They’re all out in WA!”
The bosses were forced to reckon with the unstoppable power of their workers withdrawing their labour and simply walking off work. And the workers came to see their power. Their true potential.
Clarrie O’Shea was released from Pentridge Prison on Wednesday, 21 May, just a week short of his gaoling. To shut down the strike, the fines were paid in full on Tuesday, 20 May by Dudley MacDougall, a retired advertising executive. MacDougall, who claimed he had won the money in the Sydney Opera House lottery, said his philanthropy was motivated by a Good Samaritan’s desire to avert further social disorder, though many still believe the money to have been put up by ASIO.
Upon his release from Pentridge on 21 May, Clarrie made a short speech, in which he said:
“My release is a great victory for…working people and all other democrats who have stood up against the shackling of workers’ struggle… My imprisonment and release were only a small part of the much bigger question of oppression of the workers… Neither the Tramways Union nor I have paid one cent of the fines, nor will we ever do so.”
O’Shea’s freedom was met with rapturous celebration. Street parties erupted. Some workers with workplace disputes which predated O’Shea’s jailing continued striking, such as plumbers, and achieved great outcomes. The ACTU advised unions not to pay a single cent of their fines.
The penal powers were not formally scrubbed from legislation, but employers and the courts had been shown what would happen if they were utilised. Subsequent efforts by the Fraser Government to reimpose penal powers by various new channels, such as through the short-lived Industrial Relations Board, were soon smashed against the rocks of workers’ militant opposition.
As a result of this struggle, the early 1970s saw workers make the greatest gains they have ever made in Australia’s history. Workers’ wages increased by 20-30%, to the highest level in Australian history. The working-class enjoyed a feeling of immense confidence.
Workers soon won a 35 hour work week, four weeks paid annual leave, and went on to form the historic Green Bans movement. A powerful mass movement against the Vietnam War which overlapped in great part with the labour movement also played a great part in forcing Australia to withdraw its troops from the war and end the conscription at home. And so a broad upswing to the left had helped lay the groundwork for the O’Shea strikes – and the resulting industrial win fed back into that momentum.
Lessons of the past
It has now been fifty long years since that struggle took place. And yet in Australia today, working people and labour are more weakened and disorganised under capital than ever before. Workers’ wages are stagnant at an all-time low, often below the poverty line. Permanent unemployment has returned as a consequence of the elite’s political choices, leaving thousands who wish to work unable to do so. Anaemic wages, under-employment and the destruction of the welfare state and privatisation of the commons by the economic rationalists has produced a new generation of the working poor across all age brackets.
All of this has been achieved by the smashing and shackling of trade unions. With union density at an all-time low of 15% of the working popular. Unions which now struggle to organise under anti-strike and anti-secondary boycott laws even more coercive than the defeated penal powers. A pollutant and neoliberal capitalism threatens a catastrophic climate emergency in our planet’s very existence.
But the power that working people enjoyed forty years ago lies dormant within us.
“For myself, I believe you must end capitalism altogether,” Clarrie would write after his class’ victory. “It is that system that gives rise to the never-ending economic struggles. People must realise that.”
With the resurgence of our organised workers’ movement, we must now more than ever remember the legacy and lesson of Clarrie O’Shea’s defiance and the workers of Australia’s 1969 general strike: that nothing is ever given without struggle, and we must have the courage to struggle together and break the system’s unjust rules if we’re to change them.