Trades Hall Press June 2020

Unions organise against Menzies Cold War rhetoric

June 1950 saw unions begin to organise against the Menzies Government plan to outlaw and destroy the communist party.

The papers reported that meetings were held by the Miners Federation, WWF and the Seamen’s Union to work together against the Menzies plan

Wharf Labourers Union of AustMiners Federation of Aust 75 years

Federated Seamen, the largest banner in our collection

Australian Marxist Review issue 54 September 2011 looked into the whole epoisode:

To forestall resistance to the burdens and dangers involved in this, and behead the people’s movement of militant leadership, Menzies, in April 1950, introduced a Communist Party Dissolution Bill in the Federal Parliament.

mcclintock menzies

Wild accusations

The Bill commenced with a series of recitals accusing the Communist Party of advocating seizure of power by a minority through violence, intimidation and fraudulent practices, of being engaged in espionage activities, of promoting strikes for purposes of sabotage and the like.

smash comms

Had there been one atom of truth in these charges, the Government possessed ample powers under the Commonwealth Crimes Act to launch an action against the Communist Party.

The Communist Party Dissolution Bill set out to declare the Communist Party an unlawful association, to dissolve it, and to seize its property without compensation.

Prime Minister Menzies, in introducing the Bill in Parliament, said it was to dispose of the Communist Party “without humbug and without appeal”.

dictator bob

During the second reading of the Bill, Prime Minister Menzies read to the House a list of 53 persons who, he alleged, were communists holding high office in the trade unions.

The next night, flushed with embarrassment, he had to retract with regard to at least five of the persons wrongly named.

Drew Cottle  in the Hummer  emphasises how both major political parties saw the CPA as it was, a revolutionary organisation dedicated to overthrowing the bourgeoisie state. The Liberals and the ALP used legislation to attempt stop the CPA. As often happens Menzies use of the Crimes Act and the introduction of the Communist Party dissolution Bill were leapfrogging off the imposition by Chifley of state-controlled union ballots. Ted Roach from the WWF, Jack McPhillips and Sharkey were sent to gaol on various charges, and of course the imfamous use by Chifley of troops to take control of the coalmines because of what was seen as communist domination were precedents for Menzies. The party realised that workers in Australia were not the revolutionary force they had imagined.

coal strike leaflet

In March 1950 a Communist-led strike on the Brisbane waterfront ended when the Menzies government used Crimes Act provisions to force the wharf labourers back to work.

The union actions in June 1950 were both a culmination of agitation that had been ongoing since the 1940s, and the beginning of agitation, organising and persuasion that would lead to the defeat of Menzies laws in a referendum in September 1951. Menzies was fanatically opposed to communism and an enthusiastic backer of cold war politics but the action was seen as an attack on unionism and rights more broadly, as the McClintock cartoon clearly depicts, and was eventually defeated (just)

See also The Guardian (CPA)

George Williams wrote of ALP Leader Doc Evatt’s herculean efforts to defeat the bill

Doc Evatt invested his considerable energy into the fight against the referendum. Despite a lack of support from many sections of the Labor Party, Evatt travelled thousands of kilometres to address numerous meetings. His advocacy for the ‘no’ vote was based less on logic than upon a heartfelt awareness that the referendum proposal contravened fundamental democratic freedoms.

Evatt argued that the referendum proposal would grant the Commonwealth despotic powers that could be used to deal indiscriminately with the enemies of the Government. At times, Evatt sought to associate the proposal with the techniques of Hitler. In four weeks of campaigning Evatt turned the tide of support for a ‘yes’ vote towards a ‘no’ vote. Evatt had tapped the traditional reticence of the Australian people to support constitutional change. Even vehement anti-communists like Jack Lang, Archbishop Daniel Mannix and Laurie Short came to back Evatt’s position.

The referendum failed to gain the support of a majority of electors by a narrow margin, 2,317,927 ‘yes’ votes to 2,370,009 ‘no’ votes. Menzies was bitter about the loss, accusing the proponents of a ‘no’ vote of misleading the public with a ‘wicked and unscrupulous’ campaign.

Evatt won a crucial victory for himself, the Labor Party and Australia by leading the defeat of the referendum. Commenting upon the result he said:

“I regard the result as more important than half a dozen general elections. The consequences of a mistaken vote in an election verdict can be retrieved. But an error of judgement in this constitutional alteration would tend to destroy the whole democratic fabric of justice and liberty.”

tribune menzies

OBJECTS of the Month: Amalgamated Society of Engineers/Amalgamated Engineering Union worldwide family

Amalgamated Society of Engineers defence not defiance low resAmalgamated Society of Engineers (3)

The ASE set up overseas branches in the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. There is evidence that sections appeared in Malta, Turkey and various other locations. Just about everywhere engineers emigrated.

The first Australian branch of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers was formed on the ship coming to Sydney in 1851 by 27 members of the British union who had emigrated to Australia following the great strike. These men had been blacklisted by employers in the UK. Skilled workers seem to have established branches of the ASE in every country they arrived in, with direct links to the British parent body that survived for many years.

One member who had strong connections across the Commonwealth was one Tom Mann who did so much work in New Zealand Australia and South Africa, as well as in the UK

The union set up a Commonwealth Council in 1917, and in 1906 a South African Council and the branches in those countries thereafter had a considerable degree of autonomy. They had their own full-time secretaries and organisers, and became the leading unions for engineers in those countries. However, in North America, the union failed to grow.

These badge images show the direct relationship between the Australian and British bodies. The badge even uses the outline of the certificate.

Amalgamated Society of Engineers obverse united and industrious (3)

Established in 1851, the original Amalgamated Engineering Union was a branch of the British union. It was registered with the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Court in 1905 and became known as the Amalgamated Society of Engineers. The Amalgamated Engineering Union established a Commonwealth Council in 1917. In 1920 it amalgamated with ten other engineering and allied trade unions and changed its name to the Amalgamated Engineering Union, Australian Section in 1921. In 1968 the union became autonomous from its parent body in Britain, shortening its name to the Amalgamated Engineering Union to reflect this. In mid-June 1972 the AEU began a series of amalgamations with the Sheet Metal Workers, Blacksmiths & Boilermakers and Federated Jewellers to form the Amalgamated Metal Workers’ Union by 1973.

aeu2 aeu1

American Organiser Isaac Cowen prioritised strong links with the union in Britain, and the union there came to largely consist of British members who were temporarily working overseas. Many of them left in 1905 to join the Industrial Workers of the World, and the ASE decided in 1920 to transfer the remaining branches to the International Association of Machinists.

intasnmach1  ase usa

International Assn of Machinists (USA) honouring 100th anniversary of the ASE; and ASE badge with US badge maker and union local on reverse

aeu sa afrika

The South African AEU badge tells the same story, in English and Afrikaans

aeu s afri

In Australia the Coachmakers Society used the British logo. This society eventually became the Vehicle Builders Employees Federation, then became a part of the Australian Manufacturing Workers.


The banner images from South Australia and Western Australian highlight this, with the banners using the certificate design used by the ASE in the UK.

AEU south austase kalgoorlie

The certificate was used by the Australian branch.

aeu certificateaeu banner

The reverse of the banner in NSW celebrated the link to the parent body too, and the links around the world. The other side of this banner features the certificate.

(The AEU/ASE badges and banners article appeares in the newsletter of the Trade Union Badge Collectors Society – Symbols of Solidarity vol. 2, no 1. You can get on the mailing list via

Slavery, Racism and Trade Unions

The Australian labour movement does not have a happy story to tell on the issue of racism. The treatment of Aboriginal people was appalling for many years, until progressive internationalist voices emerged more strongly, usually through unions such as the WWF, seamen, AEU, and then the North Australian Workers Union. See the terrific book Different White People for detailed histories of struggle resistance and triumph

The story of Melanesian, South Sea Islander labourers was one of oppression from the 1860s

The shearers’ union rule no 62 explicitly stated that no Chinese or South Sea Islander could be enrolled as a member.

William Lane, founder of the movement to form a New Australia, and an early powerful voice in the labour movement, was partly motivated in his quest for a new land to have a pure white race in a new land and even said he would rather see his daughter dead in a coffin than see her kissing a coloured man”.

The large-scale deportation of these people in the early 1900s, with the first Federal ALP supporting these moves. Support for a White Australia through restrictions on immigration of ‘coloured’ people had been official Labor policy since before the first Parliament met and was included in the first written ’Rules and Platform of Caucus’ in 1901.

south sea islanders work did22994  South Sea Islanders at Work, date unknown but circa 1870-1890

The employers, in particular CSR and the Qld Premier Philp (ie Burns Philp who made their pile in the south Pacific trade) opposed the deportations, because they saw it as threat to their profits.

This cartoon from the Worker says a lot about the various arguments.

philp kanakas slaves

In the late 1920s, the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU), was an affiliate to the Pan-Pacific Trade Union Movement (PPTUM), which was closely aligned with the new Soviet Russia and the Communist International. The secretariat of the PPTUM condemned the White Australia policy as ‘viciously anti-working class’, against which the movement stood for ‘the unity of workers of all lands irrespective of nationality, colour or creed, for a United Struggle against capitalism and imperialist war’. The officers of the ACTU thereby swore to ‘tear down the barriers that heretofore separated the toiling masses of the East from the Labour movement of the West, and all the racial and national prejudice artificially created by Imperialists and their hirelings’. The NSW Labor Council produced a pamphlet defending the ACTU’s affiliation to the PPTUM and its anti-racist stance, asking whether it was better to have a ‘Workers Australia or a White Australia?’.

(from The End of the White Australia Policy in the Australian Labor Party; a discursive analysis with reference to postcolonialism and whiteness theory. Luke Whitington, 2012.)

The attitude to the South Sea Islands people who were generally forced into slavery or at best indentured labour was hardly a shining example of equality and class consciousness. The Worker in 1899 jeered at a strike of Pacific islander labourers, even referring to an apparent scabbing by one of the workers as a “clear case of blacklegging”.

Labor men placed White Australia front and centre in the Party’s Platform. At the time the fate of the Aboriginal people does not seem to have been high in the consciousness of the “labour men” who were largely concerned with non-white immigrants. A particular focus was on Melanesian and Pacific Islanders. Many of these people had been in Queensland since the 1860s working on sugar cane for Burns Philp and often “blackbirded” by Robert Towns. The ALP in the federal parliament supported moves to exclude “coloured immigration” and also to send these people “back to where they came from” as they say today.

Not all unions were supporters of this ALP policy, and it was one of the many reasons workers walked away from the increasingly narrow views of the Australian Socialist League as it formed the ALP in the early 1890s.

As Harris said, the opposition to coloured labour developed in economic terms amongst workers, who were encouraged to see “others” as a threat to their livelihood, but as many cartoons, articles and comments from the early the late 19th and early 20th century show, this rapidly was manifested in chauvinistic and racist terminology and abuse. (sound familiar?)

Joe Harris in an article in Labour History in 1968 details numerous strikes for higher wages and better conditions that the Islander people waged, without support from the official union movement. This was happening in the 1880s, and there were riots in Mackay when Islanders were refused service in refreshment rooms.

Clive Moore has an excellent in depth look at Mackay in his article here  Mackay has the largest community of people descended from the South Sea islanders who were slaves or indentured labour under the Master and Servant legislation.

After Federation over 3500 Islander [people were deported under the Pacific Islander Labourers Act, despite at least 8 petitions presented between June 1902 and 1906

Sadly this eventually became part of a call to ban these people altogether as a cause of strife. An illustration in the sugar industry of the crucial role slavery has played in creating and maintaining capitalism. 19th century liberals loved to speak of “free” labour as the foundation of capitalism, but how free is any labour when the choices are wage labour or starvation?

pacific islands slavery

See this outstanding bibliographic resource that Clive Moore did as a publication for the Australian South Sea Islander (Port Jackson) Ltd (2019 edition)

continue virtually with the atrium walk the most recent. Check it out here

Contact Neale at if you have any comments, suggestions or errors to report!

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