The Right to Strike

Published: 8 Dec 2017


The day one million went on strike. History repeats?

The 1970’s and 80’s saw a peak in the number of industrial disputes, arguably caused by decades of pent up frustration of how workers and their union were treated.

The use of ‘Penal Power’ goes some way towards explaining why militant action came to the forefront during and after this period. Blue collar workers had been deprived for years from climbing the ladder of opportunity by working for low wages and enduring poor conditions. It was time to catch up, and there was a hell of lot of catching up to do.

‘Where there had been five fines in 1950, they had reached 454 in 1968. ‘

When the Federal Arbitration Court was established by the Commonwealth Government in 1904 it gave the court the powers to impose heavy fines on unions. These powers became known as "penal powers".

In 1930 these provisions were abolished following the timber workers' strike in 1929 which lasted for several months. During the strike there were riots, violence and widespread upheaval. The timber workers (now an integral part of the CFMEU) went on strike because the employers had cut their wages and lengthened their working hours. The workers were defeated.

The penal powers provisions were re-imposed in the 1940s. In 1949 there was a general strike of miners which lasted several weeks. The workers were demanding a 35-hour week, long service leave and an increase in wages. The strike was crushed when the federal labour government sent armed troops into the mines. Eight union leaders were jailed and the union was heavily fined.

Workers were asking the question: When is the right time for workers to win improvements in wages and conditions? It didn’t seem to matter what stage of the economic cycle workers were in… from boom to bust and everything in between, it was never the right time for workers to win improvements in wages and conditions.

During the 1940s - 1960s some unions were de-registered (ceased to be legally recognised by the industrial relations courts) because their members were engaged in struggles to protect or improve wages and conditions.

Break-away unions were set up with the help of employers. By the late 1960s, the employers were savagely using the penal powers against unions rather than negotiate with unions. Where there had been five fines in 1950, they had reached 454 in 1968.

The workers were frustrated and angry because the employers were using penal powers as a tactic to avoid negotiation. Workers saw the Arbitration Court as an anti-union, anti-worker body.

When a union leader called Clarrie O'Shea, Secretary of the Victorian Tramway Union, was jailed in 1969 because the union would not pay a fine imposed on it by the Arbitration Court due to a strike by its members, all hell broke loose.

Up to ‘one million workers’ stopped work and joined in rallies across Australia.(You can't jail everyone) In the face of this massive anger, the courts, the government and the employers retreated and the use of penal powers against unions was discontinued. It was a powerful example of how real change can happen when workers stand together.

Ironically, the bias persecution of unions under the old penal power laws is not unlike what is happening in current times with the FWBC and under the ABCC- Australian Building and Construction Commission.

The pendulum has swung too far.