On 3 March 1920, New Zealand’s Otago Daily Times published a report titled “Fiji Labour Troubles” by its correspondent in Suva. It began with an observation of events in mid-February:
Suva is practically under martial law. There is no one left in the large stores but the owners and a girl or two. Business has practically stopped. Everybody is a special constable. There is a mild excitement in the air and nervous people shut their doors at night…
There is an Indian “strike” on.
The strike in question had begun weeks earlier, following the release of Fiji’s remaining Indian indentured labourers from their bondage. The end of indenture had engendered a sense of optimism and hope among Indian workers that life could get better. This newfound freedom led the governor of Fiji to decry a “certain swollen-headedness” that made Indian workers “perilously difficult to handle”.
On 15 January, workers at the Public Works Department in Suva initiated the strike, after they were informed that their working hours would be increased from 45 to 48 hours a week. Their bosses backed down the next day and invited them to return to work on their old terms, but the workers refused, declaring: “We do not get enough to satisfy our bellies”. They demanded a pay rise to address rising living costs and over the next week were joined by workers in the predominantly Indian Nausori and Rewa districts, one of the sites of the Australian Colonial Sugar Refinery company (CSR). Over four thousand workers in Navua, where another major sugar mill was located, also joined the strike, at a time when the population of Fiji was approximately 157,000.
Domestic servants and shop workers for European merchants who refused to join the strike were threatened and humiliated. The Indian Women’s Association led crowds of women to beat up scabs who remained loyal to the bosses and the government, in a manner that the papers described as “Bolshevist”. When three Indian workers were put on trial in Nausori for intimidating scabs, a thousand demonstrators turned up to demand their release.
Much of the strikers’ anger was directed at Europeans, reflecting the reality of their oppression at the hands of price-gouging shop owners, plantation overseers, government officials and CSR managers. One episode during the strike saw hundreds of Indians riot in Suva when a notoriously racist European hotel-owner beat his Indian servant and abused Indians passing by. The colonial administration used this anti-European sentiment, growing calls for equality for Indians and the role of Indian political organisations in the strike as proof that the strike was political and not really concerned with wages.
The authorities mobilised to crush the strike, concerned that Indian agitation could rouse sympathy and discontent among native Fijians – thus threatening the entire colonial project. Practically all military-aged Europeans were armed and hundreds of native Fijians were enlisted as special constables or as strike-breaking scabs. The administration requested military aid from the Australian government, who dispatched a warship. A naval ship from New Zealand was delayed when waterside workers refused to load a ship in solidarity with the strikers in Fiji.
The strikers defended themselves with sticks and stones, and sabotaged roads and telephone lines. One worker was killed after police ambushed a group heading into Suva to procure supplies. Just over a month after it began, the strike was brought to an end. This was, in part, due to the efforts of a wealthy Indian planter and nominated member of the Legislative Council who secured a return to work and the banishment of one of the strike’s key agitators.
The strike had a lasting impact and caused a political crisis for the colonial administrations in both Fiji and India. As a result, some concessions to the strikers were made and the strike eventually led to Indians in Fiji being able to elect their own parliamentary representatives for the first time. Fijian labourers in the sugar industry sympathised with the strikes and also began to demand higher wages for themselves, and even the scabs brought in by CSR began to turn against the company after experiencing what it was like to work for them. The strike also paved the way for a six-month shutdown of the sugar industry the next year.
Stories like these clash with the idyllic image of the Pacific, a tropical oasis seemingly separated from the history of class struggle seen elsewhere in the world. But as capitalism spread itself across the globe, “creating a world after its own image”, it brought with it a new kind of society built on the exploitation of workers for the production of wealth. The history of capitalism in the Pacific, like the history of capitalism and class society everywhere, is the history of class struggle.
This article seeks to unearth some of the key struggles that took place in Fiji, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands during the twentieth century. The particular episodes chosen provide useful lessons for socialists everywhere in understanding and fighting the international capitalist system, as well as attesting to the fighting spirit of rebels across the Pacific. This history also crucially rebukes postcolonial criticisms of Marxism that dismiss its relevance to the global south, and instead illustrate why Marxism is the only theory that can provide a coherent account of this hidden history.
The history of the modern Pacific can’t be understood separately from the history of imperialism. As capitalism developed in Europe, the most industrialised powers became locked into competition with each other, expanding their reach globally and carving up the world into their own colonial empires. After the American revolution, the United States became another rival to British imperialism and Britain established a key outpost on the Australian continent. Australia developed into a regional imperialist power in its own right, albeit one that relied on a more powerful ally such as Britain or the United States to underwrite its power in the region.
The first human inhabitants had begun to settle the islands of the Pacific as early as 90,000 years ago and as late as 1200 CE. By the early 1500s, European vessels had begun to navigate the region and establish contact and trade with locals. The race to carve up the South Pacific accelerated dramatically during the nineteenth century. The Dutch had colonised Indonesia in 1799. France took control of New Caledonia, the new ruling class in Australia successfully campaigned for the British seizure of Fiji, the territory of Papua and part of the Solomons, while Germany seized New Guinea and the remainder of the Solomons.
The development of capitalism and the class forces in each Pacific Island territory were shaped by the interests and plans of its colonial power, and the social conflicts they provoked.
After the Australian gold rush of the 1850s, the ruling class based in Victoria saw Fiji as an investment opportunity, where a profitable plantation economy could capitalise on cotton shortages caused by the American Civil War. CSR also saw the territory as suitable for its sugar plantations. But given the limited military resources Britain was willing to commit to expansion in the Pacific, colonial rule in Fiji would depend on an alliance between Australian capital and a section of Fiji’s indigenous chiefs, who could help them rule the territory. For political reasons, coercing Fijians and other Pacific Islanders into plantation labour was not an option and British annexation in 1874 was cloaked in the rhetoric of protecting native Fijians.
Instead, cheap labour for Fiji’s plantations would be provided by over 60,000 Indian indentured labourers who were brought to the islands between 1879 and 1917. This meant that a modern labour force was created in Fiji earlier than in any other Pacific Island country, with Indian workers becoming a core part of the agricultural and urban workforce.
Labour organisation in Fiji dates back to the 1880s. The earliest strikes by Indian labourers took place in 1882 over wages and excessive work, while 1890 saw the first strike by indigenous Fijian dockworkers in Suva. In 1916, an attempt was made to organise the first formal union among indigenous dockworkers in Lautoka by a member of the Australian Workers’ Union living in Fiji. European teachers and workers in the civil service also formed white-collar unions in the 1920s. Though strikes had been a feature of the sugar industry for decades, the first unions of sugar workers weren’t formed until the 1940s.
Germany sought to turn the north-eastern territory of New Guinea into a serious plantation colony for itself in the 1880s. As a major industrial power, it was better placed to do so than its Australian rival. The Australian ruling class, however, was much more interested in stopping its rivals establishing a foothold in the region. This was summed up in an editorial in the Melbourne Daily Telegraph in 1875, which argued: “though we do not want the island ourselves, we do want very much that no one else shall have it”. The success of the plantation economy of German New Guinea was cut short when the territory was seized by Australia during World War One.
The development of modern industry was limited for the first 50 years of colonial rule. For example, rather than operate copra plantations themselves, companies found it more profitable to engage small-scale peasant growers to harvest the crop, which would then be bought and processed. Industry also faced labour shortages, as native Papuans were reluctant to leave their villages and responded with hostility to attempts to coerce them into work. The Australian government itself prioritised establishing a strong colonial military and police administration that could maintain control over the territory and discipline its inhabitants. This included outlawing and suppressing attempts to organise independent unions during the colonial period. During World War Two, Australia’s occupation of Papua New Guinea involved the forced conscription of native Papuans as labourers, who were beaten and tortured for disobedience and some were executed for treason. Despite the repressive nature of the colonial state, there were also sporadic instances of resistance, including a strike of 3,000 workers in the rural town of Rabaul in 1929.
Following the Second World War, dramatic shifts took place in the region. The collapse of the British empire, and the growth of independence movements in India and Indonesia, saw the Australian government shift to supporting independence for Papua New Guinea. This was to shape the post-independence order to best suit its own interests and included writing the country’s constitution and cultivating a compliant local political class. The postwar boom also saw an increase in Australian government spending and foreign investment in the territory, fuelling the growth of industry and urban centres.
The 1950s saw welfare organisations develop among urban workers, paving the way for the first independent union to emerge in Port Moresby in 1960: the PNG Workers’ Association. This reflected growing discontent among new urban workers. In response, the government introduced tripartism in 1963 and a system of compulsory arbitration, resulting in the legalisation of unions and the creation of many by the Department of Labour for the purposes of arbitration. Many of these unions were run by individuals or small committees with little connection to the rank-and-file workers they represented, and were often conservatised by the anti-communist politics of the Cold War. But the legalisation of unions created space for the creation of a number of serious independent unions. These included the Public Service Association, the Teachers’ Association, the Central District Waterside Workers Union which represented Port Moresby dockworkers, and eventually the Bougainville Mining Workers’ Union.
From the 1820s, the Solomons became a significant transit point for sailors and traders, particularly between Asia and Australia’s east coast. In the 1860s, Australia began its “blackbirding” slave trade in the Pacific, with thousands of people being taken from Vanuatu to supply plantations in Queensland with cheap labour. But by the 1870s, they were running out of people to steal, so their sights turned to the Solomon Islands, which ultimately provided around 40 percent of all blackbirding labour. After Germany annexed New Guinea, it also took control of the northern Solomon Islands. To protect Australia’s critical shipping routes and labour supply, Britain established control over the remaining Solomon Islands in 1893 and took over possession of the German-controlled islands in a treaty in 1899.
In the early part of the twentieth century, British and Australian firms established copra plantations across the islands. But the impact of blackbirding, the introduction of diseases and the brutality of plantation life, to which almost all able-bodied men were subjected, saw a decline in the population and a serious labour shortage. A system of indenture was used to tie labourers to their employers and a head tax was imposed from 1921 for all working-age men, requiring them to enter waged employment in order to pay it off. Tax collectors forced locals to pay up with an armed escort of police and native volunteers. The resentment of this situation is encapsulated by the 1927 killing of Australian district officer William Bell as he collected taxes on Malaita, the most populous island of the Solomons. In retaliation the Australian government dispatched the HMAS Adelaide on an expedition to the island.
During World War Two, Japan occupied part of the central Solomon Islands. They began to construct an airfield on the island of Guadalcanal but after being driven out by the Allies in 1943, the US took over the site and completed the construction of the Henderson airfield, using labourers brought over from Malaita.
These events and the end of the war led to three key interrelated developments that shaped the Solomon Islands working class.
First was the Maasina Rule movement. Contact with American soldiers during the war had a political impact on Malaitan labourers. Ian Frazer describes how the Americans “talked a lot about political and industrial rights”. They often paid more to Solomon Islands casual labourers and remarked on how little the British paid them, and the presence of Black and white soldiers seemingly serving in the military as equals challenged the ideas of white racial superiority that justified colonial rule. Towards the end of the war, as many labourers returned home to Malaita, the first mass political movement in the Solomon Islands was launched.
In the eight years between 1944 and 1952, Maasina Rule looked to replace the British administration which was seen to have failed the island’s inhabitants with a form of Malaitan self-governance. A core part of this movement was a refusal to be recruited as labourers for the British, resulting in a serious labour shortage. They also demanded that wages be raised from £1 to £12 a month, approximately the average wage for European plantation workers. When the government tried to defy the recruitment ban in 1947, the movement’s leaders called a strike of all Malaitans employed by the government and forced the government to back down. But after calling off the strike, these leaders were arrested, sparking off another round of protests. The government began a campaign of repression in 1948, reviving taxation, jailing thousands who refused to pay and strangling local food supplies. The recruiting boycott was broken in 1950 and though the movement limped on, it was finally wound up in 1952.
The second development was a shift from indentured to “free” labour. This in large part reflected a broader shift in colonial policy by the crumbling British empire, but Maasina Rule had also created a crisis for the plantation economy and highlighted the political volatility of a system of coerced labour. Unions were also legalised in 1946 and the Department of Labour played a role in forming the earliest unions.
Finally, the current capital of Honiara was built around the Henderson airfield. The construction of both the airfield and the city depended largely on migratory labourers from Malaita and other islands, concentrating them for the first time into a major urban centre and creating a multi-ethnic urban working class. As most colonial spending was directed towards establishing a state administration and law enforcement, and with foreign capital only flowing into a small number of industries, the formation of large workplaces was largely limited to the civil service, plus a few select manual industries such as agriculture and shipping.
The first formal unions took shape in these two sectors in the early 1960s. The British Solomon Islands Workers Union formed in 1960, covering plantation and waterside workers, and many of its founding members had been active in Maasina Rule. Within its first six months, the union had signed up 2,000 members, representing a quarter of all waged workers in the country.
The first of multiple general strikes in Honiara took place in October 1962 and was led by manual labourers working for the government. It was in response to a discriminatory new award which gave white expatriate civil servants a 20 percent pay rise, local civil servants a 13 percent increase and manual workers 10 percent. At the end of the month, all government manual workers struck without any lead from their union; they were joined by other workers in the city and in total, over 1,100 workers remained on strike until they got the same 20 percent pay rise as the expatriate civil servants.
In September 1964, over 900 plantation workers struck for eight days against the British Levers company over pay. The company broke the strike by enlisting scabs from a minority ethnic group and dividing the workforce.
That month, the Department of Labour split the union into one for Ports and Copra workers and one for Building and General Workers.
The BGWU immediately began wage negotiations, demanding that the basic wage be almost doubled to £15 per month. But in late March 1965, the union leadership accepted a wage offer of under £9. A week later, almost 800 government labourers and private sector workers staged an unofficial general strike throughout Honiara when they learned of their union’s sellout. The workers marched from Chinatown to the centre of the city, intimidating those who refused to join them on strike. After police harassed and arrested a demonstrator carrying a traditional Malaitan club, more than 300 workers marched to the central police station to demand his release. When the police chief ordered the crowd to disperse, they pelted the police with stones. In response, tear gas was used in Honiara for the first time ever. The strikes lasted eight days, grew to involve over 1,500 workers and spread to several towns on nearby islands. The government finally succeeded in breaking the strike by threatening to sack the workers and ship them back to their homes on other islands. Despite this, 20 percent of the strikers still refused to return to work and were forcibly repatriated.
Though the fortunes of these early strikes were mixed, they showed an impressive level of militancy that laid the basis for future struggles and developments in unionism. Independent unions and a new generation of union officials began to emerge in the mid-1970s and their fight for recognition led to further outbreaks of struggle.
The newly formed Solomon Islands General Workers Union set off another general strike in July 1975, this time led by stevedores working at the Ports Authority seeking to have the independent union recognised. They were joined by over 1,300 other workers from across Honiara. After two weeks on strike, the workers not only won recognition for their union, they also won pay increases of between 20 and 25 percent, compensation for their time on strike, and more. It brought to prominence the union’s founder Bartholomew Ulufa’alu, who would go on to become a prominent figure in Solomon Island politics. Emboldened by the strike, union leaders continued to push for union recognition with other employers, using the threat of strike action if they refused and organising at times illegal political demonstrations in Honiara. As a result six union officials were arrested and fined, including Ulufa’alu, who was imprisoned in December. But on 2 January 1976, the largest and final general strike of over 4,300 workers took place. This accounted for 70 to 80 percent of all workers in Honiara and the Guadalcanal Plains. The ensuing political crisis forced the government to intervene and resulted in union recognition by dozens of employers.
Though union militancy continued after the Solomon Islands gained independence in 1978, a number of developments posed new challenges for the working class. In 1981, the government introduced the Trades Disputes Act, which required unions and employers to engage in compulsory arbitration that took into account “the economy as a whole” and created a framework through which strikes could be declared illegal. Subsequently, wage rises were restricted to two-thirds of inflation and many unions recognised that dispute panels heavily favoured employers.
There was also the issue of aspirationalism. In a country with limited economic opportunities, leadership of unions and entry into politics presented some of the few opportunities for social mobility, particularly among the more educated. Bartholomew Ulufa’alu entered politics in 1976 and founded the National Democratic Party. But as the country’s population was and remains largely rural, the potential for electoral success for parties based on workers was limited. On the one hand, this meant Ulufa’alu shifted to the right to build a broader electoral base and the Solomon Islands Labour Party which formed later could only ever manage to win a few seats. But on the other hand, this meant it was harder to present electoralism as a viable strategy for the working class. This, combined with the political impact of Maasina Rule and the struggles of the 1960s and ’70s, meant that a militant tradition among some unions in the Solomon Islands endured in the following decades, most notably among teachers and nurses.
While the histories and political contexts of Fiji, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands differ, a number of common themes emerge.
Firstly, imperialist expansion and the establishment of colonial rule implanted the capitalist mode of production into these countries. Even where the development of capitalist industry was limited, the logic of commodity production also began to reshape and impact those who continued to live a more traditional life. Modern bureaucratic and repressive state apparatuses had to be constructed in order for these new nation-states to be administered. Resistance in these circumstances was always inevitable, whether it be against a rising class of employers or the oppression required by colonial rule. These struggles created traditions of militancy and radicalism that would shape and be shaped by the emergence of an urban working class created by capitalism.
The development of capitalism in the Pacific also created an indigenous ruling class in each country. The political role of this social layer in Fiji was illustrated during the 1959 oil workers’ strike.
Though a section of Fiji’s chiefs agreed to the British annexation of Fiji in 1874, there were those who resisted. In the late 1860s and early 1870s, armed rebellions known as the Kai Colo waged a struggle against the colonising power, but were ultimately defeated by troops and armed settlers from Australia, and armed Fijians from the eastern regions. A Great Council of Chiefs was created in 1876 which enshrined their power as the figureheads of the colonial state.
While indentured Indians became the main source of plantation and urban labour for Fiji, a small number of indigenous Fijians also joined the workforce. But most continued to live in rural villages where traditional social structures regulated the use of land and village life, and tied them to the authority of the high chiefs allied with the colonial administration. But the fondness for the administration wasn’t shared by many ordinary Fijians. An overriding sense of political domination and economic exploitation saw further resistance and a desire for self-government, a notable expression of which was the Viti Kabani (or Fiji Company). This attempt at building an alternative economic structure to the colonial state in which rural Fijians produced and traded among themselves only lasted between 1913 and 1917, but in that time spread across virtually the entire island group.
The leasing of Fijian land, first to plantation owners who employed Indian labour and then later to freed Indian labourers becoming farmers, created the basis for friction between the two groups. But in the wake of Indian labour militancy which the colonial administration feared could inspire solidarity from indigenous Fijians, a conscious effort was made to divide the groups. William Sutherland notes of the 1920 strike:
State and capital feared that Fijian sympathy for Indian workers might make the upheavals more generalized. By dissuading Fijians from supporting the strikers and by ranging Fijian policemen and special constables against them, the ruling class manipulated the basic antagonistic relationship between capital and labour so as to make it appear racial.
The colonial government positioned itself as protector of indigenous Fijian society from Indians who were supposedly coming to steal and grow wealthy off their land and leave them in poverty.
During World War Two, Indians refused to fight under the banner of the British empire and for a government that denied them political equality. Instead, in 1943 strikes swept the cane-growing regions. This provoked a racist backlash from the establishment, who decried the subversive and disloyal Indian population. European hotelier JJ Ragg addressed parliament in 1946, denouncing the “great increase in non-Fijian inhabitants” and advocating for Fiji to be “kept as a Fijian country”. These events and arguments laid the basis for Fijian ethnic chauvinism in the following decades, couched in the language of “indigenous rights”.
Unlike their Indian counterparts, indigenous Fijians served in the war and after it ended, economic conditions forced many to migrate to urban centres in search of work. The shift weakened their identification with village life, as they began to forge new common interests as part of a Fijian and Indian urban workforce, many of whom were under the thumb of European employers.
In the late 1950s, new cost of living pressures began to bite and demands for higher wages emerged. The Wholesale and Retail Workers General Union (WRWGU) was formed in 1958 and among its early leaders were Apisai Tora, a returned Fijian soldier who had been radicalised by the experience of the war, and James Anthony, of Indian-Irish-Polynesian background, who had been influenced by the son of Australian Communist Party unionist “Big Jim” Healy, Kevin Healy, who was living in Suva at the time.
The union covered oil workers at Suva’s depots for Shell and Vacuum Co. In late 1959, the union put forward a claim for the weekly wage to be almost doubled to £6 per week, and demanded a 40-hour working week, sick leave and two weeks’ paid vacation. After the company responded with a minuscule pay rise and nothing else, Anthony notified the companies of a strike on Monday 7 December at the Suva Depot, as well as at Nadi airport and Vuda Point.
Workers picketed at all three depots. The strike meant that within 24 hours, fuel supply to the country ran low, causing disruption to international flights at Nadi airport and food supply. The water-pumping station and power plant at Tamavua were only spared on Anthony’s insistence that supplies to essential services be maintained and that workers be “law abiding”. The next day an oil tanker unloaded fuel for distribution at Vuda Point under police escort. A European clergyman forced his way into the Suva Shell depot to fill up his car, but workers locked him inside until riot police turned up to release him. The events sparked emergency government meetings, a media statement denouncing the workers for not using the proper channels of negotiation, and the Assistant Colonial Secretary authorised the breaking of the strike by any means necessary.
On the morning of 9 December, trucks fanned out across Suva to supply fuel to petrol stations under police escort. Anthony was at one petrol station when supplies arrived, and mobilised a crowd of 400 people in protest. At a second petrol station, a crowd of Fijian and Indian protesters gathered and formed a human barricade to stop queues of cars from driving up to the pump. Indian and Fijian drivers were persuaded to show solidarity by not refuelling. By the time the police arrived, only the European drivers remained. Staff abandoned a third petrol station and when a white Shell employee tried to take over operations, demonstrators sabotaged and shut down the pumps by removing the fuse box. The manager of a fourth petrol station fled when protesters arrived, telling the police that they could serve customers themselves. All throughout the city, bus drivers were confronted and the whole bus network was paralysed. Taxi drivers joined the strike, some abandoning their vehicles in the petrol queues or in the city with “on strike” scrawled across their windscreens.
Anthony requested permission to hold an assembly and address the crowds at a bus station, but the authorities’ refusal didn’t reach him. By 5pm, a crowd of 5,000 had materialised. One police officer’s confused account summed up the mood:
When we got there, the bus stand was absolutely full of people, women and children predominating. I think they were very excited indeed. I don’t think they were alarmed. In fact, most of them seemed to be enjoying the situation immensely. There were crowds surging from one side to the other, singing nothing in particular – three cheers for this, that and the other… There were peals of very high pitched laughter. I did not know what to make of the whole thing.
Another recounted: “The crowd was telling other people that this was their strike and inciting people to join in”.
The early attempts to disperse the crowd were met with boos, laughter and jeers. One person yelled: “The cops can do fuck all!” Police finally resorted to tear gas and baton charges into the crowd, who defended themselves by throwing rocks. The crowd scattered, swarmed the city and regrouped at various spots. A group of 100 men assembled barricades out of timber and steel drums. Over the next two hours, a riot broke out across Suva, with shops smashed and looted. Even after the huge crowds dispersed, groups of Indian and Fijian youth engaged in overnight skirmishes with the police. The next morning, the military was called in, and police were given powers to arrest without warrants and impose a curfew.
On the afternoon of 10 December, the police granted permission for a mass public meeting in Prince Alfred Park, where it was rumoured that the strike leaders would be speaking. But when crowds arrived, they found themselves being addressed by three of the highest chiefs in Fiji, among them Ratu Kamisese Mara, the country’s future first prime minister and later its president. They were joined by BD Lakshman, an Indian member of the Legislative Council. Together, the chiefs used their traditional authority to admonish and shame the crowd for their behaviour. The crowd dispersed peacefully and the riot ended.
Calm returned over the next two days as many Fijian workers began to return to work. Skeleton bus services began to operate and supply chains returned to normal, though the oil workers and taxi drivers remained on strike. But the mood was now subdued. In the meantime, the chiefs continued touring the city, holding mass meetings of up to 3,000 people where they argued that Fijians had brought shame to their villages, and implied that they had been duped by Indians. The Fijian president of the WRWGU was also impacted by these arguments. He encouraged Anthony to seek medical attention for exhaustion, then immediately called in Mara, who introduced union delegates to company representatives and negotiated a settlement on the company’s terms. By the time Anthony returned, most of the union’s executive had ratified the deal and he eventually relented.
The 1959 oil workers’ strike is significant for a number of reasons. Firstly, it was the first urban multi-racial strike by Indian and Fijian workers in the country’s history. Secondly, it demonstrated the potential economic power of the growing urban working class and its ability to rally mass support. For these two reasons, it terrified the colonial administration, the Indian bourgeois and the Fijian chiefs. The latter recognised that these developments posed a threat not only to the colonial state, but also threatened to undermine their own social position. They successfully appealed to indigenous Fijian identity to scuttle the strike, succeeding where the repressive power of the state and even the union officials themselves had failed to rein in militancy. In the aftermath of the strike, they funded and helped establish racially exclusive unions for Fijians in practically all industries, weakening the union movement as a whole. It illustrates the class divide that cuts through the Pacific and its various ethnic and racial groups.
The people of Bougainville had a history of agitation against colonialism dating back to 1913, when New Guinea was still controlled by Germany. Welfare societies organised boycotts of taxes in the 1950s. In 1962 there was further resistance against taxation and calls for an end to Australian control over the island. The Bougainville national movement was cohering in the years leading up to the strike, as it became clear greater organisation would be needed to fight for the interests of locals against the mining companies.
After copper, gold and silver were discovered in Bougainville in 1964, the urban population of the island swelled from 750 in 1966 to over 14,000 by 1971. Those who flocked there included people from other islands drawn to the opportunities of waged labour, and Australian expatriate workers who were required for the construction and operation of the infamous Panguna mine, which opened in 1969. The Australian labourers brought with them some of the militant traditions of the time, and in mid-1970 staged a strike which secured an agreement in line with other mining and construction agreements in Australia – including better wages, a closed shop, recognition of union delegates and on-site facilities for the union. For the Papua New Guinean workers employed by Bougainville Copper, who were still on $15 per week compared to the $200 per week minimum achieved in the new agreement, the Australian workers’ win showed what unions could achieve. In October 1970, the Bougainville Mining Workers’ Union (BMWU) was established. It brought into its ranks Bougainvillean workers who had been part of nationalist and separatist movements.
The company consciously used the rationale of “relating Australians to Australian conditions, and locals to local conditions” to justify appalling disparities in pay between the two sections of workers. There were also significant disparities in the housing and facilities available to the two workforces and the company consciously sought to sow divisions and keep the two groups separate outside the workplace. One company foreman explained why mixed social events were once common but became rare: “We stopped these meetings some time ago when we found out that all it took was a few drinks before their underlying hostility towards us would surface”.
The union began with 51 members but by 1973 had over 800 members. The number of work hours lost due to strikes at Panguna rose from 230 in 1972, to 500 in 1973, to over 60,000 in 1974. This included a two-day strike of over 2,400 workers in June which won an 18.5 percent pay rise and concessions in accommodation. When the minimum wage was increased in October, a two-day strike of 1,500 workers demanded that the increase flow on to the lowest paid workers at the site. Yet despite the company’s assurances, the increase hadn’t been passed more than six months later.
The 1975 strike and riot involved over a thousand mineworkers. They included workers from Bougainville and those who had migrated from other parts of PNG in search of work. The dispute was sparked by the dismissal of a union delegate allegedly involved in a brawl. Hundreds of workers began to gather at a nearby market while the union met with the company. Over 800 had gathered when the company announced it would consider the pay claim another day. Angry at the delays, the workers, brandishing sticks and iron bars, marched to the company’s offices. Police fired tear gas and dispersed the crowd.
Rioting resumed the next morning. Again police fired tear gas, and called in reinforcements including squads armed with semi-automatic rifles. In the ensuing street battles, workers began to overturn vehicles, push them off cliffs and into rivers, and even ran trucks into police lines. They commandeered two bulldozers with which they proceeded to rip up roads, destroy mining equipment and even demolish the local police station.
By that afternoon, a heavy police mobilisation flown in from around the country was able to break up the protests, ultimately arresting over a thousand workers. But only a few days later, fearing a mass breakout, the authorities released more than 700 prisoners. In September, 800 workers at the site struck in support of Bougainville’s declaration of independence. Finally, in November a tribunal granted the workers’ demands. They won over a million dollars in backpay and six-monthly cost of living adjustments. The company ultimately relented after appeals by the Department of Labour that the deal would be crucial to maintaining peace.
Throughout the mid-1970s, the Australian Council of Trade Unions under Bob Hawke had taken an ongoing interest in the BMWU, with Hawke personally receiving reports on the state of the union. They noted that the union’s leadership and official structures were weak, disorganised and unsuited to negotiations. After the dispute, the ACTU put concerted effort into professionalising the union, training its officials and dispatching officials from Australia to assist in reforming the union. These efforts included establishing a more stable bureaucracy and training 72 shop stewards in “basic diplomacy” to restrain any militancy which might run foul of the government and get company officials off-side. The result was that in 1977–78, the number of hours lost to industrial action was eight and over the next decade, the mine was able to operate with minimum disruption.
The story of the Bougainville Mining Workers’ Union is an example of how, even in the Pacific, the politics that workers carry into their struggles can help shape and push them forward. But it also shows that, just as in the rest of the world, the conservative and class-collaborationist approach of reformist trade union leaderships can also restrain struggles. Politics is decisive, and an approach that looks to the self-activity and militancy of workers at the point of production is essential for victory.
The episodes examined in this article prove that the politics of working-class militancy and solidarity are just as necessary in the Pacific as they are elsewhere, and their relevance is not just confined to the advanced capitalist West.
There is no corner of the world that is untouched by capitalism, or untouched by class struggle. This tiny glimpse of a rich and militant history of workers’ struggle across the Pacific should highlight that the poor and oppressed of the region are not helpless victims waiting to be saved by one self-interested imperialist power or another. Instead, they are fighters with social power of their own and comrades to those struggling for a world free from exploitation. For anti-capitalists in Australia, this history also reveals the role our own government has played historically in holding the workers of the region down. Regardless of how military build-ups in the Pacific are justified by politicians in Washington and Canberra, it is a basic act of solidarity with workers in the Pacific to oppose every imperialist power circling the region. Finally, the history of class struggle in the Pacific confirms Marxism as a set of politics that can make sense of the world and articulate a strategy for liberation. Across the Pacific, there is a working class which shares the same interest in a world without capitalism, the same potential power to bring the bosses to their knees, and we share with them the same struggle to make that world a reality.
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