Review: Radical Australian trade unionism

by Diane Fieldes • Published 15 February 2021

Sam Oldham, Without Bosses: Radical Australian Trade Unionism in the 1970s, Interventions, 2020.

Sam Oldham has produced a book that will benefit anyone wanting to learn something of the class struggle in Australia during the last major radicalisation, that of the late 1960s to the early 1970s. Without Bosses covers a broad range of actions – from job control and conflicts over hiring and firing, to challenges to the rights of managers and bosses to manage industry at all, including where workers “dismissed” their managers and worked without bosses. The book also gives an overview of the context of more general radicalisation in which these actions took place.

There was a new mood of rebellion and defiance in society. The Vietnam war had a direct impact, with anti-war activism becoming in some places a feature of workplace strikes and work bans from the waterfront to the metal industry. Resistance to conscription – which saw 20-year-old men sent off to fight in Vietnam – helped fuel dissent and disdain for authority. This was part of a broader youth revolt, added to by the electrifying effect of the student and workers’ struggles in France in May 1968. Social movements such as women’s liberation, the Aboriginal land rights movement and gay liberation involved strike action – by those directly affected, but also solidarity actions by male, non-Aboriginal and straight workers on a significant scale. In chapter 7, “Radical unions beyond the workplace”, Oldham describes “political strikes, bans and similar actions as a kind of workers’ control beyond the workplace” (p113).

But the key focus, and the strength of the book, is the rank-and-file union action in the workplace with which it abounds. Successful strikes over issues of pay and conditions were often the catalyst for struggles which further encroached on what management like to call their prerogatives. So struggles about union hire, the closed shop where only unionists will be employed, about blacklisting scabs from employment, fill the pages of the union journals and left-wing newspapers in this period – and the pages of this book. A few examples will whet potential readers’ appetites.

Some significant resistance to the sacred right of bosses to hire and fire was embodied in the tactic of the “work-in”. This was the method by which the New South Wales branch of the Builders Labourers Federation (BLF) forced bosses to employ women on site for the first time. Women workers would turn up and start work with the men. The bosses quickly learnt that if they didn’t accept them the job would soon stop. More often, however, work-ins were a response to closures of workplaces. Workers would take over the job for weeks – or occasionally months – rather than accept the sack. While these did not save jobs in the longer term, they were deeply disturbing to the bosses, whose role was shown to be irrelevant, and inspiring to the workers, on the job and off, whose mastery of all aspects of production was irrefutable.

The elation with which workers greeted the experience is clearly indicated in one of the successful work-ins, that at the Sydney Opera House in April-May 1972. Significantly, in this case the job was not being shut down. Instead management attempted to use sackings to discipline an unruly workforce. Refusing to leave the site, the 45 workers, members of the Amalgamated Metalworkers’ Union (AMWU) and the BLF, smashed open the padlocked equipment boxes. As BLF observers said at the time,

enthusiasm was unbelievable and work proceeded at a rate unknown on the job… It was like being released from prison after years of hard labour. Boredom and the hatred of oppression were gone, leaving an exhilarating feeling of release (p87).

After six weeks all the Opera House workers were reinstated, paid in full for the period without managers, allowed to elect their own supervisors, and granted a 35-hour working week.

Indicative of the bosses’ qualms about all this was the Courier Mail report on a strike at Evans Deakin shipyards in 1969: “The real trouble is rank and file control… The campaign is being run by a bunch of stirrers… Every time the Metal Trades Federation [of unions] makes a decision, the rank and file knock it over” (p29).

This raises an issue which Oldham never really clarifies: the role that trade union officials play. So his outline that “What occurred during this decade was a surge in democratic trade union power, a tendency among some trade unionists to challenge the traditional authority of bosses, managers, and even governments” (p6) omits a vital element. Despite this omission, the degree to which the interests of workers and the full-time trade union bureaucracy differed appears in examples throughout the book.

A 1970 strike over conditions at the General Motors-Holden car factory in Elizabeth in Adelaide’s northern suburbs saw Vehicle Builders Employees’ Federation (VBEF) officials who told workers to go back to work “physically chased out of the plant and anything movable was thrown at them” (p75). The workers won the right to extended breaks and a degree of control over the speed of the production line. This was similar to the better-known case of workers at Ford Broadmeadows in 1973 attacking and chasing out their officials (including left-wing officials such as Laurie Carmichael of the AMWU and Communist Party) after a very unwelcome suggestion to end their strike.

The flowering of rank-and-file organisation was a key precondition for workers to assert themselves against the different class interests of their officials. NSW electricity workers formed the Electricity Commission Combined Union Delegates’ Organisation (ECCUDO) in the course of a successful major strike over the 35-hour week in 1973. It was an exclusively rank-and-file organisation of elected delegates from the shopfloor across all unions.

As the 1973 ECCUDO strike and the work-in at the Opera House showed, defying the bosses won some real reforms. But as recession and the bosses’ offensive were to prove, capitalism was more than capable of wresting them back. When the long post-war boom ended, the bosses hardened their stance.

The limits of “workers’ control”, which Oldham does not draw out nearly enough, were exposed. It is true, as he notes at the end of the book, that “workers’ control was vulnerable to co-option by employers from the start” (p151). In the new situation, as well as attacks on strikes, large employers and their associations began to promote “employee participation” schemes as an alternative to unions.

It could not have been otherwise. While inspiring, none of the examples moved in a more revolutionary direction towards the overthrow of the capitalist state and the creation of a new one based on workers’ power. Syndicalist politics – the idea that Oldham expresses as “revolutionary trade unions have been organisations by which working people have sought to seize control of their workplaces and industries to build a socialist society from the bottom up” (pp7-9) – proved inadequate to the task. The reformist politics of the Communist Party union officials referred to above were even less useful.

That said, the book has much to recommend it. This was an important period of Australian radicalism in which the working class played a key role. Many thousands of workers defied the bosses, the courts, the governments and often their own union officials. It gave a glimpse of what the world could be: as one miner recalled after a work-in at the South Clifton New South Wales coal mine in 1972, “It gives you a bit of an idea of how it would be to work under socialism without bosses” (p5).

Oldham wants “those struggling and fighting in Australia today to find inspiration and renewed courage” (p14) from his account. He succeeds.

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