Three Major Industrial Disputes 1928-30, Rank-and-File Action and the Communist Party of Australia
AffiliationSchool of Historical and Philosophical Studies
Document TypePhD thesis
Access StatusThis item is embargoed and will be available on 2022-06-11.
© 2020 Phoebe Lucille Therese Kelloway
At the start of the Depression in Australia, workers in three industries waged determined struggles against significant cuts to their wages and conditions: waterside workers in 1928, timber workers in 1929, and coal miners of the NSW Northern District in 1929-30. Those three industrial battles, which all resulted in crushing defeats for the unions, shaped the industrial and political context of the ensuing years, but there have been few in-depth studies of them. A connection has often been drawn between the resistance of those workers, and the Communist Party of Australia (CPA)’s agitation. This thesis interrogates that assumption. It re-examines the waterside and timber strikes and coal lockout, investigating the activity of rank-and-file union members, the women who joined their struggles, and Communists. It finds that in the two disputes that featured independent rank-and-file activity, the waterside strike and the coal lockout, Communists agitated but had little influence due to the small size of the party. In the waterside strike, the CPA nonetheless made a notable contribution by organising women, particularly the strikers’ wives, to support the struggle. It later built on that activity in the timber strike. In the wharfies’ and miners’ unions, where branch autonomy persisted despite the union federation, rank-and-file militants were very capable of leading industrial action without the intervention of a party. The rank and file had their own minds. The limits of militants’ ad-hoc organisation, however, became evident when the struggle in the coal industry escalated. The fact that the CPA played only a minor role in the coal lockout contradicts much of the historiography of that dispute. This thesis builds on Jim Comerford’s history, which challenged the myth that Communists were influential among locked-out miners, by showing how 1940s CPA histories shaped and distorted the subsequent historiography. It considers the party’s efforts to organise among mineworkers prior to the industrial battle in the coal industry. Communists gained little ground on the coalfields, except in the NSW Western District, where miners were not locked out. However, the CPA-led Militant Minority Movement established itself as a potential pole of attraction for militant miners through the 1928 national Convention of the Miners’ Federation. Given the party’s lack of a sizeable presence on the Northern District coalfields, it did not exercise much influence during the lockout. But the CPA grew substantially there in the second half of the dispute, after a new federal Labor government failed to restart the mines and the unionists faced a hostile state government and police bullets while picketing. The miners’ independent rank-and-file struggle, however, was co-ordinated by non-Communist militant lodge leaders. In the timber strike, in which the rank and file did not act against their officials’ advice, Communists were part of the strike leadership. CPA leader Jack Kavanagh played a prominent role in Sydney, organising daily picketing, while Communist women encouraged strikers’ wives to organise hardship relief and protests. Despite the Comintern’s introduction of its Class Against Class policy, the CPA did not oppose the union leaders, which was a factor in the party leadership being ousted in December 1929 for a new one obedient to the Comintern. While debunking overstatements of Communist influence, this thesis also challenges the prevailing idea that the Kavanagh-led CPA was disconnected from the working class, showing how the party was active in these major struggles.
Keywordswaterside workers' strike 1928; timber workers' strike 1929; NSW Northern District coal lockout 1929-1930; rank and file; Communist Party of Australia; Militant Minority Movement; Militant Women's Movement; wharfies; miners; Great Depression
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