Trade unions and the Vietnam war
By TONY DURAS [email protected]
This article is based on a honours thesis entitled "Peace is trade union business : Trade union
opposition to Australia's involvement in the Vietnam war, 1965 - 72"
Trade union opposition to Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam war did not emerge fully-formed in 1965. Yet a significant part of trade union opposition to the Vietnam war derived from a tradition of involvement in anti-war campaigns and other non-industrial issues. Traditions of activism depend on conscious human transmission; they are invented and re-invented among each generation of activists. As Eric Hobsbawm argues, such "invented traditions ... use history as a legitimator of action and cement of group cohesion." (Hobsbawm & Ranger: 12)
For instance, the Draft Resisters Union reprinted an anti-conscription poster produced by the Industrial Workers of the World in 1915.
Initially the IWW stand had been unpopular. In 1914 the vast majority of the organized working class in Australia supported Australia’s involvement in the First World War, as the Labor Prime Minister Andrew Fisher declared Australia would assist Great Britain "to the last man and the last shilling". But by 1916 the horrors and privations of the war had dulled patriotic fervour and, more important, enlistment figures. Fisher’s successor William Hughes’ attempt to introduce conscription met strong opposition. The labour movement was at the forefront of the anti-conscription campaign and the government was defeated in two referenda.
The Australian Trade Union Congress explained the labour movement stance:
Fellow unionists -- Conscription is the law in Great Britain and in the Republic of the French. In both countries conscription has been used to render null and void all the achievements of Trade Unionism ... conscription has been used not merely as an instrument of national defence, but as a bludgeon to break down the standard of the industrial classes. (Main: 37)
Other workers and socialists saw the war as the work of capitalists who were profiting from the fighting without making the sacrifices that workers were called upon to make. The government’s inability to control prices and profit in the way it controlled wages was a major factor. Demands to conscript wealth were popular.
These events were followed by a general strike in August 1917, in response to the introduction of the card or "Taylor" system, which involved in all 97,507 workers throughout Australia
In November 1938 waterside workers at Port Kembla refused to load pig iron on the "Dalfram", which was bound for Japan. The refusal was in reaction to Japan’s war in China and the use of iron in its war effort. Bans on loading war materials on ships bound for Japan occurred from the middle of 1937, and by October the Waterside Workers’ Federation (WWF) and various Trades and Labor Councils around Australia were endorsing such embargoes. In February 1938 Port Adelaide waterside workers passed a resolution that they were "Compelled in the interest of humanity to refuse to load further shipments of scrap-iron for Japan, believing that by doing so they are protesting against a ruthless slaying of innocents by Japanese naval and military authorities." (Quoted in Lockwood 1987: 110)
The significance of the Port Kembla WWF’s ban on the "Dalfram" was the length and intensity of the dispute and its legacy. The "Dalfram" stayed in Port Kembla from November 14 1938 until January 22 1939, when waterside workers agreed to load it in return for assurances from the government that it would ban further loads of pig iron going to Japan. That waterside workers took such action over a non-industrial issue is all the more remarkable considering it took place during the Depression, when the Transport Workers Act (TWA), which restricted who could work on the waterfront, was in force.
For his part in attempting to break the boycott, Prime Minister Robert Menzies incurred the life-long enmity of many unionists and the nickname of "Pig-Iron Bob".
In March 1942, as Holland’s colonial possessions in South East Asia fell to Japan, much of Indonesia’s administration, army and navy fled to Australia. In April of that year 2,000 Indonesian seamen in Australia went on strike over wages and conditions and were imprisoned. Their union supported the strikers in part, securing their release and a massive improvement of ship conditions and pay. When on August 17 1945 the Indonesian Republic was proclaimed, Indonesian soldiers, sailors and airmen in Australia refused to fight for the Dutch against the newly declared republic. They secured the support of the maritime unions, who refused to load any ships taking military supplies to the Netherlands East Indies forces or any ship declared "black" by the Indonesians. In all, 559 ships were held up in ports around the country. Lockwood argues that the boycotts and bans of Dutch shipping, which he labelled "the Black Armada", "represents the greatest boycott demonstration of its kind in Australian history. It is difficult to recall a boycott anywhere in the world comparable in character and scope. (Lockwood 1982: 5)
In 1948, the Malayan Communist Party was waging a guerilla war against the British authorities, who requested Australian weapons and equipment. The Seamen’s Union of Australia (SUA) threatened to boycott shipments of such material and refused to allow merchant shipping to be used to carry weapons. In June 1950, North Korea invaded South Korea and the Korean war began. Australia committed its forces under the leadership of the United Nations. The Executive of the SUA made the decision to ban the transportation and handling of war supplies to Korea. The Attorney-General threatened to charge the SUA Executive with treason under the Crimes Act.
These campaigns formed traditions that trade unionists were to draw upon in their opposition to Australia’s involvement in Vietnam.
Early actions: the maritime unions
Trade union opposition to Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam war preceded the Menzies government’s declaration of its decision to send a battalion of ground troops to South Vietnam on April 29 1965. Unions such as the Building Workers’ Industrial Union (BWIU) and the SUA called upon the Australian government to withdraw military advisors stationed in South Vietnam. The federal government had initially sent thirty members of the Australian Army Training Team to South Vietnam in July 1962, yet by early 1965 the number of Australian military advisors in Vietnam had grown to a hundred. (2) The government’s announcement produced varying degrees of protest from the labor movement. The ACTU Executive declared on the 4th May 1965 that it was:
strongly opposed to the decision of the Federal Government to send a Battalion of Australian troops which can be used as a combat force in South Vietnam or anywhere else except in accordance with international obligations…and urges the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party to press in the Federal Parliament for the Federal Government to revoke the decision to send active troops to South Vietnam.
The declaration also called upon Trades and Labor Councils to coordinate public meetings with the ALP on May 23 to garner support for the ACTU’s policy and the ALP’s opposition to the use of Australian troops in Vietnam. (ACTU: 57)
The BWIU demanded the total withdrawal of all foreign troops from Vietnam. Yet it was once again the maritime unions which took the most militant action. Approximately two and a half thousand waterside workers walked off the wharves in Melbourne to protest against Menzies’ decision to send troops. Later in May, SUA Melbourne branch members employed on tugboats boycotted an American warship and a submarine, thereby affecting docking processes. (4) Five hundred seamen, waterside workers and ships’ painters also picketed the American embassy in Brisbane.
On May 5 1965, the Executive of the ACTU decided that it would not support industrial action taken against the war:
in the light of the discussion which took place on the Vietnam situation, the decision of the Executive means that the Executive is not supporting industrial stoppages as a protest against the Government’s decision to send troops to Vietnam or further industrial action to prevent further passage of troops or conveyance of materials for use by Australian troops in South Vietnam." (Fitzpatrick & Cahill: 206)
Such a declaration came largely in response to the WWF’s request that the ACTU call a twenty-four hour nationwide stoppage. Rupert Lockwood noted that the ACTU president, Albert Monk, had been hesitant to endorse so-called "political" strikes. Likewise, Monk and other members of the ACTU Executive had come into conflict with the maritime unions in 1946 over the boycott of Dutch ships, with an anonymous ACTU spokesperson suggesting the WWF could be expelled from the ACTU unless it allowed so-called Dutch "relief" ships to take supplies to Java. (Lockwood 1982: 196) The competing traditions in the labor movement, which had clashed before on the role of industrial action in political matters, were set to do battle again over Australian involvement in Vietnam. Monk’s declaration against "industrial stoppages as a protest" was to be sorely tested in 1966 and 1967. Once again, waterside workers and seamen took up the banner of peace, and it was their tradition of industrial action over political issues and their strategic position in the economy which were to make the events of 1966 and 1967 possible.
The Boonaroo and Jeparit Disputes of 1966
On May 11 1966, representatives from the Australian National Line (ANL) and the Department of Shipping and Transport, as well as the Federal Secretary of the SUA, E.V. Elliott, met in Sydney to discuss whether SUA members would crew an ANL merchant ship, the Boonaroo on a journey to South Vietnam. Elliott told the meeting he would take the proposal to the SUA Executive and would give the ANL an answer in forty-eight hours. The SUA Executive decided to recommend to its members at stopwork meetings that they decline to crew the Boonaroo, in light of the union’s opposition to Australian involvement in the war. On May 13 the seven maritime unions involved in crewing the ship met together; with the exception of the SUA, all unions volunteered to crew the Boonaroo. That day the SUA Executive’s proposal became public and the Sydney Morning Herald reported that the Boonaroo’s cargo consisted of "supplies of food, cigarettes and beer for the troops." A cartoon in the West Australian on 13 May created the impression that the Boonaroo’s supplies were urgently needed by Australian troops.
On May 17, ACTU secretary Harold Souter called a conference of maritime unions, the ANL, the ACTU and the Department of Shipping and Transport to discuss the dispute. The SUA boycotted this meeting. The next day SUA members at the engagement centre refused to crew the ship and were penalised by the ANL by being placed at the bottom of the roster and not being paid their attendance money. At the same time the SUA was given a telegram which stated that unless the ban on the Boonaroo was lifted, action would be taken in the Commonwealth Industrial Court. The spectre of the Commonwealth Crimes Act, which carried a penalty of twelve months imprisonment for "obstructing or hindering the performance of services", must have loomed large in the minds of many SUA members. (Geraghty: 27) At the arbitration conference ACTU Secretary Souter reaffirmed the Executive’s ruling that the ACTU would not support stoppages which prevented the "passage of troops or conveyance of materials for use by Australian troops in Vietnam." According to the history of the SUA, Souter’s statement was regarded as a directive by Mr Justice Gallagher and the conference was adjourned so that the SUA could hold stopwork meetings to decide the union’s course of action. At stopwork meetings around the nation, seamen recognised the isolated nature of the union and agreed to crew the Boonaroo, but only "with great reluctance and under protest". (Fitzpatrick & Cahill: 212) The internal unity between the SUA’s leadership and its rank and file was reflected in the telegrams sent to the SUA Executive by the stopwork meetings, such as that from seamen at Port Kembla:
"We believe that there has been an attempt to deliberately isolate the Seamen’s Union because it dares to carry out Union policy. With the line of the Court, the Government, leadership of the other maritime unions and the ACTU, we find ourselves in the position of having to man the Boonaroo but do so under great duress. Let it be known that this Union, the leadership and the rank and file, are completely united around opposition to the war in Vietnam and that the rank and file of the union are completely opposed to any suggestion that these decisions are the decisions of a few individuals." (Telegram in SUA Records, folder 721)
SUA members joined the crew and the ship was due to leave on July 26 1966. Its departure was delayed for three hours when members of the crew and other seamen staged an anti-war demonstration on the wharf. Unbending in their opposition to the war, seamen draped banners over the ship’s railings that declared "Boonaroo seamen oppose war in Vietnam" "Y Dy for Ky" and "No kids for Ky". Officials from the SUA, the WWF and the Deckhands and Firemen’s Association addressed the demonstration, denouncing the Vietnam War and Australia’s involvement in it. Finally, the Boonaroo sailed out of Sydney Harbor as a "peace" ship with its unwilling crew of seamen.
The sense of isolation weighed heavily on both the leadership and membership of the SUA. Della Elliott wrote later that:
Seamen manned the Boonaroo not because they feared a clash with the Federal Government, or were intimidated by threatened Industrial Court action, they were prepared to face such challenges (as they had in the past), but they were not prepared "to go it alone" and succumb to actions designed to isolate the SUA from the Australian trade union movement." (Sydney Morning Herald 27/5/66)
E.V. Elliott told a meeting organised by the University of Sydney Socialist Club that, "…while [the SUA] thought that most of the country’s workers would have backed it in objecting to the war they would not have backed the ban on the ship." He went on to summarise the union’s problem, stating that "we manned it because we were isolated". Even the SUA’s traditional ally, the WWF, did not take industrial action against the Boonaroo. The Federal Secretary of the WWF, Charles Fitzgibbon declared that the union would not take "…any action that would prejudice the carriage of supplies to Australian lads forced into this war." (Saunders 1982: 67)
Ted Bull, later the Victorian secretary of the WWF, suggested that Fitzgibbon complied with the ACTU policy because he was on the Executive of the ACTU. (Interview 1996) Needless to say, the threats of "disciplinary action" against the SUA by the ACTU would hardly have encouraged taking industrial action against the Boonaroo. In this first test of the tradition of independent militant action against the war, the SUA was unwilling to risk estrangement from the rest of the union movement.
The controversy over crewing Australian ships bound for Vietnam did not end when the Boonaroo left Sydney. In early June 1966, the Jeparit was chartered by the government for a journey to South Vietnam. The SUA expressed "shock and disgust" over the decision. (21) The Jeparit arrived in Newcastle on the 6th of June, but no seamen volunteered for the crew the next day. According to the SUA’s Federal Office Report, ACTU secretary Souter rang Elliott about the lack of volunteers:
It appeared Secretary Souter’s purpose in ringing was to ascertain whether the Union had in any way influenced seamen not to volunteer for Jeparit. He opened up the conversation by asking what the position was; when told seamen were not interested, he queried this and asked whether there had been any direction, any meeting or any speaking by officials in relation to Jeparit. When told by Elliott "no", Souter again put the question and asked whether the men knew the ACTU policy. Elliott said his first reply was correct, there had been nor direction by the union or its officials, the men had been advised of the situation and of the telegrams between the union and the ACTU.
During this conversation Elliott asked whether the ACTU’s decision on industrial action against the war covered the active physical involvement of Australian trade unionists in the war in Vietnam. Souter replied that the ruling applied wherever members of the union operated outside Australia. In the course of the conversation Elliott argued that the SUA had not prevented the passage of troops or the conveyance of materials. (Report no 16/66 in SUA Records, folder 722)
The Jeparit, having failed to recruit a crew, sailed to Sydney. The Federal Council of the SUA believed the journey to Sydney to obtain a crew was an attempt to isolate the union and in light of what had transpired with the Boonaroo, they decided to crew the Jeparit. Eventually the ship sailed on June 17 with a full crew. Later, at the beginning of December 1966, 40mm cannons were loaded on the Jeparit. Following protests by the SUA and representations by the ACTU, the cannons were removed and the ship left for Vietnam on December 3 1966.
The Boonaroo and Jeparit Disputes of 1967
While the SUA tolerated having to sail ships carrying war materials for troops in Vietnam, it drew the line at carrying actual weapons and ammunition. On February 21 1967 the Boonaroo was instructed to sail to Port Wilson Explosives Depot. The crew refused to do so until the SUA could consult with the other maritime unions. Two days later, the union was informed that the ship was to carry aircraft bombs and detonators. A meeting of the seven maritime unions, the WWF and the ACTU took place on February 27. At this meeting the ACTU made it clear that in its May 1965 ruling about industrial action against the war, the word "materials" referred to all "materials for use of or by the Australian forces in Vietnam" and that this included weapons. (ACTU: 57)
The ACTU also argued that the Boonaroo should be crewed voluntarily by Australian unionists rather than by service personnel. Such a recommendation was in light of the public declarations made by the Minister for Labor and National Service, Leslie Bury, that if the SUA refused to crew the ship, navy personnel would be used. (29) Bury had spoken to Monk on February 22 and had stated that navy personnel would used if seamen refused to crew the Boonaroo. According to the Age newspaper, Bury had also told Monk that the ship had to sail by March 8. (The Age 1/3/67)
At the February 27 conference, the Merchant Service Guild and the Marine Power Engineers were willing to carry bombs and the Marine Stewards, the Radio Operators and Cooks went along with this position. The WWF stated that no unionist should be forced to crew a ship carrying explosives. The Shipwrights opposed civilians transporting bombs and the SUA, represented by Elliott, declared that seamen would most likely refuse to crew the Boonaroo. The next day the ACTU Executive decided that: "…we believe that Australian merchant ships should be manned voluntarily by trade unionists rather than by Service personnel." (ACTU: 57)
The SUA remained defiant and the Victorian secretary Bert Nolan stated on February 28 that: "We have no intention of taking the ship to Point Wilson to load explosives that could be used for any purpose." (The Age 1/3/67)
In the Federal Parliament, Bury renewed his threat to use the navy on the Boonaroo and launched into an attack on the communist leadership of the SUA stating, "I hope the crew will follow the Australian flag and not the hammer and sickle." (33) On March 1 the civilian crew was paid off and the ship was commissioned as a Royal Australian Navy ship.
The Jeparit was the next ship to be drawn into the conflict. On March 2 1967 the ANL and the government informed the SUA that the Jeparit would carry weapons and ammunition on its next trip. When the ship berthed in Sydney the next day, all the maritime unions, with the exception of the SUA, agreed to crew it. The Australian Workers Union, a supporter of Australian involvement in Vietnam, attacked the SUA for preventing the shipment of supplies for Australian troops, saying it "went against everything Australian". President Monk stated that the "Seamen’s Union is not entitled as an organisation to disregard the ACTU executive’s decision." (Saunders 1982: 68) The mainstream press was ferociously hostile to the SUA’s refusal to crew the Jeparit. An editorial in the Sydney Morning Herald on 7 March summed up the commonly held belief about the union leadership’s true intentions:
The Seamen’s Union is Communist-led, and the reason for its tactics is perfectly clear. As Mr Bury has said, Mr Elliott and his colleagues are less concerned about the welfare and employment opportunities of their members than they are trying to ensure the triumph of Hanoi.
On March 8, stopwork meetings of seamen were held around the country. Overwhelmingly, the SUA members voted against carrying weapons and ammunition in merchant ships, including the Jeparit. According to Elliott, only eleven seamen voted to sail the ship to Vietnam with its war cargo. (Elliot, speech, WWF Records, folder 1003 (B) In the meeting resolutions, seamen proposed that SUA members would transport all Australian troops back to Australia, without pay, if the Australian government decided to withdraw its troops. To make the point, the motion stated that SUA members would "…willingly man any ship to bring Australian forces home from this filthy, unwinnable war." (39)
Once the decision was known, the seamen on the Jeparit were discharged and the next day, naval ratings took the place of seamen and firemen. All the other maritime union members remained on board and the ship operated with a joint civilian/naval crew.
The Jeparit and the Boonaroo disputes of 1966 and 1967 reveal a great deal about trade union opposition to Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam war. They brought the radical and labourist traditions into sharp relief, with the leaderships of the SUA and ACTU coming to personify the two sides of the debate. The disputes can also be viewed in the light of previous disputes such as those over Korea. The principal protagonists were the same and the responses to the union’s intentions from the government, the media and the ACTU were almost identical. Similarly, the SUA’s isolation from the rest of the union movement effectively curtailed its attempts at industrial action over political issues.
The disputes also raise questions about the influence of communist leadership on union opposition to the war. The government and sections of the media emphasised the fact that the SUA was led by communists, including its Federal Secretary E.V. Elliott. The WWF and the SUA had militant, communist leaderships during the Dalfram dispute and communist trade union officials such as Elliott and Jim Healy, General Secretary of the WWF, played a leading role in the boycott of Dutch ships in 1945. It would be wrong to assume however, that communist leadership automatically produced the kind of action on non-industrial issues characteristic of the SUA. A number of maritime, metal and construction unions had communists in their leadership, but they did not take industrial action in opposition to the war as early or as consistently as the seamen did. Furthermore, the SUA’s democratic procedures and the broader anti-communist sentiments in Australian society meant that the SUA’s communist leadership could easily have toppled, were it not for the strong support of the membership.
The strong internationalist streak in the SUA was, in part, a product of the attitudes of the rank and file seamen whose views had been shaped by their experiences working on ships that sailed around the world. The ability to put their "worldly" views into action was facilitated by the strategic position in the economy that seamen enjoyed. It may well be said that the leadership of the SUA was as much the product of seamen’s internationalism, militancy and radicalism as the other way around. They bequeathed to a divided and nervous labor movement a tradition and a practice of "political unionism" which would soon grow in other union as well.
Unions and the wider anti-war movement
In their thematic history of the Australian peace movement, Ralph Summy and Malcolm Saunders argue that: "For most of the period [the Australian peace movement] has relied on working class dissenters to provide the nucleus of its support, a pattern however, which appears to have been permanently disrupted by the response to the Vietnam War." (Saunders & Summy: 30)
Opposition to Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War mobilised a socially diverse range of people and set a precedent of "classlessness" that most "new social movements" have since followed. With all this talk of social diversity, one might be tempted to assign trade unions to the "dustbin of history", or a least relegate them to a secondary role, as Barry York does:
Where workers did take action to oppose the war in Vietnam, and many did, they were following the lead of the young people who by this stage provided the core of the protest movement. (York 1988: 240)
Yet chronologically, and more generally, York’s argument is flawed. Union participation in the anti-war movement preceded the large-scale influx of young people. After the Boonaroo and Jeparit disputes, it might be said many of the young people were following the lead of trade unionists.
In addition, as an institutional body or bodies, the union movement could potentially mobilise a large number of people. If the Boonaroo and Jeparit incidents reflected the limitations of isolated groups of militants taking industrial action over political issues, then the union s had a greater level of success in their interactions with other sections of the anti-war movement. It was in the course of the anti-Vietnam protests that the unions were able to utilise their resources, bot human and material, and put them at the call of the anti-war movement.
Their importance extended beyond their resources. Unions had deeper roots in the wider community than other sections of the movement. Through their networks of officials and organisers, as well as their journals, the unions were able to get the anti-war messages across to thousands of workers. Workers who may not have related to the student radicals or members of Save Our Sons may well have responded to the appeals of union officials who were seen to have their interests at heart. Union involvement in the anti-Vietnam campaign gave it a stronger "class element" and increased its appeal to working class people.
It is difficult to truly gauge the importance of the "class element" which the trade unions contributed to the anti-war movement’s success. However, their role in contributing to the social diversity of Australia’s anti-war movement cannot be ignored. Being a trade unionist in manual occupations was usually a symbol of working class status and identification, while the identification of Vietnam as a class issue meant that those unionists who viewed the world through the prism of class had an interest in opposing the war. The sentiment that peace was trade union business drew in a layer of unionists who otherwise might not have identified with the aims of the peace movement, were it identifiably middle class. The internationalist traditions of unions like the SUA and the wider political perspectives brought to the movement by activist unions also helped ensure that the campaign against Australia’s involvement in Vietnam encompassed issues beyond conscription. It is important then, to examine the relationship unions had with other groups opposed to the war in Vietnam: the student New left, Save Our Sons and the draft resisters.
Unions and the student new left
According to Dave Nadel, a leading member of the Monash Labor Club at the time, links between students and trade unionists were greatly affected by the politics of the people making those links. For instance, at Monash University the Maoist students enjoyed strong links with officials and members of the Victorian branch of the WWF, while at Melbourne University the CPA enjoyed a greater level of support among student activists, who in turn had links with CPA-affiliated union officials. (Interview 1996)
Where differences did occur between students and unionists they reflected the ideological differences between new and old leftists, not a general "student versus unionist" division. For instance, on September 27 1969 the State Secretary of the Amalgamated Engineering Union (AEU), Laurie Carmichael, and his wife Val, appeared at Williamstown Court charged with assaulting police and resisting arrest over the events a week earlier outside the court when their son (also name Laurie) was due to appear over his draft refusal. According to Ken Mansell:
One week later outside a courthouse surrounded by a thick blue line, students and union officials (who had collaborated with police in moving the students away from the Court) abused one another, with Albert Langer particularly singled out for verbal attack by "Curly" Rourke of the WWF. Subsequently a motion of censure against Labor Club members was passed at the WWF meeting…Jill Jolliffe argued the rift was the result of machinations of factions in the WWF and that the rift was a political difference in the working class movement rather than between students and workers. (Mansell: 38)
According to Dave Nadel, there was a similar situation at a demonstration against the jailing of Clarrie O’Shea a year earlier. Albert Langer wanted to speak after another student, who had been selected to speak by Laurie Carmichael chiefly because he shared Carmichael’s politics. The officials chairing the meeting didn’t want Langer to speak and tried to present it as students muscling in on a workers’ gathering. However the people chanting "let him speak" most loudly were waterside workers and builders’ laborers, according to Nadel: "The point is what that was really about is it wasn’t that Carmichael and Rourke were workers and Albert was a student. It was that Carmichael and Rourke were CPA members and Albert was a Maoist." For Nadel one of the most important things for students about trade union opposition to the Vietnam war, particularly events such as the refusal to crew the Boonaroo and Jeparit, was that it mitigated the sense of isolation that many student anti-war activists felt, especially after the 1966 election:
One of the big differences between the student movement in Australia and the student movement in America was that sense of we’re not just a bunch of long haired freaks talking about revolution. There’s forty percent of the population that think like we do and some of them are prepared to do pretty courageous stuff like the Seamen’s Union. (Interview 1996)
Various anti-war actions by students were supported by trade unions, who provided material support in the form of leaflets or unionists attending demonstrations. For instance, on September 6, 1970, just days before the second Moratorium the so-called "Waterdale Road Massacre" took place when four hundred students and staff attempted to march from Northland Shopping Centre, where they had distributed anti-war material, back down Waterdale Road to La Trobe University. They were brutally assaulted by police and chased onto the campus. At a follow up rally on September 23, eight hundred people marched, with members of the BLF, the WWF and the Plumbers and Gasfitters Union attending in solidarity with the students. (York 1989: 95-7)
Save Our Sons
Save Our Sons (SOS) was a women’s organisation set up in May 1965 to oppose conscription for overseas service and more specifically the use of conscripts as part of Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War. The SOS organisation was part of a much larger tradition of women’s mobilisations against war dating back to organisations such as the Women’s Peace Army, which opposed the conscription referenda of 1916-17. SOS is frequently remembered as a group of genteel middle class women who wore gloves and hats to protests. In part this reflected the social diversity of the anti-Vietnam movement. However, the image is something of a misnomer as the class composition of SOS varied from city to city and it enjoyed strong links with the labour movement:
In Newcastle, the movement was more working class, with representatives addressing numerous union groups, and receiving donations from various workers’ clubs. In Townsville too, it was mostly working class women who responded to an advertisement placed by Margaret Reynolds. (McHugh: 208)
For SOS, the trade unions were a source of financial and material support. They also arranged for SOS members to be able to speak to unionists at work sites or factory gates.
In Victoria a number of events reflected the importance of trade union support for SOS. In 1969 there was a campaign to repeal By-law 418 which was being used to arrest people handing out "Don’t Register" leaflets. The Melbourne Lord Mayor who policed the laws, Sir Maurice Natham, declared his refusal to change the law despite the arrest of many numbers of anti-war activists, including SOS members such as Jean McLean. Natham changed his mind when unions in Melbourne threatened to blackban his beer company unless the law was changed. Charges were subsequently dropped.
More significant were the events of April 1971, when five members of SOS were charged with trespass for handing out leaflets outside the National Service Centre and subsequently sentenced to fourteen days imprisonment in Fairlea Womens’ Prison. Although it was Easter, there were huge vigils outside the prison which included the twenty-five children of the "Fairlea Five". A twenty-four hour stoppage by waterside workers closed the Port of Melbourne and the SUA went on strike in protest against the women’s imprisonment.
A deputation of trade unionists, including George Crawford, Secretary of the Plumbers’ Union met Ian Spicer, Secretary of the Victorian Employers Federation, which owned the building where the National Service Centre was located. The Assistant Secretary of the Employers Federation had asked the five women to leave the building. Spicer gave an undertaking that the Employers’ Federation would not initiate any more prosecutions against people handing out leaflets outside the National Service offices. Crawford took part in the press conference held by the Fairlea Five after their release, 11 days into their fourteen day sentence.
Armed with Spicer’s undertaking, Crawford and the members of the Fairlea Five visited the National Service offices to hand out anti-war material. Crawford was arrested by Federal Police after indicating his desire to distribute the leaflets when the women were warned not to. A meeting of several unions decided that Crawford’s arrest should be challenged and as result eighteen other unionists attempted to hand out leaflets and were also arrested. Subsequently, a magistrate dismissed the case against George Crawford.
The draft resisters
Besides the students and Save Our Sons, draft resisters also received much support from trade unions. In part this was a product of the fact that conscription affected young male unionists as well. Ken Carr of the Furnishing Trades Union and Secretary of the twenty-six "Rebel Unions", which had broken away from the Victorian Trades Hall Council, summed up the feelings of a number of trade unionists:
I kept telling people that it was useless just to campaign for bread and butter issues when young unionists were being conscripted or gaoled. To say unions should only be interested in the eight hours that workers are on the job is pathetic. (Quoted in Scates: 34)
One of the most famous draft resisters was John Zarb, a young postman who was sentenced to two years prison in 1968 for refusing to obey a call up notice. Zarb had earlier been refused conscientious objector status because he was not an absolute pacifist. His gaoling created a great deal of support, especially from his own union, the Amalgamated Postal Workers Union (APWU). The General Secretary George Slater, declared:
John Zarb is a political prisoner, gaoled by fascists. He refuses to take part in the murder of people who have done him no harm. He upholds the Christian principle of "thou shalt not kill". (Quoted in Scates: 33)
Thirty four union officials in Victoria demanded Zarb’s immediate release in a leaflet which called:
on all trade unionists to register the greatest and most effective protest possible to end this shocking violation of human rights and to demand an end to this war in Vietnam without further delay. (Quoted in Scates: 33)
The Victorian Branch of the ALP and the Rebel Unions agitated for Zarb’s release as did large numbers of other people. Eventually, in late August 1969, Zarb was released on compassionate grounds after serving ten months in what was widely seen as a cynical act by the Liberals.
In Wollongong, a town with a strong tradition of union political activism, a number of trade unions were instrumental in supporting the draft resister Lou Christofides. Such support began on a personal level:
After I refused to register I found no one would employ me for a long time because it was illegal to employ someone in default of the Act. Eventually I was told to see Stan Woodbury, the secretary of the Painters and Dockers at Port Kembla … He didn’t know me, though he had seen me around. I told him my problem and he started me as a casual on the waterfront. I later joined the union. (Quoted in Langley: 121)
When Lou Christofides was imprisoned in Long Bay in 1969 for his refusal to register, the SUA at Port Kembla slowed down ships each day he was in jail. There was also a twenty-four hour stoppage by the SUA and the other maritime unions at Port Kembla which contributed to his earlier release from prison.
The links between draft resisters and unions in Melbourne were strengthened by the case of Laurie Carmichael Jr, the son of the State Secretary of the AEU. When the younger Carmichael appeared at Williamstown Court to answer charges relating to his refusal to report for a medical examination, he was whisked away by supporters. Angry scenes erupted and Laurie Carmichael and his wife Val as well as twelve other people were arrested. In protest against the "brutal treatment" the police meted out to demonstrator, especially Val Carmichael, who was knocked over and dragged along the ground by her feet, the Rebel Unions issued a statement that:
we recommend to Unions that a campaign of lunchtime and stopwork meetings be held land that contact be made with sister organisations in other states, finally aimed at National action on the part of the worker. (SUA Records, folder 724)
A week later, when the Carmichaels appeared at Williamstown Court, unionists held meetings and demonstrated outside the court. According to Ken Carr, "…at the Williamstown Naval Dockyard the blokes just dropped their tools and marched towards the court." (Quoted in Scates: 45) Approximately five hundred workers from the dockyard and seven hundred meatworkers from Newport stopped work to attend the demonstration. Moreover:
after the Carmichael case, Union leaders like George Crawford (Plumbers Union), Ray Hogan (Miscellaneous Workers Union) and Roger Wilson (Seamen’s Union) were readily available to meet with draft resisters and student activists at short notice. Unions continued to assist in organising factory meetings and addressing shop steward seminars. (Scates: 45)
It is difficult to gauge the effect of the Carmichael trial on individual unionists but it almost certainly influenced the declaration of two to three hundred union officials from the Rebel Unions in Victoria:
We encourage those young men already conscripted to refuse to accept orders against their conscience and those in Vietnam to lay down their arms in mutiny against the heinous barbarism perpetuated in our name upon the innocent, aged, men, women and children. (Quoted in Scates: 50)
Such a declaration was condemned by the media and the government, but little came of it. In part this was because by the time they were in the army, most conscripts were beyond being influenced by radical unionists. However, this is not to say that union officials did not actively campaign against conscription. In August 1971, ten union officials were charged with violating the National Service Act because they were handing out leaflets which encouraged young men to refuse to register for National Service. They were among a group of thirty union organisers and officials from a variety of unions who were handing out anti-registration leaflets outside the offices of the Department of Labor and National Service in Melbourne. In their court statement the unionists, who were found guilty and fined between $20 and $50 each, declared that:
As Trade Union Officials, representing many thousands of organized workers, we firmly believe that the continued conscription of young Australians to be sent to Vietnam to kill or be killed is a criminal act. We therefore, as a matter of conscience with 30 other like-minded Trade Union Officials deliberately handed out leaflets in Flinders Street outside the Department of Labor and National Service.
The National Service Act was introduced for the sole purpose of involving Australia in United States imperialist aggression against the peoples of Indo-China … Accordingly, we/I declare our/my intention to actively encourage people to incite others into direct confrontation with the Federal Government in respect of the National Service Act and the dirty war in Vietnam…
As we do not recognise the immoral and unjust law around which this action was taken we/I wish to make it quite clear that we/I will not be paying the fines. Attempts to impose the fines will undoubtedly lead to increasing industrial action." ("Statement to the Court", 4/8/71, SUA Records, folder 725 22A)
The leaflets about the trial were authorised by an organisation called the Trade Union Peace and Solidarity Committee (TUPSC) which had been established to assist in the coordination of union anti-war activity.
The trade unions gave the anti-war movement a deal of "muscle" that it otherwise would not have had, in terms of their resources and ability to mobilise their members as well as their political breadth. However, the true extent of the union movement’s ability to mobilise organised workers for the anti-war cause was only to be revealed during the Moratoria in 1970.
Stop work to stop the war
The Moratorium was like all our Christmases had come on one day. The peace movement had been around since the 1930’s and had failed to stop any war. But with Vietnam, we won. (Margaret Frazer, longterm peace activist with CICD. Quoted in Langley: 141)
The national Moratorium marches which took place on May 18 1970 were the high points in the campaign against Australia’s involvement in Vietnam. Around the country between 150,000 and 200,000 marched, with about 100,000 of those marching in Melbourne. Not only the number of people who marched was impressive, but also their diverse nature. No longer was it just radical students, unionists and communists protesting against the war:
There was a turning point when we ceased to be a minority of youthful revolutionaries seeking tooverthrow society; we became a respectable group of humane anti-war people whose stand was respected by the general community. The turning point probably occurred at different times in different states, but one was certainly the May 1970 Moratorium. It was a huge demonstration with support across the board, and it’s hard to call people pack-raping bikies* if they are priests, nuns with peace badges on, or 80-year-old grandmothers pushing grandkids in strollers. [*A government minister had used this phrase to describe anti-war activists. -ed] (Quoted in Langley: 147)
There were marches in all the capital cities, as well as in a number of large towns such as Wollongong, on May 8 and 9. In Melbourne many of the marchers took part in the fifteen minute sit-down which blocked off much of Bourke Street and brought traffic to a standstill. There were two subsequent Moratoria in September 1970 and June 1971, both much smaller than the May 1970 marches.
The mobilisation of such large numbers of people was in part made possible by the involvement of the trade unions. This is not to say that the union movement was united behind the Moratorium. If anything it brought the deep cleavages that had long existed in the union movement to the surface. In part this stemmed from the nature of the Moratorium itself. It was to be a public demonstration of opposition to the war in Vietnam of such a magnitude that neither the trade union movement nor the government could ignore it. Perhaps more important, it was something that the Australian Labor Party could not ignore. With the exception of the Western Australian and Victorian branches and federal parliamentarians like Jim Cairns and Tom Uren, the ALP had enjoyed a decidedly lukewarm relationship with the anti-war movement since the 1966 election. This was reflected in part by Opposition Leader Gough Whitlam’s response to ALP Federal Secretary Joe Chamberlain’s exhortation that Whitlam should put himself at the head of the Moratorium movement:
We maximise our opposition to the Vietnam war by maximising our support for our party. I do not believe that I should single out any one of half a dozen issues for my exclusive attention. (Quoted in Murphy: 252)
However it was precisely the success of the Moratorium which marked that sea change in public opinion which contributed to the ALP electoral victory in 1972 and delivered the death blow to the National Service scheme.
Malcolm Saunders divides trade union support and opposition into three categories: the ACTU, the State-based Trades and Labor Councils, and individual unions. (Saunders 1977, Vol 1:57) At all these levels one sees the radical/labourist dichotomy alongside the divisions that stemmed from the 1955-56 split in the ALP.
At a national level, the ACTU was asked to support the Moratorium by the BWIU, the WWF and the Queensland Trades and Labor Council. With the earlier ACTU Executive decisions on Vietnam in mind, a cynic might suggest that ACTU policy decisions relating to Vietnam were essential uncontroversial, long on sentiment and generally non-committal about any forms of action for affiliates. However the proposal to support the Moratorium bitterly divided the ACTU executive, roughly in half. The motion itself was mild, even by ACTU Executive standards, and there were no hints of compulsion or industrial action. It merely stated:
ACTU affiliates are entitled to support activities which are in line with declared ACTU policies especially where such activities are conducted in a disciplined and orderly fashion that will bring credit on the Trade Union Movement. (Quoted in Saunders 1977, Vol 1: 8)
The motion itself only passed by one vote, nine to eight, when the recently-elected ACTU president, Robert Hawke, cast the deciding vote for the proposal that he drew up. Members of the Executive who opposed the motion did not necessarily do so because they supported the war. For instance, one of the principal opponents of the Moratorium was John Ducker, Assistant Secretary of the NSW Labor Council and Vice-President of the NSW branch of the ALP. According to Saunders, Ducker opposed Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War and conscription, but was very antagonistic to the anti-war movement, declaring that in New South Wales the Vietnam Moratorium Committee was "confused, divided and unable to work." (Quoted in Saunders 1982: 71)
Of course, there were staunch anti-communists on the ACTU Executive who also opposed the motion. The secretary of the Victorian Trades Hall Council, Ken Stone, and the secretary of the Tasmanian Trades and Labor Council, Brian Harradine, were both ardent anti-communists. Moreover, their opponents believed they had strong links to the Democratic Labor Party (DLP), one of the strongest proponents of Australia’s involvement in Vietnam.
As a consequence of the effective deadlock that existed in the ACTU Executive, Hawke referred the decision to the various Trades and Labor Councils around the country. The ACTU’s constitution stated that an Executive recommendation could become official ACTU policy if it was approved by a majority of the six Trades and Labour Councils. However, the divisions that had become apparent in the Executive were magnified at the Council level:
Observers predicted that the Trades and Labor Councils would be deadlocked. Councils in Queensland, South Australia and Western Australia would support the proposal; those in New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania would not. This is precisely what happened. The motion, therefore, was stillborn. (Saunders 1977, vol 2: 49-50)
The Councils’ respective stances were largely a reflection of their ideological orientation along the lines of the Labor Party split. The most left-wing of all the Trades and Labor Councils was Queensland’s, and aside from agitating for ACTU support for the Moratorium, it also gave its own endorsement and active support to the Moratorium. Victoria had perhaps the most right-wing of all the Councils, largely the result of the expulsion of twenty-seven of its affiliates and the right-wing nature of the unions which remained, and it rejected the ACTU Executive’s proposal. Implicit -- and often explicit -- in this conflict over union support for the Moratorium was an understanding of the relationship between trade unions and politics. In other words, the difference between the labourist and radical traditions was crucial. For instance, Harradine declared in a circular to Tasmanian affiliates in May 1970 that under official trade union policy, unions should not involve themselves in political issues. He called on them to "reject attempts being made to … pervert the trade union movement and embroil it in divisive issues." (Quoted in Saunders 1977, vol 2: 68)
In start contrast, the secretary of the Western Australian Trades and Labor Council, J. Coleman, publicly declared in early March 1970 that peace was trade union business. If one believed that peace was indeed trade union business then one had broken down the distinction between industrial and political issues on which labourist conceptions rested. To that extent, Vietnam and especially the Moratorium exacerbated those long-standing tensions that existed within the labour movement over the appropriate role of unions in the wider society.
On the whole, the level of support from the Trades and Labor Councils was extremely limited. In Queensland, the Council established a committee to publicise the Moratorium among union members, organising factory and job meetings, writing articles in union journals and producing leaflets for distribution. The wording of the leaflets calling upon unionists to attend the rally on May 8 caused controversy. The leadership of the Council recommended that the leaflet read that unionists could stop work "where convenient" and attend the rally. After a ninety-minute debate over whether the proposed recommendation was too mild, the executive’s proposal was accepted. The Council thereby avoided committing its affiliates to any course of industrial action or stoppages for the Moratorium Effectively, the Council’s active support consisted of publishing and distributing thirty thousand leaflets to trade unionists. (Saunders 1977, vol 2: 60)
Perhaps the greatest level of union support for the Moratorium came from outside the Councils, in the form of the twenty-six Rebel Unions in Victoria. These unions had broken away from the Trades Hall Council in 1967 over voting rights. Essentially consisting of the left wing of the trade union movement, the Rebel Unions contained two-thirds of all unionists in Victoria. Six unions which were still financial affiliates of Trades Hall joined with the twenty six rebels in support of the Moratorium. According to Malcolm Saunders, "the 32 unions constituted the strongest organised working-class support that the anti-war movement received in any State." (Saunders 1982: 74)
In a sense, the tension that existed between the radical and labourist tendencies took an organisational form in Victoria. As Geoffrey Barker and Michele Grattan wrote:
The rebels are anxious for the unions to play an active role in the battle against repressive industrial legislation like the penal clauses and to undertake militant campaigns on foreign and domestic issues. Jordon and Stone [the leadership of Trades Hall Council] have always seen the union movement’s role as primarily and essentially an industrial one. (Grattan & Barker: 17)
The rebels’ new-found role further estranged them from the "bread and butter" unionism of the Trades Hall Council:
Increasingly the rebel group has moved from their initial position as simply spokesman for a faction in the THC dispute to a role of taking up and running campaigns on a wide range of issues, for example, Vietnam … The attraction of this independent role makes many of the rebel unions unwilling to go back to the THC until they are quite sure of having the numbers to control it. (Grattan & Barker: 18)
Union backing for the Moratorium in Victoria was not only distinguished by the large number of unions who supported it but also by the level of support they gave. Individually and collectively, the rebel unions were among the staunchest supporters of the Moratorium. They had already provided a great deal of assistance to other sections of the peace movement. Officials from the various unions had long played an active role in the movement and a number were prominent in organising the Moratorium campaign. They included the Secretary of the Victorian branch of the AEU (Engineers’ union), Laurie Carmichael; the Victorian Secretary of the Waterside Workers, Ted Bull; and the Victorian Assistant Secretary of the Seamen’s Union, Roger Wilson. While these officials were also members of the various communist parties that existed at the time, a number of the rebel unions’ officials were also leading members of the ALP. For instance the Federal Secretary of the Plumbers’ Union, George Crawford, was also Victorian Branch Secretary of the ALP; this branch was the strongest backer of the Moratorium within the party and mobilised its suburban branches in support.
The Rebel Unions took a number of actions designed to raise the Moratorium’s profile. Twenty-five Victorian unions, twenty-one of them rebels, sponsored an advertisement in the Sun newspaper encouraging members to stop work for at least part of the day. The rebel unions elected a full-time organiser to work for the Moratorium. They also held job and factory meetings and distributed literature among members, as well as publicising it through Scope, the journal of the Trade Unionists’ Defence Committee.
In other States, unions were also active. One could find unionists on the steering or co-ordinating committees of the Vietnam Moratorium Campaigns in every State, and unions also acted as sponsors for the campaigns.
Throughout the period 1965-72, the maritime unions were the strongest supporters of the Moratorium. All branches of the Seamen’s Union struck for twenty-four hours on May 18 1970. Individual ship crews also held stoppages for varying lengths of time on the day. Seaman on one ship, presumably a ferry, distributed a leaflet to the passengers:
Seamen in many Australian ports are stopping for 24 hours. It is not our intention to inconvenience passengers unduly. We therefore are not involving this vessel in the general pattern of cargo-vessel stoppages. If you feel that you are unnecessarily inconvenienced by our action spare a thought for the many young men who are inconvenienced for two years and perhaps more for the rest of their lives. Try also to spare a thought for the many Vietnamese people (North and South) who are being "inconvenienced" by death and devastation IN YOUR NAME. (Leaflet, "Delayed Sailing Tonight", SUA records, folder 725 22A)
However the importance of the Moratorium was that it drew in a wider section of the labour movement. They involved "large masses of unionists" who were able to hold political stoppages irrespective of their position in the economy, and despite the dominance of "labourist" perspectives in their normal activism. Unions not known for political activism encourage their members to participate in the Moratoria, and some of the largest unions were among the strongest supporters. For instance, two important supporters -- the AEU (85,000 members) and the Miscellaneous Workers’ Union (65,000 members) were the second and third-largest unions in Victoria.
The anti-war movement declined once troop withdrawals from Vietnam began. But its impact was long-lasting. The Vietnam experience steered some unions towards social activism for the first time. One was the Builders’ Labourers’ Federation, whose environmental actions later in the 1970s became famous under the name "Green Bans". The Vietnam Moratorium tradition also influenced the trade unionists who joined campaigns and took industrial action in the struggle against uranium mining towards the end of the decade, and in campaigns against nuclear weapons in the 1980s.
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