A New Province for Law and Order
The Rise and Decline of the Trade Union Movement
In 1953, 63 per cent of the Australian workforce was
unionised, making it one of the highest percentages
in the world. A steady decline set in and by 1982 the
percentage had dropped to 55 percent. From then on
the decline became acute. By 1990 the percentage had
dropped to 41 per cent and this decline shows no sign
of abating. Now it is about 40 percent of the workforce.
By the end of this decade it could be down to 30 percent
and early in the next century the percentage of unions
in the workforce be as low as 20 percent, if the present
rate of decline continues.
It was inevitable that unions would be organised in
Australia by migrants from the British Isles where
unions took root. However, unions had not reached any
great strength by 1900. In 1901 Australian unions covered
only 6.1 percent of the workforce. But the introduction
of compulsory arbitration in 1904 gave unionism a big
lift, because the Conciliation and Arbitration Act
had as one of its chief objects, the encouragement
of unions and employer organisations.
Unions were given extensive legal recognition. Conditions
of employment were set by Arbitration Awards. By the
way, talking about the percentage of unions in the
workforce I noticed in the schedule that I have with
me, that even in the depths of the Great Depression
in the 1930s membership of unions in proportion to
the workforce never dropped below 42 percent. So the
percentage today is even lower than what it was in
1931, 1933 and 1934. The Arbitration Act provided for
extensive rights for unions to send representatives
into the employers' premises to examine wages books
and power to sue employers for breaches of awards.
Whether or not the introduction of the compulsory
arbitration system had a good or bad effect on Australia's
subsequent economic and political development is arguable.
There is no doubt, however, that it gave unionism enormous
Unions played an important part in the formation and
the development of the Australian Labor Party. It has
often been elected to government, both federally and
in the states, of Australia. The Labor Party link gave
the unions the strength to pressure it to introduce
The early Australian unions reflected the cultural
background of migrants from the British Isles. They
often railed against employers and governments. Nonetheless,
by modern standards of union rhetoric they were moderate.
They were principally concerned with the wages and
working conditions of members and they were not "strike
happy". In fact between 1901 and the First World War
was very harmonious, industrially speaking. These early
unions campaigned for the election of Labor governments,
high tariffs and a White Australia Policy. But they
supported a multi-party democracy. For this they were
attacked by the Stalinists, when they came on the scene,
as "reformists" and "social fascists". The word "reformist"
is a swear word in the Marxian lexicon because the
Marxists, Leninists and Stalinists stood for revolution.
They despised people who wanted to reform the capitalist
system. So, when they hurled the charge of "reformism"
or "reformist"---it was a very serious accusation.
"Social fascist" was a favourite term of abuse of the
Stalinists in the early 1930s. It was defined by them
as "socialist in words but fascist in actions".
Up to the First World War, Australian unions were
led by moderate Labor men. They campaigned for a reduced
working week, fair wages and other reforms. Then came
the 1917 Bolshevik revolution in Russia. A new and
destructive element was introduced into Australian
unions and politics.
In 1921 the ALP adopted the Socialisation Objective.
This was a direct spin-off from the Russian Revolution.
The Labor Party, unions and other sections of the Australian
community developed illusions of a socialist paradise.
During the attempts to form a national union centre
in the 1920s, the objective of socialism was always
high on the agenda. When the ACTU (Australian Council
of Trade Unions) was eventually established in 1927,
it adopted as its objective "the socialisation of industry".
That too, was a spin off from the Russian Revolution.
The Communist Party of Australia was formed in 1920
with only a few hundred members and remained so until
the end of the decade. In 1929 it had about 350 members.
Most of them were active in unions, but did not exercise
much power until the Great Depression of the 1930s.
Nonetheless, they had some influence in unions, State
Trades and Labor Councils and the ACTU after it was
formed in 1927. In the wave of strikes at the end of
the 1920s, the small Communist Party was active on
the coal fields, the wharves and in the timber industry.
The 1929 Wall Street crash and the subsequent world
depression in the early 1930s, dealt Australian unions
a heavy blow. Almost half the workforce was unemployed,
or employed only part-time. Union activity dropped
to a low ebb. In fact, the unions were almost impotent.
In the early 1930s the unionists suffered wage cuts
and attacks on the standards that had been built prior
to the First World War and in the 1920s. With the lifting
of the Depression, the Communist Party emerged as a
thoroughly Stalinised organisation.
This new Stalinist Communist Party---which took
over the Communist Party around 1930---constituted
a formidable force inside Australian unions. Remember,
it emerged from the depression with about four thousand
members. They were disciplined, fanatical, and convinced
that they were the "vanguard" of the human race; that
history was with them; that they were the wave of the
future. A force of that size in 1934-35 would be like
8,000 to 10,000 inside Australian unions today. Communist
members were committed to be active in the unions.
It was a crime to be inactive. Inactive members were
purged from the Communist Party. The Communist Party
boasted that 90 per cent of its members were active
in unions. The whole of the left was either in the
Communist Party or supported it, unlike today where
you have various groups, each claiming to be the communists,
and acting sometimes in competition with one another.
Throughout the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s and 1960s the whole
of the left was either in, or sympathetic to the Communist
In 1920, the founder of Soviet Communism, Lenin, set
down in his pamphlet Left Wing Communism, that
communists must penetrate unions by all means. The
Australian unions provided an apparatus, a machine
from which the communists could operate. Lenin told
communists that they must be prepared to---and
I quote from Left Wing Communism "engage in
any manoeuvre, any deceit, any illegality". The Communist
attitude to Australian unions, and unions throughout
the world was that they should be turned into revolutionary
instruments. Communists used to scorn activists who
thought that unions were only in existence to help
the members of the union gain better working conditions,
and higher wages and other economic reforms. The Australian
Stalinist Communist Party took Lenin's advice to heart
and Lenin's Left Wing Communism pamphlet, became
At the end of the Second World War, the Communists
had a majority of delegates at the ACTU Congress. They
were in charge of most unions and their influence was
felt in every union, to one degree or another. This
power allowed them to exert considerable influence
on the Labor Party and Australia generally. Even though
union delegates to ALP conferences have to have members
of the Labor Party, they usually vote in accordance
with their union policy. And the policies of communist-controlled
unions were dictated by Soviet policy. These policies
demanded that the Western democracies be weakened so
they could not effectively combat Soviet power.
Translated into Australian union terms this called
for industrial disruption, the fanning of class hatreds
and pressure on public opinion and governments to accept
Through their union strength, the communists prevented
Australia realising its economic potential. The Federated
Ironworkers' Association (FIA) in the 1930s and 1940s
provides a classic story of Stalinist exploitation
of union power and internal union repression. True
enough, the Stalinists could not operate exactly as
they did in countries where they had State power.
They couldn't liquidate opponents physically, although
in non-communist Mexico they assassinated Leon Trotsky.
But they went as far as they could, given the constraints
of Australian democracy.
They could smear the character of an opponent, assault
him physically, rig ballots against him, defame him,
and expel him from his union. I know all about this
as I was a victim of all these measures. These are
not just wild allegations. I was able to prove it all
in open court with the assistance of a brilliant young
barrister named John Kerr, later to become the much
maligned Sir John Kerr. The communists dominated the
FIA so completely that its Stalinist national secretary,
Thornton, boasted in print---not in a throw-away,
indiscreet emotional speech, but in a written article
in a communist magazine Communist Review in
1948---and I quote:
- "the policy of the FIA decided in consultation with
the leaders of the Communist Party."
In other words, the members of the union did not decide
the policy of the FIA, it was decided in secret consultation
with the leaders of the Communist Party. The consultations
must have been secret because there is no record of
them. I have been through records of the Ironworkers'
Union. And no reports were ever given of them at Ironworkers'
More and more Australians are refusing to join unions.
One of the reasons for this is the feeling that unions
are no longer required.
Also, the tradition of being a unionist is fading;
fewer fathers now say to their sons and daughters,
"You must join the union when you go to work." This
is the most noted in people who have come to Australia
from countries where unions are weak or non-existent.
And those migrants from communist countries had such
bitter experiences of unions in their homelands, where
unions operated as an arm of the state, that they didn't
tell their sons daughters to join unions. And many
of them refused to join Australian unions.
Another important reason for the decline in union
membership in recent years is that unions such as the
Builders Labourers' Federation, with their strikes,
stormy picket lines and wild demonstrations, have antagonised
many people who see this as thuggery. As well, the
frequent strikes which hit essential services such
as transport, electricity, petrol and food supplies
anger most people, including unionists and potential
The misuse of union power, as well as the fading of
traditional loyalty to unionism, are mostly responsible
for the reduction of the number of unionists in recent
years. There are other reasons---such as the growth
of part-time work and the decline of the manufacturing
There is a growing feeling in the community, that
some unions are not interested in a strong economy
or a democratic society. As well, unions are often
seen as instruments of political and personal power
for people such as Norm Gallagher and John Halfpenny.
Many union leaders believe that fewer and bigger unions
would arrest the decline in union membership. Of course
there are unions that should amalgamate, for instance
the Australasian Society of Engineers, known as the
ASE and the FIA. That is an amalgamation which is worthwhile.
But, union amalgamations are not the answer to the
problems of Australian unionism.
Even if it is possible to reduce Australia's 330 unions
down to 20 in the near future, as has been proposed
by the ACTU, it would not arrest the decline in union
membership. Big or small unions with bad policies have
no future. Japan has thousands of unions around single
enterprises. And the Japanese union movement is effective.
Germany, on the other hand, has only 19. Some of these
unions have more than a million members, like IG Metal.
The 19 big unions in Germany are effective and the
thousands of Japanese unions are effective because
of their policies, not because of their size.
The unions, big or small, that will survive into the
21st century will be those that reject the doctrine
of the class struggle. These will be unions that see
the need for cooperation with employers, governments
and the general public. Unions must have public approval
as well as that of their direct membership.
The Accord between the ACTU and the Federal Labor
Government in the fixation of wages led many to believe
that wages are cut and dried and fixed somewhere else.
The Accord though there could be some argument about
its beneficial effects particularly in its early years,
has outlived its usefulness. The push now occurring
for enterprise agreements and for more involvement
of the rank and file at the enterprise level, is good
for the country and good for unions.
Above all, unions of the future will not attract members
if they are tied to a totalitarian foreign power, like
the former Soviet Union.