This website was created on occasion of the 70th anniversary of the Coal Strike in Australia

1949 - 2019















The great coal strike of 1949

J D Blake

Australian Communist Party pamphlet, August 1949

The magnificent seven-weeks strike of the mineworkers in July and August 1949 brought into sharper focus than any other event of the postwar period the true nature and policy of all political parties and classes in the Australian community. This struggle was a great turning point in Australian post-war history, which threw into clear relief the new conditions that confront the working class.

The interpretations of this struggle that have been advanced by the Labor governments, the Tory parties and the daily press are many and varied, but the stock argument used by practically all these forces hostile to the working class was that the coal strike was a Communist plot or a Communist conspiracy.

Even a cursory, but honest, examination of the facts and events before and during the strike clearly show that this interpretation is completely unfounded and false. From the very beginning, the strike developed on the basis of genuine industrial issues, that is, upon the basis of the economic claims that were advanced by the mineworkers. But it soon became clear that, so far as the ruling class and the various governments were concerned, the struggle involved much more profound issues than the economic claims of the miners. For this reason also, the outcome of the struggle meant much more for the workers than simply the satisfaction of the economic claims of the mineworkers.

Already in the second week of the strike, it became known that the Collins House monopolists and the federal and state Labor governments had set themselves the deliberate aim of securing the extinction of the Communist Party as an effective organisation in Australia. It was made known that Labor politicians in both the federal and NSW parliaments looked upon this struggle as an opportunity to destroy the influence of the Communists in the trade union movement. They openly acknowledged that most of the postwar advances in wages, hours and working conditions were associated in the minds of the workers with those key unions in which Communists played a prominent part in the leadership.

For this reason Chifley, McGirr and other Labor Party leaders had two major aims in connection with the coal strike. These were to smash the Communist Party and to break the back of the Miners Federation as the first stage of their grand plan to cripple the militant trade unions, deprive them of their leadership and in this way disarm the working class.

This plan of the Labour Party leaders did not arise out of thin air, but from their consideration of the economic crisis developing in the capitalist world. This developing crisis compels them to employ violent police state measures against the working class in their efforts to defend capitalism and unload upon the backs of the working people all the misery and suffering resulting from economic crisis.

The economic crisis now spreading through the capitalist world is a grave menace to capitalism, and all the more so if the working class remains unshackled; hence one of the main preparatory steps of the capitalist class, and of the government which represent that class, is to shackle and cripple the working class by smashing militant unions and the Communist Party.

Aggravating the critical situation created by growing economic crisis is the enormous burden of war expenditure involved in the war preparation of the Chifley government. This war expenditure of the federal Labor government is designed to transform Australia into a Pacific war base for the use of the Yankee imperialists in their aggressive war plans.

Undoubtedly the greatest barrier in the path of all these capitalist plans is the Communist Party, for this reason the whole power of the ruling class and its governments and all the venom of the capitalist daily press is directed against the Communist Party.

During the strike, in full-page advertisements in all the daily newspapers in the Commonwealth, Prime Minister Chifley poured out a stream of lying propaganda about the strike. These advertisements were designed to confuse the general public and isolate the miners; with this object in mind, Mr Chifley deliberately lied on the causes of the strike and the responsibility for the development of this struggle.

The events preceding the strike clearly prove Mr Chifley and the daily press to be liars. One of the great arguments advanced in all this propaganda was that the strike of the mineworkers was completely unnecessary. The strike was described as unnecessary because the Coal Industry Tribunal was alleged to be all ready to grant the demands of the mineworkers, consequently the miners were charged with coming out on strike solely because of malice and with the object of wrecking the economy of the country. The facts show these charges to be completely without foundation. Let us briefly examine the record of events preceding the strike.


The record of pre-strike events

On May 18, the Coal Industry Tribunal chairman, Frank Gallagher made this announcement:

“I have no objection whatever to the parties negotiating, in fact I think it is highly desirable that they should do so. I think that if the parties reach agreement on industrial matters it is far better than being determined by arbitration. If there is any agreement that needs ratification, I would be only too pleased to do it. As far as the present claim for the 35-hour week is concerned, I do not see anything at all to prevent the parties negotiating, and if they reach agreement it will make the matter much easier.”

This statement of Mr Gallagher makes it quite clear that within a few weeks of the outbreak of the strike in the coal mining industry he considered it advisable that direct negotiations between the workers and the coal owners should take place. Furthermore, he considered it quite possible to secure agreement on the main economic claims of the mineworkers.

The day after this statement was made, a conference was held to discuss the mining unions’ claims. At this conference the attitude of the coal owners was soon made evident. In reply to the proposals of the mining unions, the coal owners proposed a system of incentive payments and said they were prepared to agree “in principle” with long service leave if the unions waived their opposition to mechanical extraction of pillars, agreed to set aside the compulsory retirement at 60 provisions of the Pensions Act and if they undertook to accept an outside disciplinary authority with power to impose penalties on mineworkers.

It is quite clear that these proposals of the coal owners were a direct attack upon some of the basic conditions won by the miners in the process of many years’ struggle. In this regard it is interesting to note that the Joint Coal Board, which is one of the instruments of the federal Labor government, advanced proposals that were virtually word for word the proposals of the coal owners. The chairman of the Joint Coal Board, incidentally, is a former mine manager. There is no representative of the mineworkers on the board — this principle was rejected by the federal government.

The Joint Coal Board advanced a plan that called for a bonus system, mechanical extraction of pillar coal, elimination of compulsory retirement at 60, elimination of pit-top meetings, and the matter of working hours to be referred back to the tribunal.

The coal owners’ approach had already been clearly indicated in the challenges to existing awards that had been made as from the beginning of 1948. During the whole of 1948 and so far in 1949 the awards of the Miners Federation have been under fire — those relating to annual l)eave, paid public holidays, seniority, weekly hiring and the democratic practices of the union.

In this way already, early in May of this year, the line-up of forces was quite evident. The Coal Board and the coal owners together were pursuing a policy that clearly had the object of worsening the conditions already existing in the coal mining industry and all that the mineworkers were offered in return for this sacrifice was a system of long service leave that was hedged around in such a way that practically no mineworkers would ever enjoy it.

Naturally these proposals were rejected by the Miners Federation, and late in May a conference of the parties in the coal mining industry was again assembled. At this conference the representatives of the miners announced that they proposed to call aggregate meetings, whereupon Mr Gallagher declared that he would deal sympathetically with the union’s claim for long service leave if the matter were referred to the tribunal.

On the basis of this undertaking the miners’ leadership decided on June 1 to postpone the aggregate meetings until June 16 to enable the negotiations to continue.

As a result of this a further conference of the parties was held, and at the very beginning of this conference the owners repudiated their previous agreement “in principle” on long service leave and announced that they were opposed to the claim without reservation.

The Coal Board then played its part by submitting proposals for long service leave which meant that a one-day stopwork meeting would deprive the miners of the whole of that year in the assessment of long service leave; in submitting this proposal Mr Stuart, for the Coal Board, openly stated that in 1948, on the basis of the agreement proposed, the cost of long service leave would have been absolutely nothing as no mineworker would have been eligible to receive it.

Mr Gallagher, the Coal Industry Tribunal, made his position quite clear at this conference by declaring that it would be impossible and absurd to grant long service leave without attaching to it conditions of service, because the industry was a key one and difficult to discipline. This in itself made it evident that any award made by Mr Gallagher on long service leave would mean in fact no long service leave at all for the mineworkers and that his award would be used as a means to introduce disciplinary measures against the miners to destroy the industrial strength of the Miners Federation.


Mineworkers record their votes

On June 10, the central council of the Miners’ Federation carried a resolution declaring that as the coal owners and the Joint Coal Board had repudiated their previous undertaking regarding long service leave and as Mr Gallagher had indicated that his award on the matter would be on the lines demanded by the Joint Coal Board, the aggregate meetings of mineworkers would be called on Thursday June 16.

In this resolution, the Miners’ central council made a public announcement that they were still prepared to confer with the object of securing a satisfactory agreement on the miners’ claims. But instead of taking advantage of this offer of the miners’ leadership, Mr Gallagher invited the coal owners to make an application for an order against the union leaders responsible for calling the aggregate meetings. The coal owners quickly accepted this offer and applied to Mr Gallagher for the order, which was issued on June 14.

In spite of the order, the aggregate meetings of mineworkers went ahead on June 16, and at these aggregate meetings the mineworkers decided by 7995 votes to 822 in favour of a general coal strike on June 27 unless a settlement was reached in the interim.

This decision of the aggregate meetings of mineworkers provided the authorities and the Labor governments with a further 10 days during which an agreement could be arrived at with the unions. But it is significant that during this time no effort was made to take advantage of the opportunity to secure a settlement before the strike broke out. The only move during this time was a discussion between the Coal Mining Unions Council and the Emergency Committee of the Australian Council of Trade Unions on the afternoon of June 24. At this discussion the mining unions conveyed to the ACTU leaders compromise proposals upon which they were prepared to arrive at an agreement. These proposals covered two points: (1) Acceptance of the principle of a long service leave scheme not less favourable than that operating at Wonthaggi; and (2) Acceptance of the principle of a 35-hour working week.

But the strategic plan of the federal and state Labor governments had already gone into operation; the order had gone out that no attempt at a settlement of the miners’ claims was to be made. There was no effort on the part of the Labor Party leaders to avert the strike, but on the contrary. War was declared against the miners and the operational plan was to smash the union strength of the Communist Party and break the back of the Miners Federation.

That is why the compromise proposals of the miners were flatly rejected by the Joint Coal Board and at a later conference between the representatives of the mineworkers, the Coal Board and the coal owners, the latter immediately announced that they would not budge from their proposals made on May 19, the Coal Board made a similar declaration and the conference quickly broke down.


The myth of Gallagher’s long service leave

The hypocritical and lying nature of all the declarations of Chifley and of the daily press about what Mr Gallagher was allegedly prepared to do to satisfy the miners’ claims is completely exposed by the transcript of the proceedings before the Coal Industry Tribunal on these matters. Here are some extracts from the proceedings that clearly reveal the true facts of the situation.

Chairman: Even though there is a break in service, a man should be entitled to long service leave?

Mr Williams: Yes.

Chairman: I do not think you can do that in this industry. I think you have to have regard to the nature of the industry — its history and general conduct … if an employee does not attend for work, you can say that work is no longer available for him; that is all well and good. However, in this industry that position does not obtain. In this industry, if a man is sent out of the pit or is sacked, the usual thing is for the whole pit to stop. To say that an industry can carry on in that way and at the same time can have costly benefits such as this without any conditions would be, to my way of thinking, absurd.

Chairman: Do you mean a strike by an individual or a …

Mr Davie: A strike in which an individual is involved. After all, the claim is being made by his organisation and if his organisation calls a strike which involves him, he should not accrue long service leave.

Chairman I think there is a great deal of substance in what you say. Now we have to look at the practicalities of it. Assuming I accepted that condition, do you think it would work in the industry? I mean, it is no use me imposing a condition in the award which would be unworkable. It would be specious to do such a thing. Do you think if I did that it would be workable?

Mr Davie: Yes, Mr chairman. The only qualification would be that if it were inserted in an award it must remain without any variation notwithstanding any steps which might be taken to have a variation made — that is any illegal steps.

Chairman: And it amounts to this: that as regards long service leave the so-called right to strike would not be recognised.

Mr Davie: And would not be recognised, and I only repeat again what the proprietors said when they were talking about long service leave at a conference that was held. They said that long service leave would be unthinkable in an industry in which strikes were permitted to go on.

Chairman: Well, if you, representing the employers, think that is practicable, I am going to give it a very weighty consideration …

Chairman: The difficulty is that the managerial board in the industry is opposed to that scheme, and it would be difficult to get the government to give their approval. The Wonthaggi scheme has been strongly opposed. The managerial board set up by the commonwealth and the state governments would have to disagree with the Joint Coal Board. I have to take that into consideration in making award.

When the Coal Board report came to hand, virtually rejecting long service leave as not being in the public interest, it said that in any case it was a matter for government legislation. It was following this that the Federation approached the federal government with the result already mentioned. Mr Gallagher instantly declined to even submit a report on the matter to the government.

This record proves beyond doubt that the award which Mr Gallagher was alleged to have all ready in his pocket, and about which there was so much noise in the daily press, was nothing more than the scheme of the coal owners and the Joint Coal Board.


How did Chifley use his power?

One of the stock phrases of Prime Minister Chifley and of all Labour politicians during the struggle was that the miners must go back to arbitration, and that the matters in dispute in the coal mining industry were of no concern to the government and could only be decided by the Coal Industry Tribunal.

The fact is that clause 18 of the Coal Industry Act contains this very clear provision: “The Prime Minister may, in agreement with the premier of the state, issue directions to the board on matters of policy, and it is to be the duty of the board to observe and carry out any direction so given.”

Hence it is quite dear that Mr Chifley had all the means at his disposal to secure an amicable settlement of the dispute in the coal mining industry. It goes without saying that he failed to take advantage of this provision of the Coal Industry Act in the interest of the mineworkers, but on the other hand there is every reason for believing that Mr Chifley did take full advantage of this provision to issue directions to the Coal Board, binding that board to advance the proposals that it did in various conferences and to completely reject all of the proposals advanced by the mineworkers.

The Chifley Labor government was determined to use all its powers in defence of the coal owners and to make war against the mineworkers. In provocative fashion the whole industry was shut down on a wide scale in NSW a week before the coal strike had even begun. Scores of thousands of workers were thrown out of employment as part of the policy of the Chifley and McGirr governments to manufacture hostility amongst the workers against the miners and to isolate the miners.

It is now well known that this plot failed as far as it related to the miners; its sole effect was to inflict unnecessary hardship and misery on countless thousands of workers.

Treachery of the Labor Party leaders

All the events during the progress of the coal strike itself threw a clear light on the true nature of the Labor governments. The strike provided the most concentrated exposure of the role of Social Democracy, which has been experienced by the working-class in Australia for many years. (Social Democracy is the theory and practice of the Labor Party leadership.)

In this situation the treacherous leaders of the Labor Party proved to be more useful than the Menzies Tory party to the Collins House monopolists. The Labor Party leaders were able to mobilise all the right-wing elements and traitors in the labour movement in a way that Menzies would have found it more difficult to do.

Menzies himself has made it clear that in his view the policy pursued by the federal Labor government in relation to the coal strike was in fact the policy of the Liberal Party. Without doubt, Menzies could have added that Chifley did this job better than Menzies himself could have done it.

The fund freezing legislation introduced by the Chifley government was one of the most vicious strike-breaking laws in Australian history. In their noisy speeches during the debate on the act, a number of Labor politicians, like Calwell, said they had no intention of interfering with the workers’ right to strike. Hypocrisy and cant could hardly be carried further. The Labor government freezes the funds of the unions, stifles financial aid to the mineworkers on strike and has the audacity to say it is not strike-breaking, but on the contrary it is defending the right to strike.

In implementing this vicious legislation the Labor government brought into play its tried and trusted weapon against the working class — the Arbitration Court. The judge selected to wield this weapon was also a Labor Party gentleman with a record of demagogic utterances — Judge Foster.

Next stage in the struggle was the unprecedented proceedings before the Arbitration Court, in which the weapon of contempt was used to inflict savage jail sentences on union leaders. In these proceedings there was no trial and no defence, a refusal to act as a common informer or to give information on internal union affairs to the enemy of unionism was met with a sentence of 12 months jail.

It was a Labor government that did this. It was the noisy champion of human rights, Dr Evatt, who invented this legislation and perpetrated the criminal violation of the rights of workers. But maybe the intellectual Dr Evatt does not look upon workers as human.

The objective of these jailings of union leaders by the Labor government was to behead the unions on strike and leave the mineworkers without leadership in the struggle. This hope proved to be vain because the workers quickly threw up new leaders and commenced rapidly to improve their organisation throughout the coalfields.

Instead of weakening the fighting spirit of the mineworkers or their solidarity, the violent onslaught against them increased their fighting determination and this was revealed in the resounding votes for continuation of the struggle at mass meetings in the middle of the strike. These votes were even more decisive than the vote at the original aggregate meetings that called the strike.

The militant fighting spirit of the miners forced the Labor politicians out of their secluded Canberra surroundings to stump the coalfields and take the platform on the Sydney Domain. This series of Labor Party meetings(which were discontinued at the end of the strike) showed the right-wing Labor politicians in their true colours. In all their speeches they poured abuse upon the miners and upon the Communist Party. Coming forward as the ardent defenders of the coal bosses, they ordered the miners to go back to arbitration and accept the will of the coal owners, the Coal Board and the arbitration system acting on their behalf.

The vicious strike-breaking campaign of the Labor politicians reached its all-time low with the gutter language of Calwell in his notorious Sydney Domain speech. In this speech Calwell threatened the establishment of concentration camps to place militant workers behind barbed wire a la Hitler.

In the same speech Calwell boasted with pompous pride that “We unloaded the Haligonian Duke,” in other words the federal Labor government came to the assistance of the Hollway Liberal Party government in Victoria by using the navy to unload a shipload of coal declared black by militant unions in that state. The Labor government came to the aid of a Tory state government and Calwell is proud of it. Calwell boasted of treachery and revelled in his unity with the Victorian Tories, thus clearly exposing the true role of the Labor Party leadership.

In the coal strike, the whole machinery of the Labor Party was set in motion with the object of strikebreaking. At the top of this strike breaking apparatus stood the federal and NSW Labor governments, which proceeded to mobilise the ALP state executive, the right-wing leaders of the ACTU and Labour Councils to defend the coal owners and make war on the coalminers. While the Fergusons, Clareys, Monks and Stouts were brought into action for their dirty work, right-wing forces headed by Blair were being thrown into action to disrupt the Combined Mining Unions Council, while on the Northern NSW coalfields the right-wing Labor Party agents, Crooks, Cockerill and Simpson were assigned the task of disrupting the miners’ front from within.

Elsewhere the ALP leaders threw into action those other shock troops of disruption known as the Groupers, who consist to a great extent of criminal elements and shady characters in the employ of the security police. In the full glare of publicity, the notorious Dobson story threw a brilliant light on the true nature of these anti-working-class shock troops of the Labor Party leaders, which parade under the high-sounding title of “ALP Industrial Groups”.

The purpose of all this furious activity of the Labor Party right wing was to sow confusion and divert attention from the real issue of the struggle and to create the false impression that what was happening was a battle between the Labor governments and the Communist Party, while the miners were alleged to be merely onlookers. These efforts of the Labor traitors failed completely. The mineworkers in the process of almost eight weeks’ bitter struggle learned the true nature of the Labor governments and the Labor Party leadership. They learned that in battle between the working class and the capitalists, the Labor Party leaders are the ardent defenders of capitalism and the enemies of the workers.

The mineworkers learned in most convincing fashion to see their true friends. In this great mining struggle, the only political party that fought unconditionally and without equivocation in support of the miners was the Communist Party, which stood out as the sole party of the working class in the test of battle. On the coalfields it was the Communists who devoted all their organising skill to leading the fight for the cause of the miners. In Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and other big cities, the Communists were the organisers of support for the mineworkers’ struggle and for the supply of relief. The whole of the Communist press in all states solidly supported the miners’ struggle and continuously brought the miners’ claims before the public and refuted the lies of the capitalist press.


Military forces in 1890 and 1949

Betraying a cardinal point in the platform of its own party, which declares: “No troops to be used in industrial disputes,”" the Chifley Labor government ordered the use of military forces in open-cut mines to break the coal strike. Australian workers have bitter memories of the use of the army against the workers by Tory governments in the strikes of the 1890s. In fact it was out of those bitter experiences that the Labour Party itself was born.

The Labour Party came into existence with the principle that in no circumstances should military forces be used against striking workers. In the coal strike this principle was betrayed by a Labor government headed by Chifley and Evatt, which gave the order to soldiers under military discipline to work open-cut mines while mineworkers were on strike, and ordered the navy to unload coal for the Hollway Tory government in Victoria.

This act of treachery will never be forgotten by Australian workers, who are rapidly learning by hard experience that the only genuine party of the working class to which they can look for leadership is the Communist Party.

It was one of the outstanding results of this great mining strike that a large body of Labor Party workers began to act openly against the treacherous policy of their leaders. This revolt among the Labor Party workers will continue to grow and spread, and serves to emphasise the need for tremendous attention to development of the united front of the working class.

In the last weeks of the great struggle in the coal mining industry the situation that arose was one in which the Labor governments and the daily press were anxious for the Communists and militants to blindly pursue the struggle on the economic issues through to the bitter end. Their obvious intention was to break the front of the mineworkers at the outer edges by developing breakaway movements for a return to work in such a way that the militant leadership and the Communist Party would be left high and dry and isolated.

Because of the strike-breaking activities of Ferguson, secretary of the Australian Railways Union in NSW, the railworkers had been prevented from acting in solidarity with the miners. In various places black coal was being handled by sections of the workers on the orders of their right-wing leaders. There were signs of some weakening of the position in parts of the coalfields in Queensland, but above all the disruptive work of Crooks, Cockerill, Simpson and others on the key Northern fields had produced a public impression of weakening of the front in one of the main centres of the struggle.

As a result of these events the miners had come to feel that there was no way forward so far as continuing the struggle to fully secure their economic claims was concerned. In these circumstances it was clear that the time for resumption of work had arrived. The enemy desired that this resumption of work should take place under the control and direction of the right-wing disruptive elements, thus leaving the militant leadership in a state of isolation.

Had this been allowed to take place, all the tremendous political advances secured during the struggle could have gone for nothing. A disorganised return to work would have produced the very result sought by the reactionary forces, namely, the breaking of the Miners Federation, but instead of this the skill and boldness of the Communist and militant leaders retained the initiative and the leadership in the hands of the best working class forces right through to the end, with the result that the plan of the Labor government failed and the ranks of the miners are more solid than ever before, whilst the prestige of the Communist Party is the highest it has ever been on the coalfields.

Having failed to secure the objectives which they set themselves during the coal strike, Chifley, Evatt and Co are now attempting to secure these objectives by other means. It is for this purpose that they introduced the amendments to the Arbitration Act taking control of union ballots and union affairs out of the hands of the workers as part of their plan to fascise the unions. The working class must now launch a vigorous and prolonged struggle against this and all other attacks upon their trade unions.


Conclusions and lessons

The coal strike was of tremendous importance for the Australian working class. Firstly the workers secured in this struggle invaluable lessons on the true role of Labor governments, the ALP leadership, or what is known internationally as Social Democracy. In contrast to this, the workers saw the Communist Party as the only genuine working class party, which demonstrated its skill, organising efficiency and ability to lead great working class battles against capitalism. Secondly, this great struggle established the fact that the Arbitration system has been made into a vicious bludgeon against the working class by the Labor governments. There can be no illusions about the fact that as the economic crisis develops, this Arbitration system will be the chief weapon for imposing wage cuts, longer hours and worsening conditions of the workers. As time goes on the workers will find themselves more and more in conflict with this weapon of the employing class.

Thirdly, the coal strike demonstrated that great working class victories can be won even though specific economic claims are not secured in the course of the strike. This is likely to be a more frequent feature in conditions of economic crisis. More and more the partial struggles face the workers with the great issue of the all-in struggle against capitalism itself as the only way to a lasting solution.

Fourthly, the defence of unionism and the rights of unionists to regulate and determine their own affairs have now become a matter of first-rate importance for the whole Australian working class. The battles on this front, which are such a long-standing tradition of Australian workers must be fought again with redoubled vigour.

Finally, the conditions have been created for developing the fighting united front of the working class. It is the great responsibility of all Communists to help Labor Party workers fully to grasp the lessons to be learned from the coal strike. These Labor Party workers must never be lumped together with their leaders. These workers will more rapidly move over to the banner of united working class struggle to the extent that the Communists show vigour and understanding in organising and developing this united front.

In pursuing this united front policy, no time should be lost and no opportunity should be missed to bring all the best working class fighters, all the splendid militants who came forward in the process of the coal strike, into the ranks of the Communist Party.





1949 coal strike: Labor's `boots and all' sell-out






June 27 marks the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the 1949 coal strike. The strike dominated Australian politics for two months, attracted international attention and revealed to many workers the true nature of the Australian Labor Party.

The June 27-August 15 strike by 23,000 miners, often depicted as a fight between the ALP and the Communist Party of Australia (CPA), was a struggle by the workers against the capitalists, the latter aided by the ALP.

In a speech delivered two weeks before the strike began, Labor Prime Minister Ben Chifley proudly declared: “No government in the history of Australia has ever given to private industry so much assistance and advice and help as has been given by the commonwealth Labor government”.

ALP and capitalist propaganda depicted the strike as a “communist conspiracy” in which the miners had been duped by Communist Party union leaders. While the CPA did have some influence in the coal unions, the accusation that it controlled the unions was far from the truth. The Coal and Shale Employees' Federation consisted of many of the most militant rank-and-file unionists, but there were only two CPA members on its central executive.

In 1947, federal parliament passed the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Act, which embodied many of Chifley's ideas on industrial relations. This included the establishment of the Joint Coal Board and Coal Industrial Tribunal.

The board was to regulate and rehabilitate the coal industry within the framework of private ownership (however, the board could take control of and operate mines if necessary), while the tribunal was to arbitrate industrial matters which affected the coal unions. It could set work hours, and fine and imprison individuals if they didn't follow tribunal directions.

Poor conditions

The Joint Coal Board contained no union representation. Its main goal was to provide sufficient coal, conserve coal resources and provide coal as cheaply as possible. A report by the board in 1947 decreed that the “welfare of mine workers and families is regarded as subsidiary to these three basic objectives”.

In 1947, the union stepped up its campaign for improved pit conditions. Miners worked in high temperatures (up to 54° C) with poor ventilation -- which caused lung disease -- a lack of sanitary amenities and the ever-present danger of cave-ins. An average of 25 miners were killed every year. At the Wonthaggi mine in Victoria in 1947, 891 out of 1000 workers had experienced an accident.

The mine owners claimed the miners were the “most pampered employees anywhere in the world”.

In March 1947, the miners lodged a claim with the tribunal for a 35-hour week and a 30-shilling increase in wages. In February 1948, the union asked the tribunal to include long service leave as a normal condition of employment.

The miners' demands were quite modest. The ALP's platform in 1949 endorsed the Convention of the International Labour Office, which stated that mining industry hours should be 30 hours a week. The miners' request for a wage increase was 10 shillings less than the Australian Council of Trade Unions' submission that year on behalf of all workers. On the eve of the coal strike, productivity in the coal mining industry was at its all time high.

The miners' patience wore thin after two years of stalling by the tribunal. In February 1949, the union decided a “new” approach was needed. It chose the path of direct action rather than arbitration.

In April, Chifley's Labor government began a propaganda campaign. With the possibility of a strike looming in May, the tribunal decided to brandish a big stick by threatening to accept the owners' request that pit top stop-work meetings be made illegal. The attempt to ban meetings was a direct challenge to the union's right to consult with its members. The union proceeded with meetings to seek endorsement from members for a strike.

In the days before the strike, the union attempted to negotiate with the tribunal and mine owners, offering to drop the wage claim and work a 40-hour week for a year, if the owners and tribunal agreed to a shorter week in principle. The union also offered to negotiate on the use of mechanical equipment to extract coal pillars, which the owners had been demanding.

The owners rejected the union's proposals and, on June 27, the miners struck.

Officials jailed

Two days later, the Labor government rushed through legislation that made it illegal to give strikers and their families financial support (including shops that let miners buy on credit).

On July 5, union officials were ordered, under threat of imprisonment, to hand over union funds to the industrial registrar. At the same time, the High Court rejected an appeal by the unions. On July 6, union officials were arrested. Two days later, union and CPA headquarters were raided.

In the last week of July, seven union officials were sentenced to 12 months' jail and one to six months. The court also imposed fines on another five officials and three unions (the Miners' Federation, Waterside Workers' Federation and Federated Ironworkers Association).

Arthur Calwell -- a cabinet minister under Chifley who later became federal Labor parliamentary leader -- threatened to put communists and their sympathisers into concentration camps. Chifley told the Labor caucus, “The Reds must be taught a lesson”.

On June 30, the government placed full-page advertisements in newspapers declaring: “This is a strike against arbitration! It is a communist inspired strike!”

In the face of government repression and propaganda (which included newspaper advertisements, public meetings by Labor politicians and even airdrops of leaflets), six mass meetings of striking coal miners held on July 10 voted to continue the strike.

While the NSW core of miners held strong, cracks began to appear on the periphery. The ACTU sided with the government, helping to isolate the Miners' Federation from smaller ancillary unions. While supposedly supporting the miners' claims, it attacked the strike and attempted to blame the miners for the reactionary response of the government.

On July 15, coal that had been black-banned by the miners' union was transported by the NSW branch of the Australian Railways Union, in defiance of the ARU's federal body.

The Australian Workers Union, whose members worked in open-cut mines in South Australia and Victoria, were the next to split the ranks. The open-cut mines in NSW and Queensland were seen as the key to breaking the strike, and the government began negotiations with the AWU to work the mines.


Even though the AWU's Queensland secretary offered to “not hesitate to throw its weight on the side of the nation to save Australia from Communist domination”, the Labor government decided the better option was to send soldiers to work the open-cut mines. It was later revealed that Chifley had contemplated using troops from the onset of the strike.

On August 1, troops armed with machine guns, bayonets and rifles entered the coalfields. Within two weeks, the strike was broken. For many workers, the tactics used by the ALP during the strike came as a shock, because they believed the ALP was a party of the working class. Chifley's betrayal tore away their illusions and revealed Labor's true colours as a party that furthers the interests of the capitalists.

The lessons that workers learned during the 1949 coal strike are still relevant today. The ALP has used, and continues to use, the force and institutions of the capitalist state (the army, police, and judiciary) to subordinate the interests of the workers to those of the capitalists.


* * *

The 1949 Coal Miners Strike

Interview with a wife of a coal miner


* * *


The national coal strike in 1949 proved to be one of the bitterest and costly of any strike up to that time.

(Text written by the person on the picture - in the foreground)


Negotiations between Miners and the Coal Owners had broken down. The miners had served on the Coal Owners a log of claims, 35 shillings a week wage increase, a 35 hour week, and long service provisions in their award. These claims were rejected by the Coal Owners. The leadership of the Mining Unions decided to call mass meetings for a National strike. The vote for strike action was overwhelming carried.

I was twenty two years of age, married with a nine months old son, and attended one of those meetings. I voted to strike. During the six weeks of the strike I learnt how to live without money.

Miners organised. The miner’s wives organized kitchens and prepared meals for strikers and their families. Crews from the men in groups fished, hunted rabbits and solicited donations. I went rabbiting; proceeds went into supporting the strike.

Coal supplies were in short supply. A prolonged strike would have severe consequences for the nation. The Chifley Labour Government in a state of emergency, in an attempt to get the miners back to work froze the Unions funds.

The miner’s had been forewarned of Governments action. Withdrew their funds which were secreted somewhere in the community. Attempts by the Police to recover them failed and they remained hidden. After the strike ended the funds were redeposited back into the Bank. Those that had held the money, their names were never revealed.

The strike was having a serious effect on the national economy. Coal stocks were becoming depleted. Thousands of workers were losing their jobs due to power shortages. The ACTU the governing body of the Unions condemned the strike. A mass of opposition was growing against the miners.

The Government claimed the strike was a conspiracy by the Communist for a takeover of Australia. Supporters of Communism among miners were few indeed. The Communists support among miners and Australia generally was such they would fail to run a daily train service from Sydney to Wollongong let alone run the country.

The Red Bogey for the Government was working.

Then the leaders of the strike were jailed.

The strike continued.

The Government then used the armed forces to work the open cut mines. The first time in Australia’s history. It was rumoured they would use arms if necessary. The miners never confronted the army during the strike, they took the rumour seriously.

Appetite for the strike among the miners was waning. Mass meetings of the miners were called. The recommendation placed before those meetings were that the strike continues until the leaders were released from goal. It was defeated. The six week strike had ended.

The miners returned to work. Reluctantly I was there with them. The following week the imprisoned leaders were released. A few weeks later we were granted long service leave. Eventually long service flowed on to the rest of the Australian workforce.

During June 1949 Australia was in crisis. And I had a secret plan.

The coal miners were on strike. The shortage of coal resulted in great disruption to power supplies. Blackouts were common and this shortage of power was resulting in massive unemployment. I was 23, and one of the striking miners.

The Chifley Labor Government had reacted and passed legislation freezing the miners funds and making it illegal for any  person or organization to give any financial assistance to the miners. It was the government’s intention that we would be starved back to work.

The Prime Minister Ben Chifley was attending a Labor Party meeting at Katoomba. He had refused to meet a delegation of the miners. A group of the strikers, me included, arrived in Katoomba to welcome Chifley and show our concerns at his strike breaking policy.

Truth is, I had come to the demonstration with a secret plan. As the commotion unfolded, without any thought of the consequences I decided I would break ranks and move through the Labor supporters and the Prime Minister’s entourage and security. I would meet the Prime Minister face to face, and confront him.

As I moved forward I was astounded that no one tried to stop me. As we met, the Prime Minister was taken by surprise. He listened as I made my protest. "Why are you starving the miners, Ben?".

After I’d finished, Chifley seemed disturbed. He answered me back. “Whatever you do son, don’t get me excited.”

I then made my way back through the Labor supporters, unhindered, to my protest group.

The fact that as a Communist, unrestricted, I had without an appointment confronted the Prime Minister gave lie to the claim of the government that the miner’s strike was an attempt by the Communists to take over the country. I had confronted him not on Communist ideology. I met him as a miner on strike for better wages and conditions.

The fact was that even among the miners there was little support for Communist ideals. All representatives in the Parliament on the coalfields were members of the Labor party.  However, many of the miner’s leaders were Communists.

My protest had little effect on the Government. Later they were to gaol the leaders and place the army into the open cuts.

After six weeks the strike ended. We returned to work. Although defeated, six weeks after we returned as a result of the strike we were granted long service leave. Eventually this leave applied to most Australian workers.

I still remember that day when against the odds, and without fear, on the basis of a cause, audaciously I followed through my secret plan and faced up to a Prime Minister.

And my presence was recognised - I ended up in the secret files of ASIO. Something I only discovered years later. The photo of me above as a 23 year old at the demonstration is part of the file.





No. 20 of 1949.

An Act to prohibit, during the period of National Emergency caused by the present General Strike in the Coal-mining Industry, the Contribution, Receipt or Use of Funds by Organizations registered under the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Act 1904–1948 for the purpose of assisting or encouraging the Continuance of that Strike and for other purposes.

[Assented to 29th June, 1949.]


WHEREAS there arose out of certain demands by organizations of employees in the coal-mining industry certain industrial disputes existing in the State of New South Wales and extending beyond the limits of that State:

And whereas, in order to enforce compliance with those demands, and in contravention of the principles of conciliation and arbitration for which provision is made in the Constitution and in the laws of the Commonwealth, a general strike in the coal-mining industry was decided upon on the sixteenth day of June, and commenced on the twenty-seventh day of June, One thousand nine hundred and forty-nine:

And whereas that strike is prejudicing or interfering with the maintenance of supplies and services essential to the life of the community and has caused a grave national emergency:

And whereas it is desirable that the disputes referred to in this preamble should be settled by means of conciliation or arbitration by the tribunals established by law for the purpose:

And whereas it is desirable that measures should be taken to make unlawful the contribution, receipt or use of funds by organizations for the purpose of assisting or encouraging the continuance of that strike:

Be it therefore enacted by the King’s Most Excellent Majesty, the Senate, and the House of Representatives of the Commonwealth of Australia, as follows:—

Short title.

1.  This Act may be cited as the National Emergency (Coal Strike) Act 1949. 


2.  This Act shall come into operation on the day on which it receives the Royal Assent.


3.—(1.)     In this Act, unless the contrary intention appears—

“branch”, in relation to an organization, includes a section, district or lodge of the organization or of a branch of the organization;

“officer”, in relation to an organization or branch of an organization, includes a trustee or agent of that organization or branch;

“organization” means an organization registered under the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Act 1904–1948;

“participating organization” means an organization which, by some or all of its members, is taking part in the strike;

“prescribed-authority” means the Chief Judge of the Court or the Coal Industry Tribunal, and includes a Judge of the Court or an industrial authority or industrial tribunal (whether of the Commonwealth or of a State) appointed by the Chief Judge to be a prescribed authority for the purposes of this Act;

“the Court” means the Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration;

“the Registrar” means the Industrial Registrar or a Deputy Industrial Registrar holding office under the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Act 1904–1948;

“the strike” means the general strike in the coal-mining industry which began on the twenty-seventh day of June, One thousand nine hundred and forty-nine.

(2.)    For the purposes of this Act, a payment or receipt, or a promise to make a payment, by a branch of an organization shall be deemed to be a payment or receipt, or a promise to make a payment; by that organization.

Prohibition of certain payments by participating organizations.

4.  Subject to this Act, a participating organization shall not make, or promise to make, any payment for the purpose of assisting or encouraging, directly or indirectly, the continuance of the strike.

Penalty: One thousand pounds.

Prohibition of certain receipts by or on behalf of participating organizations.

5.  Subject to this Act, any of the following organizations or persons, that is to say—

(a) a participating organization;

(b) a member of the committee of management of a participating organization or of a branch of a participating organization;

(c) a member, officer or employee of a participating organization or of a branch of a participating organization; or

(d) a person acting on behalf of, or in the interests of, a participating organization or of a branch of a participating organization, shall not receive a payment or benefit from any person for the purpose of assisting or encouraging, directly or indirectly, the continuance of the strike.

Penalty: Where the offence is committed by an organization or other body corporate, One thousand pounds; in any other case, One hundred pounds or imprisonment for six months, or both.

Prohibition of certain payments by non-participating organizations.

6.  Subject to this Act, an organization (not being a participating organization) shall not make, or promise to make, a payment to or for the benefit of—

(a) a participating organization;

(b) a member of the committee of management of a participating organization or a branch of a participating organization;

(c) a member, officer or employee of a participating organization or of a branch of a participating organization; or

(d) a person acting on behalf of, or in the interests of, a participating organization or of a branch of a participating organization,

for the purpose of assisting or encouraging, directly or indirectly, the continuance of the strike.

Penalty: One thousand pounds.

Authorized payments and receipts.

7.  Where a prescribed authority is satisfied that a payment or receipt, or class of payments or receipts, is not for the purpose of assisting or encouraging, directly or indirectly, the continuance of the strike, the authority may authorize that payment or receipt, or class of payments or receipts, and a payment or receipt so authorized, or included in a class so authorized, shall be deemed not to be prohibited by any provision of this Act.

Court may order repayment of certain payments.

8.—(1.)     Where the Court is satisfied, upon the application of the Registrar—

(a) that, at any time on or after the sixteenth day of June, One thousand nine hundred and forty-nine, and before the commencement of this Act, money has been received or paid, and the receipt or payment of that money would, if this Act had been in force at the time when the money was received or paid, have been in contravention of section five or six of this Act; or

(b) that, at any time after the commencement of this Act, money has been received or paid in contravention of either of those sections,

the Court may order the repayment of that money by the person to whom, or the organization to which, the money was paid to the person from whom, or the organization from which, it was received.

(2.)    An order under this section may be enforced in the manner provided by section sixty-one of the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Act 1904–1948 and for that purpose the Registrar may do any act which could be done by the person or organization to whom or to which the money has been ordered to be repaid, in the name of and on behalf of that person or organization. 

(3.)    The jurisdiction of the Court under this section may be exercised by a single Judge.


9.—(1.)     The Court shall have jurisdiction to make such orders for injunctions as it thinks necessary for the purpose of ensuring compliance with the provisions of this Act.

(2.)    The jurisdiction of the Court under this section may be exercised by a single Judge.

Inspection of books of organizations.

10.—(1.)   The Registrar, or a person authorized by the Registrar to act under this section, may, for the purpose of ascertaining whether there has been a non-compliance with any of the provisions of this Act—

(a) inspect any books, documents or other papers of an organization or branch of an organization;

(b) for the purpose of any such inspection, enter, with such assistance as he considers necessary, any premises used or occupied by the organization or branch of the organization in which he believes any such books, documents or papers to be;

(c) require a person to produce or deliver to him, in accordance with the requirement, any such books, documents or papers in the possession or under the control of that person;

(d) take possession of any such books, documents or papers;

(e) retain any such books, documents or papers; and

(f) require a person to furnish to him such information as he specifies in relation to any matter to which this Act applies.

(2.)    A person shall not—

(a) refuse or fail to comply with a requirement under this section; or

(b) obstruct or hinder the Registrar or any other person in the exercise of his powers under this section.

Penalty: One hundred pounds or imprisonment for six months or both.

Liability of officers for offences of organizations.

11.    Where an organization has committed an offence against this Act, every person who, at the time of the commission of the offence, was a member of the committee of management, or an officer, of the organization or of a branch of the organization shall be deemed to be guilty of the offence, unless he proves that the offence was committed without his knowledge or that he used all due diligence to prevent the commission of the offence, and shall, upon conviction, be punishable by a fine not exceeding One hundred pounds or imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months, or both.

Proof of purpose of payments and receipts.

12.    In any prosecution for an offence against this Act, a payment or receipt, or a promise to make a payment, shall, unless the contrary is proved, be deemed to have been a payment or receipt, or a promise to make a payment, for the purpose of assisting or encouraging directly or indirectly, the continuance of the strike. 


13.—(1.)   The Governor-General may make regulations, not inconsistent with this Act, prescribing all matters which are necessary or convenient to be prescribed for carrying out or giving effect to this Act and, in particular, for prescribing penalties for offences against the regulations not exceeding—

(a) in the case of an offence by an organization or other body corporate—a fine of One thousand pounds; and

(b) in any other case—a fine of One hundred pounds or imprisonment for a term of six months, or both.

(2.)    The regulations may provide that the operation of any of the provisions of this Act which apply to or in relation to an organization shall extend to or in relation to any other body which is a participant in the strike and the operation of those provisions shall extend accordingly.

Termination of Act.

14.    Immediately after the termination of the strike, the Governor-General shall make a Proclamation that the strike has terminated and thereupon this Act shall be deemed to have been repealed.



Unions in Australia since 1820