In the face of the failure to take serious action on climate change, we face the challenge of building the kind of movement that can force the government to shift. The 1970s anti-uranium movement provides rich lessons in how to build one.
It not only entrenched ongoing public hostility to uranium mining, but led to unions taking action that, for a time, made exporting uranium almost impossible.
In 1975 the Liberals came to power under Malcolm Fraser, determined to expand uranium mining across the country.
The anti-Vietnam war protests were still fresh in many people’s minds and unions were preparing to confront the government over issues ranging from cuts to Medibank to wages.
The government launched a series of reviews into mining in the Northern Territory, where many of the potential sites for new mines were located. Although they recommended extensive conditions on any mining, the government simply took them as a green light to push ahead. As a result, most opponents of uranium mining concluded reviews and submissions would not stop the government and began to organise a more concerted grassroots campaign.
In Melbourne in early 1976, a small group of activists from a range of groups and organisations met and organised a public meeting. The meeting that launched the campaign decided on the name Movement Against Uranium Mining.
There was already widespread concern about nuclear power. But opposition to any mining or export of uranium from Australia was much weaker. A poll in the Melbourne Age in early 1977 put it at 34 per cent.
This meant the movement had to be very precise about its demands. At a national summit in Sydney in November 1976 the central demand of a “uranium moratorium”—a five-year ban on mining and export—was adopted.
From the outset campaigners aimed to win over majority public support for this demand.
Following the Sydney summit one of the movement’s first national initiatives was a signature drive. This was not simply seen as a way of pressuring politicians but was “designed to involve supporters in bringing the debate directly to the Australian people”. Activists used the petition to put their case to the public by distributing copies of a “Uranium Declaration”, which explained the movement’s key demands, to everyone who signed the petition.
In the major cities, activists built local groups deep into the suburbs. According to one estimate, in late 1977 there were over 100 local groups active in Victoria alone.
They built local rallies and events in the suburbs in the lead up to major demonstrations in the city centres.
The first major city-wide demonstration in Melbourne in April 1977 drew 10,000 people to the city square.
Later in the year a co-ordinated national protest saw 20,000 march in both Melbourne and Sydney. These rallies were actually much smaller than the later anti-nuclear marches of the 1980s. But their political impact was greater because their demands were a clear challenge to the government policy.
The major rallies allowed the movement to come together in all its breadth, giving opponents of uranium mining a sense of the size of the opposition, building people’s confidence to keep campaigning and recruiting new activists to the movement.
The movement also organised direct actions aimed at stopping the export of uranium.
As one historian records: “In Sydney, for example, there were night-time convoys of uranium across the city, travelling fast up one-way streets the wrong way, guided by NSW and Commonwealth police escorts, opposed in the dark by small assemblies at the docks”.
Some argued such actions would look bad in the media and put the public offside. But in fact the media was consistently hostile to the movement, no matter what sort of actions it organised. A journalism magazine at the time recorded that almost universally the print media stuck to a simplistic editorial line: “uranium good, demonstrators bad”, and labelled uranium protesters “un-Australian”, “vicious”, and “anti-democratic”.
The first major direct action took place near the docks at Glebe Island in Sydney, when the government tried to move the first shipment of uranium to leave the Lucas Heights reactor for ten years.
One hundred and fifty protesters attempted to blockade the road and stop the convoy, but failed. Dock workers grudgingly agreed to load the uranium, feeling bound by ACTU policy which allowed its export.
In July 1977 the Colombus Australia arrived at the Melbourne wharves carrying uranium. Wharfies in Melbourne voted to ban the ship, but were overruled by their conservative union leaders.
But when hundreds of demonstrators assembled on the docks, wharfies pointed out this violated safety rules and walked off the job. After police horses attacked the protesters and began arresting people, the workers refused to load anything more and shut down the whole port for 24 hours. The Colombus Australia was forced to leave behind a million dollar cargo.
Unions and the movement
This victory showed that union action could put an end to the export of uranium for good. If workers responsible for transporting uranium exports on the railways and the docks were to ban shipments, and the mining unions to refuse to work uranium mines, no company would be able to continue mining.
In 1976 in the early days of the campaign, before the mass marches, the Australian Railways Union decided to ban operations associated with uranium mining.
The first test of this came when Jim Assenbruck, a worker in Townsville, refused to couple carriages carrying materials to the Mary Kathleen mine. He was immediately sacked. In response rail workers walked off the job across north Queensland. He won his job back—and the strike helped put the anti-uranium campaign on the map.
But the union action was isolated because the movement was only just starting to grow. The conservative ACTU leaders succeeded in brokering an agreement to allow transport of uranium from the Mary Kathleen mine, since it was an existing mine with union labour.
The victory in winning unions to ban uranium on the docks in 1977 was not simply a product of the direct action protesters took there. Many of the unionists working on the wharves had been on the mass marches.
As Alan Thomson recalled:
“Back then everyone was aware of uranium mining. I was in the job delegates association and we used to invite speakers down at lunchtime. The anti-uranium demonstrations were some of the biggest since the Vietnam war and we were used as marshals on them. Then we had to get on the wharf and load the bloody stuff—how do you think we felt?”
It was the mass marches that showed the workers that there was real public support for them if they were prepared to take a stand.
In August 1977 the Fraser government approved full-scale mining and export of uranium. The next day seven of Australia’s biggest unions declared their opposition, and announced their intention to move for a total ban on the mining and export of uranium at the upcoming ACTU Congress.
After a heated debate, Bob Hawke and other right-wing union leaders voted this down, despite insisting they too opposed expanding the uranium industry.
But the transport union continued to ban shipments of uranium coming from the mines for export. And there continued to be support for banning uranium amongst rank-and-file union members.
Workplace groups were established at sites such as the Williamstown docklands and Adelaide’s Islington railway workshops. At the docks in Willamstown workers held a weekly “Keep it in the ground shop” at lunchtime and members were also involved in establishing local groups in nearby suburbs.
In Brisbane union members at Sargeants/ANI banned a contract for 4000 tonnes of steel for the Ranger uranium mine. When the company tried to subcontract the work out to smaller engineering shops, workers at another company voted to ban the work as well, despite the threat of losing 20 jobs at their workplace.
Despite the willingness shown by rank-and-file workers to support the movement, by 1981 the conservative leaders of the ACTU had managed to overturn the last union bans on uranium export.
But the movement had shown how it was possible to mobilise real power against the government in support of environmental demands.
Activists understood that they would face unstinting hostility from big business, the media and government. So they looked to mobilising people outside these structures at a grassroots level. The organised working class, with its own traditions of grassroots organising and democratic discussion, provided not only a large base of support in numbers of people—it also had the power to make uranium mining unprofitable by stopping work and halting production and transport.
There are lessons here for today’s climate movement. If unions banned work on construction of new coal fired power stations, and demanded the building of renewable energy infrastructure instead, the government would find it hard not to act.
Already there is sympathy for the movement from a number of unions—seen for instance in the support given for the national climate emergency rallies.
We need to build a movement which is oriented on mobilising mass grassroots protests, both street marches and direct actions. And from here we need to take the argument about the need to act on climate change into workplaces and into the unions.
By James Supple