As workers tired of wartime sacrifices, imposed with the aid of Communist Party union officials, Trotskyists in Balmain led a fight for democratic unionism, writes Tom Orsag
Trotskyism as a political current has rarely led major industrial struggles in Australia.
However, in February 1945 in a combination of circumstances, Nick Origlass, Issy Wyner and Laurie Short and the small Communist League of Australia (CLA) led almost 3000 ironworkers in the shipyards of Balmain in a strike against the pro-war trade union machine of the Federated Ironworkers Association (FIA), then led by the Communist Party of Australia (CPA).
The CPA had led heroic unemployed workers struggles in the 1930s and strikes which recovered working class confidence and organisation, such as among the Wonthaggi coal miners in 1934 and the North Queensland sugar workers in 1935. It re-built unions on the waterfront, among seafarers and in the coal mines.
But it was fundamentally flawed by its support for Stalin’s Russia. By the 1930s it operated as a tool of Russian foreign policy, doing the bidding of the new ruling class that had emerged on the ashes of the Russian Revolution.
That meant when the Second World War broke out in September 1939, the CPA opposed the war against Germany, as Russia had signed a “non-aggression” pact with Hitler.
When Hitler broke that pact and invaded Russia in June 1941, the CPA, made illegal in May 1940, became stridently pro-war in order to “defend the communist motherland”.
Support for the Australian war effort resulted in its promotion of Australian nationalism and even racism and imperialism.
The Trotskyist paper Militant in 1938 condemned the, “vicious chauvinism implied in the pictorial representation of the Japanese as leering Orientals in the Stalinist posters.”
In July 1941, the CPA’s Communist Review wrote, “Every nerve must be strained, all else must be subordinated” to victory in the war.
The CPA completely subordinated the class struggle in Australia to a war time alliance with the capitalist class. The party was un-banned in December 1942 by the Curtin Labor government because Labor understood the CPA’s support was crucial to selling the war to the working class.
This was a real issue. In March 1940, NSW coal miners struck for 67 days over reduced hours for surface workers. By June, 750,000 days were “lost” through strikes, the highest number since the strikes of the late 1920s.
The rapid advance of Japanese imperialism across Asia in early 1942, and the apparent threat to Australia, assisted efforts to mobilise workers behind the war.
Conversely as any direct military threat dissipated, the demands to boost production and ensure labour “discipline” began to fall on deaf ears.
The CPA’s union leaders, shop stewards and worker militants actively suppressed rank-and-file revolt against the privations and speed-ups the bosses wanted.
At Austral Bronze in Sydney in 1943, management tried to introduce speed-ups, but when the Ironworkers (FIA) went on strike their CPA union officials led strike-breakers onto the job. Metalworkers refused to work with the scabs and the scabbing operation collapsed.
When women metalworkers at the Richard Hughes factory went on strike to get the award wage of 90 per cent of the male rate, it was after six months of stalling by their Communist union officials. The union secretary urged them to return to work by invoking “the boys in the trenches”. The women angrily retorted, “We know all about our boys in the trenches…they’re our husbands and sons.” They won award payment.
By contrast the Trotskyists, because they correctly viewed the war as driven by competing imperialist interests, refused to hold back the class struggle to fight the war.
The Communist FIA officials worked assiduously to gain centralised control of the ironworkers’ union, breaking up local leaderships in Port Kembla, Newcastle and in branches across Victoria.
Finally in early 1945 they over-reached in the local Balmain FIA, based on the Balmain docks and shipyards, including the large Mort’s Dock and Cockatoo Island, with 2000 and 3000 workers respectively.
The ship yards were key to the war effort in the South Pacific, repairing ships for carrying supplies to Allied troops. Big and difficult repair jobs had to be done quickly at a port near the theatre of war. Experienced shipyard workers were classified as in a “reserved” occupation and were exempted from military service.
The local Balmain FIA branch was militant and independent of CPA control. Nearly 8000 metal workers, around one-third of them ironworkers, were employed in 29 yards around the Balmain and Birchgrove foreshore.
All metal tradespeople involved in the building and repair of ships, whether boilermakers, fitter and turners, welders or blacksmiths, needed assistants who laboured in carrying, fetching, holding and building scaffolds, or operated simpler machines. These made up the FIA.
The tiny Trotskyist group led by Nick Origlass allied it itself with local Laborites and stressed rank-and-file democracy against the CPA’s top-down control.
It argued that only by workers “intensifying their struggle for the nationalisation of industries” could they “save us from the failure of the boss class to plan and systematically develop the industry” of shipbuilding.
Conflict had been brewing since the middle of 1942, when the FIA’s Federal Council of Management (FCOM) adopted the CPA’s “all for production” policy. The FCOM passed a motion demanding that branches take disciplinary action against unauthorised strikes and absenteeism.
The independent local leadership of the Balmain branch was under continual attack from the FCOM in the latter half of 1942. Balmain workers had little disagreement with the broad principle of working hard to win the war. But they opposed sacrificing gains in wages or conditions to the bosses, using the war as an excuse.
Public holiday pay
In June 1942, the government cancelled the King’s Birthday public holiday. Cockatoo Island workers went on strike and refused to work, as public holiday double-time rates would not be paid.
In early 1943, 50,000 workers in Sydney walked off the job against the government’s decision to cancel New Year’s Day as a public holiday. They demanded payment at double-time rates. The CPA opposed the strike, as did the FIA leaders.
Most manual workers had only just won annual leave, and this was now heavily restricted by the government. So cancelling public holidays for many was the last straw.
Such was the popular support for double-time pay for public holidays that the CPA was forced to support the next one-day strike on 3 May for the Anzac Day holiday.
The docks’ workforce participated enthusiastically in all these actions.
Nick Origlass, as alternate branch delegate to the NSW Labour Council, also clashed with the Communist Party when he argued for the support of 800 women workers on strike at the Duly and Hansford munitions plant. The women workers held out for ten weeks in defence of the principle of a 100 per cent union factory.
At the end of 1943, the Stalinist CPA won a clean sweep in the elections for the Balmain branch executive, despite the fact that they had been outvoted at every mass meeting.
The CPA had manoeuvred prior to the election to win the returning officer position. An old corrupt union saying went, “A group that has the returning officer and can’t win an election, doesn’t deserve to.” Years later the CPA would be implicated in widespread ballot-rigging in the FIA and other unions.
But Origlass continued as the job delegate at Mort’s Dock in Balmain. In November 1944, a mass meeting of Mort’s Dock metal workers passed a motion put by Origlass calling on the Labor government to unpeg wages, raising the basic wage in line with inflation, and to immediately introduce a 40-hour week. These demands contravened the Labor government’s National Security regulations and the policies of the CPA.
Then in January 1945, on Cockatoo Island’s shipyards, the CPA lost all elected delegates positions and Laurie Short, a Trotskyist, became the new ironworkers’ delegate.
The CPA officials of the Ironworkers decided to act against Origlass and seven of his fellow Mort’s Dock militants. They laid charges against all that they had not informed the union before striking in a dispute with the employer over the suspension of union members. The other seven received fines and raps on the knuckles.
Origlass was singled out and removed as job delegate, an over-the-top punishment—and seen that way by the Balmain rank and file. The two other job delegates resigned in protest.
When the Balmain rank-and-file tried to re-nominate Origlass as job delegate, the FIA said he was banned and imposed loyal CPA members in the positions.
On 16 April, 200 ironworkers at Mort’s Dock came out on strike in defence of Origlass. Boilermakers and crane drivers refused to work with ironworkers who followed the FIA officials’ instruction to remain at work. They were suspended. The next day, all the remaining ironworkers struck.
Over 600 workers went to next Balmain-wide branch meeting. The CPA leadership of the union walked out after being unable to control the meeting. Hundreds of workers remained to organise to spread the strike.
An unofficial strike spread to 23 waterfront workshops, including Cockatoo Island, involving 2900 workers. Further mass meetings of over 1600 workers, in May, re-affirmed their right to elect their own delegates and restored full union rights to Origlass.
After six weeks on strike, Origlass was re-instated with the mass support of the membership.
For Trotskyist Issy Wyner, then working at Cockatoo Island, the strike was turning point of his political life, “Until then the Communist Party was always slandering us [the Trotskyists] as agents of the bosses and fascists, and we were isolated and marginalised. Now here were thousands of workers on strike and in the middle of it all was Nick. It was such a vindication of all we had stood for.”
Balmain workers stood by Nick and other delegates against the attack from their union officials because certain rights, conditions and aspirations—including democratic unionism—were worth holding onto and pursuing, despite the war.