The Pastoral Workers’ Struggle

Norman Jeffery From the Pan Pacific Worker, 1.3.1931

When the rank and filed delegates from 23 centres met on November 26 and 27 last at Longreach and decided to combat the wage-cut imposed by the Arbitration Court, they expressed the unanimous wish of the overwhelming majority of the Queensland pastoral workers. This decision was endorsed by every centre, being in some cases only a recognition of the fight that had been started in the districts before the rank and file delegate conference took place.

It had been the second wage-cut in twelve months, amounting to a total reduction of 9/- per hundred shearing rates 5/- in February, 1930, and 4/- in November, 1930. The counter demands put forward by the rank and file conference went further than claims for shearers only. Shed hands, pressers and cooks were included and demands which mobilised all sections of the workers in the Pastoral Industry were formulated.

From the beginning the strike had a complete rank and file character. Local committees were elected at mass meetings called for the purpose, and delegates elected to attend the central delegate meeting.

The composition of the committees varied. In Central Queensland the influence of the A.W.U. was very strong – it appreciably weakened as the strike developed, especially in Barcaldine, Clermont, Springare and Blackall. In North Queensland it was not so marked and in Southern Queensland the A.W.U. influence was weak, particularly in Charleville, St. George, Cunnamulla, Roma, Quilpie, Goondiwindi, Mungindi and Toowoomba. In all districts, however, the rank and file were very solid irrespective of their opinions regarding the A.W.U. they were unanimous in their opposition to the wage-cut.

Confident appeals were sent to the A.W.U. headquarters for financial help by the various committees who thought that cash would be given. The A.W.U. officialdom through their spokesman, Riordan, Queensland Branch Secretary, had made it abundantly clear from the beginning that they expected the rank and file to accept the wage-cut and to “abide by the policy of the union,” viz./ arbitration, and in brutally frank replies rejected all appeals for financial assistance. Riordan and all the officials and organisers of the A.W.U. became active scab recruiters for the graziers. Quite shamelessly they appealed in the capitalist press and in their own yellow rag, “The Worker,” for men to “accept the award conditions” even when they knew that the vast majority of the men in the districts were solid to a man against the award. Indeed, whatever few scabs the graziers were able to get in the earlier stages were actively recruited at the behest of the A.W.U. officialdom.

A few sheds also granted the rank and file demands, numbering at one stage 15 sheds.

Scurrilous and vicious attacks were made on the striking rank and file by the A.W.U. bureaucracy and their lackeys; all the venom of social-fascism was unleashed in a effort to break the solidarity of the workers.

The Moore Government was not idle. Police protection was given to scabs and very shortly the scab stations became armed camps – in some cases averaging one armed policeman to each scab.

Marked and efficient organisation existed among the strikers. The motor patrols did wonderful work, especially on the border, where constant vigilance was necessary to watch all the roads leading into Queensland. Indeed, when the history of the strike is written one of the epic features will be the Border Patrol. Vigils lasting several nights and days consecutively were taken on willingly by rank and filers delegated for that work.

At first the methods used to prevent scabs from going to work were peaceful persuasion. Representatives of the men would address the intending scabs and in some instances successes were registered, but in other instances persuasion failed as the scabs were bent on their task and all the eloquence in the world would not deter them. Other methods were necessary.

It was inevitable that the strike would de velop on lines which demanded greater concentration on the methods for preventing scabbery and resisting the growing police terror. This was recognised by some sections of the leadership but ignored by others. Further, the clear line-up of the A.W.U. official with the capitalist state and the graziers necessitated a definite exposure of them and a declaration placing them in the camp of the enemy. In short, the A.W.U. bureaucracy, State, district an Federal, were part of the capitalist apparatus to break the strike, and that in the struggle with the graziers the A.W.U. officials were by far the most dangerous enemies of the rank and file. This conception was held by the more militant elements, but in some districts, particularly Barcaldine, the leadership failed to declare war on the treacherous A.W.U. officialdom and was in the anomalous position of tolerating the most effective agent of the Moore Government and the graziers. Whilst this is true of some sections of the leadership it cannot be said of the rank and file once the position was made clear to them, because in Barcaldine the rank and file decided by a big majority to resign from the A.W.U. against the advice of the local leaders, Hickson and Dobbin.

Activity of the P.W.I.U. of A.

At the beginning, the Pastoral Workers’ Industrial Union of Australia actively assisted in the fight of their Queensland fellow workers. As a matter of fact it can be said that whatever work was performed in N.S.W. on behalf of the strikers was done by the P.W.I.U. of A. Our limited resources made it difficult to supply much cash, though what moneys were available were spent on the Queensland fight.

The N.S.W. Labor Council endorsed the appeal for funds but was very slow in carrying it out, four weeks elapsing before the unions were circularised by the Council. Whether this was due to deliberate neglect or forgetfulness can be readily be answered by those who are familiar with the situation.

In the unions the officials sabotaged the appeal or actively opposed it, with a few exceptions. Lyons of the Storemen and Packers’ Union and a well-known job hunter referred to the P.W.I.U. as bogus, and approvingly quoted the opposition of the A.W.U. officials to the strike. In the official organ of the Labor Council, “The Labor Weekly,” a similar reference appeared, undoubtedly inspired by the A.W.U. bureaucracy; and this was used by trade union officials to prevent financial help being given to the Queensland strikers.

In N.S.W. and Victoria the A.W.U. officials actively recruited scabs for Queensland. Enquiries at the A.W.U. headquarters always solicited the advice “go and get your pen for Queenslanda,at once.” No secret was made of the matter as the capitalist press reported statements by N.S.W. officials urging men to work at award rates. The unanimity between Mr Wilson of the Graziers’ Shearing Contracting Coy, and Bailey of the A.W.U. was very touching in this regard.

The solidarity of the Queensland men compelled the graziers and A.W.U. to look further afield for scabs and so active organising took place in Victoria and N.S.W., with some of the scabs of the July-August strike (N.S.W., 1930) as a nucleus.

After intensive organising a special scab train was chartered by the Graziers’ Contracting Coy. and left Sydney on Sunday, January 25. The train was chartered with the full conivance of the N.S.W. rail way authorities who were under the control of the N.S.W. Labor Government-Lang, the Premier, being the responsible ministerial head of the railways. Further, the N.S.W. police force was used to protect the scab train and other convoys of scabs. Prominent among these police were Cook, Coombes and Neville of the Clovelly case frame-up, all of whom were guilty of perjury on that and other occasions.

Unfortunately the plans of the graziers were not known in time so that mass picketing of the scab train could not be organised in time. This undoubtedly revealed a weakness among the rank and file in Sydney, thereby showing that much more could have been done to prevent the scab train leaving. As it was, however, about 50 workers congregated at the Central Station, but the police forces were in strong atten dance and prevented any interference. This represented a partial victory for the A.W.u. officials and the graziers.

Apprised of the scab train the Queensland men prepared to meet it. The battle of Emerald which eventuated was a heroic effort on the part of the Queensland workers. A bombardment of stones met the train, the police replied with heavy bashings, dealing it out indiscriminately to men and women.All the casualties,however, were not on the side of strikers: an inspector of police and a few constables forgot to duck when stones came their way. For a time it was touch and go as to whether the train would get through, but eventually it did.

The participation in the fight of the shearers’ womenfolk and working women showed that the strike had entered the stage when the rank and file must cal] . on and organise its auxiliary forces, such as Workers’ Defence Corps, to combat scabbery, etc.

In other parts of Queensland an active offensive on scab labor was launched. In Surat all the scab sheds were cleaned out in one day. Noorindoo, Collingwood and Ventura Downs stations were visited by the strikers and in spite of armed police and scabs the men were successful in calling a halt and 30 scabs were escorted back over the border into N.S.W. Comrades Trucker Brown (organiser, P.W.L.U. of A.), Jack Welch (St. George) and Chris Mitchell (Roma) were arrested over the Surat raid and after three trials were released. They were defended by the I.C.W.P.A., Brisbane branch.

Meanwhile, in January and February, the rising tide of rank and file revolt against the A.W.U. was making itself felt. Resignations from the A.W.U. were made en masse in Charleville, Cunnamulla, Toowoomba,Goondiwindi, Roma and other centres.

Central Queensland, which was. looked upon as an A.W.U. centre, also fell into line.

Comrade Arthur Rae, treasurer, P.W.I.U., visited Queensland and held a successful series of meetings in Southern and Central Queensland. He was received enthusiastically by the rank and file who heartily applauded his telling exposures of the A.W.U. officials and his vigorous advocacy of the need for forming a Queensland branch of the Pastoral Workers’ Industrial Union of Australia.

The hatred of the A.W.U. officials at his success was unbounded. Venomous attacks were made in “The Worker,” and a campaign against the P.W.I.U. was launched with the usual anti-Communist stuff as the leading slogans. These obvious attempts to split the rank and file failed because district after district supported the P.W.I.U. of A. Even the arrest of Brown, Welch and Mitchell, three enthusiastic workers for the P.W.I.U., did not achieve its desired effect.

To review the strike situation a special rank and .file delegate conference was called for the 4th February at Jericho. This conference lasted for five days, its main decisions being:

  1. To submit the question of the strike to a ballot of all centres.
  2. To establish a Queensland branch of the Pastoral Workers’ Industrial Union of Australia.

The result of the ballot revealed a determination to continue the fight, the totals being: For continuance 1178 For termination 681 Majority for continuance 497

In the southern centres the voting for continuance was almost unanimous.

The decision to form a branch of the P. W. I. U. was a great victory and means that the struggle against the A.W.U. officialdom enters a new phase.

Every means will be utilised by the graziers and the Moore Government to protect their willing lackeys; all the resources of the A.W.U will be used to oust the P.W.I.U. and to defeat the growth of militant unionism in Queensland.

It will be a contest for the majority of the pastoral workers in Queensland, with the capitalist cl&ss giving full support to the A.W.U. officials. On the other hand, the P.W.I.U. has the conditions in its favor and the fighting enthusiasm of the rank and file. A fighting militant union based on the class struggle is the need of the hour.

At the time of writing the strike is still on. Determined efforts are being made by the graziers to defeat the strikers.

Faked telegrams with the forged signature of Bob Morgan are being sent out declaring the strike off, inspired items appear in the capitalist press to the effect that .the shearing contractors have been notified by the P.W.I.U. that the strike is off. This and other filthy tactics are being used to try and discredit the militant pastoral workers.

With the general shearing booked to start in March many things can happen.

The A.W.U. convention meeting in Sydney gave special consideration to the question of how to break the strike. Their strike-breaking role was manifested openly and a special resolution carried instructing the Queensland pastoral workers to accept award wages, etc. Despite the fact that this instruction fell on deaf ears, feverish preparations and frame-ups are being prepared to break the strike and split the strikers.

An intense campaign of exposure must be launched against the gang and their grip on the pastoral workers broken permanently.

In N.S.W. we must improve our organisation for preventing scabs leaving for Queensland. Mass picketing at the railway, in which the unemployed masses will co-operate, must be instituted so as to combat effectively the strike-breaking activities of the A.W.U. and the graziers. A Note on the Author Norm Jeffery, the prime mover behind the Pastoral Workers’ Industrial Union, (1930-1937 was a foundation member of the Communist Party of Australila. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s he was one of the most prominent communists involved in the industrial arena. In his declining years he was, amongst other things a member of the first Sydney branch of the Labour History Society and a pioneer people’s historian) . the Fight in Queensland against the Combined Forces of the A.W.U. Officialdom, the Graziers, and the Capitalist State. By Norman Jeffery