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Breaking the Rules to Change the Rules: Lessons from the great O'Shea struggle

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Alice M.

“Everything I have done or tried to do I have done with the idea of service to the people in struggle.  I do not believe I can just arbitrarily impose my ideas on people.  But I do believe that the breakdown of capitalist society is impelling thousands into struggle and I believe they are learning in struggle that capitalism must be ended.” (Clarrie O’Shea)

The massive working class battle of 1969 against the draconian anti-workers Penal Powers laws was led by Clarrie O’Shea, Secretary of the Victorian Tramways and Buses Union, and a Vice-Chairman of the Communist Party of Australia (Marxist-Leninist).

It was one of the biggest and most inspiring working class struggles in Australia’s history, and has important lessons for workers and unions today gearing up for a major battle to Change the Rules.

May 21st is the anniversary of the release of Clarrie O’Shea from gaol after 5 days of non-stop national strikes, demonstrations and protests.

On 15 May 1969, Clarrie O’Shea was gaoled indefinitely for defying the bosses’ courts orders to pay heavy fines for “unlawful” industrial action taken over the years by his union and its members in defence of their working conditions. Under instructions from his members, O’Shea refused to pay the fines and hand over his union members’ financial books to the government and the courts. For weeks he refused to front up to the courts and was hounded by the police and ASIO.

When news spread of his gaoling, a million angry workers across the country immediately walked off their jobs, went on indefinite strikes, held stop work meetings, rallied and demonstrated in the streets and outside Pentridge gaol and the courts, demanding O’Shea’s freedom and the abolition of the anti-worker Penal Powers. Victoria’s economy came to a standstill.

Wild-cat strikes spread to all parts of the country in defiance of some tame-cat union officials’ instructions not to take industrial action in support of Clarrie O’Shea. Workers in the Pilbara and Kalgoorlie walked off their jobs and went on strikes. In Queensland mass meetings were held in 20 towns. It was huge. The militancy, the size and breadth of struggle across Australia had never been seen before. 

The power and strength of the united and mobilised working class left the capitalist ruling class shaking and trembling in fear.

On 21st May, after 5 days of non-stop “illegal” strikes, bans and stop work meetings, demonstrations and protests in workplaces and communities, O’Shea was released from gaol. The fines were paid anonymously, later revealed to have been paid by ASIO. O’Shea and his union did not pay one cent of the fines.

Clarrie was released, and although the penal powers remain on the books, the ruling class of monopoly big business have not used them against unions in that way since. 

The broad based battle by working people to abolish the bosses’ penal powers was not spontaneous. The penal powers had been a constant topic of discussion at union meetings across the country for years leading up to the struggle of 1969, and workers were well informed of their draconian anti-worker nature and the fact that sooner or later they would need to be confronted. When O'Shea was gaoled, workers knew the time had come.

Years of preparation and exposing the capitalist class nature of the industrial laws, the courts, and the state forged a strong foundation of class consciousness which would be crucial to the struggle. Many workers and union leaders understood deeply that to win this battle it was necessary for the working class to organise and mobilise independently of parliament and the courts. Many Communist working class leaders at that time like Clarrie, O’Shea, Ted Bull, Norm Gallagher and many others, including Ted Hill, the CPA (M-L) Chairperson at that time, worked tirelessly with working people and unions to raise working class consciousness and expose the capitalist class state, parliament and the legal system.

It was only the massive mobilisation, unity and power of people’s struggle on the ground in workplaces and communities that won the release of Clarrie O’Shea from gaol and pushed back the Penal Powers. It was clear to many that parliament and the courts serve capitalism and have to maintain the rule of the capitalist class and suppress working class rebellion and resistance to exploitation.

The main enemy still remains
How much has changed today? If we strip away the disguise of the “independent and impartial  umpire” wrapped around the unFair Work Commission, ABCC, ROC, the same anti-worker capitalist laws and rules are still operating. The titles and format have changed, but the essence of capitalist class rule remains.

Capitalism is the dominant rule of big business and corporations – the tiny minority of exploiters.  The capitalist class holds state power over the majority.  Exploitation and maximisation of profit are inherent in the very existence of capitalism.  The anti-worker laws, the courts, the police, parliament are the core in the very existence of capitalism.  The capitalist legal system - the courts, the laws - exist to suppress workers’ resistance to capitalist exploitation.

Workers in Australia have never had the “right to strike”. Strikes have always been unlawful. But for over 100 years workers, through their unions, defied the bosses and their courts, dared to organise and mobilise working people, struggle, and win. The important conditions for working people have always been won primarily through independent struggles on the job, in the streets and in communities.

There are some parallels with the recent dropping of blackmail charges against CFMEU officials John Setka and Shaun Reardon following the huge mobilisation of over 200,000 working people across the country demanding the overturning of anti-worker legislation.

Workers in Australia have a rich tradition of struggle, rebellion and defiance against injustice and suppression of our rights. From the Eureka rebellion in 1854, the powerful strikes and struggles of the 1890s by shearers, maritime workers and labourers; the 1916-17 anti-Conscription struggle; the battles in the 1930s Depression; against fascism and wars, for democratic rights and peace and justice; and the powerful Clarrie O’Shea struggle against the Penal Powers of 1969. Countless every day battles, big and small, on the job and in the communities, have been fought to win and defend the living standards in this country.

Clarrie O’Shea was one of many working class heroes who dedicated his life, and made many sacrifices, in the struggles of the working people. As a Communist he had great confidence in the power of an organised, aroused and mobilised working class. As a Communist he deeply understood that in time the working class, the majority, will dump capitalism and its parasitic monopoly corporations, and build socialism - the only economic and political system capable of giving power to the working class to run this country for ordinary people.

“My release is a great victory for workers. I am certain that all workers remain adamant in their opposition to the penal powers, which are designed to suppress the workers. The infinite power of the workers when they are really aroused has frightened the life out of the government and the employers ... I am certain the workers will continue the struggle for the abolition of all penal powers.”


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