All the way with Clarrie O'Shea
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This year marks the 50th anniversary of the momentous working class struggle to abolish the anti-union Penal Powers and free Clarrie O’Shea, Secretary of the Tramways Union, from gaol.
On 15-21 May 1969, more than a million workers across the country collectively defied the oppressive anti-union Penal Powers laws.
They took illegal industrial action, courageously went on strike, held spontaneous stop work meetings and go-slows and marched and protested in the streets. They ignored the threats and intimidation of fines and gaol by the bosses’ courts and governments and resolutely demanded the abolition of the Penal Powers and the immediate release of Clarrie O’Shea from gaol.
Many workers took “wild-cat” industrial action in defiance of some top union officials in the ACTU and a few Trades and Labour Councils.
Five days of strikes across the country nearly brought the Victorian economy to a standstill, and forced the ruling class of big business to release Clarrie O’Shea from gaol and pull back from using the Penal Powers.
The Tramways Union and O’Shea’s fines were unexpectedly paid by an anonymous person, later to be confirmed as acting for ASIO. Clarrie was released from gaol without him or the Tramways Union paying a cent of the fines.
Fearing a repeat of mass struggle, the courts and the government dropped their demands on other unions to pay outstanding fines imposed on them by the Arbitration Court.
... mobilised working class
The fight against the anti-worker Penal Powers was led by Communists, militant trade unions and their members. Clarrie O’Shea was a Vice-Chairman of Communist Party of Australia (Marxist-Leninist).
Acting on behalf of the Tramways Union members’ instructions, and supported by other militant unions and many workers, O’Shea refused to pay heavy fines imposed on the union by the penal provisions of the Arbitration Act.
For months he ignored summonses to appear in court, and when he finally fronted the court he refused to answer any questions on his union members’ funds and their hidden whereabouts.
He was immediately sentenced to an indefinite gaol term. The sentencing judge was no other than John Kerr, the infamous Governor-General who in cahoots with the CIA and the British ruling class engineered and executed the coup that sacked the democratically elected Whitlam government in November 1975.
But this victory was not due solely to Clarrie O’Shea’s political courage. Working class battles and successes are not achieved by the heroic acts of an individual. Clarrie knew this very well and said it often enough. He credited the victory to the power of an organised and mobilised working class imbued with the class consciousness and an understanding of the vital necessity to break the capitalist class laws that chain the working class.
For many years members of the Communist Party of Australia (Marxist-Leninist) were immersed in working class struggles, often leading the protracted campaign to abolish the penal powers with militant unions and progressive working people. They worked tirelessly with unions and workers raising working class consciousness, exposing the capitalist state, parliament, the courts and the legal system which work for the capitalist class of big business.
The Penal Powers struggle involved people from many walks of life. Ted Hill, Chairman of CPA (M-L) and a workers’ compensation lawyer closely worked with Clarrie O’Shea and other militant and Communist unionists (Ted Bull, Paddy Malone, Norm Gallagher) advising on legal strategies, but always urging unions and workers not to rely on bosses’ courts and that the working class battles can only be won “on the ground” by mass struggle, independent of parliament and the courts.
Hill and O’Shea worked with other progressive lawyers and civil rights activists, including Lionel Murphy who later became Attorney General in the Whitlam government. Ted Bull, Paddy Malone and Clarrie O’Shea were Vice-Chairmen of the CPA (M-L) at that time and played a critical part in the Penal Powers mass struggle with their members.
Who was Clarrie O’Shea? Where did O’Shea get his courage, conviction and unshakeable confidence in the power of mobilised working class, in the collective power of workers?
Clarrie O’Shea was a committed Communist for most of his working life. His political outlook was shaped by his long experiences in working class struggles and the science of Marxism-Leninism and Communism. As a worker with long experiences in struggle he easily understood the social relations of production under capitalism and class exploitation. It was this knowledge that gave him the immense confidence in the capacity and power of the united working class to bring fundamental change. Clarrie strongly supported struggles against imperialist domination of Australia. He argued that fighting for Australia’s independence is an integral part in the struggle for a socialist Australia.
The May 1969 defiance and rebellion against the penal powers was not spontaneous. For years militant unionists and Communists were preparing the working class. They drew on workers’ daily experiences to expose and explain the capitalist nature of industrial laws, the bosses’ courts and parliament, deepening working class consciousness. Workers understood the necessity to organise independently of parliament and courts, and that the real power lies in the mobilised working people.
class struggle never ceases
The Penal Powers and Clarrie O’Shea mass struggle inspired and gave courage to many peoples’ struggles, in particular the mass movement against the Vietnam War and US imperialist wars; for Australia’s independence; improvement in wages and conditions; and progressive social policies that were fought for and carried through to election of the Whitlam Labor government.
But the penal powers against unions and workers were never repealed and the victory didn’t last long.
In 1977 the ruling class came back with the Secondary Boycotts laws, and sections of the penal powers against the working class were brought back dressed in a new outfit. For the last 50 years they continued to be strengthened and widened under different disguises by successive Liberal and Labor governments.
Today the anti-worker laws are dressed up as unFair Work Commission, ABCC and ROC. Workers never had the legal right to strike but nevertheless, they did strike.
Many lessons can be learnt today for our Change the Rules campaign from this magnificent 1969 working class struggle.
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