MEDIA: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
The facts behind the 1949 coal strike
, November 22, 2008
ABC television's recent docu-drama, Infamous Victory: Ben Chifley's Battle for Coal (screened on November 6, 2008), failed to do justice to the events surrounding the great coal strike of 1949. Peter Westmore reports.A Film Australia production, Infamous Victory: Ben Chifley's Battle for Coal, was recently screened on ABC1 (November 6, 2008).
|Tony Barry as |
The film is part of Film Australia's Prime Ministers Series, which set out to document key events in Australia's history. Other films in the series included The Prime Minister is Missing
and Menzies and Churchill at War.
The events surrounding the great coal strike of 1949 deserve to be commemorated in Australia, but Infamous Victory
did not do justice to it. The wooden acting, poor script and unconvincing splicing of 1949 newsreel footage with contemporary acting made this a weak teledrama rather than a documentary.
Additionally, the role of the ALP Industrial Group within the Miners' Federation in effecting an end to the strike by democratic vote was totally ignored.
The title of the film, Infamous Victory
, suggests that there was something disreputable or dishonourable about the Chifley Labor Government's action in bringing to an end an 11-week strike which virtually paralysed the nation in the winter of 1949.
At the time, almost all of Australia's electricity, and gas for cooking and heating, came from coal which was mined by members of the Miners' Federation, then under Communist Party control. Rail, tram and sea transport were also dependent on the supply of coal.
Additionally, heavy industry relied on coal to turn iron ore into steel, and the cities of Newcastle and Wollongong in New South Wales were totally dependent on it.
Despite attempts by the Chifley Labor Government to reach an accommodation with the Miners' Federation, the union's leadership was determined to stage a showdown with the government, in pursuit of directives issued from Moscow, to show where real power in society lay. The way the union intended to do this was to paralyse the economy through strike action.
These events were described 50 years ago in the book, Australian Accent,
written by John Douglas Pringle, former editor of the Sydney Morning Herald
Pringle wrote: "Between 1945 and 1948 the communists either controlled or virtually controlled the powerful Ironworkers' Federation, the Sheetmetal Workers Union, the Amalgamated Engineering Union, the Waterside Workers Federation, the Seamen's Union, the Federated Clerks Union, the Australian Railways Union and part of the Building Trades Union.
"What is more, they were using their power openly to disrupt industry along the seaboard by a series of vicious strikes which at one time threatened to bring Australia to a halt.
"Mr Chifley, then Labor Prime Minister, was forced to take drastic action against the strikers on more than one occasion. Fear of communism and resentment against the continual strikes was undoubtedly one, though only one, of the reasons which led to the downfall of the Labor Government in 1949."The Ironworkers
, a history of the Federated Ironworkers Association, by respected labour historians, Robert Murray and Kate White, gives an illuminating account of the 1949 coal strike.
They wrote: "There had been speculation that the communists would organise a coal strike for the winter of 1949, as there had been delays with a log of claims by the miners' union and coal stocks were low ...
"How far the Communist Party manipulated events to produce the strike is one of the great debates of Australian industrial history. The charge of manipulation rests on organised misrepresentation to the miners of the state of negotiations and the prospects of a 'short, sharp strike' - in winter, with little coal in reserve - overriding arbitration to produce victory for the union's demands.
"It was certainly believed widely at the time and later that the communist leaders of the union caused the strike, reacting to [Communist] party pressure for an event that would 'expose' arbitration and the 'reformist' Labor Government; and it was believed by the Chifley and state Labor governments, by many rank-and-file communists themselves, as well as by more conservative or anti-communist commentators." (Pp.188-9).Communist-orchestrated
In his book, Against the Tide
, B.A. Santamaria documented the escalating series of strikes which communist-controlled unions had orchestrated from 1945, designed to inflict maximum damage on the Australian economy.
Santamaria quoted Chifley's broadcast to the Australian people: "The whole economic and social life of the nation is approaching complete disruption.... It has been suggested that the stoppage has been planned by a communist section of the Miners' officials for some months. I hesitate to believe that any citizen could be so callous as to plan deliberately for the holding up of the life of the community and the imposition of the intolerable hardships and deprivation of amenities that this stoppage creates. But that is what has happened." (Sydney Morning Herald
, July 4, 1949).
The strike ended when the membership of the union rose up to defeat the communist leadership of the union at mass meetings. This was followed by the defeat of the communist leadership in elections which followed a short time later.
The Industrial Group leaders held office in the Miners' Federation until Chifley's successor as Labor leader, Dr H.V. Evatt, orchestrated the 1954 split in the Labor movement which allowed the communists to regain power.- Peter Westmore