1949 Australian coal strike
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The 1949 Australian coal strike was the first time that Australian military forces were used during peacetime to break a Trade union strike. The strike by 23,000 coal miners lasted for seven weeks, from 27 June 1949 to 15 August 1949, with troops being sent in by the Ben Chifley Federal Labor Government to the open cut coal mines in New South Wales on 28 July 1949, with the workers returning to work, defeated, two weeks later.
The miners' federation was heavily influenced at the time by the Communist Party of Australia (CPA), and the strike is widely seen as the CPA applying Cold War Soviet Union Cominform policy in challenging Labor reformism, and promoting a class conflict to promote communist leadership of the working class struggle, at the expense of the Labor Party. The strike was seen as a continuation of the industrial confrontation in the 1948 Queensland Railway strike.
The miners' demands had been lodged over the preceding two years and had included a 35-hour week, a 30-shilling increase in wages, and the inclusion of long service leave as a normal condition of employment. They were reasonably modest demands given the dangerous working environment and poor working conditions. There is some evidence that Ben Chifley was secretly prepared to concede all demands but the CPA, for its own political reasons directed that an offer from Chifley be rejected.[dead link]
Two days after the strike commenced, the Labor government passed legislation that made it illegal to give strikers and their families financial support (including credit from shops). On 5 July union officials were ordered to hand over union funds to the industrial registrar. On the following day union officials were arrested and the union and Communist Party headquarters were subsequently raided. At the end of July seven union officials were sentenced to 12 months' jail and one to six months, with fines being imposed on other officials and three unions. Chifley told the Labor caucus, "The Reds must be taught a lesson", while Arthur Calwell threatened to put communists and their sympathisers into concentration camps. On Monday 1 August 1949 two and a half thousand soldiers commenced coal mining at the open cut mines of Minmi (near Newcastle), Muswellbrook and Ben Bullen, with seven more fields operated later.
- I come to Cessnock for one reason. In 1917...everyone was behind the workers [in the general strike], but they got beaten. Why? Because the State was against them. I have come here to tell you you won't beat the State.
There has been much conjecture whether Chifley's decision to use troops to break the strike was influenced by Cold War hysteria, or as a reluctant last-minute solution to a major industrial problem. Archival evidence shows that Chifley received regular reports from the Commonwealth Investigation Service, (the forerunner of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation) on the campaigns and policies of the Communist Party of Australia. Early in the strike the legality of using troops was investigated, and planning immediately formulated for Operation Excavate during the first week in July. Rumours surfaced on 14 July that the Government would enlist the support of the anti-communist Australian Workers' Union to break the strike, with an agreement of the Australian Railways Union to transport the coal. This was almost certainly a bluff and a political ploy to distract attention from the military operations being planned. With 1949 being an election year, Chifley wanted to demonstrate his Government's anti-communist resolve, but the tactic proved insufficient and the Menzies Government was elected in December 1949.
The use of troops to break the 1949 coal strike has been used as a precedent by the Robert Menzies Government in Intervention on the Waterfront at Bowen in 1953, and in disputes in 1951, 1952, and 1954 against seamen and waterside workers; Harold Holt used the navy to break a Seamen's Union of Australia boycott in 1967; the Malcolm Fraser Government used the RAAF to transport passengers during a Qantas dispute in 1981, as did Bob Hawke in the 1989 Australian pilots' strike.
- Labour in Conflict, the 1949 Coal Strike, Phillip Deery (ed), (1978)
- Chifley, the Army and the 1949 Coal Strike, Phillip Deery in Labour History, no. 68, (1995)
- Communism, Security and the Cold War, Phillip Deery, (1997) [dead link]
- 1949 coal strike: Labor's `boots and all' sell-out, Kim Bullimore, Greenleft, (1999)[dead link]
- A brief history of Australian Unionism and the role of the Communist Party, Warren Smith, (2000)
- Call Out the Troops: an examination of the legal basis for Australian Defence Force involvement in 'non-defence' matters, Elizabeth Ward, Parliamentary Research Paper 8, (1997)[dead link]