The looming war on trade unions

In October 2013, the right-wing journal Quadrant published the book Australia’s Secret War, an account by Hal Colebatch of homefront industrial disruptions by Australian trade unions during the Second World War. Described as a secret history rescued from ‘folk memory’ – and one previously suppressed by leftists – it detailed ‘treacherous’ industrial actions by unionists that denied/delayed vital war materials to the frontlines between 1939 and 1945, resulting in the deaths of service personnel. These actions, the argument went, pointed to a deliberate and coordinated attempt at sabotaging the war effort courtesy of the communist leaderships of the unions involved. Maritime unions, in particular the Waterside Workers’ Federation (WWF), were the focus of the book.

Aided by the vituperations of Alan Jones on the airwaves and Miranda Devine in the Murdoch press, the book quickly transmuted from niche to reprint with mainstream national release and distribution for the Christmas market. Quadrant editor and publisher Keith Windschuttle effusively praised the book in the December issue of Quadrant. David Flint followed in the January issue with a lengthy review in which the words ‘evil’, ‘treachery’, ‘crimes’, ‘traitors’ and ‘insidious’ were used to describe wartime waterfront industrial disputes. Flint expressed his wish that martial law had been instituted on Australian wartime waterfronts to curtail wharfie industrial actions, and regarded the alleged American use of submachine-gunfire and stun grenades on the Adelaide waterfront in 1942, during an incident allegedly involving the mishandling of an American military cargo by Australian wharfies, as reasonable.

Colebatch makes significant use of interviews and correspondence with alleged participants, or those at a remove from the action being examined. It is the sort of material which Windschuttle has persistently disclaimed in relation to the Australian Indigenous histories – and it’s notoriously suspect regarding authenticity and problems associated with misremembering and the anecdotal. Specialist scrutiny by ‘war history’ enthusiasts has raised serious questions about Colebatch’s sources, evidence, and facts.

Despite Colebatch’s claim to the contrary, industrial disputes and unrest in Australian wartime industries and worksites have been canvassed by scholars of industrial relations and labour history, as has the existence of the many strikes and industrial actions on Australian waterfronts during the war. What Colebatch and his supporters seem unable to countenance is what the scholarly literature clearly establishes: that wartime industrial actions by waterfront workers were primarily local in origin, variously based on local factors and understandings, and occurred despite attempts by the communist national leadership of the WWF to curtail them.

Colebatch fails to grasp the realities of a complex context and industry: a national trade union leadership, in wartime, based in Sydney, overseeing a large national membership organised in some 50 or so port-based branches dotted around a huge coastline. Each had their own leaderships, distinct histories, cultures, politics, practices, port characteristics, infrastructures and work demands. Furthermore, the WWF rank and file were far from being communists during that war or the Cold War. In actual fact, they tended to be ALP members or sympathisers – the interesting point being they supported communist leaderships through to the 1960s because these were seen to deliver the goods so far as industrial relations were concerned.

Colebatch and his supporters work on the premise of a patriotic, all-pull-together, seamless Australian homefront war effort between 1939 and 1945, in which industrial unrest was a perverse and isolated presence. A comfortable myth, but the reality was otherwise. For example, when Australia and Japan went to war, the Labor government thought it necessary to cajole a confused civilian population with a barrage of racist propaganda to counter complacency created by a decade of appeasement of Japanese militarism by previous conservative governments and profitable trade relations with Japan developed by Australian capitalists. When Darwin was bombed by Japan in February 1942, there was large-scale desertion by Australian service personnel, and looting and thuggery by both civilians and servicemen; subsequent critical findings of a Royal Commission were kept secret until 1945. Australian media interests united in 1944 to defy Commonwealth war censorship laws, resulting in police intervention and, on one occasion at least, a drawn police revolver.

Colebatch has maritime workers in his sights as a collective, and while making mention of the Seamen’s Union of Australia (SUA), possibly the most communist of Australia’s wartime unions in terms of leadership and rank and file membership, but he focuses on the wharfies instead. This enables the wartime contribution of SUA members to be ignored. Between 1939 and 1945, Australian merchant mariners suffered high losses – at least 288 were killed by enemy action ­– with much of the toll in Australian waters due to enemy mines, and submarine and air attacks. Hardly a treacherous or inconsequential civilian contribution to the war effort.

Judging from reviews and online comment, Colebatch’s book is being used to suggest a curious case of responsibility and heritage: the actions of the wartime unionists were treasonous and the culprits never brought to book; their attitudes were such that they considered themselves above and beyond the common good – a sense of moral superiority that still characterises their modern counterparts (either the trade union movement generally or, specifically, maritime workers now organised in the Maritime Union of Australia).

Colebatch has form, as they say in the classics. He is the third son of the short-term (one-month) twelfth premier of West Australia, who accompanied strikebreakers onto the waterfront during the bitter Fremantle wharf crisis of 1919, an inflammatory action which contributed to the death of trade union loyalist Tom Edwards following a police battoning. In many ways Australia’s Secret War is a pioneering contribution to the new ‘anti-leftist’ history of Australia as envisaged by the Abbott government’s Education Minister Christopher Pyne, and an ideological contribution to the Abbott government’s looming war against the Australian trade union movement.

Rowan Cahill

Rowan Cahill is a sessional teaching academic at the University of Wollongong, and the co-author with Terry Irving of Radical Sydney (UNSW Press, 2013).

More by Rowan Cahill ›

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  1. I don’t know if the war is “looming” as much as it is “in full swing” – just ask unionists in Queensland! It’s going to get worse, no doubt.

  2. I did an MA thesis in 1972-74 on aspects of the Curtin-Chifley government and industrial unrest was a part of the story, as were efforts of government to work around it. Anyone like Colebatch who thinks this is somehow secret hasn’t done their homework on the sources.

  3. No doubt Colebatch et al are reactionary blowhards. Nonetheless there is an important argument to be had about the role of Stalinist (as opposed to the reviewers more ambivalent and ultimately incorrect use of the adjective “communist”) trade union officials in the Second World War.
    Two quotes from the review stand out for me:
    “What Colebatch and his supporters seem unable to countenance is what the scholarly literature clearly establishes: that wartime industrial actions by waterfront workers were primarily local in origin, variously based on local factors and understandings, and occurred despite attempts by the communist national leadership of the WWF to curtail them.”
    “Furthermore, the WWF rank and file were far from being communists during that war or the Cold War. In actual fact, they tended to be ALP members or sympathisers – the interesting point being they supported communist leaderships through to the 1960s because these were seen to deliver the goods so far as industrial relations were concerned.”
    What is exciting about the first quote is that despite the Stalinist and Labour Party agreeing to policy non-strike pledges for the course of the war (and remember the Stalinist only came on oard for this after their beloved Socialist Motherland was invaded by Hitler in the northern summer of 1941), the class struggled continued. Indeed the class struggle continues despite the best efforts of Stalinists and others to curtail it or harness it or more likely bury it.
    The second quote is perhaps more implicitly ominous. Indeed the Stalinist leadership was not only supported ambivalently by the rank and file, but also by Australian capital during the war, because it was able to “deliver the goods” with regard to enforcing no-strikes for the duration. Colebatch et al. spill crocodile tears over this, ignoring the complicity of global capital’s role in the rise and support of Hitler, while misunderstanding both the crucial role Stalinism played in supporting their war goals.

  4. I was entertained by this deeply confused and paranoid attempt by Cahill to defend the indefensible.

    I see Overland has not gone far from its Stalinist roots – remember it defended the post-war show trials in Stalinist Czecheslovakia?

    “Colebatch has form …” is a beautifully Stalinist touch, strait from a Peoples’ Court. Guilt by antecedents and association more important than truth.

    That the article completely misrepresents the book goes without saying.

    Incidentally, the fact ships were sunk by mines in Australian waters may be connected with the fact the unions making and fitting mine-sweeping gear were on strike, as John Curtin pointed out to the Advisory War Council(AWC minute No. 130).

  5. Re mines in Australian waters: Two German raiders mined the East and Southern coastal waters of Australia in 1940; these fields were discovered accidentally by merchant ships soon thereafter. The British registered steamer Cambridge was the start, mined off Wilson’s Promontory in November 1940, sinking with the loss of one life. The next day, the US motor vessel City of Rayville went down off Cape Otway, with another loss of life. Not long after, in December 1940, the Australian registered Nimbin followed, mined off North Head, NSW, sinking within five minutes with the loss of seven lives. While authorities had expected mining to take place, the expectation Germany would do so as quickly as it did, was not. Accordingly, the Nimbin sinking was initially put down to an internal explosion…..Curtin and his problems re the home front were, at the time, yet to come…

  6. “Australia’s Secret War’ is a peer reviewed, excellently researched piece of Australian history. It should be required reading for every secondary school student. It’s inclusion in the National Curriculum would give some balance to the present romanticisation of the roll of unions in our history.

  7. Despite Keith Duncan’s claim, overland did not defend the Czechoslovakian show trials. The trials were held between 1949 and 1951, Overland started publication in 1954. There were Stalinists on its first editorial committee, but, whatever some of its associates may have done, it was never Stalinist–in fact, it was estbalished to provide a non-Stalinist and inclusive voice on the left.

  8. I think the well known motto of Overland was ‘Temper; democratic. Bias; Australian’ – at least until after Barrett Reid was the editor. After that the motto changed to ‘Progressive culture since 1954’ when the editorship disappeared into the gulags of the west ( further to the left and less ‘inclusive’) – I had always thought of it as the home of ‘modernism’ in poetry and art (painting in particular, with links to Montsalvat and Dunmoochin – Perceval etc). Yet alas, it has completely lost its once wonderful connection with art, and any modernism has grown stressed in the orthodoxy. Now it refuses to consider the poetry of Quadrant poets ( the unfunded side of the literati) There is too much fear of ‘debate’ at Overland – ‘let the thousand flowers bloom’

  9. I erred. It was Meanjin which defended the Stalinist show trials – which does not make Cahill’s Stalinist ravings any more palatable.

  10. In case I have not made my point sufficiently, importing into a book review what Colebatch’s father may or may not have done nearly 100 years ago, as though making some political point, is plain crazy.

  11. I have heard of such things since I was a teenager, where food and ammunitions could not be loaded for desperate soldiers which caused the deaths of many of our men who consequently could not defend themselves.
    But what is even more worrying is that the Prime Minister did nothing to stop these treasonous acts, which means he also should have been charged, and even a group of women did better than he in trying to stop them.
    The other worrying thing is that it would appear that non of the union perpetrators were ever charged and they should have been hung drawn and quartered for treason, in other words shot.

    1. I asked my father many, many moons ago (when something came up about unions and the Labour Party) why he was so anti unions/ALP? His answer to me was “Son, it is what the unions did during the war and I will leave it at that”.
      It wasn’t until I read a small article in a paper some time ago and a review in the Australian about this book that the jigsaw fell into place.
      It explains why the Hon Sir Robert Menzies was in power for so long.
      My father during the war was sent to Canada and Borneo.
      I wait in vain for a documentary on ABC/SBS about this subject.
      A well researched book as I Googled some of the sources.

  12. Could be right Keith; it is a literary/debating technique I observed when trawling right-wing blogs and media commentaries. I’m afraid that somewhere along the line I must have been infected. However, I note that the esteemed rightist Peter Coleman, in his hugely sympathetic review of Colebatch’s book (“The Spectator, 14 December 2013), deploys some 75 words to explaining the links betwen Colebatch senior and Colebatch junior, and daddy’s impact on the son, and how junior’s book is his “tribute to his father”.

  13. Colebatch says in the book that his father (unlike many watersiders and coal-miners) supported the war-effort against Hitler. Is that such a terrible crime?

  14. I am glad to find a careful, detailed response to Colebatch’s book. I cannot speak about waterfront workers in war-time. However, since my father worked on the wharves after the War (a quirk of fate for one from a very old family and a former Company director), I can say something about the WWF etc then. He like many of his fellow workers, in no way supporting Communism, did support the Communist leadership of the union(but voted for the ALP in parliamentary elections)because that leadership achieved real reforms to the appalling conditions under which men worked on the wharves certainly in Sydney long after the War had ended, e.g. waiting to see if they would be chosen for work, clambering down into holds sometimes with dangerous and often very dirty cargoes, working long hours,etc etc, in my father’s case to provide for my mother (who fortunately never had to work), to pay off his home in a beautiful heritage part of Hornsby, and to clothe and feed four sons. It was his labours that made possible my staying on for the Leaving Certificate, laying the foundation for degree and diploma courses at Sydney, and subsequent Australian, UK, and US post-graduate qualifications. I owe him this tribute and I wish that more knew of the conditions which watersider workers endured for so long.

    1. Lovely Revd Bunyan. It really is a shame your father had to “clamber into holds with dirty and dangerous cargo”. All the while our servicemen suffered real privations in fighting for the life of the country, and quite often placed in peril by unionists. If ever the term “excusing the indefensible” were appropriate, it is here. Surely one cannot be so diconnected.

  15. Can you believe this happened.

    Ming was in power for years after WW2. How come he/his Government did not expose and prosecute whilst these traitors were alive and catchable. Most of the arseholes are now dead.

    At least Abbotts Royal Commission will expose the current crop of arseholes, though their sins are much the lesser only stealing from gullible dumb dumb card carriers

  16. Methinks you are being uncharitable Gaz Bacon. Menzies tried his utmost to ban the Communist Party and variously break the trade union movement, but was thwarted by democratic and legal processes. Like Abbott, Menzies knew how to play hard. For example, recently returned from Germany where he had met key Reich personnel, Menzies told an appreciative lunchtime audience of Old Melburnians on 14 November 1938, how impressed he was by Germany’s industrial efficiency and by “the exalted and almost spiritual worship of the State by many Germans”, something that “would do no harm among our own somewhat irresponsible population”. And we know too, courtesy of Menzies biographer Martin, that in private Menzies regarded Hitler as “a dreamer, a man of ideas, many of them good ones”.

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