The 1950s great Labor split: battle for control that drove Labor apart

Behind the Cold War-era split in the Labor Party were efforts by union leaders to exert control of the Labor party, writes James Supple, in our latest instalment of our Labor history series

So monumental was the division that tore Labor apart in the 1950s that it is often simply known as “the Split”. In fact it was the third major split in Labor’s history, following those over conscription in 1917 and the 1930s split between Premier Jack Lang’s supporters in NSW and Federal Labor.

The tensions that caused it, in particular the division between the union officials and the Parliamentary Labor Party, hold continuing lessons about the nature of the Labor Party and what makes it tick.

The split in 1955 was ostensibly a product of the Cold War. The post-war years saw the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) at the height of its influence. By the early 1940s it had won important leadership positions in the Miners Federation, the Australian Railways Union, the Federated Ironworkers, the Sheet Metal Workers Union, the Waterside Workers Federation and the Seamen’s Union.

After the war the CPA’s membership was at 16,000, although partly due to its increasingly nationalist tinge. In the years following, the CPA was involved in the strike wave that broke out following the war, as workers pushed for wage gains to make up for their wartime sacrifices.

Breaking from its Popular Front policy of collaborating with the Labor Party, the CPA took up the fight for higher wages and conditions against the Labor Government. But this was checked in 1949 when Labor Prime Minister Ben Chifley sent in the army to break a coal miners’ strike, after freezing union funds and jailing strike leaders. It was a major defeat. The CPA had helped lead the strike and saw it as part of its offensive against the Labor Party. In its aftermath the CPA began a long decline.

That year also saw the CPA’s Secretary-General Lance Sharkey jailed for 18 months for sedition over his statement that Australian workers would welcome a Soviet invasion if war broke out between the superpowers. Then, as the right took the offensive, Liberal Robert Menzies was elected Prime Minister in December.

It was in this period that B.A. Santamaria set up his secretive Catholic organisation, known as “the Movement” to fight Communist Party influence in the unions and the Labor Party. Labor had become the natural home of Irish Catholics in Australia due to sectarian discrimination and they were over-represented in the party compared to the wider population.

Initially the Movement worked closely with other trade union and Labor Party leaders, coordinating their work with the ACTU President and Melbourne Trades Hall President Vic Stout. The Movement established “Industrial Groups” inside the unions with the official support of the Labor Party, so that they became known as the “Groupers”.

The groups won a series of victories in union elections against Communist officials in the early 1950s. They were successful to the point where, as a historian of the split, Robert Murray, has written, “Between 1949 and 1954 Communist influence in the unions was almost broken.”

But this success led to increasing influence for the Movement itself inside the Labor Party, so that by 1953 they were close to controlling the numbers at the Federal Labor Conference.

Union officials shift

Now union officials came to see the Movement as a threat. In part this was simply because it posed a challenge to their own positions of control in the unions. The Movement’s own ideology and Santamaria advocacy of “corporatist” policies and support of the fascist leaders of Portugal and Spain, also caused suspicion.

But it was because the Movement inflamed existing tensions between a number of state Labor governments and the trade union officials that the party eventually split.

This process demonstrated a key element of the Labor Party’s make-up. Labor was formed by the trade unions to represent the political interests of the trade union leaders in parliament. This remains true today with the unions controlling 50 per cent of the votes at Labor Party conferences. Many Labor MPs are also drawn from the ranks of senior union officials, and most unions continue to see Labor as “their party”.

The unions are controlled by a bureaucracy of paid full-time officials with interests distinct from the working class members of the unions. These officials are professional negotiators whose role is to make deals over wages and conditions between workers and the employers. This means they frequently have a conservative outlook, and will often look to do compromises with the bosses and sell workers’ struggles short.

Labor MPs on the other hand have their own distinct role. They are a step further removed from the working class even than the union officials—their job is to work inside the system to form governments that manage capitalism. Therefore they are often required to act in the interests of the ruling class.

There is a potential conflict between the interests of Labor MPs and the trade union officials—since what is necessary to manage Australian capitalism as a whole may conflict with the ability of union leaders to deliver deals acceptable to the workforce as well as the employers.

Issues behind the split

The 1950s split took place state by state, with different issues at stake in the two states where the split had the greatest impact, Victoria and Queensland.

In Victoria, Labor Premier John Cain had already fallen foul of the unions during his time as head of a minority Labor Government in 1945-47. When Labor returned to power at the end of 1952, the tensions continued. The break between the union leaders and the Labor Government came to a head around the so called “one man bus dispute”, where the government tried to force the Tramways Union to accept job cuts reducing staffing to only one worker per tram.

Vic Stout, head of the Council, interpreted the intransigence of the Labor Government as a product of the dominance of the Movement, commenting: “There is no doubt that somebody or something on the Victorian Central Executive has told the State Government what to do and the government has done it.”

The Trades Hall Council passed a motion of no confidence in the Victorian Labor Government, declaring it, “no longer worthy of financial support or association”.

Only a week later on October 5, 1954 the Federal Labor Opposition Leader Doc Evatt launched his famous attack on the Groupers, denouncing them in a speech following his loss in the 1954 election.

As a result the unions in Victoria immediately backed him, holding a union conference that called on the Federal Executive to dissolve the Labor Party’s Victorian Executive.

When they did so, the end result was that the union leaders effectively took over the Victorian Labor Party branch, with Vic Stout becoming party president.

A bitter split also took place in Queensland, where there were also tensions between unions including the right-wing AWU and the State Labor Government. The AWU had long dominated the Queensland branch of the ALP, through its large rural membership. The unions had won a vote at the State Labor Conference demanding the government introduce three weeks annual leave for public sector workers.

When the Labor Premier Vince Gair refused, he was expelled from the party by the Labor State Executive, which the unions controlled, and set up a separate party. Initially it was known as the Queensland Labor Party and did not merge with the Groupers who had split in Victoria until 1962.

In NSW the split had less impact, as more members of the Movement advocated staying in the Labor Party and trying to influence it from the inside. When the Groupers eventually did form a separate party they took far fewer members out of the Labor Party than interstate.

The new party, which called itself the Democratic Labor Party (Anti-Communist) proved its right-wing credentials by preferencing the Liberals ahead of Labor in elections. This helped keep Labor out of government federally for 23 years.

Unions and Labor

In both Victoria and Queensland, the union leaders’ dissatisfaction with Labor governments was so strong that they were prepared to drive the party out of government in order to re-exert control.

As in the split over conscription in 1917, which was also partly driven by union opposition to the actions of a Labor Government, the split showed that the unions and their control of the Labor Party organisation could discipline Labor MPs.

Labor’s shift to the right in recent decades has also led to tensions between union leaders and Labor Governments. In recent elections unions including the ETU in Victoria, the firefighters union and the construction union have all donated money to The Greens.

Nor have the unions lost their ability to bring down Labor leaders. Union opposition to the NSW Labor Government’s power privatisation in 2008 saw Morris Iemma forced out as Premier.

Julia Gillard’s efforts to woo the unions and help shore up her fragile leadership have eased these tensions federally. Gillard’s is really a pro-business government that has done little for workers. But minor wins over issues like support for manufacturing, equal pay in the community sector and redundancy entitlements have kept the union officials happy. However Labor’s commitment to neo-liberalism means that conflicts with the unions will continue to flare.

This could lead to future fights over Labor policy inside the party, or even splits. Socialists need to relate to these struggles, both supporting the fight inside Labor to push party policy to the left, as well as trying to win larger forces to the struggles on the streets and in the workplaces that have the real power to change society.


Solidarity meetings

Latest articles

Read more

British Labour takes office but little enthusiasm on show

Labour won a big majority in Britain’s election. But the results saw a surge towards the far right Reform UK party while pro-Palestine independents won five seats.

Why revolution is the only route to real change

Radical parties that have tried to introduce sweeping change through parliament have continually failed, argues James Supple, because the system is set up to stop them

Sanction Israel not Senator Payman

Every supporter of Palestine must get behind Senator Fatima Payman, following Anthony Albanese's decision to sanction her for crossing the floor in the Senate to vote with The Greens to recognise a Palestinian state.