Labor and the depression: The great coal lockout of 1929

Carl Taylor takes a look back at a strike where workers took on a Labor government

“The most dramatic industrial clash that has ever shocked Australia”: that was how Sydney’s Daily Telegraph described the police attack on protesting miners, December 16, 1929 at the Hunter Valley’s Rothbury Colliery.

One young worker, Norman Brown, was shot dead and dozens more injured as 4000 unionised miners marched to stop the use of scab labour by the Northern Collieries Proprietors Association (NCPA).

The savage police attack during the so-called “Rothbury Riot” was the turning point of a 15-month lockout imposed on 10,000 northern New South Wales miners by the NCPA in early 1929.

“The Great Lockout” was one of the three major industrial battles that shaped the politics of the Depression.

The Wall Street crash on October 29, 1929, is seen as the beginning of the Great Depression. But, by the time of the crash, unemployment in Australia was already 12 per cent. Falling export prices and the drying up of international credit was already impacting the Australian economy and employers profits.

The maritime, timber and mining industries had for years been the front-line of resistance to attacks on working class living standards. If wages were going to be driven down, the unions had to be shackled.

Then, like today, employers and governments tried to shift the cost of the crisis onto the backs of the working class.

In 1928, striking wharfies in Melbourne were shot by police, as the federal Tory government led by Stanley Bruce imposed the infamous “Dog Collar Act” in an attempt to break the wharfies union. The Act entrenched a casualised and non-union workforce on the waterfront.

Next in line were the timber workers. In early 1929 the Arbitration Court upheld a decision in favour of the employers to increase the working week from 44 to 48 hours. For five months the highly unionised workforce fought back. In some places strikes lasted for two years. But in June, 1929, the 48 hour week became the industry standard.

The coal miners were next in the firing line. The mining families had already seen their income cut as companies cut shifts as coal exports declined. Many were struggling to keep their heads above water. A report by Justice Davidson showed that one-third of New South Wales miners earned less than the basic wage.

Working class poverty, however, meant nothing to mining bosses like John “the Baron” Brown who was determined to drive wages even lower. Led by Brown, the NCPA attempted to force a 12.5 per cent pay cut on their workers.

On March 1, 1929, while the coal miners’ union (Miners’ Federation) were still negotiating the proposed wage cut with the coal owners, the NCPA, a renegade group of bosses, imposed a mass lockout on the miners in the Northern District collieries of NSW. Their plan was to starve the 10,000 miners and their families into submission.

Opinion within the Miners’ Federation became sharply divided over the tactics needed to win the dispute. The Militant Minority Movement, a rank and file organisation led by the Communist Party, argued that cutting off the coal supply with an industry-wide strike was the way to stop the bosses’ attack on wages. The coal industry was crucial for rail, shipping and electricity. The domestic economy would be hit hard if the coal supply stopped.

But the officials of the Miners’ Federation Central Council were predominately Labor Party members and were reluctant to be seen leading strikes during an economic crisis in an industry facing a downturn. They rejected the call to widen the strike to involve miners from outside the Northern District. The union leadership instead asked to examine the accounts of the NCPA to determine if any pay cut was justified. Ruling out an industrial campaign, the Federation leaders decided that legal and political manoeuvring could moderate the pay cut and end the dispute.

No support came from parliament, though. Nationalist NSW Premier, Thomas Bavan, and the federal Prime Minister Stanley Bruce both refused to enforce the law and prosecute John Brown or the NCPA for the illegal lockout. Moreover, Bavan implemented legislation to crush the miners.

The Unlawful Assembly Act was introduced in September 1929. Under these laws, pickets and protests were unlawful and could be broken up by police. Union officials and activists who organised meetings or raised funds to help struggling families suffered frequent attacks by police “basher gangs” who enforced a reign of terror in the Northern District coalfields.

Union turns to the Labor Party

The October 1929 federal election was viewed by the Miners’ Federation leadership as an opportunity to get rid of both the Nationalists and their regressive laws without having to resort to industrial action. The election of the Labor Party, they anticipated, would see the rights of their members restored with the stroke of a pen.

In the lead up to the October federal election, local Labor candidate “Red” Ted Theodore declared that if Labor was returned to office their first order of business would be to “reopen the locked-out collieries on a pre-lockout basis”. The Miners’ Federation Central Council directed their energies towards the election campaign and handed the ALP a £1,000 campaign donation. In contrast, they sharply denounced militant rank and file leaders who set up Councils of Action within the coalfields to widen worker involvement to fight the bosses’ attacks.

The Great Lockout was the principal issue of the 1929 election. “Vote Labor and Open the Mines” and “Vote Labor and Prosecute John Brown” were the most recognised slogans of a trade union backed campaign that carried ALP leader, James Scullin, into power with the highest Labor vote in Australian history.

However, only despair followed for the miners, as the Labor Party failed to deliver on its promise. Prime Minister Scullin echoed the feeble excuses of Stanley Bruce and refused to prosecute John Brown for imposing the illegal lockout that left thousands of families in poverty.

The battle at Rothbury

The locked out miners had become disillusioned with the tactical direction of their union well before the 1929 federal election. Calls from the Militant Minority Movement for increased rank and file involvement to win the dispute were supported by demonstrations and calls for solidarity strikes from other districts.

In December 1929, the government moved to starve the miners by declaring that the presence of maintenance workers in the Rothbury colliery meant that the lockout was no longer in effect. Under the law, workers could receive a small, but essential, dole payment if they were locked out rather than being on strike. When the miners still refused to return to work on reduced wages they were deemed to be on strike and the payments were cut.

Events were further intensified when 350 scab miners were set up in a government campsite to start work at Rothbury. In a direct challenge to the Miners’ Federation, the Minister for Mines, R.W.D Weaver proclaimed that the Rothbury colliery would open “though the heavens fall”. Northern District miners’ president, Thomas Hoare, declared that if non-union workers attempted to work the pits the miners would “lift the lid of hell”.

On the morning of December 16, 4000 miners marched, (without their senior union officials, including Hoare), to confront the scab workers at the government camp. Police opened fire on the miners and attacked the crowd on horseback as they approached the site. The four-hour battle that followed saw one miner, Norman Brown, killed and many seriously injured.

Despite public condemnation of the violence, the government offensive continued. The Rothbury colliery opened with scab labour. Elsewhere the illegal lockout continued for another five months.

By May 1930 the Miners’ Federation saw no alternative but to accept the 12.5 per cent wage cut. The faith that the Federation’s leadership had placed in the Labor Party was thrown back in their faces as the 12.5 per cent pay cut was imposed not just upon the Northern District miners, but also on miners right across NSW.

With the fighting power of the strongest unions broken Scullin imposed a 10 per cent wage cut on all workers in January 1931. The Scullin government was defeated in a massive landslide to the Tories in November 1931. The wage cuts did nothing to stop the Depression. By 1931, a third of the entire workforce was unemployed.

The parallels between 1929 and 2009 are uncanny. Once again workers are being asked to bear the burden of a world recession. In July, the Fair Pay Commission imposed a wage freeze on the lowest paid workers. Car workers in South Australia are working short time. Bendigo Bank wants its workers to take 10 days unpaid leave to boost its profits.

The union movement worked tirelessly in 2007 with the Your Rights At Work campaign to get the Rudd Labor government elected. But workers are still waiting for the Rudd government to deliver on promises to end the legacy of the Howard years.

Rudd’s Fair Work Australia replaced WorkChoices in July, but pattern bargaining and the right to strike are still banned. Construction workers are still shackled by laws that are dragging unionists into court. As the crisis deepens and unemployment rises there will be more demands for wage cuts and sacrifices by workers.

Just as in 1929, it is the industrial power of the working class that holds the hope of defending living standards in the face of capitalist crisis. Building a fighting union movement that looks to its own power is crucial for the struggles ahead.

By Carl Taylor


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