Struggling to hold on: the Unemployed Workers Movement

The economic devastation that gripped Australia during the 1930s dealt an almost fatal blow to the organised labour movement. In the face of mass sackings and wage cuts, there was little political clarity about how to respond to the attacks on the working class and even less confidence that resistance was possible.

During this period the Communist Party played a crucial role in providing an alternative to the picture presented by the major parties. Their vision of an alternative society, in Stalinist Russia, was flawed, and had nothing in common with a genuine socialist society where working class people held power. Nevertheless their ability to show that the crisis was a product of capitalism, and that an alternative way of running society was possible, was fundamental in ensuring their growth (from 300 members at the start of the Depression to 3000 at its close) amidst the small but important defensive struggles that they led during the 1930s.

It allowed Communist Party members and supporters to understand that the cuts to living standards people were experiencing were not necessary or inevitable in order to bailout the economy in the hope it would deliver jobs for people in the future.

Because the working class was experiencing huge defeats, with unions unable to resist the employers’ push for wage cuts and sackings, the left was not winning victories but rather looking for ways to stem the tide of suffering as people were losing their homes and the ability to feed their families.

One example of these struggles was their work in the Unemployed Workers Movement (UWM). The UWM was the most influential of the attempts to organise the unemployed during the Depression, claiming 64,000 members by 1935. The UWM aimed to organise the almost third of the workforce that was unemployed during the early 1930s, putting pressure on the government to better conditions and find jobs for those who were out of work.

The UWM led struggles against the evictions of working class people who were unable to pay their rent on their homes, and so faced having to live on the streets. The Sydney Morning Herald described one of the most famous battles, the battle for Union Street in Newtown, Sydney, in June 1931:

Entrenched behind barbed wire and sandbags, the defenders rained stones weighing several pounds from the top floor of the building on to the heads of the attacking police, who were attempting to execute an eviction order. A crowd hostile to the police, numbering many thousands … threatened to become out of hand … When constables emerged from the back of the building with their faces covered in blood, the crowd hooted and shouted insulting remarks.

The UWM also conducted a dole strike, with members refusing to take part in the capital works programme they were required to in order to get their welfare payments. The eight week long strike forced the government to raise the dole from 12 shillings to 20 shillings a week for a married man.

In this new economic crisis there are valuable lessons of how the Communist Party went about organising resistance, and the need to arm activists with an ideological alternative to capitalism in order to strengthen this.

By Ernest Price


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