Unions versus Labor- the 1948 rail strike

Mark Gillespie looks at the Queensland rail strike of 1948, when the Communist Party led workers in a vicious battle with a state Labor government determined to keep down wages.

IN EARLY June, Dean Mighell, Victorian secretary of the Electrical Trades Union wrote in The Australian that Kevin Rudd didn’t understand unions or unionists and was “not much of a true believer,” for leaving the bulk of Howard’s WorkChoices laws in place.

Both Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard have also insisted that workers will have to show wage restraint even though steep price rises are pushing the cost of living up and up.

There is a long history of Labor governments profoundly disappointing their supporters once in power. As we saw with the years of Labor under Hawke and Keating, such disappointment can lead workers to become cynical about change and shift their loyalties back to the conservatives.

But another response has been for workers to use their industrial strength to go into direct struggle against a government that is meant to be “theirs”. The 1948 Queensland rail strike is an example of such a fight. As construction unions begin to campaign to force the Rudd government to abolish the Australian Building and Construction Commission, the pro-employer building industry task force, there is much to learn from the five week rail strike

The 1948 Labor government of Ned Hanlon had followed a deliberate policy to keep Queensland a low wage state, to boost profits to attract investment to Queensland and to keep down wage costs for the government itself.

Once on strike the rail workers found out just how brutal a Labor government could be. But the workers responded to each wave of repression by widening the dispute, eventually winning an outright victory.

The outcome of the dispute, however, was not a foregone conclusion. The story of the 1948 rail strike is also the story of “breaking bad laws” and the political role played by the Communist Party and rank and file militants in shaping the strategy and tactics of the strike.

Labor in power

In the sixteen years prior to the rail dispute Queensland was run by a series of right wing Labor administrations. One indication of just how right wing they were was the introduction in 1938 of the State Transport Act.

Once a government declared a “state of emergency” under this Act, they had the power to do what they liked. These powers were use against the striking rail workers in 1948, but also meat workers in 1946 and shearers in 1957. They were retained and used by the conservative governments that followed, including Bjelke-Petersen during the Springbok tour in 1971.

During the depression and the war years workers had made enormous sacrifices. In the post war reconstruction years, however, there was a new mood of militancy. Over ten million working days were lost in industrial disputes between 1945 and 1950. A six month long dispute in Victoria in 1946-47 saw metalworkers on Federal awards win increases of between 16 and 11 shillings. Metalworkers, and rail workers, on state awards soon demanded and won the same.

Queensland, however, was the exception. The Queensland government saw themselves as responsible economic managers and was concerned that any increase for rail workers would flow on to every other worker in the state and undermine their “low wage” strategy for developing the state economy.


In October 1947 the Queensland rail unions covering rail workshop employees made a claim to the state arbitration court for the increase but they were not confident of success. The courts had already established a number of guiding principles that worked against them.

The courts, too, were frustrating slow. A claim for weekend penalty rates-another demand in the dispute-had stalled in the courts for seven months.

The wage hearing came before the court on December 21, but was adjourned for two months. This was the catalyst for the unions deciding to forget about arbitration and use direct action to secure a deal directly with the government.

In January 1948 a series of workshop meetings voted overwhelmingly to take industrial action if their claim was not agreed to by January 31.

The Communist bogey

Throughout the dispute the Premier, Ned Hanlon-backed by the corporate press-portrayed the dispute as a communist inspired assault on the democratic institutions of government and arbitration.

While some union leaders were members of the Communist Party, the majority of unions involved were affiliated to the Labor Party.

In the beginning, too, it was the tactics of the labor officials that dominated. These officials believed that their connections with the Labor government would soon result in concessions.

Even after their lobbying failed, they still rejected a motion from communist officials for a general stoppage across the entire rail network, in favor of a more limited stoppage in the strategically important workshops and running sheds.

But as the Labor government became more repressive and it became obvious that different tactics were needed, the influence of the Communist Party grew-in the disputes committee and in the workshops and pickets.

Lock out

The response of the government to the limited strike on February 3 1948 was to try and bully the workers back to work. An earlier offer of six shilling a week was abruptly withdrawn and workers were told the dispute would only be resolved in the arbitration court once they returned to work.

To break the effectiveness of the strike the government began implementing an emergency transport plan. They also deliberately held up food distribution, but blamed the strikers.

They also tried to create divisions amongst rail workers by seeking (and winning) permission from the courts the power to stand down workers not gainfully employed.

The Federal Labor government did their bit by putting bureaucratic obstacles in the way of the stood down workers from getting any social security. Meanwhile the striking workers where told they risked forfeiting their jobs and accrued leave entitlements.

The corporate media did everything they could to play up the issue of communist influence and turn the public against the strike.

The government hoped these measures would demoralise workers and force the unions to retreat. But the resolve of the workers only grew.


The Communist Party played a key role in preventing any retreat. In particular, Ted Rowe, a federal official with the Amalgamated Engineering Union-one of the key workshop unions-had been sent to Brisbane to help organise the dispute. There was much valuable experience from the 1946-47 Victorian metalworkers’ dispute to pass on.

Rowe argued vigorously on the Central Disputes Committee and at mass meetings against the view the dispute could be won with a “short sharp strike”. Rowe pointed to the implementation of the emergency transport plan and argued the unions had to get serious. The Communist Party argued for an active strike-sending speakers interstate to raise funds, building local strike support groups and to extend the pickets of stood don rail workers.

The Courier Mail reported one meeting that Ted Rowe addressed:

“Five hundred strikers and railwaymen (sic) who had been stood down decided at the meeting on an intensive picketing campaign…General indications of the meeting was the union leaders and the rank and file were prepared for a long strike…Mr E.J.Rowe urged that the disputes committee set up a larger propaganda committee and a panel of speakers be selected to address workers in other industries…”

In the second week of the dispute Alex MacDonald, a communist official from the Ironworkers Association was made full time secretary of the disputes committee—another indication of the growing influence of the Communist Party.

Under Communist Party influence, the unions not only prevented a retreat but went onto the offensive. On February 19 the AFULE—the main train drivers union with a history of sectionalism—were convinced to join the dispute. Then on February 23 the disputes committee decided to pull out workshop workers on Brisbane’s tramways.

The big stick

When threats failed to end the strike, in early March the government changed tactics to use the big stick to force them back.

First they secured a “return to work” order from the arbitration court and then declared a “state of emergency”. New laws now made it an offence to refuse the direction of the court; counsel strike action; or to picket. Any workers that didn’t return were told they’d be sacked.

The anti-communist hysteria coming from Hanlon now reached new heights with talk of the dispute having all the “elements of a civil war”. Backed by the press, the government was trying to use fear and intimidation to create a stampede back to work.

Again this completely failed, and again it was the strong and decisive leadership of the Communist Party that was crucial.

Hanlon declared the “state of emergency” on the Friday and expected the workers would run back to work on the Monday.

The Central Disputes Committee met on the Saturday and voted to defy the law and stay out until their demands were meet. They also voted to strengthen the pickets and to broaden the dispute to wharfies, coal miners and more. A meeting of the Trade and Labor Council on Sunday backed the Disputes Committees stand.

At the Ipswich railway workshop—a key workshop—on the Monday morning over 2000 workers turned up to picket. While a few workers did return they soon came out again once they realized how solid the strike was. They were greeted by an enormous cheer. All the workshops picketed that day produced similar results.

At 10am that morning, mass meetings of rail workers across the state voted overwhelmingly to continue the strike. Wharfies’ mass meetings up and down the coast also voted to join the strike. The Seamen’s Union placed a ban on all shipping into Queensland.

In the following days, coalminers met, voting to black ban coal trains while rail workers in NSW, Victoria and South Australia joined the campaign to isolate Queensland.

Police Violence

When the “state of emergency” had failed to break the strike, the government tried even more draconiam laws. They were still under the illusion that workers weren’t returning because of Communist Party coercion. The truth is that they had well and truly lost the argument.

Their next move was to pass the Industrial Law Amendments Act. Under this Act all activity designed to prolong the strike was illegal. Those arrested faced a fine of up to 100 pounds or six months imprisonment.

Police were given the power to arrest without warrant, issue instructions to prevent a breach of the Act and to forcibly enter meetings and homes. “No more picketing—police get wider power by new law”, screamed the Courier Mail’s headline the next day.

While the Act failed to gain any return to work, it did lead to police using their new powers to regularly assault union pickets and protests. One infamous incident was the bashing and hospitalization of the Communist Member of State Parliament, Fred Paterson.

Paterson was the only Communist ever elected to Parliament in Australia and he used his position effectively to put the workers’ case. Paterson was also a barrister and had been very successful in finding loopholes in the state of emergency anti-picketing regulations. So successful in fact, Hanlon described the Industrial Law Amendments Act as “the Paterson Bill”.

On March 17, St Patrick’s Day, a group of strikers marched from the Trades Hall in Edward Street, with a coffin with the words “Trade Unionism” on it.

About 200 metres down the road they were brutally attacked by hundreds of uniformed and plainclothes police. Fred Paterson, who was acting as a legal observer, was bashed from behind and almost killed when his skull was fractured.

This savagery, however, backfired on the government badly and helped the unions revitalise the dispute. The unions responded by calling a demonstration in King George Square on March 19. A permit was refused and the government and the press threatened a bloodbath if the law was defied.

But the law was defied. The day began with a march of 500 wharfies straight down the main street for the entire length of the CBD. Seeing the wharfies march past Edward Street with their bag hooks swinging on their belts gave the rail workers the confidence to march from the Trades Hall, arriving at the square simultaneously.

Jean O’Connor, a Communist Party member, describes what it was like to be there that day:

“It was an inspiring, emotional moment…and one of my most treasured memories. A great cry rang out, ‘Here come the wharfies,’ as we watched the [march]…swing into view…this huge contingent of trade unionists who walked towards use with such determination, pride and dignity.

“The railway workers were filling the Square, coming from the several directions at the same time, being welcomed by thousands of citizens already there. The air was electric. Can you imagine what it was like to be part of some 20,000 people crammed into the Square that day in a momentous display of working class solidarity and unity of purpose?”

This was the high point of the strike. State violence and intimidation had failed to break the strike. At the edges there were some signs of weakening. The AFULE drivers returned on March 15, while coal miners lifted their bans on March 23. But the strike front remained solid enough, with more than enough economic clout to force the government to negotiate.

On April 1 the government met with the disputes committee to reach an agreement. Skilled workers would receive a 12 shilling and fourpence rise, with proportional increases for semi skilled and non skilled workers, backdated to September 16. The government also conceded the claim for weekend penalty rates, leaving the courts’ endorsement a formality. And there would be no victimizations.

Later that year the Industrial Law Amendment Act was repealed. Unionists who were jailed either had their fines paid anonymously or were released.

This was a fabulous victory for workers and a great moment in Australian labour history.

It demonstrated the collective power of workers; exposed the role of the state and arbitration; exposed the role of Labor in power, but also demonstrated the importance of political organisation.

The Communist Party had no illusions that workers could rely on Labor governments or the arbitration system and looked instead to mobilising the power of workers, even if that meant defying the law.

While there where deep flaws with the politics of the Communist Party by the late 1940s, particularly the blind loyalty to Stalin and to Russia as a model of socialism, it none-the-less had a commitment to working class struggle.

It was the party at the time which won the allegiance of militant rank and file workers looking for an alternative to the system and to Labor governments that were running capitalism by attacking unions and forcing down wages.

It was Communist Party members in the rail workshops who carried the arguments to extend the strike and picketing.

Communist Party members in mines, on ships and the docks were crucial to winning the argument for solidarity with the rail workers.

Unions today face both federal and state Labor governments willing to turn on the unions and workers who put them in office. The 1948 rail strike shows that by looking to the industrial power of the unions—and with politics and organisation—it is possible to fight and win.

You can read the 1948 Communist Party pamphlet on the rail strike at: www.takver.com/history/railq48/railqld.htm#JE4


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