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Issue #1912      April 27, 2020


Eddie Avenue, Sydney – The Great Strike, 1917.


A high level of responsibility, commitment and competence is expected of communists working as trade union activists:

“In order to equip themselves as not only the best theoretical and political leaders of the trade unions, but also as the best practical trade unionists, militants must master the awards, as they cover their industry or factory, they must know the rule book of the union and its organisation, history, customs and practices. Only in this way can they become the best trade unionists.”

Sharkey’s comments remain relevant although today, communist unionists must pay attention to their Enterprise Agreements as well as the Award. They must at all times make certain that they remain financial and have a good knowledge of meeting procedure. They must win the trust of their work-mates:

“Comrades in unions must study the conditions and problems of union members and draw up programs of demands [...]. Speaking in the union is also an art. We do not want to bore the workers with long and windy speeches or go over their heads by being too theoretical.”

As can be seen, there is much work needed to become a good communist union worker.

The goal of the communists within the union is the never-ending task of raising the level of consciousness of workers from a purely trade union understanding to a socialist understanding. Without achieving this, much good work over many years may bring only limited results.

The effective integration of Party work in an industry or workplace can be best achieved by the formation of workplace or industry Party branches. A large portion of the success achieved by communists in the trade unions is due to this type of organisation. There has not yet been a recovery from the 1960s when the then revisionist leadership of the [former] CPA deliberately disbanded many workplace branches.


Another feature of the activity of communists in the trade unions is the emphasis placed upon the involvement of the rank and file in the affairs of the union. Throughout its history the CPA has sought to develop the system of shop stewards committees or rank and file union committees and to integrate their activity into the structures of respective unions.

This emphasis is not to exclude the role of good class-based leadership. The fact is unions are at their strongest when the relationship between militant class-based leadership and the rank and file is strong and effective. There is a unity between the two that should not be ignored. One cannot properly function without the other. They can never effectively exist without each other because a weakening of the union will result.

An unfortunate aspect of the operation of some right-wing dominated unions is the non-recognition of the necessity for on-the-job organisation. This lack of recognition accompanied with an adherence to capitalist ideology presents grave problems for workers on the job.

The necessity for on the job organisation under these circumstances can be the main contributing factor enabling workers to combat attacks upon their working conditions. It can be said that the organisation of workers at a job level is paramount under any circumstance.

Job organisation, when not integrated into the machinery of the union, may not be as fully effective for the union but it remains the means to organise and educate workers in the struggle whenever employers attempt to take away workers’ conditions and rights.

Right-wing leaderships that fail to see the enormous benefits and strengths that integrating rank and file organisation into the structures of the union brings about do the union movement a great disservice.

The separation of rank and file organisation and activity from “official” union business sends a very negative message to the workers and can create the seeds of anti-union sentiment among workers.

Every effort must be made by class conscious workers to see that there is a place within the union for rank and file activity and organisation. Union leaderships that deny such a role must be pressured to change their views but in doing so care must be taken by the workers not to swing to the right themselves by calling for solutions such as resigning union membership or not paying union dues.


The solidarity between workers of different nations is an aspect of trade unionism that is of much importance. There have been many instances of workers supporting international strikes and causes. Some unions have been more active around these questions than others. Wherever communists have played a leading role in a union, attention to this question has always been given a high priority. This is no surprise, because Internationalism is an important part of communist ideology. However, even before the formation of the Communist Party, Australian trade unions made financial collections to support the struggles of overseas workers.

The “Hands off Russia” campaign following the Russian revolution of 1917 and the wars of intervention by the western imperialist powers in the 1920s was one such campaign. The NSW Labor Council had welcomed the Russian Revolution. It said in a resolution: “We rejoice in the revolution in Russia and congratulate the people of that country on their efforts to abolish despotic power and class privilege, and urge the workers of other lands where similar conditions exist to follow their example with the same magnificent courage and determination.”

Later, the “Hands off China” campaign supported the struggles of the Chinese people to win their independence and exposed the British imperialist attempts to maintain their colonial domination.

Trade unions provided assistance to British seamen who had left their ships in Australian ports and assisted British workers during the general strike of 1926. British miners were similarly assisted during that period.

Work stoppages in a number of enterprises took place around the Party’s campaign opposing the electrocution of Sacco and Vanzetti in the United States.

Communist trade unionists helped Indonesian refugees who came to Australia during the Japanese occupation of their country. The attempt of the Dutch colonialists to re-impose their control following the defeat of the Japanese was thwarted by Australia’s waterfront unions who acted with the support of the Chifley Labor Government. All Dutch ships carrying troops to Indonesia were tied up as a result of their action.

Many unions took action against the war in Vietnam and in many instances these actions occurred under the leadership of communists. Unionists in their thousands took part in street demonstrations opposing conscription and Australia’s participation in that war.

Opposition to apartheid was another issue receiving widespread support from the trade unions. More recently there have been campaigns in support of the Cuban people against the US imperialist blockade of that country.

International solidarity however, is not a one-way street and significant solidarity support was extended to wharfies in 1998 when Patrick Stevedores illegally locked them out.

If there had not been such a long history of support for international causes and campaigns over many years the international support for the cause of the wharfies may not have been so overwhelming.

International solidarity is a strong weapon in the hands of the working class and it is an area that communists will continue to give the attention that it deserves.


It is not possible in this short pamphlet to point to every trade union action or to the contribution made by trade union activists in the 150-year history of the trade unionism in Australia or to the many contributions by members of the CPA in its 80-year history. Much has been achieved.

Trade union activities have not only been directed to the needs of workers. Their actions have also had a considerable influence in many areas of society. Calls for an Australian owned shipping line, green bans, support for community organisations and solidarity with farmers are just some other areas that have been given attention by trade unions.

The solidarity and support expressed to the workers of the world at various times of hardship and struggle have helped many workers from other lands and on many occasions have resulted in gains for the movements receiving that support. Communist trade union activists have contributed to these achievements.

The trade unions are not the only arena of struggle for communists. The struggle for socialism must be fought out on the basis of the whole of society.

It is certain that the class struggle will continue in our society. Reactionary forces bent on the destruction of the union movement will continue to pedal their lies and perform their foul deeds and we should expect nothing else. The right-wing reformist forces will continue to collaborate with the class enemy.

The Communist Party of Australia will continue to play a role in the trade union movement and treat that work with the seriousness that it deserves.

It will continue to work for an improvement in the position of the workers and will cooperate with others who support the demands of the working people and recognise the reality of the class struggle.

It will continue to advocate a socialist position and fight to win the workers to a recognition of the need to move on from the capitalist system – a view that has been strongly held by many trade union activists and is at the centre of the existence of the Communist Party.

Outside the class struggle, socialism is either a hollow phrase or a naïve dream” – t he same applies to effective trade unionism.

The above are a collection of excerpts from the CPA pamphlet “A Brief History Of Australian Unionism And The Role Of The Communist Party”.


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