- by Owen Bennett
- The Guardian
- Issue #2044
“Demand a Living Wage For All” rally – Melbourne, March 2021. Photo: www.matthrkac.com.au – flickr.com (CC BY 2.0)
Like all countries dependent on the export trade, Australia’s experience of the Great Depression was particularly severe. By 1932, the national rate of unemployment had reached 32 per cent – one of the highest national rates in the world. Further, unlike Germany and Britain, Australia at that time had no national system of income support for unemployed workers. Instead, unemployed workers were forced to subsist on a patchwork of highly paternalistic and woefully inadequate sustenance and rationing schemes administered by charities and state governments (with the exception of Queensland’s system of Unemployment Insurance). Many thousands of unemployed men were forced to leave their homes and families to travel around the country “on the swag” looking for work and food wherever they could find it.
In the months following the Wall Street Crash of September 1929, the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) began the process of forming what would ultimately become known as the Unemployed Workers Movement (UWM). The formation of the UWM was part of the CPA’s two-pronged revolutionary strategy.
While the UWM would organise the unemployed, another Communist “fraternal” organisation, known as the Militant Minority Movement (formed in 1926), would organise the union members. Together, the CPA argued that these fraternal organisations would foster “the closest possible unity between the unemployed and employed” and “blast the reformist illusion that the problem of unemployment can be solved under capitalism.” Despite the UWM ties to CPA, the UWM was established as an independent organisation with its own leadership and decision-making structures.
The UWM organised unemployed workers on a scale never seen in Australia, before or since. Alongside its central work of organising mass demonstrations, anti-eviction pickets, and a Workers Defence Corps to protect members from attacks from the police. The UWM also organised Marxism classes, published several small broadsheets (such as Breadline and Call to Action), arranged sporting competitions, dances, and other social events. UWM materials often included full-throated attacks on the failure of Labor Parties (which were in power federally and in NSW, South Australia, and Victoria) to respond to the needs of unemployed workers.
Jim Munro, an early UWM leader and long-time CPA member, recalled that during 1929-30 unemployed workers began holding meetings in the courtyard at Victorian Trades Hall Council (VTHC) in Melbourne. By early 1930, however, Trades Hall grew frustrated with the militancy of the unemployed and called the police to throw them out. “The unions,” concluded Munro, “didn’t want to have anything to do with the unemployed because they can’t pay union dues and are not of any use to them. The Labor Party didn’t want to know unless they were up there getting in their ears at Parliament House, they wanted a nice easy life.”
After being thrown out of Trades Hall, Jim Munro and around 100 of his comrades began instead holding their regular meetings at the 8-Hour monument across the road. “As the unemployed were out on our own, we had to organise on our own and that gave birth to the unemployed movement.”
In February 1930, the Communist newspaper The Workers Weekly reported that meetings of “increasing numbers” of unemployed workers outside Trades Hall “attacking the Labor Government and the Trades Hall bureaucrats … opposed to the organisation of the unemployed.”
This animosity routinely boiled over into public brawls, leading to an enduring bitterness between the UWM and the labour movement. Following another public brawl between the unemployed and the Laborites on May Day 1932, both the VTHC and the Victorian ALP proscribed the UWM, along with other CPA “fraternals” (such the Movement Against War and Fascism), denouncing them as obstacles to the progress of the working-class movement.
One of the first orders of business for the newly formed UWM in early 1930 was to organise rallies for International Unemployment Day. The UWM decided to hold its inaugural rally on 20th February to coincide with the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) biannual Congress being held in Melbourne.
In Melbourne, over one thousand unemployed workers heeded the call and marched through the city to the ACTU Congress at Trades Hall. A delegation from the rally addressed the Congress on the need for job creation, better sustenance payments, an end to house evictions, and more union support. On the latter point, the ACTU refused and instead directed Trades Halls across the country to set up rival unemployed organisations, known as Central Unemployed Committees, which were closely controlled by the Trades Halls and moderate in outlook.
While the union-controlled unemployed organisations proved more resilient, the UWM was by far the more popular. At its peak in late 1931, in Victoria alone the UWM had 26 branches (14 in the city and 12 in the country) and boasted a membership of around 7000. In fact, the spectacular growth of UWM fuelled the growth of the CPA, which by 1931 had doubled its national membership to 1,100. Ralph Gibson, a long-time CPA member, later reflected that when he joined in 1932 the CPA “was largely a party of the unemployed. Its members were not just talking about poverty. They were among the multitude who were deep in it.”
International Unemployment Day was, other than May Day, consistently one of the most important days on the calendar for the UWM. Such was its significance that in 1931 the “White Army” – a clandestine fascist organisation based in Melbourne – feared the Communists and the UWM would use International Unemployment Day as cover for a violent overthrow of the capitalist state.
In reality, the rally that year was more focused on increasing sustenance payments and more job creation. In this, they were partially successful. The following month, in April 1931, the Hogan Victorian Labor government raised sustenance levels although not to the level demanded by the UWM.
In 1932, the UWM held probably its biggest International Unemployment Day protest. This was largely in response to the Hogan government’s proposal to introduce Work for the Dole schemes across the state. Thousands of UWM members and their supporters marched in locations across Melbourne and were often brutally dispersed by police. The UWM leaders criticised the proposal as “the first step in a nationwide attack on the Wages of Workers in Industry.”
“Unemployed workers, unite to defeat this vicious chain gang legislation which has been inflicted on us by Hogan’s slave-labor government. All work for sustenance must be declared ‘black’ and the unemployed and employed workers must mass picket the jobs to prevent the enforcement of the act.”
The Victorian Trades Hall, along with the State Labor Party Conference, also opposed Work for the Dole, leading to an unusually unified working-class response. In Footscray, a working-class suburb in the west of Melbourne, the UWM and the union-backed unemployed group put aside their differences and formed a joint Council of Action to fight Work for the Dole. The campaign was so successful that the Footscray council abandoned the scheme altogether.
The UWM’s Work for the Dole pickets, in combination with the political pressure applied by the VTHC, proved an effective combination. The high point of this collaboration came during the June 1933 dole strike, which was administered by a Central Strike Committee comprised of delegates from the UWM and the Trades Hall-aligned unemployed groups.
The Victorian Trades Hall, however, quickly lost patience with the growing influence of the radicals, and in August 1933, unilaterally took control of the strike and negotiated a settlement with the government – an increase in sustenance rates – against the wishes of the strikers.
The strikers were powerless to resist – they could not fight the government and the Trades Hall – and agreed under protest to return to work. Despite Work for the Dole strikes continuing right up until 1939 – many achieving significant concessions – this lack of working-class unity was a recurring stumbling-block for the organised unemployed in their fight to abolish Work for the Dole.
The struggles of unemployed workers during the Great Depression exhibit both the best and the worst of the Australian working-class movement. It demonstrates that winning lasting gains for unemployed workers depends to a large extent on the unity of the working-class movement. As historian Charlie Fox concluded, the Trades Hall support for the organised unemployed was crucial: “where it supported strikes, they succeeded. Where it did not, they failed.” Similarly, when Trades Hall united with the UWM to fight for increased sustenance, or fight against the ban on street meetings in 1933, the government caved in.
International Unemployment Day is, above all, a reminder that there is no substitute for this working-class solidarity. Today, with the Labor Albanese government forcing unemployed workers to Work for the Dole in exchange for social security payments set at half the poverty line, it is a crucial lesson for unemployed worker activists and their allies.