Interview: Agenda 2003
Peace: The Colour Purple
Industrial: Long, Hot Summer
Solidarity: Workers Against War
Security: Howard And The Hoodlums
International: Industrial Warfare
History: Unions and the Vietnam War
Review: Eight Miles to Mowtown
Poetry: Return To Sender
Satire: CIA Recruits New Intake of Future Enemies
The Locker Room
A Call To Arms
A Tale of Two Malls
Talk Back Tom
On The Beach
Unions and the Vietnam War
Trade union opposition to Australia's involvement in the Vietnam war preceded the Menzies government's declaration of its decision to send a battalion of ground troops to South Vietnam on April 29 1965. Unions such as the Building Workers' Industrial Union (BWIU) and the SUA called upon the Australian government to withdraw military advisors stationed in South Vietnam. The federal government had initially sent thirty members of the Australian Army Training Team to South Vietnam in July 1962, yet by early 1965 the number of Australian military advisors in Vietnam had grown to a hundred. The government's announcement produced varying degrees of protest from the labor movement. The ACTU Executive declared on the 4th May 1965 that it was:
strongly opposed to the decision of the Federal Government to send a Battalion of Australian troops which can be used as a combat force in South Vietnam or anywhere else except in accordance with international obligations...and urges the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party to press in the Federal Parliament for the Federal Government to revoke the decision to send active troops to South Vietnam.
The BWIU demanded the total withdrawal of all foreign troops from Vietnam. Yet it was the maritime unions which took the most militant action. Approximately two and a half thousand waterside workers walked off the wharves in Melbourne to protest against Menzies' decision to send troops. Later in May, SUA Melbourne branch members employed on tugboats boycotted an American warship and a submarine, thereby affecting docking processes. Five hundred seamen, waterside workers and ships' painters also picketed the American embassy in Brisbane.
On May 5 1965, the Executive of the ACTU decided that it would not support industrial action taken against the war:
in the light of the discussion which took place on the Vietnam situation, the decision of the Executive means that the Executive is not supporting industrial stoppages as a protest against the Government's decision to send troops to Vietnam or further industrial action to prevent further passage of troops or conveyance of materials for use by Australian troops in South Vietnam."
Such a declaration came largely in response to the WWF's request that the ACTU call a twenty-four hour nationwide stoppage. Rupert Lockwood noted that the ACTU president, Albert Monk, had been hesitant to endorse so-called "political" strikes. Likewise, Monk and other members of the ACTU Executive had come into conflict with the maritime unions in 1946 over the boycott of Dutch ships, with an anonymous ACTU spokesperson suggesting the WWF could be expelled from the ACTU unless it allowed so-called Dutch "relief" ships to take supplies to Java.
The Boonaroo and Jeparit Disputes of 1966
On May 11 1966, representatives from the Australian National Line (ANL) and the Department of Shipping and Transport, as well as the Federal Secretary of the SUA, E.V. Elliott, met in Sydney to discuss whether SUA members would crew an ANL merchant ship, the Boonaroo on a journey to South Vietnam. Elliott told the meeting he would take the proposal to the SUA Executive and would give the ANL an answer in forty-eight hours. The SUA Executive decided to recommend to its members at stopwork meetings that they decline to crew the Boonaroo, in light of the union's opposition to Australian involvement in the war. On May 13 the seven maritime unions involved in crewing the ship met together; with the exception of the SUA, all unions volunteered to crew the Boonaroo. That day the SUA Executive's proposal became public and the Sydney Morning Herald reported that the Boonaroo's cargo consisted of "supplies of food, cigarettes and beer for the troops." A cartoon in the West Australian on 13 May created the impression that the Boonaroo's supplies were urgently needed by Australian troops.
On May 17, ACTU secretary Harold Souter called a conference of maritime unions, the ANL, the ACTU and the Department of Shipping and Transport to discuss the dispute. The SUA boycotted this meeting. The next day SUA members at the engagement centre refused to crew the ship and were penalised by the ANL by being placed at the bottom of the roster and not being paid their attendance money. At the same time the SUA was given a telegram which stated that unless the ban on the Boonaroo was lifted, action would be taken in the Commonwealth Industrial Court. The spectre of the Commonwealth Crimes Act, which carried a penalty of twelve months imprisonment for "obstructing or hindering the performance of services", must have loomed large in the minds of many SUA members. At the arbitration conference ACTU Secretary Souter reaffirmed the Executive's ruling that the ACTU would not support stoppages which prevented the "passage of troops or conveyance of materials for use by Australian troops in Vietnam." According to the history of the SUA, Souter's statement was regarded as a directive by Mr Justice Gallagher and the conference was adjourned so that the SUA could hold stopwork meetings to decide the union's course of action. At stopwork meetings around the nation, seamen recognised the isolated nature of the union and agreed to crew the Boonaroo, but only "with great reluctance and under protest". The internal unity between the SUA's leadership and its rank and file was reflected in the telegrams sent to the SUA Executive by the stopwork meetings, such as that from seamen at Port Kembla:
"We believe that there has been an attempt to deliberately isolate the Seamen's Union because it dares to carry out Union policy. With the line of the Court, the Government, leadership of the other maritime unions and the ACTU, we find ourselves in the position of having to man the Boonaroo but do so under great duress. Let it be known that this Union, the leadership and the rank and file, are completely united around opposition to the war in Vietnam and that the rank and file of the union are completely opposed to any suggestion that these decisions are the decisions of a few individuals."
SUA members joined the crew and the ship was due to leave on July 26 1966. Its departure was delayed for three hours when members of the crew and other seamen staged an anti-war demonstration on the wharf. Unbending in their opposition to the war, seamen draped banners over the ship's railings that declared "Boonaroo seamen oppose war in Vietnam" "Y Dy for Ky" and "No kids for Ky". Officials from the SUA, the WWF and the Deckhands and Firemen's Association addressed the demonstration, denouncing the Vietnam War and Australia's involvement in it. Finally, the Boonaroo sailed out of Sydney Harbor as a "peace" ship with its unwilling crew of seamen.
E.V. Elliott told a meeting organised by the University of Sydney Socialist Club that, "...while [the SUA] thought that most of the country's workers would have backed it in objecting to the war they would not have backed the ban on the ship." He went on to summarise the union's problem, stating that "we manned it because we were isolated". Even the SUA's traditional ally, the WWF, did not take industrial action against the Boonaroo. The Federal Secretary of the WWF, Charles Fitzgibbon declared that the union would not take "...any action that would prejudice the carriage of supplies to Australian lads forced into this war."
The controversy over crewing Australian ships bound for Vietnam did not end when the Boonaroo left Sydney. In early June 1966, the Jeparit was chartered by the government for a journey to South Vietnam. The SUA expressed "shock and disgust" over the decision. The Jeparit arrived in Newcastle on the 6th of June, but no seamen volunteered for the crew the next day. According to the SUA's Federal Office Report, ACTU secretary Souter rang Elliott about the lack of volunteers:
It appeared Secretary Souter's purpose in ringing was to ascertain whether the Union had in any way influenced seamen not to volunteer for Jeparit. He opened up the conversation by asking what the position was; when told seamen were not interested, he queried this and asked whether there had been any direction, any meeting or any speaking by officials in relation to Jeparit. When told by Elliott "no", Souter again put the question and asked whether the men knew the ACTU policy. Elliott said his first reply was correct, there had been nor direction by the union or its officials, the men had been advised of the situation and of the telegrams between the union and the ACTU.
During this conversation Elliott asked whether the ACTU's decision on industrial action against the war covered the active physical involvement of Australian trade unionists in the war in Vietnam. Souter replied that the ruling applied wherever members of the union operated outside Australia. In the course of the conversation Elliott argued that the SUA had not prevented the passage of troops or the conveyance of materials.
The Jeparit, having failed to recruit a crew, sailed to Sydney. The Federal Council of the SUA believed the journey to Sydney to obtain a crew was an attempt to isolate the union and in light of what had transpired with the Boonaroo, they decided to crew the Jeparit. Eventually the ship sailed on June 17 with a full crew. Later, at the beginning of December 1966, 40mm cannons were loaded on the Jeparit. Following protests by the SUA and representations by the ACTU, the cannons were removed and the ship left for Vietnam on December 3 1966.
The Boonaroo and Jeparit Disputes of 1967
While the SUA tolerated having to sail ships carrying war materials for troops in Vietnam, it drew the line at carrying actual weapons and ammunition. On February 21 1967 the Boonaroo was instructed to sail to Port Wilson Explosives Depot. The crew refused to do so until the SUA could consult with the other maritime unions. Two days later, the union was informed that the ship was to carry aircraft bombs and detonators. A meeting of the seven maritime unions, the WWF and the ACTU took place on February 27. At this meeting the ACTU made it clear that in its May 1965 ruling about industrial action against the war, the word "materials" referred to all "materials for use of or by the Australian forces in Vietnam" and that this included weapons.
The ACTU also argued that the Boonaroo should be crewed voluntarily by Australian unionists rather than by service personnel. Such a recommendation was in light of the public declarations made by the Minister for Labor and National Service, Leslie Bury, that if the SUA refused to crew the ship, navy personnel would be used. Bury had spoken to Monk on February 22 and had stated that navy personnel would used if seamen refused to crew the Boonaroo. According to the Age newspaper, Bury had also told Monk that the ship had to sail by March 8.
At the February 27 conference, the Merchant Service Guild and the Marine Power Engineers were willing to carry bombs and the Marine Stewards, the Radio Operators and Cooks went along with this position. The WWF stated that no unionist should be forced to crew a ship carrying explosives. The Shipwrights opposed civilians transporting bombs and the SUA, represented by Elliott, declared that seamen would most likely refuse to crew the Boonaroo. The next day the ACTU Executive decided that: "...we believe that Australian merchant ships should be manned voluntarily by trade unionists rather than by Service personnel."
The SUA remained defiant and the Victorian secretary Bert Nolan stated on February 28 that: "We have no intention of taking the ship to Point Wilson to load explosives that could be used for any purpose."
The Jeparit was the next ship to be drawn into the conflict. On March 2 1967 the ANL and the government informed the SUA that the Jeparit would carry weapons and ammunition on its next trip. When the ship berthed in Sydney the next day, all the maritime unions, with the exception of the SUA, agreed to crew it. The Australian Workers Union, a supporter of Australian involvement in Vietnam, attacked the SUA for preventing the shipment of supplies for Australian troops, saying it "went against everything Australian". President Monk stated that the "Seamen's Union is not entitled as an organisation to disregard the ACTU executive's decision." The mainstream press was ferociously hostile to the SUA's refusal to crew the Jeparit. An editorial in the Sydney Morning Herald on 7 March summed up the commonly held belief about the union leadership's true intentions:
The Seamen's Union is Communist-led, and the reason for its tactics is perfectly clear. As Mr Bury has said, Mr Elliott and his colleagues are less concerned about the welfare and employment opportunities of their members than they are trying to ensure the triumph of Hanoi.
On March 8, stopwork meetings of seamen were held around the country. Overwhelmingly, the SUA members voted against carrying weapons and ammunition in merchant ships, including the Jeparit. According to Elliott, only eleven seamen voted to sail the ship to Vietnam with its war cargo. In the meeting resolutions, seamen proposed that SUA members would transport all Australian troops back to Australia, without pay, if the Australian government decided to withdraw its troops. To make the point, the motion stated that SUA members would "...willingly man any ship to bring Australian forces home from this filthy, unwinnable war."
Once the decision was known, the seamen on the Jeparit were discharged and the next day, naval ratings took the place of seamen and firemen. All the other maritime union members remained on board and the ship operated with a joint civilian/naval crew.
The Jeparit and the Boonaroo disputes of 1966 and 1967 reveal a great deal about trade union opposition to Australia's involvement in the Vietnam war. They brought the radical and labourist traditions into sharp relief, with the leaderships of the SUA and ACTU coming to personify the two sides of the debate.
The strong internationalist streak in the SUA was, in part, a product of the attitudes of the rank and file seamen whose views had been shaped by their experiences working on ships that sailed around the world. The ability to put their "worldly" views into action was facilitated by the strategic position in the economy that seamen enjoyed. It may well be said that the leadership of the SUA was as much the product of seamen's internationalism, militancy and radicalism as the other way around. They bequeathed to a divided and nervous labor movement a tradition and a practice of "political unionism" which would soon grow in other union as well.
Unions and the Wider Anti-War Movement
Unions and The Student New Left
According to Dave Nadel, a leading member of the Monash Labor Club at the time, links between students and trade unionists were greatly affected by the politics of the people making those links. Where differences did occur between students and unionists they reflected the ideological differences between new and old leftists, not a general "student versus unionist" division. For instance, on September 27 1969 the State Secretary of the Amalgamated Engineering Union (AEU), Laurie Carmichael, and his wife Val, appeared at Williamstown Court charged with assaulting police and resisting arrest over the events a week earlier outside the court when their son (also name Laurie) was due to appear over his draft refusal. According to Ken Mansell:
One week later outside a courthouse surrounded by a thick blue line, students and union officials (who had collaborated with police in moving the students away from the Court) abused one another, with Albert Langer particularly singled out for verbal attack by "Curly" Rourke of the WWF. Subsequently a motion of censure against Labor Club members was passed at the WWF meeting...Jill Jolliffe argued the rift was the result of machinations of factions in the WWF and that the rift was a political difference in the working class movement rather than between students and workers
According to Dave Nadel, there was a similar situation at a demonstration against the jailing of Clarrie O'Shea a year earlier. Albert Langer wanted to speak after another student, who had been selected to speak by Laurie Carmichael chiefly because he shared Carmichael's politics. The officials chairing the meeting didn't want Langer to speak and tried to present it as students muscling in on a workers' gathering. However the people chanting "let him speak" most loudly were waterside workers and builders' laborers, according to Nadel: "The point is what that was really about is it wasn't that Carmichael and Rourke were workers and Albert was a student. It was that Carmichael and Rourke were CPA members and Albert was a Maoist." For Nadel one of the most important things for students about trade union opposition to the Vietnam war, particularly events such as the refusal to crew the Boonaroo and Jeparit, was that it mitigated the sense of isolation that many student anti-war activists felt, especially after the 1966 election:
One of the big differences between the student movement in Australia and the student movement in America was that sense of we're not just a bunch of long haired freaks talking about revolution. There's forty percent of the population that think like we do and some of them are prepared to do pretty courageous stuff like the Seamen's Union.
Various anti-war actions by students were supported by trade unions, who provided material support in the form of leaflets or unionists attending demonstrations. For instance, on September 6, 1970, just days before the second Moratorium the so-called "Waterdale Road Massacre" took place when four hundred students and staff attempted to march from Northland Shopping Centre, where they had distributed anti-war material, back down Waterdale Road to La Trobe University. They were brutally assaulted by police and chased onto the campus. At a follow up rally on September 23, eight hundred people marched, with members of the BLF, the WWF and the Plumbers and Gasfitters Union attending in solidarity with the students.
Save Our Sons
Save Our Sons (SOS) was a women's organisation set up in May 1965 to oppose conscription for overseas service and more specifically the use of conscripts as part of Australia's involvement in the Vietnam War. The SOS organisation was part of a much larger tradition of women's mobilisations against war dating back to organisations such as the Women's Peace Army, which opposed the conscription referenda of 1916-17. SOS is frequently remembered as a group of genteel middle class women who wore gloves and hats to protests. In part this reflected the social diversity of the anti-Vietnam movement. However, the image is something of a misnomer as the class composition of SOS varied from city to city and it enjoyed strong links with the labour movement:
In Newcastle, the movement was more working class, with representatives addressing numerous union groups, and receiving donations from various workers' clubs. In Townsville too, it was mostly working class women who responded to an advertisement placed by Margaret Reynolds.
For SOS, the trade unions were a source of financial and material support. They also arranged for SOS members to be able to speak to unionists at work sites or factory gates.
The Draft Resisters
Besides the students and Save Our Sons, draft resisters also received much support from trade unions. In part this was a product of the fact that conscription affected young male unionists as well. Ken Carr of the Furnishing Trades Union and Secretary of the twenty-six "Rebel Unions", which had broken away from the Victorian Trades Hall Council, summed up the feelings of a number of trade unionists:
I kept telling people that it was useless just to campaign for bread and butter issues when young unionists were being conscripted or gaoled. To say unions should only be interested in the eight hours that workers are on the job is pathetic.
One of the most famous draft resisters was John Zarb, a young postman who was sentenced to two years prison in 1968 for refusing to obey a call up notice. Zarb had earlier been refused conscientious objector status because he was not an absolute pacifist. His gaoling created a great deal of support, especially from his own union, the Amalgamated Postal Workers Union (APWU). The General Secretary George Slater, declared:
John Zarb is a political prisoner, gaoled by fascists. He refuses to take part in the murder of people who have done him no harm. He upholds the Christian principle of "thou shalt not kill".
Eventually, in late August 1969, Zarb was released on compassionate grounds after serving ten months in what was widely seen as a cynical act by the Liberals.
In Wollongong, a town with a strong tradition of union political activism, a number of trade unions were instrumental in supporting the draft resister Lou Christofides. Such support began on a personal level:
After I refused to register I found no one would employ me for a long time because it was illegal to employ someone in default of the Act. Eventually I was told to see Stan Woodbury, the secretary of the Painters and Dockers at Port Kembla ... He didn't know me, though he had seen me around. I told him my problem and he started me as a casual on the waterfront. I later joined the union.
When Lou Christofides was imprisoned in Long Bay in 1969 for his refusal to register, the SUA at Port Kembla slowed down ships each day he was in jail. There was also a twenty-four hour stoppage by the SUA and the other maritime unions at Port Kembla which contributed to his earlier release from prison.
The links between draft resisters and unions in Melbourne were strengthened by the case of Laurie Carmichael Jr, the son of the State Secretary of the AEU. When the younger Carmichael appeared at Williamstown Court to answer charges relating to his refusal to report for a medical examination, he was whisked away by supporters. Angry scenes erupted and Laurie Carmichael and his wife Val as well as twelve other people were arrested. In protest against the "brutal treatment" the police meted out to demonstrator, especially Val Carmichael, who was knocked over and dragged along the ground by her feet, the Rebel Unions issued a statement that:
we recommend to Unions that a campaign of lunchtime and stopwork meetings be held and that contact be made with sister organisations in other states, finally aimed at National action on the part of the worker.
A week later, when the Carmichaels appeared at Williamstown Court, unionists held meetings and demonstrated outside the court. According to Ken Carr, "...at the Williamstown Naval Dockyard the blokes just dropped their tools and marched towards the court." Approximately five hundred workers from the dockyard and seven hundred meatworkers from Newport stopped work to attend the demonstration. Moreover:
after the Carmichael case, Union leaders like George Crawford (Plumbers Union), Ray Hogan (Miscellaneous Workers Union) and Roger Wilson (Seamen's Union) were readily available to meet with draft resisters and student activists at short notice. Unions continued to assist in organising factory meetings and addressing shop steward seminars.
It is difficult to gauge the effect of the Carmichael trial on individual unionists but it almost certainly influenced the declaration of two to three hundred union officials from the Rebel Unions in Victoria:
We encourage those young men already conscripted to refuse to accept orders against their conscience and those in Vietnam to lay down their arms in mutiny against the heinous barbarism perpetuated in our name upon the innocent, aged, men, women and children.
In August 1971, ten union officials were charged with violating the National Service Act because they were handing out leaflets which encouraged young men to refuse to register for National Service. They were among a group of thirty union organisers and officials from a variety of unions who were handing out anti-registration leaflets outside the offices of the Department of Labor and National Service in Melbourne. In their court statement the unionists, who were found guilty and fined between $20 and $50 each, declared that:
As Trade Union Officials, representing many thousands of organized workers, we firmly believe that the continued conscription of young Australians to be sent to Vietnam to kill or be killed is a criminal act. We therefore, as a matter of conscience with 30 other like-minded Trade Union Officials deliberately handed out leaflets in Flinders Street outside the Department of Labor and National Service.
The National Service Act was introduced for the sole purpose of involving Australia in United States imperialist aggression against the peoples of Indo-China ... Accordingly, we/I declare our/my intention to actively encourage people to incite others into direct confrontation with the Federal Government in respect of the National Service Act and the dirty war in Vietnam...
As we do not recognise the immoral and unjust law around which this action was taken we/I wish to make it quite clear that we/I will not be paying the fines. Attempts to impose the fines will undoubtedly lead to increasing industrial action."
The leaflets about the trial were authorised by an organisation called the Trade Union Peace and Solidarity Committee (TUPSC) which had been established to assist in the coordination of union anti-war activity.
The trade unions gave the anti-war movement a deal of "muscle" that it otherwise would not have had, in terms of their resources and ability to mobilise their members as well as their political breadth.
Stop Work To Stop The War
The Moratorium was like all our Christmases had come on one day. The peace movement had been around since the 1930's and had failed to stop any war. But with Vietnam, we won. (Margaret Frazer, longterm peace activist with CICD.
The national Moratorium marches which took place on May 18 1970 were the high points in the campaign against Australia's involvement in Vietnam. Around the country between 150,000 and 200,000 marched, with about 100,000 of those marching in Melbourne. Not only the number of people who marched was impressive, but also their diverse nature. No longer was it just radical students, unionists and communists protesting against the war:
There were marches in all the capital cities, as well as in a number of large towns such as Wollongong, on May 8 and 9. In Melbourne many of the marchers took part in the fifteen minute sit-down which blocked off much of Bourke Street and brought traffic to a standstill. There were two subsequent Moratoria in September 1970 and June 1971, both much smaller than the May 1970 marches.
The mobilisation of such large numbers of people was in part made possible by the involvement of the trade unions.
Throughout the period 1965-72, the maritime unions were the strongest supporters of the Moratorium.
The importance of the Moratorium was that it drew in a wider section of the labour movement. They involved "large masses of unionists" who were able to hold political stoppages irrespective of their position in the economy, and despite the dominance of "labourist" perspectives in their normal activism. Unions not known for political activism encourage their members to participate in the Moratoria, and some of the largest unions were among the strongest supporters.
The anti-war movement declined once troop withdrawals from Vietnam began. But its impact was long-lasting. The Vietnam experience steered some unions towards social activism for the first time. One was the Builders' Labourers' Federation, whose environmental actions later in the 1970s became famous under the name "Green Bans". The Vietnam Moratorium tradition also influenced the trade unionists who joined campaigns and took industrial action in the struggle against uranium mining towards the end of the decade, and in campaigns against nuclear weapons in the 1980s.
Tony Duras works for the ACTU. This article is based on the work he did for honours thesis entitled "Peace is trade union business : Trade union opposition to Australia's involvement in the Vietnam war, 1965 - 72" It is extracted from a longer article that can be read at http://www.anu.edu.au/polsci/marx/interventions/workers.htm
The views expressed are his own, not those of the ACTU.
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