In the early months of 1941, Australian and other Imperial forces were defeated in Greece and Crete. At the same time, German troops landed in North Africa and began pushing back the allies from Bardia and other bases they had recently captured from the Italians. In April, large-scale German air raids were launched against London and other major British cities. At this stage of the Second World War, the German Army had many victories to its credit and no major losses. An invasion of Britain seemed imminent.
On April 7, 1941, the Sydney Morning Herald carried two headlines side-by-side on its first news page. One read “Germany Invades Greece and Yugoslavia” and its story said Australian troops were about to come up for the first time against the fearsome Panzer tanks and Stuka dive bombers. The other headline read “Railway Repair Shops to Strike. 2000 Men Affected”. Its story carried reports of rail and gas strikes in New South Wales and strikes by ironworkers making machinery for ship building in Victoria. The month before, workers at the Footscray Munitions Factory began a go-slow campaign that reduced production of metal for shell and cartridge cases by 20 per cent. There was another strike by ironworkers in the munitions annex of Amalgamated Wireless Ltd and the unions in the Lithgow Small Arms factory threatened to down tools.
On April 18, 1941, the Germans launched the heaviest air raid of the war on London. They also advanced in North Africa and captured Belgrade. In Greece, outnumbered Australian and allied troops were pushed into the sea. By the end of the month, German forces entered Athens. “All this,” writes Hal Colebatch, “was being reported in detail in Australia and it was obvious the allies were involved in major military disasters.” Nonetheless, back in New South Wales, the whole gas industry came out on strike on April 16, involving 3000 men. This had a direct effect on the manufacture of iron, steel and munitions. At the same time, the New South Wales Combined Unions Strike Committee enforced a ban on all coke made at the Mortlake Sydney works, going so far as to ban hospitals from using it to produce hot water.
In short, irrespective of the danger to Australian troops, naval ships and national security in these, the darkest days of the war, before the United States entered and when Britain stood alone in Europe facing Nazi Germany, there was a major conflict on the home front between unions and their employers, or, more accurately, between unions and the rest of Australian society, especially the Australian armed forces and the Australian government, which in October 1941 became a Labor government.
When some people hear such anecdotes recounted from Colebatch’s book Australia’s Secret War they nod and say they knew that the Communist Party of Australia and the unions it controlled, especially the seamen’s and waterside workers, supported the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact signed in 1939, and were against the war until Hitler broke the pact and invaded the USSR in June 1941. Colebatch shows, however, there was much more to it than this.
For a start, while the number of working days lost in strikes did fall between 1941 and 1942—from 984,174 to 387,195 days—the count then rose sharply to 990,151 in 1943, 912,752 in 1944, and to an all-time record of 2.12 million days lost in 1945. Moreover, it wasn’t just the communist-controlled unions that were involved. A number of other key unions affiliated with the Labor Party and the ACTU were also prominent in their activism. Indeed, Colebatch argues that the opportunities to strike in many industries increased as the industries grew in size during the progress of the war, especially in strategically vital industries such as coal-mining, thereby directly affecting electricity generation, blast furnace operations and the whole of Australia’s productive, munitions-making and defence capacity. The unions in those industries eagerly exploited their position—irrespective of the cost to the national interest or to the defence of their country. He writes:
The policy of maximum possible strikes and obstruction, as well as not being limited in place, was not limited in time and went on from the beginning of the war to the end, and beyond. The strikes were not the work of a handful of men, but appear frequently to have been nationally co-ordinated and involved many thousands.
Many who observed the militant unionists’ behaviour, especially on the waterfront, could not understand them: their actions were patently putting at risk not only the men and women of the fighting services, but also themselves and their own families, as well as damaging what was plainly the global cause of democracy against the tyrannies of Nazi Germany and Japan. They could not have been simply after more money because, as Colebatch points out, others from a similar socio-economic background behaved with self-sacrificing heroism and, for minimum wages, offered their lives to defend their country, their families, democracy and their civilisation. “The high quality and courage of Australian servicemen—many from similar backgrounds [as the unionists]—was recognised all over the world.”
The behaviour of the striking unionists cannot be explained in terms of class war or class solidarity—the direct and obvious victims were ordinary servicemen, largely fellow members of what used to be called the working classes. This was not only pointed out again and again by Menzies, Curtin and other leaders, but was obvious to everybody, including the women at the Orange small arms plant who refused to go on strike and pelted union leaders with tomatoes and eggs.
So why would so many stoop to jeopardising the ability of their own country to defend itself, since it was not only bosses and employers whose lives were at risk from military defeat, but every member of the society, not least themselves? Colebatch canvasses no fewer than twelve different reasons for the incidence of wartime strikes—from a long-term pacifist element in the Labor Party to the growing power of communist union officials during the war—and finds they all contain some elements of truth, and that different factors were important at different times. However, he devotes his final chapter to examining a factor that, far from being confined to the generations of the first half of the twentieth century, remains alive and well today, especially when the politics of the Left now depends so greatly on constructing coalitions of groups bound together by a sense of victimisation.
Adapting some recent writings by the late Kenneth Minogue on modern gender politics, Colebatch argues the members of militant unions in the Second World War persuaded themselves they were a victimised, and therefore morally privileged group, exempt from ordinary obligations of moral behaviour. This form of politics, he argues, operates at the level of psychic collectiveness to exploit indignation and cultivate righteousness. In the case of those unions in Australia with communist or far Left leadership this was reinforced by the discipline and praxis of a highly organised political party with a comprehensive ideology—“political ideology and psychic collectiveness are virtually made for one another”, Colebatch observes. “When it becomes entrenched, ‘identity’ politics acts as a form of fundamentalism in which every judgment must begin from a supposedly essential self-identification as a member of a supposedly oppressed group.”
It may be that the strikers saw themselves as a kind of aristocracy and the servicemen and women as a kind of helot class or puppets of capitalism whose lives were of no consequence—which is really to say in slightly different terms that they saw the world, and political issues of life and death, entirely from the point of their unionist identity.
Overall, the Australian industrial experience in the Second World War and its aftermath is an illustration of the danger of identity politics when invoked by politicians to build constituencies based on race, ethnicity, gender or some other distinct and fundamental “identity”. Identity politics has, at its centre, a moral relativism that not only gives members a sense of moral superiority but also approves them doing to others what they would hate being done to themselves. In short, fundamentalist identity politics based on “victim” groups is inimical to civic culture. Colebatch concludes:
Such politics appear to produce human beings with a defective ethical sense and incomplete conception of the world, who, furthermore, if they perceive any challenge to their “identity”, are easily capable of acting in ways incompatible with the long-term well-being of their community, their families and themselves.
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I am pleased to report that Quadrant published this book in October and since then our office has been overwhelmed with sales, so much so that in early November we ordered a reprint. We were fortunate to have some valuable publicity from Miranda Devine and Alan Jones, but the majority of sales, both online and in bookshops, have come from word of mouth, suggesting these events have long been a deep-seated burning issue in the folk memory of many Australians. We are glad to have helped bring them to the surface.