Australian Labor and the “Color Line”

At the turn of the twentieth century, the Australian labor movement was considered the most successful in the world, but notions of “White Australia” have always haunted and undermined its internationalism.

Demonstration by striking miners at Minmi Open Cut Mine on July 31, 1949 in the Hunter Valley, New South Wales, Australia. (F. Burke / Fairfax Media via Getty Images)

In 2017, the Australian Labor Party (ALP) released a short video. Then–opposition leader Bill Shorten appeared alongside an overwhelmingly white cast of workers, with “Employ Australians First” emblazoned across the screen. The ad called for a cut to skilled migration. Following a backlash, Shorten claimed it was nothing more than a “bad oversight.” Given Labor’s long history of racial exclusion, his excuse was difficult to swallow.

After all, from its inception, the ALP and the mainstream union movement championed the “White Australia policy,” which excluded Asians and other nonwhite migrants from the national community. The Gough Whitlam Labor government finally repealed the policy in 1973.

Despite this, friendship and solidarity have often blossomed between white Australian workers and those subjected to (neo)colonialism across Asia, sympathies which in turn forced a reconsideration of their own position in an imperial world order. This history of internationalism stands in stark contrast to the long shadow that the White Australia policy still casts over the ALP and the mainstream labor movement.

Australia for the White Man

The Australian labor movement was once famed for its success and power. Yet this depended on Australia’s place within the global colonial order. The colonial bourgeoisie understood that a limited supply of convicts (and later, of free settlers) meant compromising with labor was crucial. So, in the 1850s and ’60s, they granted suffrage for (white) men. And in 1907, Australia became the second nation (after New Zealand) to implement a living family wage.

The trade union movement, which grew quickly in the 1880s, also understood the importance of maintaining a controlled pool of labor, especially given frequent and violent boom-bust economic cycles and Australia’s proximity to a populous Asia. From its earliest days, the labor movement saw foreign workers as a threat.

For example, the Eureka Stockade — an armed miners’ revolt on the goldfields of Ballarat — is venerated as the birth of the workers’ movement. But it is often forgotten that it erupted amid a flurry of anti-Chinese sentiment. The supposed work ethic, moral licentiousness and ethnic solidarity of these new migrants were presented as a threat. In the aftermath of the stockade, they were barred entry to Victoria by the continent’s first immigration-restriction laws.

This became a trial run for the Immigration Restriction Act 1901, part of what became known as the White Australia policy. The Australian Labor Party, founded in 1891 following a wave of militant but unsuccessful strikes, joined employers in pushing for its swift implementation.

This is partly why Australia’s ruling class tolerated Labor. By the 1900s, the ALP had become the world’s most successful workers’ party. By 1915, it controlled the Commonwealth government and all states bar Victoria, entrenching the ALP’s interest in maintaining the status quo. Their conservatism was such that the party earned the ire of none less than Vladimir Lenin who famously labeled Labor a “liberal-bourgeois party” of “non-socialist trade unionist workers.”

To borrow W. E. B Du Bois’s terms, Labor drew a “color line.” The consequences were profound. After Federation, a dictation test (first pioneered in South Africa) was introduced. Officials were given the right to quiz new arrivals in any European language, allowing them to filter only the “right type” of migrant.

The labor movement also championed the Pacific Island Labourers Act 1901. The law scrapped so-called blackbirding — namely, the often forceful or disingenuous recruitment and virtual enslavement of South Sea Island laborers on Queensland sugar plantations. Only, instead of being freed, thousands of South Sea Islanders and their descendants were deported. Although defended as abolishing forced labor, the policy ensured that Australia became whiter than ever.

The Politics of Solidarity

The powerful, rurally based Australian Workers Union (AWU) represented the mainstream of the Australian labor movement and stood at the head of the ALP’s right. They regarded antipathy toward Asia as central to the maintenance of high living standards. Even following the 1916 split, when then–ALP prime minister Billy Hughes defected to the conservatives to back conscription for World War I, they did not reconsider. Despite declining living standards in the 1920s, the AWU and its allies remained loyal to White Australia.

Simultaneously, the Industrial Workers of the World cheerfully pilloried the AWU as “Australia’s Worst Union” and stridently opposed both White Australia and the ALP. Although police repression eventually dissolved the group, the IWW’s commitment to internationalism served them well during World War I, as they played a leading role in the campaign against conscription.

These efforts were pushed forward by the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. The Third International briefly propelled the slogan “workers of the world, unite!” to all corners of the globe, for the first time inspiring a genuinely international left.

In Australia, unions started to organize for the first time in solidarity with Asia. Cognizant of war clouds after World War I, a small coterie of Australian radicals established a pan-Pacific trade union movement. They were joined by the New South Wales Trades and Labour Council, dominated by members of the recently formed Communist Party of Australia (CPA) which also published the newspaper, Pan-Pacific Worker. The newly founded Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) — the peak union body to this day — quickly, if only briefly, affiliated.

On the ground, workers began to cite miserable conditions in British-owned factories in Shanghai as ammunition in local battles. The spread of information between Shanghai and Sydney, facilitated by the pan-Pacific movement, fostered “shared enmity towards imperialist capitalism [that] united Asian and white factory workers against a morally bankrupt British boss.”

In 1938, port workers in Wollongong went a step further, refusing to load a shipment of pig iron onto the ship Dalfran, en route to Japanese weapons factories which fed the ongoing war in China and — so the wharfies feared — Japan’s broader imperial ambitions, including Australia. Significantly, it wasn’t only members of the Communist-dominated Waterside Workers’ Federation who refused to load the ship. Its crew of Malaysian, Pakistani, and Sri Lankan “Laskars” also struck, drawing support among locals.

Similarly, ten years later, Australian unions joined a larger movement in support of Indonesian independence, “black banning” Dutch colonial shipping alongside largely Indian ship crews. This movement began in September 1945 and delayed over five hundred ships in order to aid the Indonesian independence struggle.

This story is often presented as evidence of the unions’ growing rejection of White Australia. But as Heather Goodall argues, were it not for the Indian shipping crews and Indonesian nationalists who pushed the Australians forward, the movement may have been stillborn. Even so, friendships formed between Indonesian and Australian trade unionists during this blockade continued for decades, facilitating joint work and undercutting color prejudice.

Postwar Collaborations

World War II further exposed Australian soldiers to Asian peoples fighting for freedom; following a stay in British India, one soldier wrote in SALT, the army’s journal, that “our very lives and [the] outcome of this war may depend upon us giving this great nation some of the freedom for which we fight.”

After the war, the CPA reached the peak of its power, with some twenty-three thousand members and influence over up to 40 percent of organized labor. This gave it confidence to publicly break with the White Australia policy. CPA secretary Richard Dixon’s pamphlet, Immigration and the White Australia Policy, presented the policy as “Australia’s Monroe Doctrine”; namely, a cover for the nation’s role as a bastion of British and, increasingly, American imperialism. Yet, at the same time, the party hardened their policy on migration. This was spurred by an influx of postwar refugees from Europe — many from the East, who were branded as “fascist Balts,” and blamed for declining living standards.

As colonized nations freed themselves new solidarities arose, often confusing the “Old Left” which increasingly conflated internationalism with whatever suited Moscow. Still, Australian unionists were among the first and most ardent opponents of the Vietnam War. The maritime and building trades unions in particular viewed Australian involvement as evidence of subservience to the United States. Against the wishes of the ACTU, which was spurred by the AWU to back the mobilization, antiwar unions organized strikes in key docks and participated in protests, helping turn public opinion against the war.

In the 1980s and ’90s, the union movement fought opposed South African apartheid. In 1984, Union Aid Abroad, or APHEDA (Australian People for Health, Education and Development Abroad), was founded to consolidate the movement’s long history of international solidarity, today coordinating with and training unionists in over thirteen nations.

Whose Side Are We On?

In 1967, a member of the Monash University Labor Club wrote that the Vietnam War meant Australia “must now decide . . . whether its destiny is on the side of reaction — as an outpost of American imperialism, living in a hostile environment — or on the side of social change, progress, and national independence, as part of the Asian community.” This choice, between imperial isolation and international solidarity, frames the dilemma faced by the Australian workers’ movement well.

Today, this legacy of solidarity is in danger. While unions often identify with and support struggles within Asian nations, many remain reluctant to organize or fight for migrant workers in Australia. The most significant steps toward dismantling White Australia were undertaken by conservative prime ministers preceding Gough Whitlam. Whitlam himself warned against allowing people fleeing from Vietnam into the country, warning that these “so-called refugees” would foster “social tensions,” particularly as they would “live overwhelmingly in Sydney and Melbourne, which are already quite crowded.” Despite this, his government is still celebrated for abolishing the last vestiges of the White Australia policy in 1973.

Shorten’s “Employ Australians First” video is not out of character for either contemporary or historic Labor leaders. At the same time, the United Workers Union is campaigning to mobilize hyper-exploited workers in the farming sector. These workers are primarily from Southeast Asia and the Pacific and work on contracts resembling the indentured labor of yesteryear. Their fight doesn’t just draw on a rich tradition — it also points toward the future of working-class solidarity in Australia.