In 1969, Australian Workers Launched a General Strike to Free Jailed Union Leader Clarrie O’Shea

When Tramways Union secretary Clarrie O’Shea refused to pay fines imposed on his union, the authorities imprisoned him for contempt of court. The move triggered a general strike that freed O’Shea and turned Australia’s anti-union laws into a dead letter.

Original caption: “Clocks on the destination board at Central Station set on midnight as Sydney reels under a 24 hour public transport strike. May 22, 1969.” (Photo by Graeme Noad / Fairfax Media via Getty Images)

Strictly speaking, Australia has never legally guaranteed the right to strike. In large part, this is because of the country’s unique industrial relations system, built around compulsory conciliation and arbitration. This system was enshrined in law by the 1904 Arbitration Act, which gave trade unions the rights to apply for legal recognition, allowing them to bring disputes with employers to industrial courts for conciliation or binding arbitration.

As a result, Australia was one of the first nations to legalize labor organizing. As part of this compromise, the unions relinquished the right to strike. Indeed, the express intention of the Arbitration Act was to “prevent lockouts and strikes in relation to industrial disputes.” Consequently, unions that organized work stoppages in defiance of the act were burdened with substantial financial penalties.

Between 1949 and 1967, the Liberal governments of Robert Menzies and Harold Holt increased the severity of these fines and the frequency with which they were issued. Laws known as the “penal powers,” introduced under Menzies, also allowed the courts to jail union officials for refusing to pay.

In 1969, the authorities jailed the secretary of the Victorian branch of the Australian Tramway and Motor Omnibus Employees’ Association, Clarence “Clarrie” Lyell O’Shea, for contempt of court when he refused to pay his union’s outstanding fines. Twenty-seven of Victoria’s left-wing unions rallied around Clarrie O’Shea, leading a historic general strike that turned the hated penal powers into a dead letter.

Dispute With the Arbitration Commission

Throughout 1960s, the labor movement built a campaign to defend the right to strike and repeal the penal powers. In 1968, the Metal Trades Federation of Unions led the first confrontation that would lay the groundwork for the 1969 general strike.

Mindful of inflation, the Arbitration Commission increased metal workers’ wages guaranteed by the Metal Trades Award, a legal framework stipulating the minimum wages of conditions of workers in manufacturing and engineering. However, the commission advised employers to “absorb” those wage increases into existing over-award payments. In effect, this meant reducing above-award pay and essentially neutralizing the pay rise. The Metal Trades Federation led a number of strikes to protest this measure and eventually won back their wage increases. Although the strikes forced the commission to overturn their decision, workers were still enraged about the attack on their wages.

The second confrontation between organized labor and the Arbitration Commission centered around a series of industrial disputes between the Victorian Tramways Union and the Melbourne Metropolitan and Tramways Board. In 1965, 200 union members struck for fourteen weeks to protest the Tramways Board’s decision to introduce one-man operations on a bus route through Melbourne that had previously relied on a driver and conductor.

The Tramways Union saw the decision as an attack on job security and argued it would jeopardize the safety of both its members and the public. Although the Arbitration Commission supported the union’s objection to one-man bus routes, the Tramways Board refused to accept the judgment and appealed to the High Court, which ruled in the board’s favor.

Subsequently, the authorities hit the Tramways Union with twenty-three fines totaling $7,800. A subsequent dispute over work rosters led to a five-day stoppage. This saw the union hit with a further $3,000 in fines. Adjusted for inflation, these fines would amount to around $150,000 today.

The Union Refuses to Pay

Under pressure from the industrial registrar, the Tramways Union agreed to pay the fines at the rate of $100 a month. In 1967, the registrar reneged on this agreement and demanded an immediate payment of $3,000. The registrar served Clarrie O’Shea with a writ requiring the payment and sent a bailiff to take inventory of the union. When the bailiff visited the union, he was embarrassed by TV crews who had been tipped off in advance, and fled.

Despite this, the authorities issued twenty-four garnishee orders on the union’s bank account. This gave the registrar the power to take every dollar out of their account, for a total of $3,741. Even after paying these sums the union was still saddled with a debt of $5,700. Fed up, the union refused to pay the registrar and to appear in the Industrial Court for questioning.

The Industrial Court summoned O’Shea personally several times to demand he produce details about the union’s finances. A militant trade unionist and a member of the Communist Party of Australia (Marxist-Leninist), Clarrie O’Shea refused to appear. He firmly believed that workers’ right to strike could never be compromised. O’Shea’s attitude can be summed up in his oft-repeated adage, “All bosses are bastards.” He justified refusing to appear in court or produce the Tramways Union’s books on the grounds that, as a paid servant of the union members, he was bound to protect their interests at all times. As O’Shea explained, “I have never been a liar and if I had attended and answered questions about the books or the funds of the Branch I would have had to tell lies, so I decided not to appear.”

For each failure to appear, the court continued to impose fines on O’Shea. Meanwhile, the Commonwealth Police subjected him to harassment and surveillance. Over the course of the dispute, the courts imposed a total of forty fines, worth $13,200 — or $163,800 today.

The “Rebel Unions” Join the Fight

In response to the dispute between the Tramways Union and the Arbitration Commission, other unions also began to oppose the fines. The Amalgamated Engineering Union and the Boilermakers and Blacksmiths Society of Australia both passed resolutions to fight the penal powers. They refused to voluntarily pay fines and promised to organize protests or industrial actions in response to attempts to seize union finances. The Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) also advised affiliated unions to refuse to pay outstanding fines, although instead of calling for direct action, they advocated for electing a Labor government to repeal the laws.

On May 15, 1969, O’Shea and his supporters decided that the time was finally ripe to respond to the summons and appear in the Industrial Court. They believed that hostility towards the penal powers was sufficiently intense that the workers’ movement would rally behind O’Shea and the Tramways Union.

They weren’t wrong. In 1967, twenty-seven left-wing unions had broken with the then-conservative Victorian Trades Hall Council. Known as the “rebel unions,” they immediately notified their rank-and-file members of the Tramways Union’s battle against unfair fines and called a mass meeting.

Clarrie O’Shea and other leaders spoke to over 5,000 assembled delegates. The meeting then passed a resolution expressing full solidarity with the Tramways Union and promising to respond to any punitive action taken against O’Shea, the union, or its funds with a twenty-four-hour strike. Following the meeting, thousands marched with O’Shea to the Industrial Court chanting, “All the way with Clarrie O’Shea.”

At the hearing, O’Shea faced questions from Justice John Kerr. Later appointed governor-general, Kerr is notorious for dismissing Gough Whitlam’s reforming Labor government in 1975. In response to Kerr’s questions, O’Shea explained his refusal to answer by stating, “I do not wish to be sworn. I challenge the authority of this court to deal with my case. I am merely defending the funds of my organization.” Kerr briskly replied, “I do not wish to hear any speeches from you,” before ordering that O’Shea be incarcerated in Her Majesty’s Prison Pentridge, in Melbourne’s north, until the outstanding fines were paid.

While O’Shea was in prison, supporters from around Australia and the world flooded the union secretary with telegrams, cards, and letters addressed to “Clarrie O’Shea: temporary inmate, Pentridge Prison.”

General Strike

News of O’Shea’s arrest spread quickly. Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union secretary and Communist Party of Australia member Laurie Carmichael responded with a mobilizing call: “Don’t delay — return to the factories and mobilize your mates. This is the time for discipline.”

One day later, on May 16, half a million workers struck around the country. The Trades and Labor Council of Western Australia, the Queensland Council of Unions, and the United Trades and Labor Council of South Australia threw their weight behind O’Shea and the Tramways Union, calling statewide general strikes. In Victoria, forty unions called two twenty-four-hour work stoppages.

Trains and trams ground to a halt. Electricity workers cut off power and logistics workers severely restricted the delivery of goods. Media workers disrupted TV and radio broadcasts.

Soon, unions in Tasmania, Darwin, and the Australian Capital Territory called general strikes of their own. An estimated one million Australian workers participated in six days’ worth of strikes. It’s likely, however, that this figure underplays the total number of workers on strike, given the many spontaneous stop-work meetings and “go-slows” that were also organized.

While the ACTU did not officially call or organize the strike, they refused to criticize the stoppages. This passive endorsement neutralized more moderate and conservative voices within the ACTU who didn’t want to be seen as supporting the penal powers. Never before in Australian history had so many workers engaged in strike action without the express support of the nation’s highest union body.

After six days of strikes and protest, the authorities released Clarrie O’Shea from Pentridge Prison under unusual circumstances. Dudley MacDougall, an advertising manager who had never been a member of a union, paid the Tramways Union’s outstanding fines after claiming to have won the lottery. It was rumored that MacDougall was an Australian Security Intelligence Organisation agent and that the government had ordered him to pay the fines following concerns that the sixty-three-year-old O’Shea would die in prison due to a heart condition. So far, the rumor remains unsubstantiated.

Although the resolution was a victory for the workers’ movement, O’Shea himself was disappointed that the fines had been paid. He believed the workers would have forced his release even without MacDougall’s intervention. Nevertheless, following his release, the union leader issued a statement praising workers for having waged “such a magnificent struggle.”

The End of the Penal Powers

Although the penal powers were not actually repealed, the authorities never used them again.  Employers realized that it was pointless to have the Industrial Court fine unions if the unions would refuse to pay and were willing to respond to coercion with mass mobilizations.

It was a stunning victory that unleashed five years of union militancy, pushing Australia’s strike rate to an all-time high in 1974. By the mid-1970s, over 55 percent of Australian workers were union members, one of the highest rates of union density in the world.

The 1969 general strike won because a coalition of left unions were determined to abolish the penal powers and to defend workers’ basic right to withdraw their labor. Instead of relying on the distant possibility of electing a Labor government with a majority in both houses of parliament, unions campaigned and mobilized members for years prior to 1969. The groundwork was so well-laid in advance that when the Tramways Union was singled out, the broader union movement was ready to act in solidarity at a moment’s notice.

Since the 1960s and 1970s, Australia’s industrial relations landscape has changed. Some lessons from the Clarrie O’Shea strikes won’t apply today, or at least not in the same way. But, as one of the most significant general strikes in Australian history, it remains a key victory for the union movement. By taking a determined stand, Clarrie O’Shea and the Tramways Union proved that if unions are willing to lead and mobilize rank-and-file members, they have the power to overturn even the most repressive anti-labor laws.