Migrants and class in postwar Australia


[This article originally appeared as a chapter in Rick Kuhn and Tom O'Lincoln (eds) Class and Class Conflict in Australia, Longman, Melbourne, 1996.]

Immigrant workers are an important part of our postwar history. Employers and governments have sought to use them for economic and political ends, but migrants have also been actors in their own right. This chapter will consider the various stages of mass immigration, from assimiliationism to multiculturalism, in the context of class relations and of class struggle. It will examine how the mass influx of women and men of non-English speaking background (NESB) has led to a segmented and stratified labour market, with particular emphasis on the conditions of labour experienced by such migrants; and it will also establish that these divisions can be, and often have been overcome. Rather than being passive victims of capital and the labour market, migrants have fought back, often winning solidarity from other groups and providing a leadership role in labour struggles. The final section concentrates on the important lessons we can learn from these experiences.

From ‘White Australia’ to multiculturalism

Ours is a traditionally racist society. The second half of the 19th century witnessed intense conflicts between European workers and non-white immigrants, particularly the Chinese and Kanakas. Victoria, New South Wales, Queensland and Western Australia passed anti-Chinese immigration legislation between the 1850s and 1880s. In 1893 New South Wales Premier Dibbs introduced a Bill which extended the provisions of Chinese exclusion to ‘all the coloured persons on earth’. In 1901 the first Federal Government of Australia promulgated the Immigration Restriction Act, also known as the White Australia Policy. Between Federation and the end of World War II, Australia’s immigrants were overwhelmingly British and Irish in origin; the largest of the other migrant groups included Italians and Greeks.

This framework was endorsed by all political parties, the media, the church, the official union movement and the employers, with the exception of those who exploited immigrants as cheap labour in the 1800s. Non-whites were commonly regarded as ‘immoral’ and ‘inferior’. In the eyes of many in the labour movement, they were ‘servile’ and a threat to working class living standards, even though there was extensive evidence that they were prepared to confront their exploitation.

However the main beneficiaries of White Australia were the ruling class. As Verity Burgmann argues, 19th century racism divided the working class and helped to consolidate the hegemony of capital over labour. However the mechanisms by which this occurred were complex. Working class racism increased profits by widening wage gaps between, for instance, white European and Chinese workers. ‘White Australia’ created scapegoats in the form of the oppressed racial groups and perpetuated white workers’ beliefs in a false community which was the nation. As Alex Callinicos puts it, racism ‘gives white workers a particular identity, and one which moreover unites them with white capitalists’.

Arthur Calwell, architect of the first wave of post-World War II *immigration, was committed to maintaining this pattern, assuring the public that ‘for every foreign migrant there would be ten from the United Kingdom.’ However this 90% goal was not realised because not enough Britons were available. In the first wave of postwar immigration (1947-51) with net settler immigration exceeding 467 000, British immigration totalled approximately 193 000. The remainder comprised northern Europeans, displaced people from eastern Europe, southern Europeans and a relatively small number of Asians. In the second wave of post-World War II immigration between 1951 and the early 1970s, there was an increased reliance on immigrants from the southern European regions, particularly Italians, Greeks, Maltese, Croatians, Macedonians and Spaniards. Southern European immigration increased from 11.5% of total net settler gain in the period 1947-51 to a massive 33.1% in the ten year period ending 1961. They accounted for 29.4% of net settler gain in the period 1961-66, falling to 11.3% in 1966-71.

Throughout most of the 20th century, government policies on immigrant settlement were assimilationist, assuming the supremacy of Anglo-Australian society. Migrants, like Aborigines, were expected to become similar to Anglo-Australians in values and expectations, behaviour, lifestyles, and ultimately speech. In the 1960s and early 1970s government polices shifted towards integrationism which encouraged the develop of quasi-autonomous ethnic groups to support migrant families and individuals through the settlement process, ‘the end point of which was still assimilation’. Assimilationism and integrationism were fortified by the ideology of ‘populate or perish’, which was exploited by Calwell and his successors in the Immigration portfolio to sustain postwar immigration by playing on anxieties about Australia’s vulnerability to invasion from the north. The linkage was again reinforced in the late 1960s when Coalition governments evoked fears of the ‘yellow peril’ from Communist Asia, which in turn, legitimated Australia’s role in the invasion of Vietnam.

A major incentive for southern Europeans was their desire to escape the poverty and social deprivations of postwar Europe. By the end of the 1960s, however, the gap in living standards between Australians and southern Europeans had closed significantly. Since the mid-1970s there has been a marked shift towards Asia, initiated by the Whitlam Government’s introduction of a ‘non-discriminatory’ immigration policy. In the two year period ending September 1994, permanent settler arrivals from Asia totalled 69 470, some 41% of the aggregate.

The shift towards Asian immigration coincided roughly with the advent of multiculturalism. To an extent Australia’s increasing ethnic diversity impelled the emergence of multiculturalism as early as the first Whitlam Government. Another important factor underpinning multicultural policy was the widespread realisation that assimilationism and integrationism had failed in their self-explanatory objectives. Evidence was accumulating that schools with high NESB student enrolments were under-resourced to provide English language skills, and governments faced the spectre of a series of migrant communities who felt they had little stake in Australian capitalism.

The class context of multiculturalism is contradictory. It represents a concession to the struggles and aspirations of migrants, and should be defended against right wing critics. Even though its discourse of tolerance may give greater leverage to racist elements to harass and victimise particular migrant groups during periods of intensified national fervour (for example, against Arab Australians during the Gulf War), it would seem that generally multiculturalism has played a role in preventing outbreaks of inter-ethnic and racial violence within the working class, and to have impeded the capacity for inter-ethnic and racial divisions to develop on the scale so evident in Europe in recent times. While it cannot be depicted exclusively as a ruling class strategy, there are elements of multiculturalism which do promote the interests of capital. A critical event in the emergence of multiculturalism was the 1973 strike at Ford Broadmeadows, which brought into focus the industrial consequences of two decades of assimilationism and integrationism, and which ‘sharpened the recognition amongst conservative politicians of the volatility of migrant workers’. One of the policy’s objectives has been to contain migrant struggles within and outside the work place.

NESB immigrants are encouraged to continue those cultural practices which do not threaten broader structures of domination and to identify with the supposedly united Australian nation. Music or cuisine may be maintained but traditions of class struggle, also an important part of migrant cultures, are not so acceptable. As the Australian Ethnic Affairs Council has expressed it, the aim is ‘social cohesion, equality of access and cultural identity’ — note the order of priority. Andrew Jakubowicz explains:

It is the invalidation of the class history of ethnic Australians and the reconstruction of their experience and histories in their countries of origin and in Australia as totally cultural (that is, specifically non-political, non-class based and in that sense ahistorical) that is the effective outcome of multiculturalism as ideology.

Policy objectives are formulated not primarily in terms of solving the problems of migrant workers, but in terms of incremental strategies purporting to grant equal access to the capitalist labour market and to the services of the state. ‘Multiculturalism’ writes Jerzy Zubrzycki, ‘means ethnic communities getting into the act.’ In practice this has meant upward mobility for migrant elites while migrant workers have faced mass unemployment for over two decades.

The basic framework dates back to Al Grassby’s ‘family of the nation’ concept of 1974 but has continued under subsequent governments, both Coalition and Labor. In fact it was the Fraser Government which really developed the strategy of cultivating elites within ethnic communities, while using notions of monolithic ethnic identity to undermine groups within those communities which believed in class struggle or campaigned in the interest of migrant workers. Multiculturalism is a mode of state intervention which aims to discourage militant action by migrant workers, on the grounds that this diminishes the ethnic communities’ social responsibility to the broader Australian community. The nationalist core of the policy is conservative and serves to sustain ruling class hegemony. As Jakubowicz contends:

Such [state] intervention might prevent the emergence of a more unified Australian working class, which would share class allegiances while internally recognising and responding to ethnic differences and needs.

The family is conceptualised as a microcosm of the nation itself: each citizen is to see Australia as a ‘family’ in which all members hold the same ideals and share a common history. At the same time the traditional nuclear family remains an important centre of social stability, and within many migrant communities a highly sexist traditional division of labour is continued and legitimised as part of ‘ethnicity’. This in turn allows the state to neglect its role in providing health care, child care, abortion clinics and contraception. More generally, multiculturalism has allowed governments to mobilise community volunteers to deliver welfare programs on the cheap.

The economic basis of mass migration

Despite the importance of various political and cultural issues, postwar immigration policy has been determined above all by economic considerations. There is ample evidence that ruling class economic concerns have profoundly shaped postwar immigration, particularly in the 1950s and 1960s. In the early stages, powerful corporate interests in the automotive and iron and steel industries together with the Immigration and Labour and National Service portfolios, shared the view that migrants of non-English speaking background provided an almost inexhaustible source of hard working and politically docile labour, which could be hostile to trade unionism and readily disciplined in the work place. In 1950 John Storey, Chair of the Federal Government’s Immigration Planning Council and head of the leading automotive components manufacturer Repco, went so far as to advise the Commonwealth not to obstruct the arrival of large numbers of former Nazis. In 1952, the Department of Immigration defended the mass recruitment of southern Europeans on the basis that ‘migrants will almost certainly be more docile in accepting [managerial] changes of [work] practice: a fact which could earn them hostility from their fellow Australian workers.’

More important than the desire for a disciplined and docile labour force, however, was the automotive and iron and steel employers’ fear that severe labour shortages would make wages almost impossible to contain. This raises the question of whether or not NESB people overseas have constituted an external industrial reserve army.

Inspired by the early Marxist works of Stephen Castles and Godula Kosack about immigrants and class relations in Western Europe, Jock Collins argues that southern Europeans constitute an external reserve army of labour of great significance to Australian capitalism. During periods of rapid economic expansion the migrant influx alleviates labour shortages, especially in those sectors of the labour market where wages and conditions are regarded as unsatisfactory by Anglo-Celtic workers. By inflating the labour market, employers are able to reduce workers’ bargaining power.

Employers may have exploited mass immigration to drive down unskilled and semi-skilled wages in the early postwar decades, particularly in those sectors which were key employers of unskilled migrant workers. In the 1950s the motor vehicle companies used the mass recruitment of southern European labour to prevent a substantial increase in marginal rates for production line workers. Without this influx, labour shortages might have weakened employer and Arbitration Court opposition to claims for semi-skilled marginal rates for production line workers.

However the industrial reserve army thesis, with respect to immigrant labour, is of little relevance during and beyond the 1970s. The early to mid-1970s witnessed a significant reduction in immigrant intakes by the Whitlam Government, making it difficult for employers to inflate the labour market. The introduction of wage indexation in 1975 linked wage movements to inflation, so that employers in particular sectors were less able to influence them directly. More importantly, the 1970s was the decade in which immigrants began to display greater militancy, particularly in manufacturing. Employers could not super-exploit immigrants while they were heavily involved in struggles, sometimes providing leadership. The 1980s and early 1990s showed a protracted downturn in working class struggle in Australia, despite a recovery in large scale immigration in the late 1980s. However this long downturn was a consequence not of mass immigration but of worker defeats, continuing high unemployment, and the ALP/ACTU Accord which demobilised union militants and incorporated the unions into a conservative government policy framework.

Common working class fears, especially during recessions, that immigration causes unemployment are unfounded. The preponderance of academic research indicates that immigration has, if anything, a modest beneficial effect on employment.

Migrants in the Australian working class

The Australian ruling class, in both the corporate and state sectors, includes many migrants of non-English speaking background such as Arvi Parbo, Peter Abeles and Nick Greiner. NESB migrants are also strongly represented in small businesses and other middle layers. Participation in the business sector has been influenced considerably by the Business Migration Program since 1981. Asian migrants are significantly represented in small business and in middle class occupations: in the early 1990s approximately 16% of Asian-born settler arrivals were professionals, derived from countries where English is widely spoken such as India, Sri Lanka, Hong Kong and Malaysia.

However the majority of migrants are working class, and they are the focus of this chapter.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, a number of studies have demonstrated a massive over-representation of NESB immigrants of both sexes in production and labouring jobs in building and construction and in particular the manufacturing sector. These are what Constance Lever-Tracy and Michael Quinlan term the jobs at the ‘productive core’ of working class occupations. Unlike many Asian immigrants people from Indo-China, especially Vietnamese refugees, are concentrated in the low skilled echelons of the labour market, particularly in manufacturing.

In the early 1990s, the proportion of women from non-English speaking backgrounds in manufacturing was approximately three times higher than that of Australian-born women. NESB women are over-represented in the textiles, clothing and footwear sector and, to a lesser extent, electrical and food processing. Vietnamese women are over-represented at eight to twelve times the rate of Australian-born women in the clothing industry. Overall NESB women earn lower wages on an hourly basis than women from English speaking countries and sometimes work under the most appalling conditions, confronting extreme forms of authoritarian and sexist management. They are the most exploited and oppressed workers in Australia, with the exception of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders.

A recent study of immigrant workers in Australian manufacturing found that the movement of NESB migrants into this sector was overwhelmingly into the lower skilled jobs. Moreover, although a relatively small number were upwardly mobile, ‘the vast majority either remained in these and similar jobs or left these jobs only to exit from the labour force’ ¾ and women had even less upward mobility.

NESB migrants’ concentration in unskilled and semi-skilled jobs in manufacturing and construction exposes them to unsafe production processes and machine design layouts, and the resulting problems are complicated by language and cultural difficulties, social isolation, experiences of discriminatory employment practices and racial discrimination. NESB women workers are less likely to report injury or seek compensation, for fear of dismissal and because of misinformation about or ignorance of compensation legislation. Once they do so they are more likely to have their claims contested and to receive low levels of compensation than other types of workers, including NESB men.

The downturn in the world economy since the early to mid-1970s has made NESB migrant workers of both sexes particularly vulnerable to unemployment: they suffered greater job loss and higher increases in unemployment than either English speaking migrants or Australian-born people in the 1974-75, 1982-83 and 1990-92 recessions. This varies between gender and across age groups. For instance, unemployment among NESB women over twenty-five is much higher than for other women in this age group ¾ especially between forty-five and fifty-four (11.3% for NESB women compared with 3.9% for Australian-born women).

Industry and award restructuring have worsened migrant unemployment. A study of the Illawarra region of New South Wales has found that the economic downturn since the early 1980s (especially severe in this iron and steel-dependent region) together with substantial technological change and other forms of corporate restructuring, has left retrenched NESB iron and steel workers with little opportunity for re-employment. In their case study of the clothing industry in Adelaide and Melbourne, Anna Yeatman and Carol Bradley found that industry restructuring has put NESB migrant women ‘at high risk of the intensification of their already low labour market status’ while award restructuring has led to corporate ‘cost cutting strategies which contract out the assembly stages of production’ to small firms whose workers fall outside the ambit of the award, and to super-exploited outworkers.

Some nationalities have been particularly vulnerable to unemployment as Australian manufacturing rushes to restructure under the pressure of global competition. These are migrant groups who rely on factory work for over 30% of their employment, including men from Greece and Cyprus, women from Malta and Poland, and both sexes from Turkey, the former Yugoslavia and Vietnam. Labour market outcomes for the Vietnamese, among other NESB groups, have been described as ‘dismal’. Training is supposed to help people find work, but recent studies of the communications and automotive industries have shown that migrants with poor English language and literacy skills are more likely to experience difficulties in using the training programs emanating from award restructuring.

Enterprise bargaining may well create substantially more job losses as well as lower wages and poorer conditions for the majority of workers, particularly women. Although NESB women workers’ experiences of enterprise bargaining have been marginally better than women workers as a whole (due to the greater unionisation of the former) both they and their union officials tend to be negative about the outcomes of those enterprise agreements with which they have been personally involved, and sceptical about the possibility for future gains.

Women who find themselves unemployed as a result of award restructuring and enterprise bargaining may be forced to undertake outwork, even though this can entrench them in poverty. In March 1995, the Textile Clothing and Footwear Union (TCFU) estimated that there were approximately 330 000 outworkers in the clothing industry alone. Three-quarters of the clothing companies had the majority of their production performed in private homes. These outworkers were paid as little as $1.95 per hour, and were often forced to work in excess of 150 hours per week in order to eke out some kind of existence. In many cases, entire families were paid as outworkers, and the union reports the ‘disturbing fact’ that ‘while it is rare to find children directly employed by contractors, we have found children working long hours alongside their parents or other siblings.’

Unions with high proportions of NESB members have often been insensitive to their social problems in the work place, such as unfamiliarity with the processes of arbitration, discrimination by employers, racial conflicts with other workers, language difficulties (compounded by the lack of on-the-job English classes), and vulnerability to unemployment. As Lucas Nicolaou points out, this neglect of immigrant union members has been the consequence of several, often interconnecting factors including unions’ lack of resources, bureaucratic inertia, a tendency for union leaders to divorce social problems from immediate industrial issues, the lack of NESB migrant representation in full-time union positions, and the assimilationist views and racial prejudices of many union officials.

Racist attitudes are rife in some unions. So too are assimilationist views. In 1981, the ACTU belatedly organised a Migrant Workers’ Conference in recognition of the trend towards multiculturalism. However after more than a decade a number of unions, particularly those with relatively small immigrant memberships, retain assimilationist policies while only a small minority of unions have any special services such as multi-lingual information.

It is clear that on occasions, union neglect and racism have generated considerable disillusionment among NESB workers. George Zangalis remarks that migrants can sometimes view their unions as ‘the unions of the Australian workers’. Petro Georgiou has even argued that the ‘prevailing culture’ of immigrants in trade unions is one of cynicism and resignation.

While the disillusionment is sometimes acute, it is incorrect to speak of a ‘prevailing culture of cynicism’. Such notions are refuted by high levels of NESB union membership and interest in union affairs, by the degree to which migrants participate in unions, and by their involvement in workers’ struggles. Overall, the difference in union membership levels between NESB and Anglophone workers is negligible. (However it is worth noting that union membership is much higher among NESB women workers than their female counterparts of English speaking background.) In addition NESB workers’ level of interest in union affairs is not manifestly different from that of Anglophone unionists. Santina Bertone and Gerard Griffin have argued that NESB workers, on the whole, are not less militant than Anglophone workers and that once the former develop trust and confidence in the unions and overcome their language and other barriers, the unions tend to be (in the words of union officials they have interviewed) ‘well rewarded by the strong, solid backing often provided by immigrant union members’.

Migrants have also been able to rectify some of the problems. For more than a decade officials of the Vehicle Builders Employees’ Federation were largely ignorant of migrant needs. However, Tom Bramble has shown that as a result of their heavy involvement in industrial action in the automotive industry since the 1960s, immigrants of non-English speaking background have become better represented within this union, particularly in Victoria. The same may be said about migrant involvement in the Port Kembla branch of the Federated Ironworkers Association (FIA), particularly since the ‘Rank and File Group’ successfully challenged the right wing local leadership in December 1970. Migrants led by Italian born Ferdinando Lelli played a major part in the insurgency. As a result, this branch of the FIA has made substantial advances including on the job language courses, considerable increases in the proportion of NESB branch executive members and officials, and greater recognition of rank and file organisation.

Migrants and class conflict

June Hearn contends that NESB migrants have often forced the pace of class struggle in postwar Australia. This contradicts two influential views of these migrants and of their relations with English speaking workers.

The notion of migrant docility has been remarkably robust, with new arrivals regarded as particularly hostile to militant action. Hard work and thrift, rather than collective union action are seen as characterising migrant workers’ outlook. In the early 1950s, sections of the union movement feared that an influx of southern Europeans would weaken organised labour, and the ACTU was convinced it would inundate the labour market with ‘docile’ southern Italians. Such xenophobic views were discredited by the actions of southern Europeans in the automotive industry in the late 1950s. Still, three decades later, sections of the left were warning the Australian labour movement about ‘bourgeois’ Vietnamese flooding the factories and unions.

It does seem that, over the decades, many new arrivals in Australia have been reluctant to become involved in union struggles for fear of victimisation and unemployment, and because of the economic burden of establishing new homes and livelihoods. Initially, new arrivals may adhere to anti-union ideas. However, as they find their feet, such ideological and cultural baggage is often discarded.

In 1980 Vietnamese workers played a major role in a long strike at Toyota-AMI in Melbourne, joining picket lines and supplying food to the picketers and later they were the most active picketers in the 1985 strike at the Redfern Mail Exchange. As Paula Kelly of the Indo-Chinese Refugee Association commented:

Of course when the Vietnamese arrive they are right wing, anti-union. But because most of them get jobs in factories, they soon see that for their own future, trade unions are the thing. They are quite happy to fight for better conditions, for jobs — as long as they understand the issues.

Such changes in consciousness occur for several reasons. One is that NESB migrants tend to be concentrated in poorly paid and dangerous production and labouring jobs. Drawing on his experiences as a union official, Con George contends that immigrant workers, especially the non-English speaking groups, constitute a ‘dormant industrial volcano’ because they are often trapped ‘in a state of voracious exploitation and total alienation.’ A second factor relates to the past experiences of struggle in the countries of origin. Some Victorian union officials have recently suggested that NESB workers’ militancy is shaped by the fact that many come from countries where exploitation has been extremely severe. This position is similar to that of Constance Lever-Tracy, who comments that in many cases such workers have:

experience in and knowledge of the European struggles of the late sixties and early seventies — the massive illegal strikes against Franco, the opposition to the colonels in Greece, the wave of rank-and-file led strikes amongst the largely Southern Italian migrant workers in the car factories of Fiat and Alfa Romeo, the turmoil in Turkey and Lebanon.

Many Latin American migrants have been radicalised by struggles against dictatorship in their countries of origin:

One clearly impressed [union] official told the story of a dispute involving mainly Chilean immigrant workers that had led to the re-engagement of all these workers after they had been dismissed … ‘An enormous argument broke out … There are four (political) factions in the Chilean community … The argument was about the political lessons we should be drawing from the dispute … 5:30 pm on a Friday afternoon, you’d never get that dynamic from the Australian group.’

Jock Collins argues that since the early 1950s an aristocracy of labour has emerged in Australia among Anglophone workers vis-a-vis NESB migrants, which has tended to divide the working class as a whole. He contends that instead of ‘a common class interest with immigrant workers, they [Anglophones] regard themselves as superior’. This ethos of superiority, he suggests, inhibits the development of a unified working class consciousness:

With the development of a labour aristocracy many of the indigenous workers see themselves as an intermediate privileged stratum, rather than being exploited in the same relationship to the means of production … The political significance of this is that it contains the class struggle by creating conditions whereby a large section of the working class are isolated or ignored.

Some recent events may appear to confirm this thesis superficially. In November 1994 Salvadorian workers employed by Steel Line Doors at Sumner Park (Brisbane) embarked on a prolonged strike. The event which triggered it was the dismissal of a Salvadorian employee, but the real cause was grievances about the company’s allegedly racist managerial practices. Ian McLeod, organiser for the Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union, says that the management ‘has practiced every kind of discrimination. People were forbidden to use their own language. I sat in the office when a manager said, "Don’t speak that Mexican tongue here. Speak English."’ Management was successful in dividing the work force along ethnic lines, for example by promoting Anglo-Australians to supervisory jobs while allegedly giving the worst jobs to Salvadorians.

However, the Salvadorians responded by seeking assistance further afield. Shop steward Jorge Rodriguez and two other strikers appealed to unions locally and travelled interstate, receiving considerable financial and other assistance from union officials and shop stewards in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne. The Transport Workers’ Union respected their picket line and building workers banned the company’s products. Thus division in one work place may be countered by organising a wider solidarity.

There have been numerous events illustrating the capacity for migrants and Anglo-Australians to unite in struggle, even in the early stages of post-World War II immigration. As Michael Quinlan argues, the labour aristocracy thesis:

belies the ability of working immigrants and indigenous workers to accurately perceive their work place circumstances. If bourgeois mystification is that powerful, then there seems little reason for capitalism to resort to ethnically diverse groups of immigrants.

Social isolation does not always diminish class conflict; it can also foster militancy, since strikes can be called and sustained by solidarity among members of particular ethnic groups. For example at the mass meeting of Ford Broadmeadows workers in May 1973, it was the Greeks who ‘erupted and carried the meeting for a strike’, voting en bloc. The Greeks and Italians did much to sustain the strike. Similarly, in the September 1985 Redfern Mail Exchange dispute Asian workers voted en bloc to call the strike.

Conversely, such ethnic solidarity can destabilise a workers’ struggle. After providing strong support to the 1973 Broadmeadows strike for many weeks, the Turkish workers voted en bloc to end it. This generated considerable resentment from other ethnic groups, particularly the Greeks, which the company subsequently exploited by placing Turks and Greeks side by side on the assembly lines. Similarly, Arab workers initially supported the long-running 1977 Eastern Suburbs Railway dispute in Sydney, but later voted en bloc to return to work after a leading Arab changed his mind.

These events demonstrate that the labour movement needs to combat ethnic divisions in the work place and broader community. Experience suggests that involvement in industrial struggle is often effective in doing so, even where intense racial hatreds persist in the countries of origin. This ethnic unity may survive well beyond the workers’ struggle or may vanish with it, depending upon the effectiveness of work place organisation and the degree of success of the strike itself. The 1973 strike at Ford Broadmeadows brought about what the National Times called a ‘surprising alliance’ between the Greeks and Turks at that plant. The conflict between Greece and Turkey over the Greek annexation of Cyprus had aroused nationalist fervour among millions of Greeks and Turks. However Lynda Robinson reports that during this strike the Greek and Turkish employees were heard saying ‘Cyprus does not matter here; Australia is a different country.’ The workers:

unanimously agreed that the unity of purpose experienced by the strikers developed an atmosphere of camaraderie which transcended ethnic hostility.

Unfortunately, tensions between the Greeks and Turks at Broadmeadows re-emerged after the Turks voted en bloc to return to work. However the work force as a whole gained much from the strike. A militant group of shop stewards emerged from diverse ethnic backgrounds and led a six-week strike in September-October 1981, which has been described as ‘one of the high points of unity and organisation in recent Australian industrial history’.

The Redfern Mail Exchange was one of the most ethnically diverse work places in Sydney and the scene of major disputes from the late 1960s to the mid-1980s. Joseph Kanan, a Lebanese-Australian employed as a parcel sorter there and a shop steward of the Australian Postal and Telecommunication Union (APTU), recalls deep ethnic tensions between the Indians and Pakistanis as well as the Christian and Muslim Lebanese, while a large number of workers ‘hated’ the Vietnamese. But in the two-week strike in September 1985 (over a management plan to virtually abolish penalty rates) these tensions waned significantly. The critical factor was the successful mass picket lines established by the strikers, on which the Vietnamese were particularly militant. Noel Battese, then Federal President of the APTU, says that the Vietnamese were ‘the most united group among all of them. Without question, they stuck together very well.’ The strike ended because the APTU agreed to Australia Post’s decision to divert Redfern’s mail sorting temporarily to the General Post Office at Sydney and the major regional post offices. According to Kanan, this was the worst defeat suffered by the Redfern Mail Exchange workers in the postwar period. With the workers generally demoralised, the racism and xenophobia re-appeared.

A more recent event generating ethnic unity was the eleven-day stoppage at Port Phillip Mills in May 1993, involving about thirty wool scourers, in response to the dismissal of a shop steward of Italian origin, Joe Myro, because of his union activities. Two-thirds of the scourers were of southern and eastern European origin, the remainder mainly English speakers. The strike, which won Myro’s reinstatement, was distinguished by the solidarity and friendships which developed among the strikers, including the Serbs, Croats and Macedonians whose former country, Yugoslavia, was bitterly divided by war and ‘ethnic cleansing’. The ethnic unity at Port Phillip Mills, which was sustained long after, was a consequence of fighting side by side, especially on the twenty-five hour picket lines. As Jim Collins, Victorian President of the Australian Workers’ Union, remarks:

When you’re out picketing day and night … people get to know one another a lot better. This had a bonding effect. Management thought that the strike would break the people up, separate them. That didn’t happen. It brought them closer together, including the former Yugoslavians.

Class struggle can also overcome gender divisions. In December 1981 there was a ten-day strike at the Kortex textile factory in Brunswick (Melbourne), involving some 300 women of southern and eastern European, Turkish and Arab background. During the strike, called in opposition to the company’s compulsory bonus system among other things, they faced intimidation from the foremen and scabs, and arrest by police. As Sandra Bloodworth records, the husbands and other men supporting them attended the picket lines, brought coffee, and minded the children at the pickets, freeing the strikers ‘to do more political work such as preparing speeches, speaking to women who might be wavering, leading chants when the bosses’ bus arrived’. Some of the men had been involved in a major dispute at Ford Broadmeadows not long before. Bloodworth adds:

It was not only on the picket lines that attitudes began to change. In the homes, the men took over child care and house duties to free the women to attend the pickets for long hours. Here was an example of how women’s issues and those of class exploitation are closely bound up together; how a struggle can change attitudes and break down divisive stereotypes much more rapidly than any amount of ‘education’ can do.

I myself observed an eight-day strike of about twenty female southern European and Turkish cleaners at the Edmund Barton Building in Canberra in May 1987. Their employer had appointed a new foreperson, removing a popular woman from this position. The cleaners opposed the appointment because they feared that it would result in work intensification. After failing to gain support from the Miscellaneous Workers’ Union the cleaners went on strike, seeking the assistance of sympathetic people in the Builders Labourers’ Federation, the Administrative and Clerical Officers’ Association, Socialist Action, and Women Against Racism. The women had never been involved in strikes and had no elected work place delegate. Nevertheless they held daily meetings, circulated leaflets, and picketed all the major buildings for which their employer was contracted.

The cleaners’ struggle left them little time for traditional household and child rearing activities. At one point, they were asked to bring their husbands along to a meeting of Socialist Action. Minnie (an Italian-born cleaner) replied: ‘They won’t be able to come, they’ll be at home cooking.’ Nearly everyone burst into laughter, with the assistance of a few translators. I do not know whether all the men undertook home duties so enthusiastically; her husband may have been an exception. But there is little doubt the women’s leadership in this strike had lifted their self-confidence and awakened them to new ideas and expectations. Several days after the strike ended in failure (the Conciliation and Arbitration Commission ordered them back to work on the employer’s terms) Minnie told me that the strike had changed their lives. Her optimism had not faded.

NESB migrants’ relative lack of ties to union structures sometimes benefits workers’ struggles because they are less constrained by the conservative traditions of some unions. This was demonstrated by a July 1993 dispute at Campbells Mushrooms in Merda (outside Melbourne) involving 400 production workers ¾ all but a few of them NESB women. The dispute began when the workers, angered by the company’s closed shop agreement with the Australian Workers’ Union (AWU), decided to join the breakaway Shearers’ and Rural Workers’ Union (SRWU). The AWU were apparently worried that this might establish a precedent encouraging other members to join the rival union. The SRWU claimed a 10% wage rise and the company threatened to sack the production workers. The upshot was a strike, followed the next day by a lockout. After several days the employees acceded to remain in the AWU to protect their job security, but they managed to win a 4.5% pay rise together with improved conditions, including an undertaking by the company to pay compensation for accidents occurring on the way to or from work ¾ a benefit that had been abolished under Kennett Government legislation.

Migrants often generate strong shop floor organisation, as in the October 1964 dispute at GMH. This four-week strike at five Melbourne and Adelaide plants was initiated by the Greek foundry workers at the Fishermen’s Bend operation in Port Melbourne, after the company refused to grant a wage rise in atonement for poor working conditions. A rank and file organisation at the Fishermen’s Bend plant called the Melbourne Strike Committee mobilised between 150 and 250 members, mostly southern Europeans, extending well beyond the existing shop stewards. This open committee was probably the largest shop floor organisation established by workers in the post-World War II period. It was also one of the busiest, holding up to twenty-four meetings a day.

The committee was formed to sustain the militancy of the strikers, after the Industrial Court began to impose heavy fines on five unions under the penal provisions of the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Act. The workers displayed such tenacity that the right-wing federal Executive of the Vehicle Builders Employees’ Federation (VBEF) found it very difficult to achieve ‘a dignified exit’ from the strike. The Melbourne Strike Committee was a major threat to the federal leadership of the VBEF who feared that it would strengthen the ascendancy of a left-wing faction within the union’s Victorian branch, and lay the foundation for an Amalgamated Engineering Union challenge to their closed shop agreement with the company covering unskilled and semi-skilled production workers. The ACTU also resented the Committee because it threatened to destabilise the balance of power within the Melbourne union movement, which at the time was riddled with conflict over the permissable activities of independent shop floor organisation. The ACTU withdrew its support for the strike and organised a secret ballot which many GMH workers felt involved major irregularities, motivated less by fear of the state’s penal powers than by the fear of the employees’ independent mobilisation. The defeat led to the sacking or resignation of numerous militants, shattered their organisation, and resulted in a decline in militancy, especially at Fishermen’s Bend.

Migrants can sustain independent rank and file organisation in the face of state repression, as in the prolonged Mt Isa dispute in 1964-65. Contrary to some accounts which portrayed it as a strike, the dispute was a lockout occasioned by Mt Isa Mines’ refusal to negotiate over several demands, particularly the abolition of contract labour and the reinstatement of rank and file leader Pat Mackie. The Nicklin Government in Queensland declared two states of emergency. The first enabled the fining and gaoling of employees who refused to work on company terms, while the second functioned to smash the picket lines and entailed police raids on workers’ homes.

The company’s obstinacy together with the severity of Nicklin’s repression galvanised the Mt Isa workers, not least the NESB migrants of forty-seven nationalities who comprised 70% of the 4 000 strong work force. NESB migrants constituted a significant section of the Council for Membership Control of the AWU at Mt Isa Mines ¾ a militant rank and file organisation formed in the early stages of the dispute to provide the type of union leadership which the AWU opposed. They were also heavily involved on the picket lines and in other important day-to-day dispute activities, such as the Women’s Auxiliary which played a large part in organising picket lines (some were picket captains). Pat Mackie later wrote: ‘Every one of the 47 nationalities in the mine would take part in Union activity. New Australian workers … would prove themselves outstanding, devoted Unionists, and through their number would provide the dependable backbone to the whole struggle.’

Without the highly effective rank and file activity, the dispute would have ended in complete triumph for the company and the Nicklin Administration. In the event, it brought both gains and losses for the work force. Mackie and his Mt Isa colleagues had generated enough union support to convince the ACTU to threaten a twenty-four hour strike in Queensland, which forced the Nicklin Government to withdraw the first state of emergency. The second state of emergency ended in stalemate, largely because the ACTU was unwilling to escalate the conflict beyond Mt Isa (to have done so would have antagonised the AWU leadership). The workers largely triumphed over the hated contract system as many of the bases of conflict were removed by the Industrial Commission in the MIM Award of June 1965, but Mackie and other militants lost their jobs. The most important achievement, in Mackie’s eyes, was the unity and independent mobilisation of the workers: ‘a living lesson in the constructive social potentialities of rank and file working people’.


Although postwar mass immigration policy has segmented the labour market, this does not mean that it has irreparably divided the working class. Contrary to the expectations and hopes of the industrialists, politicians and bureaucrats who set the direction of mass immigration program in the 1950s, non-English speaking migrants have not been a docile and anti-union presence in the working class, and multiculturalism has not obviated the migrants’ past and present experiences of exploitation and oppression. They have been and will remain an important factor in class conflict. Constance Lever-Tracy believes that NESB migrants have the potential to renew Australian trade unionism and working class organisation. I am inclined to agree. Whether or not they will play the leading role in a protracted upturn in class struggle, only time will tell.

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