In the immediate post-war years there was a wave of strikes in Australia in response to poor working conditions and the victimisation of unionists. One of the first was at the Port Kembla steelworks, led by the communist-controlled ironworkers union and supported by the communist-influenced miners’ and seamen’s unions.
The Ben Chifley Labor government was quick to sack strike leader Ted Roach and other communists on the Stevedoring and Maritime Industry Commissions when they refused to call off the strikes.
One industry where attempts to prevent strikes during the war invariably failed was coalmining. After the war, the Miners Federation, like their fellow miners in Britain, demanded that the pits be nationalised. The government instead set up the Joint Coal Board and the Coal Industry Tribunal, but the demand never went away for the militant miners.
Edgar Ross, a central committee member of the Communist Party and editor of the miners’ union journal,Common Cause, wrote in the Communist Review: “For the mineworkers, the sands are running out. The historic moment of their tactical advantage is about to pass, and they still have much to achieve while holding determinedly to their basic trade union rights of organisation and struggle and playing a more conscious role in wider national issues.”
On June 27, 1949, the Miners Federation began a nationwide coalstrike in support of their demands for increased wages, long service leave and a 35-hour week. With the Cold War well underway, many on the right saw the strike as an attempted communist insurrection.
It took the Chifley Labor government just one day to rush through legislation, wholeheartedly supported by the Liberal Party, the National Emergency (Coal Strike) Act aimed at breaking the strike by freezing the union’s funds.
But the miners and other militant unions were one step ahead. They had withdrawn their funds from the banks and placed them beyond reach of the authorities. For refusing to reveal the funds’ whereabouts, a number of officials were sentenced to jail terms of up to 12 months. Included among them were Maurie Fitzgibbon, secretary of the southern district miners and Roach, assistant general secretary of the wharfies.
During the seven-week strike some 500,000 miners were thrown out of work. Many industries came to a standstill and electricity supply and transport were reduced. The strike came to an end when Chifley sent in troops to work open-cut mines.
In the December 1949 federal election Robert Menzies announced that if returned to government, the Liberal-Country Party coalition would declare the Communist Party subversive and unlawful and be dissolved.
After winning the election, a Dissolution Bill was introduced four months later. When it was declared unconstitutional by the High Court, Menzies took the issue to a referendum in September 1951.
Thanks to a tireless grassroots campaign, the referendum was defeated -- but not by much. Western Australia, Queensland and Tasmania voted yes: NSW, Victoria and South Australia voted no. The no vote won by a margin of just 52,082. The Communist Party’s preparations for going underground once more were clearly justified.
[By John Rainford and published in Green Left Weekly. Radical Wollongong will premiere in Wollongong on May 18, in Sydney on June 8, and in other cities and regional centres soon after - see screenings page for details.]
The idea for Radical Wollongong began in the mind of writer and longtime unionist/communist/ratbag John Rainford - at least a couple of years ago now.
John wrote an intriguing tale that went from the brutal and deadly early coal mining days, through the formation of unions and early radical organisations like the International Workers of the World and the Communist Party, the Depression, to the famed Dalfram battle between the community and 'Pig Iron Bob' Menzies, to wars and anti-war resistance, women battling what was then Australia's biggest company (BHP), and up to today's continuation of radicalism in struggles such as opposing Coal Seam Gas.
John showed his writing to Paul Benedek who had recently helped forge Green Left TV, a video-based arm of the newspaper Green Left Weekly. What Paul read was far from the writings of dull academia or stuffy historical treatise....instead this was action-packed, people-powered history that screamed out to be told....or better yet, shown. Paul was sold immediately, and thus began, in late 2012, the planning for the film. At the same time, Mel Barnes (who co-edits Green Left Weekly) and John began filming interviews with fascinating subjects (old communists, draft resisters, women who beat BHP and so on) that would form the backbone of Radical Wollongong.
However, while the initial story was fascinating, it would take months and months to boil it down to its essence (it began as 8000 words which would have filed a one hour film with narration alone!). The story had to be progressively edited down, rearranged, linked to the interviews with the interviews used to replace narrative, sections without key footage removed....in reality the writing continued right up to today, at least 15 months later, and it continues to be developed!
The next blog post(s) will look at how Radical Wollongong went from words on paper to where it is today - which is with almost all production (save one last day of visual shooting) complete, and the sound edit 95% complete.
From there, we will be trying to keep this blog updated, as a means of tracking progress with the film, and hopefully providing some useful ideas and lessons for anyone interested in either no-budget filmmaking, documentary production, political filmmaking, Wollongong's radical history, or just the journey into filmmaking for newcomers. And at the very least we can look back and remember the wild ride!