Forever Striking Trouble

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Oral Histories – Australia – The Great Depression – The Unemployed
Taken from “Forever Striking Trouble”

The Communist Party

Jocka Burns: How I come to join the Community Party was this. At the time when I carried a swag, I said I'd picked up my swag here over in 1926, I was only a boy, a child looking for work. How pitiful some of the women used to say on the track. A lot of the adventurous types were going to Mount Isa, we'd all jump the train to Cootamundra, Cootamundra had a gaol, you could only do a month there. And we'd go down to court and they'd sentence us for six days in there.

Lea Redfern: What did they sentence you for?

Jocka Burns: Trespassing on railway property. Stealing a ride on a freight train. But there was a little bloke in there named Apples and he was talking about communism, I'd never heard of it before, I'd never heard of communism. And he was so convincing, so convincing he was, we were over the city and joined the Communist Party, and that was my introduction to the Communist Party. I stayed in Paddington, got active in the unemployed movement over there, the UWM. You know still a lot of people thought communists ate babies then, you know frightened - some of them still do. "There's a red under the bed - let it out, let it out!
Lea Redfern: So who were the people in the 1930's who were engaging in radical activity?

Nadia Wheatley: The people were men, the people were women, the people were even children, they were young adults, they were old adults, they were Gallipoli veterans, they were diggers. Some of them were communists but only a very very small number of them were communists. The Communist Party at that time had a membership in New South Wales that could be counted as less than a thousand over the whole of the state, and at periods you would have up to 14-thousand members of the Unemployed Workers Movement in Sydney alone. So by no means were they card carrying members of the Communist Party. A lot of them were members of the ALP who were dissatisfied with the ALP politicians. They were good trade unionists, or they had been good trade unionists. They treated the Unemployed Workers Movement or its equivalent as a form of trade union. So they were ordinary battlers and I do stress that they included women as well as men.
Lea Redfern: Why do you stress that?

Nadia Wheatley: Well because even the Labor historians of that period tend to leave the women out of the account of the struggle, and certainly if you look at things such as the eviction battles of 1931 the names of the people arrested are male names, and to only pay attention to those arrested would be to deny the significance of what was going on. Because for say 10 minutes of bloody conflict, you would have had six weeks of organisation, and the women would have been at the forefront of that organisation in every way, whether preparing soup or being there in the house, or organising the picket lines. So the women were very actively involved in the struggle. And then you had also some women at the leadership. In 1931 a woman called Mrs. Etock, who's an Aboriginal woman was on the executive of the UWM, and at that time she wasn't a communist, she later joined the party, but at that time she was an ALP member and a member of the Labor Council.

CPA growth during the Great Depression

By John Percy

The Unemployed Workers Movement

The Unemployed Workers Movement was formed in April 1930, initiated by and under the leadership of the Communist Party. In around 18 months it had grown to 31,000 members and continued to grow until 1936. In 1934 it claimed around 68,000 members in the Eastern states. In 1935 CPA president Lance Sharkey told the Comintern that the CPA, through its control of the UWM, had effective control of the unemployed in NSW and Victoria.

The CPA recruited a large proportion of its new members through the UWM. As Ralph Gibson says in his book The People Stand Up, when he joined, the CPA "was largely a party of the unemployed. Its numbers were not just talking about poverty. They were among the multitude who were deep in it."

There were other organisations of the unemployed created by the Labor Party and Trades Hall Councils. But the UWM, primarily due to the leadership of the CPA, outstripped these organisations, both in size and in activity.

The UWM led struggles that contributed greatly to the militant tradition of the workers and the poor -- anti-eviction battles, fights to defend free speech, demonstrations, dole strikes and campaigns for relief works to provide jobs.

In NSW the CPA was involved in the hunger marches from the northern coalfields, Newcastle, the south coast and Lithgow to press the claims of the unemployed.

In Melbourne they led the heroic dole strike of the unemployed in 1933. The government introduced "work for the dole" in 1932. Ralph Gibson writes:

"`Work for the Dole' was something different from the `relief work' which at first consisted of two or three months' work for one of the Government departments and which, despite all its bad features, was paid in wages, and was partly an answer to the dire need of the unemployed for something in addition to food and groceries, -- clothing especially. `Work for the Dole' was work for so many hours a week to `earn' the weekly voucher. It was part of the Government's `economy' drive (it could get work done for the dole for which it would otherwise have to pay wages), and it resulted also from a `moral' campaign in church and other circles about the evils of getting sustenance without working."

In June 1933, when the unemployed in the inner city area were issued a work for the dole call-up, the CPA decided to initiate a strike. The UWM conducted an 8-week strike of the unemployed which forced an increase in dole payments from 12 shillings to 20 shillings weekly for a married man. Intense organising throughout the city to win support for the strikers and collect food and money for their families ensured success. A second dole strike in 1935 forced rates up a second time.

During the depression, many unemployed workers chose jail as an alternative. At least they got a roof over their heads and a feed. But sometimes it was more organised, a tactic to keep the prisons full to embarrass the authorities. Edgar Ross, in his book Of Storm and Struggle, recalls the use of this tactic in Broken Hill. "The tactic of `Breaking into Gaol' was part of a sustained campaign directed at forcing the rescission of arduous restrictions on the dole imposed by the anti-Labor Bavin government in NSW."


  1. Using the sources and your own ideas, what were some of the reasons why people became involved in radical movements during the Depression?

  1. Identify some similarities and differences in opinion about the membership of the Communist Party in Australia in these two sources

  1. Why do you think there are these differences?

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