The Australian Workers Union leadership became an entrenched force defending racism in the trade union movement. Throughout the 1920s they induced successive AWU conventions to oppose all migration and they even persuaded a couple of conventions to carry resolutions against the «southern European menace».
The Queensland AWU even attempted to prevent Italians and Maltese joining the union, and joined the extraordinary and unpleasant racist mobilisation against Italian and Maltese cane farmers and farm workers in North Queensland. North Queensland had also, however, a tradition of industrial militancy and the Communist Party grew rapidly in the late 1920s and the early 1930s in North Queensland.
The North Queensland communists, who were initially mostly Anglo-Celtic indigenous North Queensland militant workers, took a strong stand right from the commencement of their independent political activity, against the prevailing North Queensland racism. In the middle 1930s they led major industrial struggles, particularly the very effective strike in favour of burning the cane to prevent Weils disease, led by the notable communist militant Jim Henderson.
This struggle, despite the bitter opposition of the AWU leadership, was spectacularly successful, and Henderson and the other North Queensland communists were able to draw the Italian and Maltese cane cutters and cane farmers into the struggle, thereby largely defeating and pushing aside the racism.
Many North Queensland Italians and Maltese joined the Communist Party, and by the time the Communist Party was declared illegal in 1940, its influence in North Queensland was enormous, including a very considerable influence among the Italians, Maltese and Spanish immigrant farmers and workers. Fred Paterson, the Rhodes Scholar Communist, who was elected as the only Communist member of Parliament ever in Australia, for the seat of Bowen in the 1940s, got an enormous vote amongst the Italian, Maltese and Spanish migrants in the area.
All these developments in North Queensland are described in detail in Dianne Menghetti's excellent book, «The Red North». (It is one of the wonderful ironies of trade union history that in 1997 a bitterly fought election took place in the Australian Workers Union. Two teams were in conflict, one a coalition of some right-wingers and some left-wingers, and the other one the traditional leadership of the Queensland AWU. The left-right combination defeated the Queensland group, and even got 46 per cent of the vote in the large Queensland AWU branch.
The successful candidates of this team were Graham Roberts for President, a left-winger from Port Kembla, and a right winger, Terry Muscat, for AWU General Secretary, who also happens to be a Maltese from Melbourne. The Queensland AWU has come a long way in 60 years!)
Most of the 1920s and all the 1930s were a period of mass unemployment, and the labour movement tended to oppose all migration throughout the period. Also, the conditions of mass unemployment and some bitterly fought strikes at the onset of the Depression created an environment in which the use of some migrants as scabs in industrial disputes led to an explosion of chauvinism.
The most unfortunate examples of this were the waterfront strike in Melbourne, in which Italians were taken straight off the ship, so to speak, and used as scabs. This gave rise to many ugly incidents. There were also extensive race riots on the Western Australian gold fields in the early 1930s, directed at Yugoslavs and Italians.
During the race riots in Kalgoorlie the Communist Party played a heroic role, attempting to combat the outbreak of chauvinism directed at the Italian and Yugoslav miners, who were accused of competing with Australians for a declining number of jobs. This vigorous defence of migrant miners by the Communist Party led many Yugoslav and Italian migrants to support the Communist Party for quite a period afterwards.
Another feature of the 1920s and the 1930s in the labour movement was a certain amount of thoughtless anti-semitism. The notorious architect of the Premiers' Plan sent out by the Bank of England to put Australia «under orders», so to speak, was one Otto Niemeyer.
He was actually descended from Prussian bankers, «pure» Germans, who had come over to Britain with the «German Georges», who became kings of England. Nevertheless, the persistent urban myth grew up that he was Jewish, and this gave rise to a long lived and widespread popular propaganda about «Jewish bankers» which, unfortunately, became mixed up with the completely righteous opposition, in the labour movement, led by J.T. Lang, to the «Premiers' Plan».
This was particularly pronounced in Catholic circles, where the mild anti-semitism of G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc, which was mixed with their anti-capitalist radicalism, had considerable influence. In the late 1930s, when Jewish refugees from Hitler began to knock on the Australian door, so to speak, the labour movement confusion between Jewishness and capitalist banking, gave rise to a certain unfortunate resistance to Jewish migration in some labour movement circles.
This is all documented in «Australia and the Jewish Refugees 19331948», by Michael Blakeney. Once again, a significant part of the left, particularly the Communist Party, were a notable and honourable exception to this anti-Semitism, and defended the right of the Jewish refugees to enter Australia. An example of this agitation was a couple of excellent Communist Party pamphlets by Len Fox debunking anti-semitism and defending the right of Jews to come here.
Julia Martinez, of Wollongong University, has been doing her PhD on the above topic. She published a most informative article, a preliminary part of her thesis, in «Labour History» magazine for May 1999. The picture that emerges from Martinez's pioneering research underlines the social dynamics in both Australian society and the labour movement, in the very special but culturally significant circumstances of the Northern Territory, that eventually undermined «White Australia» on an Australian national scale. Martinez's investigation shows the evolution of trade union and labour movement attitudes in the Northern Territory.
In 1901, when White Australia was adopted, Port Darwin, the main town in the Territory, had a small population of mixed origins and initially the White Australia Policy was supported by the trade union movement.
However, special objective circumstances prevailed because the workforce was actually of very mixed racial origins, including many people of mixed white, Asian, and Aboriginal origin and many non-British European migrants. BritishAustralian racism was, in practice, very hard to enforce in the frontier conditions of the Northern Territory.
The tiny trade union movement paid strong verbal allegiance to the White Australia Policy, but even at the start a number of exceptions were made for people of mixed racial origins, both for practical reasons and for the more ethical reasons of basic human solidarity. Martinez describes a variety of arguments in the emerging Northern Territory trade union movement about these questions.
The 1911 census gave Darwin's population as 1387, including 442 Chinese, 374 Europeans, 247 «full-blood» Aboriginals, with the rest being Japanese, Filipino, «half-caste» Aboriginal and Timorese.
During the First World War there was a complicated industrial struggle by Darwin wharfies, which had the ugly side to it that the Department of Aboriginal Affairs attempted to use Aboriginal labour, compulsorily employed at slave rates, to undermine the interests of the unionised wharfies.
Another interesting feature of the Darwin waterfront was that most of the white wharfies were non-British migrants and were significant scapegoats for the mad BritishAustralia racism of the First World War period. Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) supporters in Darwin, who were quite numerous, attempted to organise all workers on an internationalist basis, but the endemic racism was more powerful at this period and non-racist internationalism remained a minority current, although it surfaced from time to time.
In one strike of white wharfies the leader of the strike said that their only friends were the Chinese and in another strike, the Japanese Pearl Divers Association, who were not allowed to join the North Australian Workers Union because of White Australia, gave money to the union in support.
In the 1930s things began to change quite rapidly. The two sources of civilised changes in relation to racism, were the two significant recurrent forces in the Australian labour movement, the socialist stream expressed in the Communist Party, pushed on by the Comintern's anti-racist policy, and the Catholic current.
To quote Martinez about Darwin in 1937:
If we look some 20 years ahead, to 1937, the social make-up of Darwin has altered and the unionists have formed themselves into a working-class community with close ties to the coloured population. This next section, considers the character of Darwin society in 1937 and three positive influences on Darwin unionism which had a tempering effect on White Australia. Those were the growing influence of communist internationalism; closer connections with Asian labour movements; and most importantly, a sense of community which included «coloured» workers.