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The 1949 Coal Strike, the Repercussions and how it Affected the

Working Class and Government Relations


Lauren Stephenson 18472320

Figure 1.
Cartoon pictured in newspaper depicting
miners solidarity

The Australian coal strike of 1949 occurred government and corporation control. The

in the state of New South Wales (NSW) and miners were seeking better conditions

began on the 27th of June. The coal strike within and outside of mines as they were

was called on by the Miner’s Federation overworked, underpaid and working in

calling for a reduction in the working week horrible conditions that would reduce a

from 40 hours to 35 hours, introduction of mans lifespan. The miners declared strike

long service leave, increase in wages to 30 on the 27th June 1949 and it lasted for 7

shillings per week and pit amenities. The weeks until the 15th August when they were

coal strike of NSW was one of many finally defeated. The miners were in

rebellions against government and power of continual talks over their terms and

the early 20th century. Miners everywhere agreements of returning to work, but these

around Australia were suffering under terms were never fully met or were met in
obscene conditions. The working class man the Miners’ Federation declared strike of

in history, has shown to always be put last. coal mines around NSW. 23,000 miners

Coalminers were tired of the treatment they went on strike between 27th June and 15th

were receiving and and working in the August. Before the defeat it was clear that

conditions they were in. How events before, miners had problems and they wanted them

during and after the strike affected relations dealt with as soon as possible. The

between the working class and the arbitration courts were not helping so

government is detailed more throughly in coalminers believed striking was their last

this essay. option that would make the government and

big business listen. As shown in figure 2iii,

miners are shown to be voting in the


The Coal Strike and its
Sydney Domain on 10th July 1949, where
Beginnings the miners regularly came together to

Before the 1949 coal strike, coalminers discuss the strike and news about

were experiencing a time of hardships. In negotiations and conditions. It is clear in the

1937, a shaft at the Wonthaggi State Coal picture that the Federation had a lot of

Mine in Victoria, exploded resulting in 12 support behind its declaration to strike.

deaths. The explosion was clear, the shaft Unity of unions during this time was

had been over worked and was falling

apart.i In 1948, a year before the NSW coal

strike, Queensland railway workers

declared strike in a bid to have their weekly


ii
wages increased. These events led a

pathway for the coalminers to start a strike.


Figure 2.
A year after the Queensland Railway Strike, Coal miners voting in Sydney
important and this picture shows that was never intended by the owners, the Coal

coalminers were sticking together through Board and the Government that they should

the difficult times that lay ahead. The fight succeed” vi . This failure to agree to terms

of the strike is said by Ross as “a fight with not only the long-service leave

between the working-class and Australian scheme, but with the other terms created the

Monopoly Capitalism”iv . Big business and breakdown and resulted in the strike that

the Australian Labor Party (ALP) were not took place no more than a month later.

willing to agree the the terms put forth by Other breakdowns such as pit amenities or

the Federation. the working conditions of the pits were to

be improved with the new production target

being increased to 13,000,000 tons or

The Breakdown of between 275,000 tons a week. vii The Coal Boards

new policy was “more production, before


the Coalminers, the Labour
improvements”, created a division between
Government and Coal Owners the miners and the board and the owners.

Talks had been going on since May 19, a The Federation rejected this new policy as

month before the strike started. Talks were “amenities and improved working

between the Miners Federation, coal conditions must be implemented in order to

owners, the Coal Board, the Federal and ensure maximum production”viii. The Coal

State governments, negotiating the long Board and the coal owners expected

service leave under a work 7 years to increased production in the mines without

receive 3 months leave which had been improving the conditions of the miners.

lodged by the Tribunal in February 1948.v Production levels were increased to an all

These terms were approved but as stated by time high and miners were pushed to the

Ross, “the negotiations failed because it edge of their working capability.


Failed Negotiations The Governments Agenda

Negotiations didn’t go as planned. Talks The government also had an agenda. The

and discussions between miners, coal mine government stripped the miners of basic

owners, the Joint Coal Board, and the Coal needs. “On June 29, the Commonwealth

Industry Tribunal led to the owners coming Parliament passed through all stages a

to the rejection of the conditions that the National Emergency (Coal Strike) Act

Federation put forth. The 35-hour work which prohibited the payment, or the

week was rejected, long-service leave was receipt, of money or other benefits for the

made conditional but on obscene purpose of continuing the strike”x. This act

exceptions, no change to pit and town in turn resulted in ‘starving’ the miners

amenities. Instead of just rejecting the pay families. For 2 months, miners received no

rise outright, the owners suggested benefits from the government and were

incentive payments in place of an actual required to make do with what they had. As

weekly pay rise and added that they wanted stated by Deery, “never before had striking

the elimination of compulsory retirement workers experienced to such extent the full

age of 60 years. ix The conditions were weight of State repression from a

neither met nor altered in a way that would government to which they owed political

accommodate the miners. The end of the allegiance”xi. As shown in figure 3xii, it was

strike came as a surprise as the Federation clear to Ross and the Australasian Coal

didn’t agree or take any conditions in the Shale Employee’s Federation that the

end, it was a matter of just giving up and government didn’t want to listen or

returning to work. acknowledge the conditions in which the

miners had put forth. The figure shows that


the ‘voice of labor’ see’s the miners as a union activities by the use of police,

problem. military…”xiii, the ALP wanted more than

to stop the strike, they wanted to repress and

cut down union organisation because they

knew instances like these would have

detrimental affects on the country but also

selfishly on their stance in government.

The use of the army was declared on the

27th July that if miners did not return to

work by the 1st of August, then the military

would be brought in to work the open cut


Figure 3.
Miners just demands ripped by mines. This created a great rift between the
government officials.

ALP and the Federation.

Figure 3 demonstrates how the miners and

how Australians viewed the government


No End to the Negotiations

during the strike. It is clear that bystanders and Use of Propaganda


saw the government as acting cruel and
Propaganda from the ALP continued with
careless towards the miners. The image
clippings in newspapers such as featured in
demonstrates how powerful the
figure 4. xiv This drawing shows how the
government can be and that the Labor Party
government believed Communists were
was no longer a supported of labour unions
controlling the strike and the coal. The
and groups. The ALP also decided it was
party was fearful of Communism and the
best to bring in the army. “Highly
impact it might have upon the Australian
authoritarian unitarism involves state action
mining industry. Propaganda such as this
to repress union organisation or particular
put fear into the viewer and created a fear
of Communism infiltrating the country. The reasons as to why the the government didn’t

government saw the coalminers as agree to the conditions, one of them being

Communist because they demanded better the fact that is “long-service leave were to

conditions and better pay, but in fact this is be introduced…employees in other

not necessarily a Communist view, but a industries would inevitable seek similar

view of human rights. If the Labor Party treatment” xv and also the fact that it has

would not negotiate with the strikers then ‘technical difficulties’. Long-service leave

the strikers would not negotiate with the would result in employee drifting,

party, and it is believed that this act of bring manpower shortage and the biggest

in the army cost the Labor Party its election problem, being able to finance the

later in the year. As stated by Lee, he scheme.xvi

suggests that there were some major

Continual Use of Propaganda

and the Repercussions at the

end of the Strike

Repercussions for the ALP were disastrous.

Due to the governments ill-attempt at trying

to end the strike in a respectful manner, the

government did not intervene and

essentially cost Australia a loss of

£140,000,000 through the stopping of coal

production. The government spent £24,000

Figure 4.
Propaganda done by Bulletin newspaper
presenting strikers as angry Communists
alone on just advertisements, just guilt and

harass the miners.xvii Advertisements such

as this is depicted in figure 5xviii were used

as propaganda. An advertisement that was

authorised by the Prime Minister at the

time, Ben Chifley, to create a guilt around

miners leaving Australia in turmoil by

siding with Communists. The government

were seeking a way to get miners to return

to a more civil negotiation of arbitration.

Figure 5 demonstrates how fearful the


Figure 5.
Australian government were of succumbing Propaganda approved by Ben Chiefly (PM)
urging miners to return to arbitration
to Communist ideals and used

arbitration as their way to guide miners

back in. As stated by Sheldon and The Failed Arbitration

Thornthwaite, “compulsory arbitration Scheme


became the dominant form of labour market
The arbitrary system was not appealing to
regulation for much of that century
the working class as it set rules and
[20th]” xix and was introduced in NSW as a
regulations that were obscene. As stated by
“Industrial Arbitration Court in 1901” xx .
Sheldon and Thornthwaite, “industrial
This propaganda add that was placed in The
relation, particularly unions and strikes, and
Age didn’t influence the miners at all.
how these shaped and were shaped by the

arbitral system” xxi . The system that was

supposed to be the mediator between

employer and employees was not working,


and that is why propaganda such as in figure fires and floods on the Maitland coal field)

5, didn’t appeal to the struggling coalminers and stability the coal industry”xxiii.

and created a repercussion for the federal

level of government. Repercussions for the Conclusion of the Strike and


miners were harsh. Miners returned to work
the Aftermath
without agreeing to any terms, but returning
The coal strike shed a light on the
on the basis of defeat. The long-service
importance to strike and how important it
leave condition was accepted but under
was that a government that was in charge,
harsh exceptions. A miner was able to
supported the middle men, the working
accrue leave by a rate of one-eighth of 1
class. The working class of Australia during
shift for each 5 consecutive shifts. After
the peak of the coal production were
working 65 shifts, long service leave of 13

weeks was granted, along with another 65

shifts resulted in another 13 weeks leave.

Even with these terms, miners were not

aloud to take their leave until January 1st

1954.xxii Problems continued as the miners

went back to work. Due to the fact that the

miners returned to work without agreeing to

terms and conditions, resulting in a lag in

conditions being met. Problems of

“maintaining and increasing the industrial

labour force, reclaiming wasted coal

resources (with almost daily occurrences of Figure 6.


Poster that was produced to support coal
miners

extremely important. Australia relied on

these people to produce and work hard to

make Australia a thriving country, without

the help of the government and big business

that control the production of products, the

working class cannot keep up with demand.

The working class are the back bone of any

country, and it was clear in 1949 that the

government and other groups should have

had a hand in protecting their future and

livelihoods. As depicted in figure 6, posters

were created to spread awareness that the

coal miners needed the help and support of

ordinary Australians. As the caption states,

the coal miners worked to the bone to give

Australians what they needed. The 1949

coal strike affected a lot of people and

groups. Communism was finally flushed

out, the ALP eventually lost the election,

miners returned to work with the harsh

conditions that hadn’t changed or hadn’t

come to an agreement to change in the near

future. Coalminers were defeated with no

sight of any reward for their efforts in the

strike.
Bibliography

Primary sources:

Ross, Edgar and Australasian Coal Shale Employees’ Federation, Coal Front: An Account of

the 1949 Coal Strike and the Issues It Raised, (Sydney: Issued under the authorisation

of the Miners’ Federation, 1950)

‘Disaster at Wonthaggi Coal Pit’, The Canberra Times, 16 Feb.1937, 1, in Trove [online

database], accessed 11 Oct. 2018

‘Queensland Rail Workers on Strike’, The Canberra Times, 3 Feb. 1948, 1, in Trove [online

database], accessed 11 Oct. 2018

Secondary sources

‘Australia: Collapse of the Coal Mine’, The Round Table: The Commonwealth Journal of

International Affairs, 40/157-160 (1949), 81-86

Blake, Jack, ‘The 1949 Coal Strike’, Australian Left Review, 1/70 (1979), 12-18

Deery, Philip, ‘Chiefly, The Army and the Coal Strike’, Labour History, 68 (1995), 80-97

Lee, David, ‘The 1949 federal election: a reinterpretation’, Australian Journal of Political

Science, 29/3 (2007), 501-519

Sheldon, Peter and Thornwaite, Louise, ‘The State, Labour and the Writing of Australian

Labour History’, Labour History, 100/1 (2011), 83-104

Images

Figure 1: Miners Solidarity [image], (25 June 1949) <https://openresearch-

repository.anu.edu.au/handle/1885/9938>, accessed 22 Oct. 2018

Figure 2: Coalminers strike, 1949 [image], (10 July 1949) < https://openresearch-

repository.anu.edu.au/handle/1885/10251>, accessed 8 Oct. 2018


Figure 3: ‘The Voice of Labor’, 1950, in Edgar Ross and Australian Coal Shale and Employee’s

Federation, Coal Front: An Account of the 1949 Coal Strike and the Issues it Raised,

(Sydney: Issued under the authorisation from the Miners’ Federation, 1950), 103

Figure 4: Scorfield, Ted, Bulletin, 29 June 1949, 4, in Trove [online database], accessed 11

Oct. 2018

Figure 5: ‘Britain and the Dominions Face Crucial Problems in the Very Near Future’, Age, 11

July 1949, in National Archives of Australia [online database], accessed 28 September

2018

Figure 6: He Fights Dust…Danger…Death For You! Support Miners Claim for a New Deal

[image], (1949) <https://openresearch-repository.anu.edu.au/handle/1885/9946>,

accessed 22 Oct. 2018

Endnotes



i ‘Disaster at Wonthaggi Coal Pit’, The Canberra Times, 16 Feb. 1937, 1, in Trove [online database], accessed 11

Oct. 2018
ii ‘Queensland Rail Workers on Strike’, The Canberra Times, 3 Feb. 1948, 1, in Trove [online database],

accessed 11 Oct. 2018


iii Coalminers strike, 1949 [image], (10 July 1949) < https://openresearch-

repository.anu.edu.au/handle/1885/10251>, accessed 8 Oct. 2018.


iv Edgar Ross and Australasian Coal Shale Employees’ Federation, Coal Front: An Account of the 1949 Coal Strike

and the Issues It Raised, (Sydney: Issued under the authorisation of the Miners’ Federation, 1950), 2.
v Ibid, p. 15.
vi Ibid, p. 15.
vii Ibid, p. 15.
viii Ibid, p. 17
ix Jack Blake, ‘The 1949 Coal Strike’, Australian Left Review, 1/70 (1979), 12
x ‘Australia: Collapse of the Coal Mine’, The Round Table: The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs,

40/157-160 (1949), p. 82
xi Philip Deery, ‘Chiefly, The Army and the Coal Strike’, Labour History, 68 (1995), 93.
xii ‘The Voice of Labor’, 1950, in Edgar Ross and Australian Coal Shale and Employee’s Federation, Coal Front:

An Account of the 1949 Coal Strike and the Issues it Raised, (Sydney: Issued under the authorisation from the
Miners’ Federation, 1950), 103
xiii Sheldon and Thornthwaite, ‘The State, Labour and the Writing of Australian Labour History’, Labour History,

100/1 (2011), 90
xiv Ted Scorfield, Bulletin, 29 June 1949, 4, in Trove [online database], accessed 11 Oct. 2018

xv David Lee, ‘The 1949 federal election: a reinterpretation’, Australian Journal of Political Science, 29/3 (2007),

505
xvi Ibid, p. 505
xvii Edgar Ross and Australasian Coal Shale Employees’ Federation, Coal Front: An Account of the 1949 Coal

Strike and the Issues It Raised, (Sydney: Issued under the authorisation of the Miners’ Federation, 1950), 6.
xviii ‘Britain and the Dominions Face Crucial Problems in the Very Near Future’, The Age, 11 July 1949, in

National Archives of Australia [online database], accessed 28 September 2018.


xix Sheldon and Thornthwaite, ‘The State, Labour and the Writing of Australian Labour History’, Labour History,

100/1 (2011), 84
xx Ibid, p. 90
xxi Ibid, p. 84
xxii Edgar Ross and Australasian Coal Shale Employees’ Federation, Coal Front: An Account of the 1949 Coal

Strike and the Issues It Raised, (Sydney: Issued under the authorisation of the Miners’ Federation, 1950), 118-
119
xxiii Ibid, p. 121