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Unions, War and Social Movements

Two momentous decisions by Australian trade unions in May 1965 and May 1966 helped galvanise opposition to the Vietnam War.

May 1970 demonstrations showed how those actions kickstarted mass opposition to war.

4th May 1965 The ACTU Executive declared that it was:

strongly opposed to the decision of the Federal Government to send a Battalion of Australian troops which can be used as a combat force in South Vietnam or anywhere else except in accordance with international obligations…

The BWIU demanded the total withdrawal of all foreign troops from Vietnam. The maritime unions took the most militant action. Approximately two and a half thousand waterside workers walked off the wharves in Melbourne to protest against Menzies’ decision to send troops. Later in May, Seamen’s Union of Australia (SUA) Melbourne branch members employed on tugboats boycotted an American warship and a submarine, thereby affecting docking processes. Five hundred seamen, waterside workers and ships’ painters also picketed the American embassy in Brisbane.

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The ACTU executive would not endorse industrial action against the war, but the maritime unions would not accept this position

11th May 1966

The Australian National Line (ANL) and the Dept of Shipping and Transport met with Elliot V Elliot and other SUA reps to see if they would crew the Boonaroo on a supply trip to South Vietnam. Elliot went to the union rank and file after first meeting with the union executive who recommended against crewing the ship. The rank and file agreed.

The ACTU tried to convene a meeting of all parties to get the SUA to crew the ship but the SUA refused to participate. The Commonwealth and the ACTU raised the spectre of the Crimes Act and the union was isolated. Under great pressure and duress the men agreed to crew the ship. The Commonwealth also then chartered the Jeparit to run weapons to Vietnam. This provoked great rage amongst seamen and other unions and eventually the ship sailed without weapons. The press attacked the SUA as being communist controlled and therefore disloyal ie supportive of the communists of North Vietnam against their own Australian troops.

The internationalism of the Seamen’s Union and the Waterside Workers Federation (WWF) was regarded as fifth column undermining of Australian patriotism.

The ongoing opposition of these unions was a base for ever increasing anti-war activities in Australia right through the 1960s and early1970s, culminating in withdrawal of all Australian involvement in the conflict.

May 18 1970 The biggest demonstration in Australia saw over 100,000 people take to the streets of Melbourne. The moratorium showed that union action and education could activate a huge cross section of people against great wrong.

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Peace was and is Union Business

for more see Tony Duras’ detailed article here

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