The revolutionary socialist movement lost a great fighter on Saturday, 24 August.
Amber Maxwell lived a difficult life. As a transgender woman, she found it impossible to find permanent work or accommodation. But through all her hardship, she put everything she had into the fight for socialism. Amber seemed to have boundless energy and enthusiasm for politics. Every week she would catch the bus from the homeless youth hostel where she lived to the University of Western Australia to help us build the organisation, sell Red Flag, fight cuts to higher education and campaign for refugee rights.
Amber was always the one leading impromptu paper sales, organising extra chalking and postering for demonstrations, selling far more copies of Red Flag than anyone else on stalls. Even when she was in her most depressed state, she always told me that socialist activism and fighting for a better world was the one thing that made life worth living. Rarely have I met a comrade so determined and dedicated.
Amber took her own life at the age of 20, unable to deal with her oppression any longer. Her death should not be viewed as a random tragedy, but as a product of transphobia and a lack of essential services for young people. Suicide is an epidemic among LGBTI youth. Studies in Australia show the attempted suicide rate among LGBTI people is between 3.5 and 14 times that of their heterosexual counterparts. A survey in the USA found that 32 percent of transgender people interviewed had attempted suicide.
It’s not hard to see why. Amber faced discrimination at every turn. When applying for a room to rent, she was told several times that only “real girls” were wanted. One homelessness service hung up on her after informing her that they “only had room for females”. She was consistently rejected when she applied for jobs or apprenticeships. Even when she was able to find a hostel to live in, she suffered from demeaning paternalism, including a curfew which often made it difficult for her to come to political meetings at night.
Amber was killed by the system she despised so much. Her death is a tragic reminder that institutionalised homophobia and transphobia cost lives. As Amber herself wrote in issue 4 of Red Flag, “Life as a transgender or gender diverse person is often characterised by difficulty and discrimination. Family rejection, homelessness, depression, attempted suicide – these are a regular part of our existence.”
Amber was a well-known activist for equal marriage rights, a fighter against the discrimination that killed her. She chaired the Equal Love rallies with her typical fiery tone and could electrify crowds of hundreds with her anger. On every demonstration, Amber was the first on the megaphone and the last off.
In her spare time she fanatically researched Perth labour history. She wrote some wonderful articles, including the one published below on the 1910 tram strike. She would enthusiastically regale us with stories she’d read of unemployed workers’ protests, wildcat strikes and battles against the fascists.
She especially loved the songs of the Industrial Workers of the World, Australia’s first serious revolutionary organisation, and would bust out the anti-Labor Party classic “Bump Me Into Parliament” whenever the opportunity arose.
She had the most wonderfully irreverent attitude towards all authority and her political enemies; she never cared about offending anyone. Amber could always be relied on to give off-the-cuff speeches about police brutality the moment anyone was arrested on a demonstration, to give the fences at refugee detention centres a solid kick with her steel-capped boots or to start up a controversial chant on the megaphone. She was a true revolutionary.
You will be missed so much comrade. Rest in peace.
When workers put the brakes on Perth
Perth is often portrayed as a city with little interesting history. It may surprise some people to learn that Perth was once brought to an almost total standstill by a six and a half week tram strike, from July until September 1910.
An appeal to the arbitration court for a new award (setting out the wages and conditions of employment for all workers in the industry) had led to one with very loosely defined clauses. It allowed for the slashing of workers’ wages and conditions.
A new roster was issued for workers on split shifts that potentially put some on call for well over 14 hours a day. This was legal because the award specified the number of hours to be worked but not the number of hours “on duty”.
The award specified a new minimum wage, to which the Perth Tramways Company promptly lowered all workers’ wages. When the workers appealed, the presiding judge declared that he had “no business regulating industry”. Incensed, the workers voted to take action. One by one they stopped work and presented overtime claims to the company when they reached their specified maximum hours per fortnight. They even pulled in one freeloading scab who had up to that point refused to join the union.
For the duration of the strike there was, in effect, no tram service at all in Perth. At a time when most people did not have their own vehicles, this meant that the city was brought to a virtual standstill. Many shops did not open, and some of the larger department stores resorted to hiring private cars to ferry wealthy customers in and out. The tram company, unable to find many scabs, proceeded to board up trams inside the depot to prevent sabotage.
There was mass public support for the strike. The “Letters to the editor” section of the West Australian was full of letters urging people to boycott scab trams. The Westralian Worker (the paper of the Western Australia Labor Party) devoted considerable space to coverage of the strike.
Mass meetings were held on the Perth Esplanade and in places as far afield as Kalgoorlie; a lot of money was raised for the relief of the families of the striking workers. When the company attempted to train some scab drivers in August, a riot broke out, and the scabs were pelted with fruit and various other objects.
When the company was finally able to restore a limited service, police on horseback had to escort the trams up and down Hay Street to prevent hostile crowds from attacking them. The resumed service was also disrupted by sabotage, including the cutting of crucial power lines and the attempted demolition of the tram depot and line with dynamite.
For all this, however, the strike unfortunately ended in defeat. The workers were forced back to work on the conditions of the award that they had rejected at the start. The defeat almost broke the union. The leadership bowed out of the dispute and advised the men to make their own decisions about a return to work well over a week before they finally capitulated.
A large number of non-union workers were also now employed on the trams and were given seniority over the returning strikers. An attempt to begin a second strike a short time later in protest against this was quickly wound down.
Despite the defeat, the strike stands as an inspiring example of workers’ struggle. We can take from it important lessons of the need for rank and file organisation and the need for workers’ solidarity across industries.