When Wollongong's communists fought for free speech
When Wollongong's communists fought for free speech

Wollongong in the Great Depression was a microcosm of the class battles playing out across the country. A radicalising working class and mass movement of the unemployed led by the Communist Party was beginning to fight back against the worst deprivations of the bosses’ offensive. Labor Party activists formed “socialisation units” to consider the task of dismantling capitalism, branches of which spread like wildfire across the Illawarra. And a layer of conservative shopkeepers, middle managers, military officers and city councillors formed the fascist New Guard, stoked by fears of a Bolshevik threat and horror at the intransigence of the incoming state Labor government of Jack Lang. 

Amid this tumultuous political polarisation, an emerging current of unemployed and working-class activists needed to fight for basic civil liberties—the right to assemble and to protest. They formed a free speech committee, established by the Trades and Labour Council and mobilised working-class and unemployed activists in confrontational rallies, which resulted in fines, court appearances, jailings and fascist intimidation. 

It all started in November 1929, when the Wollongong Municipal Council banned the Wollongong trade unions’ twelfth anniversary celebration of the Russian revolution. Mayor W.L. Howarth, who would be dubbed by unionists “the Mussolini of the South Coast”, refused either a street procession or a picnic and speeches in Stuart Park on the grounds that he was “opposed to any introduction of the Russian revolution in Wollongong”. 

This act of political repression won the backing of the secretary of the local RSL club, who wrote to the Illawarra Mercury to thank the mayor for “preventing what might have been a dangerous precedent”. The RSL secretary knew something about dangerous precedents—a year later, the club hosted the founding meeting of the Wollongong New Guard, an organisation modelled on the Italian fascist Brownshirts, whose first political acts included breaking up free speech rallies by singing “God save the King” and throwing rotten tomatoes and punches. 

In the summer of 1929, workers from the Illawarra coal mines were following the struggle of their northern New South Wales counterparts with intense class anger. The northern coal workers were locked out by their bosses for fifteen months in an attempt to starve them into accepting pay cuts. The coalminers had campaigned hard for the re-election of a Labor federal government, which had promised that its first order of business would be to reopen the coal mines and re-employ its 10,000 unionists without wage cutting. Labor was elected in October and immediately betrayed its promises. The following month, 4,000 miners marched on Rothbury in the Hunter and faced a savage police mobilisation that fired on the picketers, injuring dozens and killing miner Norman Brown. 

In January 1930, activists were raising money for the desperate, locked-out miners abandoned by Labor and beaten by police. In Wollongong, the Kurri Kurri pipe band planned a procession to collect funds for the northern miners. The union bands’ request to march down Crown Street was rejected by the council. The unionists decided to defy the ban. The Kurri Kurri band marched and the police responded by pressing charges against its leaders. 

This was an enormous tactical error by the conservatives on the council. The suppression of protest until then had been sporadically applied to communists and the unemployed. With mass unemployment and the establishment of itinerant workers’ camps on the edges of the newly opened Port Kembla iron and steelworks, the council was largely preoccupied with suppressing the organisation of the unemployed and keeping them out of the city. Mayor Howarth declared that all requests for the unemployed to hold street meetings would be “absolutely refused”. Now, he had made a powerful enemy: the organised working class. The mayor’s intransigence united the unionists in the mines alongside the radical Unemployed Workers Movement (UWM) led by the Communist Party.

The communist-led militant minority movement had been agitating for a general strike of coalminers across the state. The militant minority included rank-and-file Communist Party members and their sympathisers, and any unionist who rejected the failure of arbitration and the conservatism of union officials in favour of a class war perspective. They could not yet defeat the Miners’ Federation officials, who refused to turn the northern lockout into a statewide strike, but their agitation meant that the Illawarra working class knew the stakes involved in the lockout and were outraged by the mayor suppressing their act of solidarity. 

Fred Lowden, southern president of the Miners’ Federation, warned that “the gloves would be off” if the council prosecuted the miners’ band. The Trades and Labour Council set up a free speech committee, which organised soap-boxing every Friday on the corner of Crown and Church streets in the heart of the city. They railed against the paying of fines and committed to fighting for free speech in the streets as the only strategy to pressure the courts. Soap box orators could expect to be thrown in the local lock-up.

“The unemployed may as well talk to the public from the top of Mount Kembla as from the back paddock suggested by the mayor”, argued a Mr McDonald, chair of a free speech meeting in July 1930. “It is our opinion to which the mayor objects, and regardless of his attitude we will continue to voice our opinions until this social system is abolished and another takes its place.” 

Communist Party activists of the UWM urged people “not to bow to the dictates of the capitalist apologists in the Wollongong council”. The UWM provided a core of activists to the free speech movement. Over time, this transformed the free speech fight from a top-down struggle largely under the control of the Trades and Labour Council into a bottom-up struggle with a readily identifiable rank-and-file leadership. By 1932, these activists were so well known that the cops no longer bothered to take fingerprints when they were routinely arrested. 

Many of the unemployed communist activists had a distinguished record in sedition. Ernest Briemle, a Swiss-born Wollongong wharfie, had been convicted under the War Precautions Act in 1915. The radical activists knew well how to turn a court case into a public spectacle, using trials as opportunities to expose the hypocrisy and political suppression being supported by the courts. “Comrade Hitchen, who defended his own case, accepted the challenge, and fought the issue on the basis of ‘class against class’ by proving that the Wollongong Municipal Council refused to grant permits to working-class organisations for the purpose of conducting meetings”, reported the Communist Party paper Workers’ Weekly

Activists today are once again fighting in New South Wales for the right to protest, with the Berejiklian government cynically using health orders to break up protests. In the 1930s, health inspector Harvey Gale was the key state bureaucrat used to justify the suppression of demonstrations in Wollongong. So regular was the collaboration between the inspector and the police that the Sydney Morning Herald mistakenly identified him as “Detective Inspector Gale”. 

Mayor Howarth wanted to keep the unemployed workers’ camps on the fringe of the city. He was beginning to advocate an embargo on internal migration to the Illawarra to keep unemployed workers out and to kick out itinerant troublemakers. The intervention of the Illawarra coalminers and growing support from workers at the Port Kembla steelworks ensured that the unemployed were not isolated and defeated. Indeed, many of the UWM activists went on to build militant minority currents in the coalmines when work picked up again. 

The right to protest was no abstract issue. The struggle for free speech was bound up with the struggle for housing provision, against dole victimisation and to defend union conditions in the mines and to establish them at the steelworks. With the emergence of the fascist New Guard in Wollongong in 1931, unemployed demonstrations became somewhat violent affairs that almost always descended into scuffles between the left and the right. The New Guard was made up of “respectable” businesspeople, shopkeepers, learned men, doctors and managerial clerks from the steelworks. 

Typical of this layer was Dr N.E. Kirkwood, grandson of a pastoralist mine owner, president of the RSL club and later the Rotary Club of Wollongong. Or J.P. Caddy, general manager of the Port Kembla Steel and Ironworks and local Boy Scouts master. These distinguished men had the fear of god put in them by the working-class militancy in Wollongong, and it led them to fantasise about a fascist movement that could clean the streets of the unemployed and the communists, and get rid of Lang. 

In this context, the UWM formed the Workers Defence League to coordinate protection at left-wing demonstrations. They were elected from among the unemployed and encouraged self-defence at street meetings. At one demonstration, women who walked into the city from Port Kembla were asked to wear “high heeled shoes with an iron tip or carry a long knitting needle or hat pins” for self-defence against fascist Boy Scout leaders. 

The defence wasn’t unwarranted—the New Guard attacked Communist Party federal election candidate Lawrence Sharkey at an outdoor meeting in Wollongong. Public mobilisations and militant resistance pushed back the New Guard, the following of which soon evaporated in Wollongong. Individual New Guard members found their tyres slashed, their petrol tanks full of sugar and their families socially ostracised if they lived in working-class areas.

At a time when mass unemployment encouraged bosses to pit the unemployed against workers to undermine wages, the free speech movement in Wollongong forged unity between the unemployed and trade unionists. The experienced activists of the free speech and unemployment struggles created a layer of rank-and-file leaders who went on to rebuild militancy in unions, which in 1929 had been smashed. 

There were many limitations to the politics of the Stalinist Communist Party at the time. It displayed extreme sectarianism in the early 1930s—denouncing Labor leftists as “social fascists” just as a layer of Wollongong workers were becoming disillusioned with Lang—only to turn sharply to the right as the war approached. But activists today can learn a lot from the militancy of a movement that defied the courts, the cops and the fascists to win free speech through class struggle.


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