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Derailing the death machine

This article is over 18 years, 10 months old
Across Britain people are planning protests, including walkouts, if war starts. They can take heart from these examples of when workers struck against war
Issue 1842

DURING THE Vietnam War in the 1960s and 1970s thousands of trade unionists in Australia showed how workers can halt the war machine. The right wing Australian government backed the US intervention in Vietnam. It sent military advisors to Vietnam in 1962 and conscripted 20 percent of Australia’s 20 year old men.

The most radical sections of the Australian working class led the opposition to war. When the government agreed to send troops to Vietnam in 1965, 2,500 dock workers walked out in Melbourne. In May tugboat workers boycotted a US warship in Melbourne. Around 500 seafarers, waterside workers and ships’ painters picketed the US embassy in Brisbane.

Workers in the SUA seafarers’ union refused to crew the Boonaroo ship bound with food for Australian troops in Vietnam in May 1966. Despite their opposition to war other trade unions were unwilling to support the seafarers’ ‘political’ stand. The isolation meant that they agreed to crew the ship but only ‘with great reluctance and under protest’.

Members of the crew and other workers delayed the ship’s departure for three hours by staging an anti-war demonstration. They draped banners over the ship’s railings reading ‘Boonaroo seamen oppose war in Vietnam’. In February 1967 the Boonaroo was instructed to take aircraft bombs and detonators to Vietnam. Seafarers refused to crew it and the government had to commission it as a Navy ship.

Meetings of the seafarers’ union on 8 March 1967 voted overwhelmingly against carrying any war materials to Vietnam. After police assaulted students protesting in Northland, members of the dockers’, and plumbers’ and gaslifters’ unions attended a solidarity rally.

Trade unions supported the anti-conscription Save Our Sons women’s organisation. When five women were sentenced to 14 days in prison for handing out anti-war leaflets, dock workers closed down the port of Melbourne for 24 hours. There were huge vigils outside the prison. The women were released after 11 days. Trade unions also led the movement in support of people who resisted the draft.

When Lou Christofides was jailed for refusing to register, the seafarers at Port Kembla deliberately slowed down ships. Then they and other trade unionists walked out for a day. Christofides was released early. Union official Laurie Carmichael and his wife Val were arrested for defending their son’s right to refuse the draft.

Some 500 workers from the docks and 700 meat workers in Williamstown struck to attend the demonstration outside their court hearing. The Rebel Unions in Victoria, which included around two-thirds of trade unionists in the state, said:

‘We encourage those young men already conscripted to refuse to accept orders against their conscience and those in Vietnam to lay down their arms in mutiny against the heinous barbarism perpetuated in our name.’

The high point in the struggle against Australia’s involvement in Vietnam was the national Moratorium marches of 18 May 1970. Around 200,000 people came out to march against the war around the country – 100,000 of those in Melbourne. The slogan of the Moratorium was ‘Stop work to stop the war’. Tens of thousands of trade unionists walked out to join the marches. Every branch of the seafarers’ union struck for the whole day.

‘The Moratoriums were the most important industrial actions,’ says Phil Griffiths, an Australian socialist. ‘They were huge demonstrations against the war, but they were also strikes. Between a half and two-thirds of people at the weekday rallies were workers. They drew everyone in. I was working at a conservative high school at the time of the second Moratorium in 1970. Around half the teachers struck.

‘That feeling fed into everything. In 1969 the government jailed a Communist Party union official for refusing to pay a fine for organising a strike. One million workers struck – in the middle of a war – and forced the government to release him and scrap the law against trade unions.’

The resistance to the war at home, and the failure of the US to defeat the Vietnamese, broke the back of the Tory government. The Labour Party was elected in 1972 for the first time in 23 years.

‘There is an enormous amount of feeling against war on Iraq,’ says Phil Griffiths. ‘John Howard, our right wing prime minister, supports the war. ‘We have had huge protests. Some of the unions are calling for strikes the day after war starts.’

Italian dockers will not load US weapons

ITALIAN TRADE unionists and anti-war activists are continuing their campaign against the movement of US military hardware from Italy to the Gulf. Activists began blocking trains carrying US weaponry three weeks ago. Members of Italy’s largest trade union, the CGIL, were central to the protests. People let off smoke bombs and air raid sirens or chained themselves to the tracks or to levers in signal boxes to stop the ‘death trains’.

The campaign began from anti-war train drivers telling activists what they were due to transport and protesters monitoring US bases. The main focus has been Camp Darby, near to Pisa in the north west of country. Some 50,000 protested outside the base last Saturday. The ‘trainstopping’ caused the US massive problems in moving their equipment around Italy. Now the attention has switched to the ports of Livorno and Genoa. Any hardware the US wants to move to the Gulf from Camp Darby will have to be shipped through these ports. In Livorno 1,000 union members and anti-war activists met two weeks ago.

Guido Abbadessa, the national secretary of the CGIL transport section, said to massive applause, ‘Dockers in Livorno and the rest of Italy will not load weapons of mass destruction. It’s not part of our tradition.’ Three Livorno dockers boarded a US ship in 1969 during the Vietnam War. They took down the US flag and replaced it with a Viet Cong one. When the US arrested the dockers the whole port threatened to go on indefinite strike. They were immediately released.

The leader of Livorno’s dockers today is the son of the man who led dockers during those protests. ‘There will be strikes in Livorno if the dockers are asked to move war material,’ Luciano Mulhalber, a member of the national executive of the Sin.Cobas trade union told Socialist Worker. ‘The US has made a deal with a private company with no trade union to transport the material. The unions are in close talks with each other about organising industrial action against the war. Even the moderate Catholic union is opposed to war. The largest union federation, the CGIL, is saying that if people strike against war it will support them. The metalworkers’ union, which is part of this federation, has a more radical position, saying the federation must call for strikes. The CGIL had organised a national demonstration for trade union rights for this Saturday. They have now added a call for peace to the slogans. If the bombs have started to drop by then it will become a huge march for peace.’

WORKERS IN this country have also gone on strike against war. In 1917, the British government wanted to help other military powers to smash the Bolshevik revolution in Russia.

The prime minister of the day, the Liberal Lloyd George (right), sent troops and supplies to right wing forces in Eastern Europe after the First World War. Poland invaded Russia in April 1920 with British and French backing. A ship called the Jolly George was awaiting a shipload of arms destined for Polish troops in London’s East End docks in May.

But the dockers refused to load the ship and stopped it sailing. Their union leader Ernest Bevin congratulated them. The railway workers union followed the dockers’ lead and called on its members to refuse to handle any munitions that were bound for Poland.

When Polish forces were driven back in August 1920, Lloyd George threatened to take large-scale military action. The Labour Party and the Trades Union Congress met and authorised the formation of a Council of Action. It had the power to call a general strike if British forces attacked Russia.

Huge anti-war demonstrations were held throughout Britain. Councils of Action sprang up everywhere. Lloyd George backed down.

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