By Iain McIntyre
On Friday 8 December 1962 the Victorian Trades Hall Council’s Disputes Committee placed a complete ban on the export of beer from Victoria. This led to an immediate shortage in NSW towns bordering the state and left more than 10,000 cartons of beer sitting on docks and in warehouses. The action not only provided crucial support for brewery workers in their fight for improved wages but also marked a new step in the long running fight against the federal government’s anti-union ‘penal powers’.
Originally introduced by the ALP in 1949 to break that year’s coal strike, anti-union legislation was deepened by the conservative Menzies government during the 1950s. Australia’s arbitration courts had long been responsible for setting standards in various industries and regularly intervened in industrial disputes. Post-war penal powers expanded their ability to effectively ban strikes through the levying of huge fines on unions, officials, and individual members. It also enabled them to jail union representatives.
Although the penal powers had a chilling effect on most union leaderships, militants challenged their use, albeit at a major cost to their finances. One dispute that illustrated how the powers could be confronted arose in 1962 when the Council of Brewery Unions in Victoria took on both Carlton United Breweries (CUB) and the Arbitration Commission.
Having recently taken over one of its few remaining competitors, the Richmond Brewery, CUB dominated the Victorian industry. Combined with increased automation, which enabled the company to slash its workforce while doubling production, this had increased its profits by around 25 per cent in the previous financial year. Demanding a greater share for employees the Council of Brewery Unions put in an ambit claim in February 1962 which included an extra two pounds a week in wages, an added week’s leave per year, and the introduction of the 35 hour working week.
This was immediately rejected by the company. Their refusal to negotiate, and a demand that employees work up to 30 hours overtime a week in the run up to Christmas, led to the holding of a stop work meeting of 1500 workers in May. CUB turned to the Arbitration Commission, which prohibited the unions involved from undertaking any form of industrial action. The workers met this with a ban on working more than 8 hours overtime. When the commission fined the union £200 plus costs, they stopped work to march on the court.
A series of further stop works and fines followed. Concerned at developments the federal executive of the Liquor Trades Union (LTU) attempted to force its state branch to end the dispute. This was strongly rejected, both by the dispute’s steering committee, led by Victorian LTU official and CPA member Jim Munro, and the union’s membership. Instead bans were soon expanded to include night-time shifts, and a voluntary levy set up to cover rapidly escalating fines. For its part CUB ran full page newspaper advertisements attacking the unions while cutting off free beer for employees and applying to remove Christmas bonuses from their awards.
The deadlock was eventually broken via a further expansion of bans to cover weekend work, as well as by the December intercession of transport workers, which brought the number of unions involved to 20. With shortages mounting, the brewery unions put the onus back on CUB, claiming that thanks to the export bans there was now plenty of beer available for Victorian consumers.
The widening of the dispute eventually brought the company to heel and, with assistance from the Arbitration Court, it cut a deal just before Christmas which provided brewery workers with a major increase in pay and improved overtime. The company also withdrew contempt of court proceedings against the unions. The fines remained in place however and the need to confront penal powers would continue until a general strike in 1969, over the jailing of tramway’s union leader Clarrie O’Shea, rendered them unenforceable.
Iain McIntyre is a Naarm/Melbourne based historian and community radio broadcaster who has written and edited a variety of books about political activism, music, literature and (un)popular culture. This is an excerpt from Knocking The Top Off: A People’s History of Alcohol in Australia, which he has edited with Alex Ettling. Published by Interventions, the book features 67 chapters from contributors such as Wendy Bacon, Maggie Brady, Rowan Cahill, Bruce Carter, Carol Corless, Gary Foley, Alison Holland, Terry Irving, Phoebe Kelloway, Diane Kirkby, Tanja Luckins, Hamish Maxwell-Stewart, Chris McConville, Lisa Milner, David Nichols, Michael Quinlan, Jeff Sparrow, Janey Stone and Graham Willett. Click here for more details.
Melbourne Book Launch:
Knocking The Top Off: A People’s History of Alcohol in Australia
4pm, Saturday 9 December 2023
John Curtin Hotel, 29 Lygon Street Carlton
Speakers: Gary Foley, Clare Wright, Jeff Sparrow and Iain McIntyre
Exploring the who, what, where and why of intoxication, Knocking The Top Off delivers an incisive alternative history of Australia. Through short expositions and deep dives into incidents, periods, groups and individuals, this collection looks at developments in Australian history from the vantage point of workers and marginalised communities, the exploited and oppressed.
Available to pre-order now: https://checkout.square.site/buy/6HPP7Y3BETM4G45T254OOP2N
More details about the book: https://interventions.org.au/books/26?back=books
Book your free ticket: https://www.trybooking.com/CLSRC
Facebook event page: https://fb.me/e/1uAJ7ke1j