The Port Kembla pig-iron boycott of 1938
Labour Boycotts vs imperialist sanctions
Published in Australasian Spartacist no 57, September 1978
The past decade has seen a proliferation of campaigns for economic boycotts of various sorts. Reformists and liberals have urged consumers to boycott South African sardines and diamonds; multinational corporations to boycott “racist” profits by divesting themselves of South African shareholdings; the United Nations and various “democratic” bourgeois governments to impose “no aid, no trade” or “cut all ties” with Chile, South Africa, Indonesia and a host of other repressive regimes. The ACTU has banned wheat to Chile, and union bans have protested against such regimes. During the 1930s, in response to the rise of Nazism in Germany and the imperialist rapes of Ethiopia and China by the Italian and Japanese imperialists, similar appeals were raised for consumer boycotts, trade-union bans and League of Nations sanctions.
Whether or not socialists support such boycotts depends in the first instance on who is using them for what aim and with what effects. Most recently, there has been an anti-communist outcry for a boycott of the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow, ostensibly as a means of securing “human rights” for Soviet dissidents, but in fact as part of an international imperialist offensive against the Soviet degenerated workers state which has nothing in common with the struggle for genuine workers democracy in the USSR. Obviously such a boycott would be thoroughly reactionary and unsupportable.
Similarly, we give no support to imperialist trade sanctions. Boycotts carried out by imperialist powers, or combines of imperialist powers like the League of Nations or the United Nations, are for the sole purpose of defending imperialist interests, interests ultimately defended through war. The working class does not take sides in inter-imperialist conflicts, in attempts to divide and redivide the world for markets and exploitation, even when, as they usually are, carried out under humanitarian guises like “combating” fascism, “making the world safe for democracy” etc. The Australian bourgeoisie is no more “progressive” than the Indonesian; British imperialism was no more “democratic” for its colonial subjects than Japanese — the oppressed millions of Africa, Malaya, India etc were clear about that. Earlier on the colonialist scene than Germany and Japan, British imperialism was therefore in a position not of carrying out conquests, but of defending those which it had carried out a century earlier.
However in conflicts which are not part of, or subordinated to, inter-imperialist rivalry — for example, the struggles against Italian imperialist aggression in Ethiopia and the Japanese rape of China, against the South African racist regime or the Chilean junta — revolutionary Marxists approach the question of boycotts from the standpoint of how the working class can render effective assistance to the oppressed through class-struggle actions. Total, indefinite trade boycotts aimed against repressive regimes from outside generally hurt the oppressed masses as well as the oppressors, and are at best impotent moral protests. An indefinite, total boycott of South Africa, even if such a thing could be effective without imperialist support, would do little more than increase unemployment and lower the already abysmal standard of living of the oppressed black masses. Trotskyists argued against such boycotts of Nazi Germany in the 1930s. However in the case of Ethiopia and China, total labour boycotts of Italy and Japan were aspects of a policy of military support to the anti-imperialist struggles being waged.
In opposition to the open-ended liberal-moralist campaigns advocated by reformists like the fake-Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and Communist Party (CPA), the Trotskyist Spartacist League (SL) has argued for well-organised labour boycotts focused around specific events and demands: trade-union bans on military shipments to Chile and South Africa; time-limited protest bans, as in the case of a series of protest bans by wharfies in Sydney and Melbourne last year over the South African regime’s murder of black militant Steve Biko, or the year before over the racist slaughter in Soweto.
From the period of the 1930s and the opposition to the Japanese colonial drive the Port Kembla pig-iron boycott of 1938 stands out as an example of such independent labour action. The Port Kembla boycott demonstrated that support to labour actions and calls for government sanctions were incompatible — one expressed the workers’ opposition to imperialism, the other the bourgeoisie’s own imperialist interests. Independent workers actions — strikes and boycotts — represented a greater threat to those interests than even rival imperialist aggrandisement overseas. On the other hand the workers could not act independently if they were mobilised on a chauvinist basis. As Trotsky said of League of Nations sanctions against the Italian invasion of Ethiopia: “Support of the League and support of workers’ action are fire and water; they cannot be united” (Writings, 1935-36).
The Japanese invasion and labour’s response
In July 1937, having previously usurped control of Manchuria, the military cabal ruling Japan launched a renewed invasion aimed at conquering all of China as a desperately needed colony for Japanese imperialist ambitions. The United Australia Party government of Prime Minister Lyons maintained an official neutrality — the Australian bourgeoisie had no desire to provoke Japan. Initially there was also some sympathy, as expressed by the conservative Sydney Morning Herald, for the Japanese military junta’s struggle against the “Communists” — a desire to see Japanese miIitarism crush the threat of social revolution in China which a successful mass resistance would inevitably have unleashed. But Australian capital recognised that its central, long-term interest lay in opposition to Japan. The inter-imperialist war which was looming would find Japan pitted against the militarily weak Australian bourgeoisie’s patrons, the crumbling British empire and the rising American one, in a struggle for domination of China and the Pacific.
The small Trotskyist Workers Party (WP) responded to the invasion with agitation for class-struggle opposition to the Japanese aggression. The international proletariat had to take its stand alongside the oppressed masses: ” . . . if there exists in the world a just war, it is the war of the Chinese people against its oppressors” said Trotsky in a statement issued shortly after the invasion. Centred in Sydney, the WP had originated around dissident CPA members expelled in 1932-34 who had become familiar with Trotsky’s revolutionary critique of the Stalinised Comintern through American seamen docking in Sydney. Uniquely within the Australian labour movement, the Trotskyists refused to succumb to the chauvinist tide ushering in the coming inter-imperialist bloodbath or to renege on their internationalist responsibility to the Chinese workers and peasants.
Following the outbreak of war in China, the WP addressed a leaflet (dated 18 October 1937) to Sydney watersiders raising the slogans: “Defeat Japanese Imperialism — Support the Japanese Revolution”; “For the overthrow of Chiang Kai-shek — Power to the Workers and Peasants of China!” The Trotskyists called on the wharfies to “Refuse to load Japanese ships — Refuse to handle goods to and from Japan — Don’t buy Japanese Goods”, warning against the trap of class collaboration in which the CPA was to ensnare the Port Kembla watersiders a year later:
“Independent workers action will help the workers of China and Japan, will weaken Japanese capital, and will expose the hypocrisy of our capitalists’ sympathy for China. There must be no calling on capitalist governments or League of Nations for action; . . . anything they do will be an imperialist manoeuvre which the workers can on no account support.”
The response within the rest of the labour movement was varied. John Curtin, leader or parliamentary Labor opposition, opposed any form of boycott action. So did Jack Lang, loyal to Labor’s traditional xenophobic isolationism, expressed most sharply in its racist “White Australia” policy. A “left” cover for this isolationist refusal to support the Chinese masses in their struggle against Japan was provided by Dinny Lovegrove, a vice-president of the Melbourne Trades Hall Council and erstwhile self-proclaimed “Trotskyist” (to head later into the extreme right wing of the labour movement), who argued in the ALP paper Labor Call (14 October 1937) that opposition to Japan meant support for the designs of US and British imperialism.
The “left-wing” NSW TLC condemned “the Japanese Government for its war of aggression against the Chinese people” and voted for a boycott of Japanese goods on 1 October 1937, to be followed a month later by the ACTU (Derek McDougall, “The Australian Labour Movement and the Sino-Japanese War, 1937-1939”, Labour History no 33, November 1977). But the “left” bureaucrats’ calls for labour boycotts were meant only for the minutes, and their apparent “anti-imperialism” was in fact support to British and US imperialism (they had, of course, never felt the need to utter even a word of solidarity against British imperialist domination of China). The ACTU executive welcomed “the condemnation of Japan” by that imperialist den of thieves, the League of Nations, and the NSW TLC “Hands Off China Comittee” urged that “Britain should stand with the United States in protesting against the aggression of Japanese imperialism”. Both called for government trade sanctions.
The CPA, too, “opposed” Japanese imperialism by supporting its equally murderous rivals. This was the period of the “people’s front” in the Comintern, a policy dictated by the diplomatic manoeuvres of the bureaucracy in the USSR. In response to the rise of German fascism and Japanese militarism, the Stalin bureaucracy sought to “defend” the workers state through deals with the “democratic” imperialists, at the expense of the proletarian revolution. The Stalinist parties were interested not in independent class action in defence of the Soviet Union and the colonial peoples, but in pressuring the “progressive” (ie anti-Japanese, anti-German) sectors of the bourgeoisie into “anti-fascist” alliances. By dint of their influence in the Waterside Workers Federation (WWF) — Jim Healy, WWF federal secretary, was a CPA member — the Australian Stalinists were active in the militant boycotts opposing the Japanese invasion, but only for the purpose of transforming them into pressure on Lyons for government sanctions.
Against imperialism or against the “yellow peril”?
Solidarity with China and fear of Japan were inextricably mixed sentiments within the working class. There was genuine indignation at the atrocities inflicted by the invading Japanese militarists on the Chinese population, and boycott action was welcomed by the Chinese masses. At the same time, Australians had been brought up to see the Japanese people as a whole as the most dangerous embodiment of the “yellow peril”, and fear that Australian pig iron exported to Japan would “come back as bullets” was strong.
Fear of Japan was not without foundation. In denouncing the Stalinists’ social-patriotic appeals to the Australian ”defence effort” and anti-Japanese racism, the Workers Party went overboard, denying the threat of Japanese invasion of Australia altogether as “highly improbable” (Militant,·7 February 1938). However, as Trotsky pointed out in an interview with Sydney’s Sunday Sun (17 August 1937), “it is imperative for Japan to find a point of support in Australia” because of its strategic military location and natural resources, among other things. In a letter to the Workers Party (dated 23 December 1937) Trotsky noted that the chauvinist hysteria focused on the threat of Japanese subjugation could not be combated by simply discounting it:
“Naturally no Australian worker or farmer wishes to be conquered and subjected to Japan. For a revolutionary party it would be suicidal to simply say we are ‘indifferent’ to this question. But we cannot give to a bourgeois and essentially imperialist government the task of defending the independence of Australia.”
Leninists are opposed to the national subjugation of any people. But the Australian workers had no stake in “national defence” so long as it meant the defence of Australian imperialist interests, the defence of their own exploitation. The real allies of the Australian workers in opposing Japanese imperialism were not their own slave-masters as the Stalinists and left reformists argued, but the Japanese workers themselves.
Whereas the Trotskyists appealed to the workers’ internationalist sentiments in solidarity with the Chinese toilers, the Stalinists appealed to their chauvinist sentiments in fear of the “yellow hordes”. The former led to class-struggle opposition to imperialism, the latter to “national unity” with the imperialist exploiters. That was the CPA’s aim:
“The Lyons government must be forced to prevent the shipment of war materials to Japan. Japanese fascism menaces Australia. To send such cargoes is a betrayal of Australia’s security. It is open treachery to the Australian people.”
(Workers Weekly, 21 January 1938).
Lyons was loyal to his class, to his “people”. It was the CPA which was treacherous — to the working class, the class it claimed to represent. The bourgeoisie certainly recognised that patriotism and class struggle were counterposed. As the Sydney Morning Herald (25 May 1938) observed: strikes “might cause serious retardation of the defence programme, and . . . should be, according to the patriotic expressions of the wharf-labourers, the very last thing they would desire.”
Boycotts of “war materials”
The Port Kembla action was only the last of a series of largely spontaneous rank-and-file labour boycotts of Japanese commerce expressly in solidarity with China, and often against the wishes of the union officials. On 12 October 1937, members of the Fremantle Lumpers Union refused to load coal onto a Japanese whaling ship; then Geelong wharfies stopped work to protest against the loading of Japanese wheat. On 19 January the movement spread to Sydney, as a load of 500 tons of lead for the Melbourne Maru was blacked, followed a week later by a ban on scrap iron bound aboard the Atsuta Maru.
The ban was broadened to include tin clippings when the men on the job decided these had military application. Wool was loaded onto the Melbourne Maru, on the other hand, on the grounds that it “might be used for the civilian population of Japan” (Workers Weekly, 21 January 1938). Admirably, the wharfies wanted only to stop Japanese militarism, not inflict hardship on the civilian population, but in modern war, it is hard to draw the line between “civilian” and “war materials”: wool could after all be used for uniforms. The Trotskyists correctly called for “the extension of independent workers action against Japan to include refusal to handle ALL commodities to and from Japan” (Militant, 7 February 1938). However the WP was incorrect in extending the boycott call to include a general consumer boycott of Japanese goods. Though not in principle incorrect (for example as a secondary support tactic in a strike) the call for consumer boycotts in this case could only blur the crucial distinction between independent labour action and bourgeois moralism.
In the upshot, the Sydney wharfies placed a standing ban on “war materials” for “aggressor nations” (which included Germany). A threatened showdown with the Lyons government over the ban was averted only through an eleventh-hour capitulation by Healy and company) who talked the men into lifting it before Lyons’ 25 May deadline.
The Port Kembla boycott
Then, on 15 November, Port Kembla watersiders blacked a shipment of pig iron bound for Japan aboard the freighter Dalfram. For nine weeks the Dalfram sat idle, waiting for its load of pig iron. For nine weeks, as the bourgeois press railed that “Communists” were behind the strike in order to stir up trouble, the ranks held their ground. Chiang Kai-shek sent them a telegram of gratitude. And Robert Menzies, then attorney-general under Lyons, earned the nickname he would take to his grave for his attempts to smash the strike — “Pig-iron Bob”.
Despite the depression conditions, the mid-1930s had seen a resurgence of labour militancy in the Port Kembla / Wollongong area, reflected in the election of CPA supporters to union office not only in the Port Kembla branch of the WWF but also in the Federated Ironworkers Association, whose members worked in the BHP steel works which dominated the town. The principal leader of the Dalfram boycott was CPA member Ted Roach, elected secretary of the Port Kembla WWF only the previous year.
Public support for the strike was considerable. Large numbers of unemployed provided a pool of potential scabs in depression-ridden Port Kembla. Yet when the government invoked the licensing provisions of the Transport Workers Act·– the “Dog Collar Act” (so named because of the licenses it prescribed, worn around the necks of scabs) — there were no takers. When the hated Menzies visited Wollongong on 12 January 1939 he was met by 3000 demonstrating workers; a group of women tried to storm the entrance to his hotel; and miners at 9 out of 10 mines in the district stopped work in solidarity with the wharfies.
“Tell us what the Port Kembla men say”
Yet the strike was not spread. Other unions were allowed to work the wharves throughout the struggle (so long as they didn’t “work with scabs”). Pickets were set up only after management scabs loaded the Dalfram with coal in early January. The steel workers — who were not even leafletted until three weeks into the strike — were never called out in solidarity. Instead BHP was allowed to lock out 4000 workers on 17 December, justifying it as a “stand-down” caused by the pile-up of pig iron. Rank-and-fiIe militants demanded a general strike of miners and industrial workers at Port Kembla, but the CPA leadership was adamant that the strike be confined to the waterfront.
When rank-and-file wharfies in Sydney spread the strike by blacking pig iron to be loaded on two ships bound for East Asia, the WWF bureaucrats fought hard to get the ban lifted — and failed. At one meeting vividly depicted in the Sydney Morning Herald (14 December 1938) the branch secretary produced a telegram from Healy pleading for the lifting of the ban. “Never mind about Healy”, shouted one wharf labourer. “Tell us what the Port Kembla men say.” The ban stayed, and the ship sailed without pig iron.
On 17 January, Healy and Roach struck a deal with Menzies — which did not even include firm guarantees against reprisals — and took it to the wharfies. It got voted down overwhelmingly. Four days later, after another trip to Menzies produced only minor modifications, the WWF officials managed to browbeat and deceive the workers into accepting it.
The Workers Party denounced the settlement as “the most blatant and cynical betrayal ever perpetrated on a section of the working class” (Militant, February 1939). The CPA hailed it as a “victory”: “No pig iron for Japan” blared Workers Weekly (24 January 1939). The “victory”? The Dalfram would be loaded and then a conference held “between Federal Cabinet and representatives of the Australian trade unions” at which they “would be able to show the Federal government that the policy of banning pig iron . . . was correct”. The “conference” accomplished nothing, and four weeks later, union officials cajoled the Port Kembla wharfies into loading a new pig-iron shipment for Japan — “under protest”. And so came the end of any significant labour solidarity actions with China.
Workers Weekly (29 November 1938) praised the Port Kembla wharfies not for militant class solidarity, but for patriotism: “By taking this action they . . . express a very sincere love for their country”. And how did the CPA express its “love of country”? By selling out the Port Kembla boycott. After all, how was Lyons to be convinced that it was in the “national interest” to ban pig iron when the wharfies were paralysing Port Kembla and defying his government?
From the standpoint of the CPA, the defeat of the ban and its substitution with pleas to Lyons for a government boycott was, in a sense, a “victory”. If the Stalinists did not have their demand for government trade sanctions satisfied immediately, they soon got that and then some. As the Militant (February 1939) warned following the Port Kembla defeat: “Any real boycott of Japan . . . by the capitalist government would indicate that British imperialism had decided to go to war with Japan” — not to defend the Chinese masses but to plunder them — “to stop encroachments by the Iatter on Britain’s ‘preserves’ in China”.
With the onset of World War II in the Pacific, the Sino-Japanese conflict became subordinated to the inter-imperialist war. But the Trotskyists remained consistent to the principles of proletarian internationalism which they had pursued throughout the boycott campaign: they advocated and resolutely upheld the Leninist policy of revolutionary defeatism in both the “democratic” and “fascist” camps of imperialist robbers, while defending militarily the USSR — a courageous, principled stance for which they were outlawed during the war. The Stalinists remained consistent, too — encouraging the “patriotic” slaughter which robbed the proletariat of its youth.
An internationalist tradition, a revolutionary potential
Today, forty years after the Port Kembla boycott, the no longer Stalinist (but no less reformist) CPA is joined by a host of other reformist groupings — including the ostensibly Trotskyist SWP — who see in the Port Kembla struggle only a “justification” for the same chauvinist, class-collaborationist policies which brought about its defeat. In a particularly grotesque travesty upon that militant proletarian struggle, the petty-bourgeois environmentalist anti-uranium movement last year launched the slogan, “Pig iron 1938, Uranium 1977” in their pacifist campaign to “keep Australian uranium in the ground” so it won’t “come back as bombs”. In the name of “peace” they foster the chauvinism which willfacilitate the next war. And if the bourgeoisie had “bowed” to the demands of the CPA, SWP and other reformists for “no aid, no trade” and imposed sanctions against Indonesia during the Timor invasion, it would have done so, as in the case with China in the 1930s, to protect its own “preserve”, out of concern only for its own “rights” to exploit the Timorese people.
The uncompromisingly revolutionary response of the Workers Party to the Port Kembla pig-iron boycott and the imperialist war preparations of the late 1930s is testimony to the validity of the Trotskyist program, and to the fraudulence of any claim by the SWP to the heritage of Australian Trotskyism. The continuity of Trotskyism in Australia was destroyed following World War II but the program remains, represented today uniquely by the Spartacist League. The Port Kembla boycott itself was testimony to the concrete reality of the international class struggle and to the revolutionary potential of the Australian proletariat, reaffirmed since in the ban on Dutch shipping during the Indonesian independence struggle in 1946 and the seamen’s action which stopped an American vessel on its way to Vietnam in 1971.
However that potential will not be realised under the leadership of those, like the CPA, its pro-Moscow and pro-Peking splinters, or the SWP, who seek to divert internationalist impulses in the direction of chauvinist class collaboration. The necessity now, as forty years ago, remains the construction of a revolutionary party in Australia, grounded in the struggle for a reborn Fourth International, world party of the revolutionary proletariat.