As a member of the Unemployed Workers Movement and the Communist Party of Australia Jim Munro was involved in many campaigns against poverty and homelessness in and around the inner city of Melbourne during the 1920s and 1930s. The following first-hand account of how an unemployed movement for dignity and survival was built from scratch comes from a talk he gave at the A-House in 1990.
Arising out of the twenties I came into the movement and it was the things that happened then that influenced me. I left school in 1920 and was one of the lucky ones. I was apprenticed as a wood machinist. Alot of my mates never got jobs. They did get jobs at MacRobertsons or over at Gatsons in North Melbourne and so forth, but it was only until they were 16 years of age and then they were kicked out on the street. Some of the fellas never earned money again until they enlisted in the army in 1939. So unemployment is something that is not new to Australia.
You follow the papers and you’d think this has been a glorious country in the past except for a little intermission in 1930 when the Depression occurred and everything was good for the workers up until then and ever since. Well that just wasn’t the case.
All through the 1920s there was a huge unemployed army of roughly 10%. It’s hard to be exact because there was no dole and they didn’t have to register anywhere. If they wanted a job they could register at the Labour Exchange and they would be sent up to the top of Mount Buffalo building a chalet for the idle rich and so forth, but no real jobs for the average person. So they didn’t bother to register. So the only real check they had on unemployed people was from some of the Unions. The AEU (now the Metal Workers), The Printers and three or four other Unions used to pay unemployed benefits if you were out of work and a financial member. That only carried on for a certain period of time.
For thousands of people out of work there was no assistance of any kind except through the Ladies Benevolent Society. They were a voluntary organisation that existed in practically every suburb and was made up of middle class women, good meaning women a lot of them, some of them not so good meaning because their husbands owned butcher shops or groceries and they were concerned with getting orders for relief diverted to their husband’s business. If you were that desperate that you had to apply for assistance then they would come into your home and they’d go through it and say “Oh yes you need assistance, but you’re not up against it as yet, you’ve got a piano there you don’t need, you’ve got more chairs than you require in the house, you sell those things and we’ll come back in a fortnight’s time.” So they would make you sell up things that were in your home till you were cut down to the bare minimum and then they would provide assistance. When you got assistance it would be docket written out to go to such and such a grocer and get a basic amount of groceries and so forth. They weren’t the only ones on the rating, there were other religious groups too. That was the only assistance there was.
There were terrific strike struggles in the 1920s, enormous strikes. I went through one, the Timber Workers strike and was out for 21 weeks in 1929. That followed very big strikes in the Waterside workers, the Meat workers and other places. Many of the metal worker and other militant unions of today were not involved. They were more like crafts unions then and if you didn’t have a trade you were to be looked down on and despised. After being on strike for 21 weeks I went back to work for a week and then a whole load of us were put off. I’d been there about 9 years and we were thrown off. Back then it was called rationalisation rather than restructuring as it is today. They were trying to equalise everything, but they weren’t trying to lift the lower people up, they were trying to reduce the ones on better wages.
Trades Hall Council and the Unemployed
When I was out of work I was stuffed. We started to go up to Trades Hall in the week and we’d see a group of people in the courtyard holding meetings. We found out they were unemployed people. Trades Hall had what they called an unemployment officer and he would come down and tell them “Trades Hall is going to do this and going to do that and its all been a good meeting and an orderly one and you’re all going to get a docket and if you go round the Manufacturing and Grocers Union you’ll get a parcel of groceries.” So they went round and got a parcel that had been donated by Harpers or another firm. The Unions got it for nothing and distributed it to the good people who went to the Unemployed meeting and never made any trouble for the officials at Trades Hall.
The parcel was quite good, you’d get a few boxes of matches, some candles, a bottle of kerosene, all useful things. In my early days I lived in South Carlton in a three roomed house that had no running water, no gas, no bathroom. I lived with a grandmother and when she did the washing she would light a fire out the back over a tripod and did the washing in kerosene tins above the fire. And that was common in Carlton, in Fitzroy and all through the industrial suburbs. People would help one another and people weren’t so isolated in these big suburban villas they build all over the place for workers today. Everyone knew what was going on and kept their mouths shut when it was necessary to do so and if the people next door were without food and you could help them then you did.
So I was thrown out after years of work, but it didn’t worry me greatly, I thought “I’m a good tradesmen, I’ll get a job anywhere.” But all of a sudden we found out that there weren’t jobs to get. So I started going up to these meetings that were held at Trades Hall for the unemployed and I found waterside workers going there, other fellas I’d been out on strike with were going there. There was a hell of a row going on between the ACTU, the Trades Hall Council (THC) and individual unions as to what they should do for the unemployed. The unions didn’t want have anything to do with the unemployed because they can’t pay union dues and are not of any use to them. They were no use to the boss either because he couldn’t make money off them. The Labour Party didn’t want to know unless they were up there getting in their ears at Parliament House, they wanted a nice easy life. The ACTU said it was up to the local THC and that they should form groups of unemployed based on the unions same as they had them grouped in the ACTU- the metal trades group, the manufacturing groups, the food trades group and so on. So this is what Trades Hall decided to do and this was explained to the unemployed, but it never worked. It couldn’t work and it didn’t work.
The Beginnings of the Unemployed Workers Movement
Then we heard THC had deputations going up to Parliament. Hogan was the Labour Premier at the time. The unemployed would pass resolutions asking them to ask for this or that and we found out that when they went up to Parliament that they wouldn’t ask for that. They would ask for what they thought. So rows developed and it was moved that three rank and file members of the unemployed would go on the deputation with the Trades Hall officials. There was tremendous opposition of course, but it was carried. By the next meeting we found out that the deputation had taken place, but the three had not been told. So we kicked up a row and the next thing we knew the police were called and the unemployed were thrown out of the courtyard. We went back the next week and we weren’t allowed in. They had the police there. No unemployed were to be let in.
This was toward January 1930. So, denied entry, we went over to the 8 hour monument. There were 100 of us. We had a meeting and elected a committee to see what they could do and see if we could organise something. We met back the next week and the committee had the addresses of various M.P.s and we decided we would send out deputations to them and put the pressure on. We also began other actions. As the unemployed were out on our own we had to organise on our own and that gave birth to the unemployed movement.
In Carlton we used to hold a big meeting at the High School that was on the corner of Lygon Street near the cemetery. That was made the central part of Carlton to give out the sustenance so we used to call meetings there every Wednesday when the unemployed were there getting their sustenance, the same at Fitzroy Town Hall, Richmond Town Hall and all the rest. On the Tuesday night the local UWM would meet and make some proposals and so forth and then the next day we’d hold a big meeting and put the propositions up to them. We’d get support from them and that meant we were getting bigger demonstrations also.
Things weren’t going too well so the Government decided to cut out the sustenance. Instead of getting an order to use at the Grocer you got a sugar bag, a 70 pound hessian bag, with groceries in it. Well we objected. The first day we refused to accept them. We held meetings to clear the flak, picketed the place and wouldn’t let anyone in. So nobody got sustenance that week. The same thing happened at Fitzroy, at Richmond, at Port Melbourne and there was hell to pay for a while. There were big riots down at the Richmond Town Hall and a whole number of people arrested. One of them was Steve Bagley who was the first to build a real unemployed organisation in Richmond. He got jailed over it. But we beat them. They had to go back to the ticket system and give them out again. We knocked that thing out.
So we kept on other things. We raised the question of clothing. None of us had boots, we were getting around nearly bare footed. The men got an issue of army boots, the women were a bit unlucky, they wouldn’t wear army boots so they had a special shoe made for the women that was almost as bad as an army boot. It was heavy. We got that issue once a year. Then they found out they had thousands of army uniforms left over from W.W.1 and figured that this was a good opportunity to get rid of them. So they gave them to the unemployed. So the first week we were all working around in the tunic. So then the Returned Services League (RSL) kicked up a row. “What an insult to the Army that this scum can walk around the streets in an army uniform.” So they stopped it and had them all dyed black and reissued to us. Well that was the best thing they ever did because wherever you walked and saw someone in a dyed army tunic you knew he was unemployed and you spoke to him. So it helped us develop our organisation.
Every unemployed group had its own meeting place – a little hall or a shop. We’d have all sorts of speakers on different subjects. We also held street meetings in a different suburb each night. At one point we started having meetings at Swanston Street on a Friday night. We’d start there and then the cops would move us on and we’d go up to Russell Street and then we’d head up to Little Bourke Street. Meanwhile someone would start in Little Collins Street and when they were done we’d start in Little Bourke Street and they’d go up to Little Lonsdale Street and so on. You’d reach a whole lot of people that way.
We used to have a lot of marches from Trades Hall and we had to be smart about it because the police always knew what we were going to do, they had their snoopers amongst us. We’d make plans and instead of meeting at Trades Hall we’d have groups meet at different points in the suburbs and then converge at a certain time. This would be to confuse them. They’d get out and try and block us from getting into the city and we’d have great trouble with people coming from Port and South Melbourne because at that time there was only Queens Bridge and Spencer Street Bridge so it was pretty easy for them to stop them. Then they would move over to Richmond and block those coming in from Prahran.
The March on Parliament
The THC decided they would have a demonstration too, but they weren’t going to be mixed up with this rent-a-mob from the UWM. So they tried to organise a separate one. So they had theirs leave from Lygon Street at Trades Hall and we had ours line up in Victoria Street. We decided that whatever way they went we’d go. So we all lined up in two groups, but we weren’t there five minutes and the two groups disappeared and were all together. We marched up to Parliament House. We reckon we had 10 000 that day, it was an enormous march. The police were quiet and right out of the way and the papers would tell you it was an orderly march because it was led by Jim Muggs from Trades Hall, the Secretary of the Unemployed and Assistant Secretary of Trades Hall. What they didn’t tell you was that Jim Hades and myself and others were also at the front when we marched up Bourke Street. It was a joint demonstration of both organisations. We got to Parliament House and the deputation wasn’t allowed in.
We were told they had two machine guns in place and that we had no hope of getting inside. They started getting riled up and one copper went for a fellow with a baton. I had never seen an Inspector move so quickly. He ran up and knocked that copper over and the baton out of his hand and said “You bloody fool, do you want to get all of us killed.” That was how the police were that day and it shows how things change when you have numbers. You always have to get numbers behind you. Eventually a deputation went in and there were improvements. Quite a number of little ones made. It was decided they would find relief work in the country and they opened up railways and country roads work. Everybody got 13 weeks work a year.
Jail and the Police
But the rest of the time you were still on the dole so we carried on. We had fight after fight. We had battles with the police, but they eased after the big march. They weren’t so anxious to tangle because they didn’t know what would happen. They left most of the work to a squad that was called the Political Squad. It was set up by the Hogan Labour Government during the waterside strike to deal with the strikers down at the waterfront. They were a vicious crowd. They would do the arrests and everything and God help you when they got you back to Russell Street. I’ve been handcuffed and kicked in Russell Street. They had a bunch of mates out at Prahran, Fitzroy and Richmond. What they did to you, you had no idea.
There was a chap who lived in Brunswick, an ex Waterside worker and he went to jail seven times for chalking up slogans. He could hardly read and write and some of his slogans had very strange spelling, but it didn’t matter because his heart was in it. Alot of us went to jail. I remember one time 33 of us were in Pentridge at the same time.
I was put in jail for riotous behaviour. We had a big demonstration on May Day and coming down the street we were attacked and I was one of those who was pinched. We wore red sashes with different slogans on them. I got a month, bit more than a month. The day I went in I was interviewed by a security officer and he wanted to know everything. How many warts on your body, when you had your last haircut, everything from your childhood to your parents and your ancestors and all the rest. They’d try and get the lot from you, but they never did, not from most of us anyway.
We didn’t associate with the crims. We had a list of demands. When we were asked if we wanted anything I said “I want to be able to write to my wife everyday and I want a letter every day. We want our letters uncensored and we want to be segregated from the criminals. We want to be treated as political prisoners and not criminals.” At that time you were only allowed a letter once a month and they denied there were any political prisoners under English law.
There was one guy in court with us and he’d been pinched early that morning and got six months and got sent straight off to Pentridge that night without them even telling his wife. He’d caught a train out to Fern Tree Gully without paying the night before and gone and dug out some ferns and put them in his bag. Then he went back into the city and was making his way home when the cops grabbed him and looked in his bag. He couldn’t explain where he had gotten them and eventually under questioning he broke down and they did him for stealing ferns from Ferntree Gully. He’d gone and done it because he had no money for his family and didn’t know what else to do. It was tragic.
A few days later the visiting magistrate would come out, the Governor, the Assistant Governor, two or three members of the board and a few other organisations from around Melbourne would convene a board and they would ask you how you were being treated in jail, whether you had any requests, etc. I would answer these questions truthfully because they could be answered truthfully and The Governor asked “Well Mr Munro, what were arrested for?’ I said “I was walking down Swanston Street sir and the police arrested me.” “But they wouldn’t arrest you just for walking down Swanston Street.” “Well they did!” The security officer said “Tell them what you were wearing Munro.” I said “Dressing in my clothes, ordinary trousers, military tunic.” “What else though” “Well I had a sash on with a slogan” “What was the slogan?” Well I couldn’t remember so I said “Against Wage Cuts” As soon as I said that there was a change, there was a bit of whispering and then the Governor said “Well Mr Munro you might have a few sympathisers here, we’ve had our wages cut too!”