People’s History of Australia is a podcast and blog looking at Australian history from the perspective of ordinary people fighting together for a better life.
Australian history isn’t made by politicians and the powerful – it’s made by ordinary people fighting together for a better life.
People’s History of Australia is a podcast and blog aiming to amplify those moments when ordinary people across Australia have made history – by coming together, overcoming the barriers and divisions that keep us isolated and atomised, and struggling collectively for justice.
So much of the history that we’re taught focuses on the deeds of the great and powerful. We want to turn this upside down, and look at Australian history from the perspective of workers striking for their rights, Aboriginal people campaigning for justice and self-determination, the unemployed uniting to demand housing and food, people of colour, women and LGBTQ people struggling for liberation, and ordinary people across Australia, in all their diversity, fighting together for something better.
These moments show us that our history is more than just a small group of politicians and powerful people making all the decisions. They show us that time and time again, working people across Australia have stood up and made history themselves..
In December 1981, 300 women working at the Kortex textile factory in Brunswick, Melbourne, rose up against their employer and went on strike.
None of the women at Kortex had ever been on strike before, and few spoke English fluently. And yet over the next eight days, the Kortex workers defied violence and intimidation from their employer, the police, private security guards and the right-wing officials of their own union to win their strike and gain large pay increases and respect at work. In the process, they smashed gender and racial stereotypes that defined them as meek, passive, and easily exploited migrant women.
In this episode, we speak to Sandra Bloodworth, who as an activist with the International Socialists played a close role in supporting the Kortex strikers. We talk about Sandra’s politicisation in Queensland in the 1970s, how she came into contact with the Kortex workers and how the strike developed, the important part played by VTEB – the Victorian Turkish Labourers’ Association – and how the strike completely transformed those who took part in it, and what we can learn from this today.
You can find Sandra’s excellent article about the strike at Kortex here.
In 1929, the world plunged into the most catastrophic economic crisis in modern history – the Great Depression.
The effect of the Depression on ordinary people across Australia was devastating. By the early 1930s, the official unemployment rate stood at over 33%, and poverty, homelessness and starvation were ubiquitous. Newspapers reported soaring suicide rates, thousands living in tent cities, and some families reduced to living in caves.
In the midst of all of this, communists and leftists across Australia formed the Unemployed Workers’ Movement. Within months, the UWM had over 70 branches across Sydney alone, and its members waged spectacular struggles for the right of the unemployed to have access to housing, food and the necessities of life irrespective of whether they could afford them or not.
In this episode we talk to acclaimed author Nadia Wheatley, who as a student in Sydney in the 1970s undertook path-breaking research into the UWM. Nadia talks about what led her to research the UWM, how the UWM organised, what it fought for, how the authorities reacted to its activities, and what it won.
We’re also extremely excited to announced that we’ve just entered into a collaboration with the Workers’ Art Collective, who will be producing a poster to promote each of our episodes! The poster for this episode is courtesy of WAC member Sam Wallman.
In 1971, Australia exploded with protest against a sporting tour by the white supremacist South African rugby union team – the Springbok.
The Springbok were the ultimate international symbol of South African racism. Under a system known as apartheid, white South Africans, who made up 20% of the country’s population, owned 80% of all its land. The black majority of the population was forced to live in poverty- and disease-ridden shantytowns, was not allowed to move freely around the country, had no access to facilities used by whites, and had no right to vote. As South Africa’s premier sporting team, the Springbok only accepted white players.
The South African regime was backed by all major western powers, and the Springboks’ 1971 tour of Australia was supported by the entire Australian media and political establishment. And yet, as soon as the tour began, tens of thousands took to the streets and directly disrupted Springbok matches, while thousands of unionists made the tour almost impossible by refusing to staff flights that carried the Springbok, work in hotels that allowed them to stay, or supply restaurants that served them. In the process, both South African and Australian racism were dealt massive blows.
In this episode, we talk with Meredith Burgmann, who as a university student in Sydney in 1971 helped co-ordinate the campaign against the Springbok tour. Meredith discusses her early life, her radicalisation during the late 1960s, then moves on to describing her role in organising to stop the 1971 tour.
You can read more about the Springbok tour and the protest campaign against it in Garry Writer’s book Pitched battle.
In 1971, Nick Origlass, a Trotskyist revolutionary, was elected as the mayor of Leichhardt Municipal Council in Sydney – one of the most unusual developments in Australian political history.
Nick Origlass came of age during the Great depression of the 1930s, and was an indefatigable enemy of all forms of authority, and a lifelong believer that power should reside in the hands of ordinary working class people. His career took him from fighting the fascist New Guard in the streets of Kings Cross, to leading thousands of Balmain ironworkers on strike against their own union’s policy of sacrificing wages and conditions during World War Two, to attempting to turn Leichhardt Council into a directly democratic campaigning body that pioneered environmental activism in the 1960s and 1970s.
In the process, Nick was expelled from Leichhardt Council (once), from the Australian Labor Party (twice), from the Communist Party of Australia (once), from his own union (twice), and even from the Trotskyist Fourth International (once).
In this episode, we speak with Hall Greenland, Nick’s biographer, about Nick’s remarkable life, the events that he took part in, and the significance of all of this in 2020.
You can read more about Nick’s life in Hall’s biography of him, Red Hot.
Few periods of Australian history are as heavily mythologised as World War I. From school textbooks to Anzac Day ceremonies, we’re told that Australia was born as a nation on the shores of Gallipoli and that the country united as one behind our gallant diggers, who gave their lives to defend our freedom, our democracy, and our way of life.
Like most myths, however, this one has little basis in reality. Far from this image of patriotic unity and enthusiasm, World War I was a disaster: war-fueled inflation devastated working class living standards, tens of thousands of Australians were slaughtered in the trenches of Europe, and dissent was criminalised and thousands of opponents of the war were jailed. Meanwhile, the country was rocked by the largest wave of strikes in its history, anti-war activism exploded in the face of intense repression, and huge sections of the population moved rapidly to the left.
In this episode we talk with socialist, postal worker and historian Robert Bollard, author of In the shadow of Gallipoli: the hidden history of Australia in World War I. Robert chats about the terrible effect that the war had on most Australians, the wave of industrial disputes that broke out in spite of extraordinary political pressure against striking workers, anti-war activism and government repression, and the creation of the Anzac myth in postwar Australia.
In May 1969, Clarrie O’Shea, the secretary of the Victorian branch of the tram workers’ union, was jailed for refusing to pay fines his union had been hit with under Australia’s repressive ‘Penal Powers’ laws.
Within a matter of days, over a million workers across the country had gone out on strike. Electricity and gas supplies were shut off, television was restricted to a few hours per day, wharves and mines closed down, public transport ceased to operate and, for employers and the government, Australia seemed on the verge of what one newspaper headline proclaimed to be ‘INDUSTRIAL ANARCHY’.
Before a week had passed, O’Shea had been released from prison, and the penal powers, which for decades had seen unions fined millions of dollars for the simple act of calling a strike, were abolished, never to be used again. Strike days soared, wages skyrocketed, and workers across the country won conditions that we still enjoy today.
In this episode, we chat with Katie Wood, a union delegate and archivist at the University of Melbourne, who’s written and researched extensively about the O’Shea strike. Katie talks about the origins of the strike, how it unfolded, the terror that it caused Australia’s ruling establishment, what lasting gains were won, and what it all means to us 50 years later.
In 1978, Sydney’s first ever Mardi Gras took place.
The Australia in which the parade happened, however, was profoundly different to today. LGBTQI people faced intense discrimination and persecution, with consenting sex between adult men considered a crime and coming out an act that jeopardised employment, housing and personal relationships. Entrapment and violence at the hands of the police was rampant, and even wearing non-gender-conforming clothing or holding hands with someone of the same sex risked arrest.
In the face of all of this, on 24 June 1978, marchers took to Oxford Street in Sydney in a massive street party and an assertion of pride in gender and sexual diversity. The resulting riot, mass arrests and police brutality led to an explosion of protest and activism and saw the federal offence of homosexuality abolished by 1985.
In this episode, we speak with Peter Murphy, an activist in the 1970s gay liberation movement who was arrested on the night of the 1978 Mardi Gras. Peter tells the story of his involvement in the movement, the years of organising and work that went into LGBTQI activism before the Mardi Gras, and then the fateful night of 24 June 1978 itself.
Postwar migrants from non-English-speaking backgrounds were overwhelmingly consigned to the worst, most dangerous, and lowest-paid jobs. No single workplace encapsulated this whole experience more than the Ford Motor Company’s factory in Broadmeadows, Melbourne, where workers from over 60 nationalities toiled in almost unbearable conditions.
In summer, temperatures inside the factory soared above 40 degrees celsius, while in winter workers froze through almost unbearable cold, surrounded by poisonous fumes, heavy machinery, defeaning noise, and a complete lack of basic safety measures. Wages were incredibly low and the pace of work brutal, and workers were presided over by racist foremen who treated them, in the words of one, ‘like slaves’.
In 1973, the workforce exploded. Workers went out on strike, and when their own union officials attempted to rig a vote to force them back to work, they rioted – pelting police with rocks, fruit and vegetables, smashing the factory’s windows, knocking over walls, and using metal poles as battering rams. In the process, they won substantial pay increases and forced management to treat them with basic respect.
In this episode we speak with Frank Argondizzo, who immigrated to Australia from Italy at age 18 and worked in the Ford Broadmeadows factory between 1970 and 1995. Frank talks about his experience moving to Australia, the horrifying conditions that workers at Ford endured, and the 1973 strike and riot.
You can watch footage of the riot below.
The IWW – or the ‘Wobblies’, as they were colloquially known – believed workers should form unions not just to win better wages and conditions, but to overthrow bosses and take over their workplaces themselves. They poured scorn on parliamentary participation, union bureaucracy, and the Australian Labor Party, and argued instead that only strikes, slow-downs, sabotage and direct action could get results.
Within a few years, thousands joined the IWW, and its influence was being felt everywhere. IWW members contributed to a massive wave of strikes, ruthlessly attacked racism and the White Australia policy, and led the way in opposing Australian involvement in the First World War. The mainstream media and politicians reacted with hysteria, furiously denouncing the organisation, and the hundreds of members were imprisoned on dubious charges and the IWW declared illegal.
In this episode, we speak with Verity Burgmann, an honorary professor at Monash University and the leading historian of the Australian IWW, about the IWW’s spectacular rise and fall and what we can learn from it today.
You can find Verity’s book on the IWW in Australia, Revolutionary industrial unionism, here.
The Pilbara region of Western Australia is one of the remotest places on the planet. It’s also one of the most economically significant regions not just in Australia, but the world, with almost indescribably vast quantities of high-grade iron ore which power steelworks across the globe and generate tens of billions of dollars in profits every year.
The Pilbara was opened to mining in 1960, and the story of mining unionism there is one of the most epic, and most tragic, in Australian history.
When the industry began in the 1960s, working conditions were terrible, pay was low, amenities were appalling, and the workforce lived in fear of management. But over the course of a decade workers completely turned things around, building 100% union membership, powerful on-the-job organisation, and frequent strikes. By the 1970s, the Pilbara was synonymous with union militancy, with workers spending an average of more than ten days on strike per year, high wages, and a workforce that fought not just for better wages and conditions, but for control over the workplace itself.
In the 1980s and 1990s however, unionism in the Pilbara was annihilated. In a series of key battles, unions were destroyed in one mine after another, and the region was transformed. Today, the Pilbara is one of the least unionised areas of Australia, with authoritarian management, intense surveillance, grueling shift work, relatively low wages, and an epidemic of mental illness and suicides. Profits, however, have soared.
In this episode, we talk with Alexis Vassiley, an academic, labour historian and unionist, who’s researched extensively on the history on unionism in the Pilbara. Alexis talks about the rise of mining unionism in the 1960s, the peak of union power in the 1970s and early 1980s, and the total destruction of Pibara unionism in the late 1980s and 1990s.
You can find some of Alexis’ academic articles listed here, most of which can be read for free via university databases or through membership of most State Libraries.
In the late 1960s, thousands of Turkish migrants began moving to Australia as part of a wave of post-World War II immigration that permanently changed the face of Australian cities.
For the Australian government and employers, migrants from Turkey and other non-English-speaking countries represented one thing: cheap factory labour that would meekly accept low wages and poor working conditions.
Turkish migrants, however, had other ideas. Beginning in the 1970s, Turkish socialists and communists established a series of social centres throughout Melbourne, known as derneks. The derneks encompassed all areas of life, and brought together thousands of Turkish Australians to run union organising classes, fight for greater state support for migrants, show solidarity with striking workers, wage political campaigns, as well as run theatre groups, sports teams, language classes, summer camps and a host of social events. In the process, they created a thriving working class culture, and turned Turkish migrants into active subjects who fought exploitation and racism in their adopted homeland.
To tell this remarkable story, in this episode we chat with Eda Seyhan, a human rights researcher and lawyer who’s interviewed dozens of Turkish migrants who were activists in Melbourne’s derneks.
Wee Waa, in northern New South Wales, is at the centre of the cotton industry in Australia. Tens of thousands of hectares of cotton crops surround the town, which describes itself as “the cotton capital of Australia”.
During the twentieth century, each year Wee Waa would see an influx of more than a thousand predominantly Aboriginal workers over summer to perform the vital work of chipping the cotton crops to ensure they weren’t overgrown with weeds. These workers, who the entire town’s economy depended upon, were treated with brutality and intense racism – they were denied any accommodation by the cotton-growing businesses and forced to sleep in tents or in their cars, wages were miserably low, working hours were extreme, child labour was rife, and planes would fly over fields and douse them with toxic pesticide while workers were still in them. In a final insult, Wee Waa itself was blatantly segregated, and Aboriginal workers were refused access to many of the town’s facilities, while at the end of the cotton season the council and local police would break apart the workers’ temporary campsites and drive them from the town, arresting any who remained behind.
In early 1973, Wee Waa’s cotton chippers rose up. They rallied and marched through the town, faced down police repression and vigilante violence, and went on strike at the height of the cotton season and threatened to ruin the entire year’s crop, driving the local establishment into a state of hysteria. Within days, the cotton-growers had capitulated and granted an instant pay rise of almost 50%.
To tell this inspiring story, we’re joined in this episode by Jordan Humphreys, who’s researched and written widely about Aboriginal workers and the union movement.
You can read Jordan’s account of the Wee Waa struggle here, while his other writings on Aboriginal workers can be found in Marxist Left Review here and here. Film footage of the strike is available here.
In the 1940s, the Communist Party of Australia was approaching the peak of its power as the largest and most influential left-wing organisation in Australian history.
The Communist Party of Australia demanded far more of its members than an average political organisation. To be a communist, you were expected not just to become an activist and an organiser, but to read and study deeply, and to understand often complex theoretical texts. And so with thousands of new members flocking to it, the Communist Party established one of the most ambitious systems of adult education ever seen in Australia – the Marx Schools.
Based in several capital cities, the Marx Schools ran from 10am to 10pm every day of the week, and offered CPA members and sympathisers extensive, in-depth courses in socialist and Marxist theory, in the practicalities of union organising, in how to chair meetings and give public speeches, in anti-fascism and women’s rights, and in art, economics, philosophy and literature. With a pedagogy far more advanced and participatory than most universities, and in an era when most Australians had no formal education beyond age 13 or 14, the Marx Schools taught thousands of workers how to both understand the world and how to change it.
To discuss this remarkable experiment in Australian adult education, we’re joined in this episode by Bob Boughton, a former academic and social worker who’s done extensive research on the Marx Schools.
You can read Bob’s PhD about adult education in the Communist Party of Australia here, and Bob has also recently helped edit and publish Comrades!, a book which tells the life stories of over 100 Australian communists, which you can find here.
In 1996, newly elected politician Pauline Hanson swept to national prominence after making an extraordinarily racist and inflammatory maiden speech in federal parliament attacking Aboriginal people and Asian-Australians.
In the wake of this performance, Hanson’s entire speech was printed word for word in most newspapers across the country, while for several months she received more media coverage than John Howard, the prime minister – who for his part virtually endorsed Hanson’s views by saying that he understood why people agreed with her. Capitalising on her sudden celebrity status, Hanson announced plans to form a new political party, One Nation, which would have local branches and a mass membership, and polls indicated she would win widespread electoral support.
Anti-racists, however, had other ideas. Huge anti-Hanson rallies were organised in towns and cities across the country, and every attempt to run a public meeting featuring Hanson or to build a local party branch was met with large and militant protests that disrupted and often shut her meetings down. Support for One Nation dwindled and by 1999 the party had collapsed, never to return to its previous strength and prominence.
In this episode we chat with Vashti Fox, a socialist and anti-fascist campaigner, about the extraordinary movement to defeat Pauline Hanson and prevent the formation of a mass, racist party in Australia.
You can read some of Vashti’s work here, and you can view footage of protests against Pauline Hanson below (some of which is fairly biased and unfortunately also features an interview with Hanson).
In 1977, the premier of Queensland, Joh Bjelke-Petersen, abolished the right to hold street protests. “Don’t bother applying for a march permit,” he declared. “You won’t get one. That’s government policy now.”
In response to this decision, activists swung into action, launching a massive campaign to win back the right to protest. Rally after rally was held in direct defiance of the ban, tens of thousands of people took to the streets, over 2,000 people were arrested, and the anti-protest laws were rendered impossible to enforce, and were quietly abandoned and then outright abolished.
In this episode, we chat with Judy McVey, a socialist activist who took part in organising the campaign for the right to march in Queensland. Judy talks about why the ban was put in place, how the campaign was organised and what debates took place inside it, how victory was won, and what this means today, as governments in New South Wales, Queensland, Victoria, Tasmania and South Australia move to rapidly criminalise environmental protest.
When the British Empire invaded Australia in 1788, the colony’s new ruling class had a problem – there was no pre-existing working class in Australia waiting around to work for them. Governments and employers could establish all of the farms, workshops, factories and other workplaces that they liked, but without people who had no alternative but to work for them, they were never going to get very far.
Aboriginal people had little inclination to spend all day working to enrich white masters when they could simply work for themselves and their communities, and while a vast and dispossessed English working class existed, the wages needed to entice workers to the opposite end of the world would have been prohibitively high. The authorities’ solution was to to bring over 160,000 convict prisoners to Australia against their will in order to form the colony’s initial labour force, and they subjected them to brutal working conditions and punishments to secure their obedience.
Convicts, however, rebelled on a massive scale against their conditions. In spite of incredible risks, they rioted, went on strike, ran away and became bushrangers, carried out sabotage, and engaged in hundreds of thousands of low-level acts of individual and collective resistance. In the process, they made convictism so expensive that it could no longer be continued, and they laid the basis for unions and for the workers’ movement in Australia.
In this episode, we interview Michael Quinlan, an academic at the University of New South Wales and co-author with Hamish Maxwell-Stewart of Unfree workers: insubordination and resistance in convict Australia, about the resistance of convict workers to the regime they worked under. Michael and Hamish’s work represents the culmination of decades of research, and is one of the only books to cover such a momentously important topic.
- Apartheid - South Africa
- Communist Party of Australia - History
- History - Australia
- Movements_Campaigns - Indigenous Peoples_First Nations rights
- Movements_Campaigns - Labour_Worker's rights
- Movements_Campaigns - LGBTIQA+_Gay rights
- Movements_Campaigns - Women's rights
- Movements_Campaigns – Racism_Racial justice
- Political parties
- Springboks (Rugby Team)
- Strikes and lockouts