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.
Episode 2 – The Unemployed Workers’ Movement in 1930s Sydney
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.
Episode 5 – The hidden history of Australia in World War I
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.
You can read Katie’s excellent article about the 1969 strike here, and you can check out the beautiful cartoon history of the strike by Sam Wallman that Katie refers to in the podcast here. Opening and closing music courtesy of Glitter Rats. People’s History of Australia logo design courtesy of Nissenbaum Design.
- Apartheid - South Africa
- History - Australia
- Movements_Campaigns - Labor_Worker's rights
- Movements_Campaigns - Women's rights
- Movements_Campaigns – Racism_Racial justice
- Springboks (Rugby Team)