Provided by the Question Mark Collective as part of a forthcoming anthology on Australian Troublemakers to be published by Melbourne based Scam Publications.
In June 1972 workers at the Broadmeadows Ford Factory exploded smashing up their workplace, facing off police and forcing union bosses into endorsing a strike they had attempted to abandon. The dispute was only one of the hundreds that tore across Australia that year, but was remarkable for the strikers ability to circumvent official control, gain widespread community support and push the needs of migrant workers onto the national agenda.
The roots of the riot lay in a number of areas. Comprised of a 75% migrant work force conditions at the factory had long been horrendous with management using language difficulties to fob off worker complaints. Neither the company nor the union had made any attempt to provide contracts or safety equipment in any language other than English leaving workers confused as to their rights and duties. Generally the Ford employment officer filled in all forms for workers, signed them up to the union and signed them up for overtime. All of this was done without requesting their permission or providing any explanations. As Lokman Kaleshi, a Turkish strike committee member stated at the time- "When the workers come to Australia they cannot speak English, they have no friends to help them and take an interest in their problems... they are obliged to work as cheap overworked labour with foreign companies... the company played the workers as they wanted. Because they can't speak English they work under inhuman conditions...companies are absorbing migrant blood and making millions."
Employees at Broadmeadows and other sites were also the victims of an unofficial speed-up which had seen Ford increasing production demands whilst failing to replace the many workers who had quit. Conditions at the plant were notoriously unsafe with workshops smothered in noxious fumes and covered in wet paint. The little safety equipment available was either broken or totally antiquated. On top of all this the treatment of workers by management was at best patronising with line men being forced to wait hours before they were permitted to raise their hand and ask for permission to go to the toilet. As one worker, Sol Marks, described it in Wendy Lowenstein's Weevils at Work, "It was worse than I had imagined... I'd never worked in a place so bad, particularly for migrant workers... there was degradation, humiliation, brutality."
As a result of these conditions workers at the Broadmeadows plant had already gained a militant reputation with the rank and file forcing strikes in 1963 and 1969. The militancy of the workforce also flowed from the fact that many of the migrants had only recently left countries in great turmoil. Those schooled in the tactics of the 1970s rank and file movements and anti fascist uprisings in Greece, Turkey, Italy and Spain were not likely to tolerate such treatment for long. As one worker put it "The unions in Italy and Greece are stronger than here... If they want something they get it, they don't muck around with one day strikes... they have all out and they get what they want."
On May 18 strikes were already underway elsewhere. Following a disappointing rise in the award wage four unions in the automotive industry had been forced to undertake action against the main employers Ford, Chrysler and GMH. The union leadership had decided on a strategy of "guerilla action" that largely amounted to sporadic action aimed against GMH. In line with this they attempted to contain support for the campaign with a series of short stop work meetings held at plants around the country.
The mood at Broadmeadows however was contrary to that of the leadership and the 4000 workers spontaneously voted to start striking then and there. When the leadership attempted to steer workers away from this course of action scuffles and fights broke out between workers and union marshals. Left with no choice the union was forced to endorse the strike in the hope that things in time would simmer down.
Hostility to the union leadership had long been building since, as Bert Davey explained, "The Vehicle Builders Union was a very company oriented union... If the blokes on the job started some action the company called in the organiser and he would crush it all... to the detriment of the men." The mood of discontent was further aggravated when one shop steward interpreted officials' speeches as saying "While you have been working, we have been having tea and biscuits with the management. This was to pay us for telling you the following bullshit on their behalf..."
The strike dragged on until early June. By this point Ford had lost an estimated 27 million dollars with orders piling up and other plants laying idle in wait for assembled work. Faced with further losses the company cut a deal with union bosses and on June 11 handed over a slight pay rise with no change in conditions. Desperate to calm things down the union leadership called a meeting at the Broadmeadows Town Hall. Few of the workers could understand English and had trouble following what the officials were discussing. After cutting discussion short the two main unions, the AMWU and VBU, called for a vote on a return to work. Amidst shouting and arguments AMWU assistant national secretary (later to become a Labour Minister for Foreign Affairs) Laurie Carmichael claimed a slight majority in favour of the settlement.
Things could not have gone worse for the leadership as the announcement triggered an explosion of rank and file anger against the obvious attempt to wind down the strike. Many present felt the vote had been rigged. Further speeches by the leaders were drowned out when they recommended an immediate return to work. Angry workers rushed the stage and Laurie Carmichael and other union bosses had to be rescued before fleeing out the back door.
On the next day, Monday June 13th, things really took off. From 7-30am around 1000 workers, mainly from the assembly plant, began to meet at the work gate to hassle out management and anyone returning to work. Workers chanted in various languages "Don't Work" to those inside and attempted to block entrances. When the few police present tried to snatch a popular shop steward the crowd surged forward bringing a seven foot wall crashing down. A fire hose was then turned on some staff and office equipment, including an early computer, before workers invaded the plant. Cars belonging to management were smashed and offices trashed.
By 10 am over 100 police had moved in and secured the small area where the wall had been knocked down. There was little more they could do since, hopelessly outnumbered, they were repelled over and over by a shower of bricks and bottles. In the meantime strikers continued to wreck property attempting to tear down a ten foot wire fence and hijacking a fruit truck before hurling fruit, carrots and tomatoes at the police.
The feeling on site was one of jubilation, as Marks described, "They were enjoying themselves, demonstrating that they were free- a celebration of defiance!" One worker was seen dancing around crying out "We must smash Ford!" At 4-15 pm Ford decided to close the plant for the foreseeable future and locked out the few workers who had chosen to remain on the job. With the factory forced to a standstill and $10 000 damage done the strikers declared victory and dispersed. Remarkably no one had been arrested. Later that night millions around Australia watched dumbfounded at the TV news replayed the scenes of carnage.
The next few days saw the fur fly with Ford and the mainstream press unequivocally attacking the union and workers. Full page ads titled "Mob Rule" condemned those who had taken action and Ford claimed they had been forced into the lock out since "they (the union leadership) obviously have no control over the violent elements amongst their members". For the union's part they were forced into rubber-stamping what had already occurred with a belated call for an indefinite strike. During a mass meeting near the factory Laurie Carmichael sleazily claimed "I say to you sincerely that I have made a mistake and you have taught me a lesson".
Unlike the ACTU officials who condemned rioters at Parliament House in 1996 Carmichael publicly supported the workers actions stating that the men "exploded due to inhuman conditions... workers in the car assembly area say they go through a daily nightmare." A more accurate view of the union officialdom's true feelings could be found in the words of another Broadmeadows official who condemned the riot as "stupid." This official however admitted that "The workers have a real hate for the company and I have no idea what the answer is." When asked why union officials had not been present during the riot he admitted "We don't want (them) here- they'd get killed." Far from a stupid move the riot had seen the rank and file galvanise Australia wide support for the strike with the union collecting $10,000s in emergency funds.
The riot not only threw the union leadership into disarray, but also confused Ford management. At first, sections of the company appeared to be taking a conciliatory line by urging a "cooling off" period, but it wasn't long before they rejected the velvet glove for the iron fist. Rejecting any of the union's claims they instead attempted to divide and rule with a threat to lay off 3000 workers at their Geelong plant. Plans were announced to move the two plants to Malaysia where a more compliant workforce could be found.
Despite the company's tough talking it was clear the workers would not back down. An "official free" meeting held the day after the riot unanimously agreed to continue the strike. Anger spread throughout the automotive industry with GMH workers across the country wildcatting. Production was halted and cars began to pile up before GMH capitulated handing over improvements in wages and conditions.
Local support for the strikers was high with the council providing financial and other assistance. Doctors opened free clinics for striking families and even the Greek Orthodox Church chipped in a few hundred dollars toward strike funds. The Glaziers Union came out and refused to fix windows broken in the riot until Ford settled the dispute.
Ten weeks after the riot Ford finally gave in. The company agreed to slow the assembly line, hire more workers, hire women, increase the number of toilet breaks, repair leaking roofs and increase wages over and above their original offer. Many workers wanted to continue to hold out for more, but the union manipulated the vote by splitting workers up into language groups. With everybody divided into different halls the strength of the rank and file was dissipated. In the end a majority vote, coming mainly from Turkish workers, saw a return to work. Many of the Greek strikers were unhappy with this claiming "Townshend and Carmichael sold us out... when they split us into different language meetings."
Whilst the vote was partially rigged and the gains fairly minimal the sense of pride and victory amongst the workers was nonetheless enormous. They had taken on one of the world's largest multi-nationals and faced them down. As Sol Mark's put it in 1996 "We won enough to make people feel proud." Another striker, at the time, described the feeling as "There is an air of optimism and victory. If we had been told we were going to end up with a situation like this we would have been delighted."
Confidence and militancy remained high for years to come. As one worker put it "We (had) showed the company that we were not slaves... they started being very afraid of the workers and the union. They speak to us workers with respect. They don't address us like you would a dog, as they used to." Small actions were common at the plant throughout the rest of the 1970s and Broadmeadows often led the rest of the country in demands for work improvements. When another major strike broke out in 1981 the rank and file again showed their willingness to fight when once again they forced the union into action via unofficial 24 hour pickets and rowdy stop work meetings.