The 1940s - Workers and Industrial Action

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New Way Wins, set in a Welsh coal town having to choose between sticking with the pick and shovel or adopting mechanised mining, was staged during a coal strike in 1940. In the play a train bringing up scabs from England is derailed.

Because of power cuts, the auditorium and stage were lit by kerosene pressure lamps during the run of Birthday of a Miner in 1949 when miners struck over wages and conditions. Union leaders were gaoled, there were major blackouts and 500 000 lost their jobs. The strike collapsed when the Chifley government brought in troops to operate the mines. Chifley lost that year’s federal election.

Commissioned by the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain, Birthday of a Miner like many NT plays had a big cast.

Thirty characters were played by 22 performers, the author supplying a doubling list which would work as long as “no actor is required to play two parts in the same scene”. Set design was by Bettina McMahon.

42A And All That included a sketch about two unionists charged with offensive behaviour after stopping customers entering Wollongong’s “The Spot” café, declared black when a dismissed waitress said she’d been victimised and other girls walked out in sympathy. Victor Workman was fined and appealed successfully, an appeal upheld by Judge Nield (a NT supporter in the 1950s).

First man: What about Cranston and Workman?

Second man: I saw them arrested for picketing a café.

Woman: They were helping girls in a fight against lawbreakers.

Women’s working conditions were exposed in The Match Girls re the 1888 strike at Bryant and May’s London match factory whose employees developing “phossy jaw” through exposure to phosphorus.

Described by Engels as the “light jostle needed for the entire avalanche to move”, the strike marked the beginning of the labour and trade union movement. Miles Franklin found the play an unbearable indictment of exploitation, and labelled as “fiends” those who lived off the labour and fearsome conditions of others. The cast included writer Eleanor Witcombe and Patricia Hill (granddaughter of composer Alfred Hill); the lead role of Kate was played by Dolores Smith (her later stage name Dolore Whiteman). A musical version was mounted in 1972 and 1981 (with Jean Kittson as Kate).

A “musical comedy with a social theme” Off the Leash, directed in 1940 by Hal Alexander, was a mirror of his own activism as Secretary of Actors’ Equity. As a publicity gimmick the first audience members were offered free copies of Unser Kampf by Socialist British MP Sir Richard Acland. CIB security officer W H Barnwell (he overviewed the history of the NTL and urged its banning) reported on the cast which included Equity treasurer Hal Eldridge and committee member Iris Shand. After Ned Pate didn’t show up for the dress rehearsal his part was taken by Eddie Allison, script in hand.

On the opening night of a revue actors strike on stage in front of the audience who are urged to support their campaign for 100% union membership with no victimisation. A supportive trade unionist in the balcony clashes with Major Blimp (played by Russel Ward) and his upper class companions in the stalls.

The actors and Blimp put their contrasting arguments to Flowers the manager.

Blimp: Stand up to them, man. Don’t wobble. By gad, sir, when I was in Poona –

Flowers: Don’t start that again. I’ve enough to worry about here without wandering off to Poona. Have you any suggestions?

Blimp: Most certainly, sir. This is WAR! Give ‘em no quarter. Throw ‘em out.

Bruce: Yes, throw us out and continue with the show yourselves.

Nellie: I bet it would be good. I’d love to see the Major in a strip-tease.

The show, reviewed as clumsy and unsubtle, ended with the triumphant unionists singing “Solidarity” with clenched fists.

I’ve had a motto all my life

Never run away from strife

Whether you’re afraid or game

You’ll meet trouble just the same.

But don’t let trouble wear you out

Face it straight and stare it out.

Here’s a piece of good advice –

Clench your fist, stick out your chin

Say “I’m in, and in to win!”

In 1944 a nationwide strike against J C Williamson’s established the principle of 100% Equity membership. The union’s journal published names of unfinancial “scalers” and “free riders”.


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