A significant victory for trade unions and Indonesian independence

As sure as night follows day business leaders and media warn of the cataclysmic consequences of workers getting paid more, going on strike or even wanting to avoid being called at 2am over something which could have been left until after breakfast at least but occurred to the boss when he/she was in a hotel room in another time zone.

Then there are the trade unions which business and government relentlessly criticise; blame for all the problems in the economy; and, where they can, legislate to reduce their effectiveness in protecting the rights of their members.

One of the favourite targets over the decades has been the Waterside Workers Federation – now part of the Maritime Union Australia. Regular readers will know of the blog’s support for the MUA as Secretary of the Whittaker Memorial Project and the annual commemoration of the 1928 shooting of waterside workers, including the killing of Allan Whittaker, a Gallipoli veteran, by police.

On October 11 last year, one of the many things for which the WWF has been vilified, and history has now long recognised as justified, was commemorated.

MUA officials, retired waterside workers, Indonesian unionists and others gathered on October 11 at the Australian National Maritime Museum at Darling Harbour to unveil a plaque commemorating Indonesian-Australian worker solidarity in what is arguably the biggest boycott in union history.

Speaking at the event, MUA National Secretary and International Transport Workers’ Federation President Paddy Crumlin, said the events commemorated were “a beautiful expression of internationalism and solidarity against the violence and oppression of colonial rule.”

After the end of WWII the Dutch were determined to re-occupy Indonesia. They sent a flotilla of ships with 200 officials, 600 troops and 200 tonnes of arms and munitions. The ships berthed in Brisbane prior to the planned re-invasion of Indonesia. It prompted the biggest union boycott of all time with 31 Australian unions and 13 international unions holding Dutch ships and cargos in ports around the world.

In August 1945, with the Japanese surrender, the republican leaders Soekarno and Hatta declared independence. Their broadcast of the event reached Australia by short wave radio.

It was heard by Tukliwon Subianto (Tuk for short) – a Sydney Ferries engineer who was the leader of the Indonesian Seafarers Union in Australia. Australian Seafarers union leader, EV Elliot and Tuk were friends and had helped 2,000 striking Indonesian seafarers employed on Dutch vessels in Australia win better pay and conditions.

Needless to say, it was met by hostility in the media and from then Attorney-General, Robert Menzies. Menzies and the WWF already had a history when in 1938 the union banned the export of pig-iron to Japan. The WWF, led by, Ted Roach, refused to load pig iron onto the steamship SS Dalfram headed for Japan. The ship was chartered by Mitsui to supply the Japan Steel Works Ltd in Kobe, a part of a contract for 300,000 tons of pig-iron. The Japan Steel Works was producing military materials for the undeclared war in China. If the ship had been allowed to leave the pig iron may well have come back in the form of more bombs on Darwin.

Others were more sympathetic than Menzies. Australia’s Foreign Minister, Dr Evatt, promoted the Indonesians’ cause at the United Nations in 1948 and criticised the US for backing the Dutch.

Supreme Allied Commander South East Asia, Louis Mountbatten, flew in and sought an audience with EV Elliott of the Seaman’s Union Australia; Ted Roach (WWF); ACTU and NSW Trades and Labor Council members and some Cabinet Ministers.

Mountbatten suggested the unions could, lift the bans on the ships and send observers to ensure no Dutch vessels were carrying arms or munitions. The unions refused and said they would only agree if the Indonesian leaders agreed.

At the same time, perhaps anticipating the dramatic internationalising of the dispute, Rockefeller and Royal Dutch Shell agreed to sail their tankers only on union sanctioned trade routes bypassing Dutch ports.

Finally on December 27 1949 the Dutch conceded.

The book, Black Armada: Australia and the Struggle for Indonesian Independence 1942-49, by Rupert Lockwood, tells this whole story in detail – enough detail to prompt Mountbatten to write to Lockwood saying: “I have read all you have written with great interest and it explains a lot that happened to us in South East Asia Command Headquarters.”

Lockwood also recounts the campaign to release Indonesian political prisoners detained by the Dutch in Australian POW camps and the boycotts and mutinies in Australia that crippled Dutch attempts to reoccupy their former colony.

It is interesting to compare the enthusiasm for attacking the WWF in 1948 with the silence of the Menzies and the Holt Governments in 1965-66 as around a million Indonesians were massacred by the Suharto Government military.