1973: Broadmeadows Ford workers’ strike

Working at Broadmeadows in 1966

In June 1973 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. This is a short history of the events.


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.

Sources
The Tribune, 1972.
The Vanguard, 1972.
The Age, 1972.
Herald Sun, 1972.
The Digger, 1972.
A Divided Working Class, Constance Tracy and Michael Quinlan, Routledge Press, 1988.
Weevils At Work, Wendy Lowenstein, 1997, Catalyst Press.

Comments

Skraeling
Jun 28 2010 02:25

Here's a revised edition of the same article by the same author, with a few corrections and additions and so on.

Smashing Ford: The 1973 Ford Riot

Iain McIntyre

In June 1973 tensions at the Broadmeadows Ford Factory [in Melbourne, Australia] reached boiling point. In the subsequent riot the company’s workers smashed up their workplace, faced off police and forced a number of 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. Conditions at the factory had long been horrendous with management using the language difficulties of its 75% migrant workforce conditions to fob off worker complaints. Neither the company nor the union had made any attempt to provide contracts or safety equipment in languages other than English leaving workers confused as to their rights and duties. Generally the Ford employment officer filled in all forms for workers, signing them up to the union and also for overtime. All of which was done without their permission or the provision of any explanation as to what was going on.

As Lokman Kaleshi, a Turkish strike committee member stated in The Digger at the time:

Quote:
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 antiquated.

Underlying all of this was an attitude from management that was at best patronising and at worst completely inhumane as line men were forced to wait hours before they were permitted to even 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,

Quote:
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 consequence of this situation workers at the Broadmeadows plant had begun to build a reputation for rank and file militancy forcing the union leadership into supporting strikes in 1963 and 1969. This militancy 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 strikes and anti fascist uprisings of Greece, Turkey, Italy and Spain were unlikely to tolerate such treatment for long. As one worker put it in A Divided Working Class:

Quote:
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.

Come May 1973 strikes were already underway elsewhere. Following a disappointing rise in the award wage the four main unions in the automotive industry had undertaken industrial action against the main players Ford, Chrysler and GMH. Opting for a strategy of “guerilla action” that largely amounted to sporadic strikes against GMH, the union leadership had decided 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 on May 18 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 with 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 in A Divided Working Class,

Quote:
The Vehicle Builders Union (VBU) 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

Quote:
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 lying 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 Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU) and VBU, called for a vote on a return to work. Amidst much 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 as many present felt the vote had been rigged. Further speeches by the union leaders were drowned out as they recommended an immediate return to work. Angry workers rushed the stage and Carmichael and other officials had to be rescued before fleeing out the back door.

The following day, Monday June 13, things really took off. From 7-30am onwards around 1000 workers, mainly from the assembly plant, began to meet at the work gate to hassle 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 attempted 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 a 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 lock 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 with Ford claiming that 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 all out strike. At a mass meeting Laurie Carmichael apologized saying "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 one shop steward who condemned the riot in A Divided Working Class 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 tactical error the riot had seen the rank and file galvanise Australia wide support for the strike with the union collecting tens of thousands of dollars in emergency funds.

The riot not only caught the union leadership off guard, but also threw Ford’s management into disarray. Initially sections of the company appeared to take a conciliatory line in urging a "cooling off" period, but it wasn't long before the velvet glove was rejected for the iron fist. Rejecting any of the union's claims they instead attempted to divide and rule their employees by threatening to lay off 3000 workers at their Geelong plant. Plans to move the two plants to Malaysia where a more compliant workforce could be found were announced.

Despite the company's tough talk 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 engaging in wildcat strikes that halted production and saw cars begin to pile up before GMH capitulated handing over improvements in wages and conditions.

Local support for the strikers was quickly forthcoming with the Broadmeadows 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 and hire women. It also was announced it would increase the number of toilet breaks, repair leaking roofs and increase wages over and above their original offer. Many workers wanted to hold out for more, but the union manipulated the vote on the decision by splitting the strikers up into their separate language groups. With everybody housed in different halls the strength of the rank and file 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 manipulated and the gains fairly minimal the sense of pride and victory amongst the workers was nevertheless enormous. They had taken on one of the world's largest multi-nationals and faced them down. As Sol Marks put it in 1996 "We won enough to make people feel proud." Another striker, at the time, described the feeling to The Vanguard as being "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 recalled in A Divided Working Class

Quote:
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.

Sources
Tracy Constance and Michael Quinlan, A Divided Working Class, London: Routledge Press, 1988.
Wendy Lowenstein, Weevils At Work, Melbourne: Catalyst Press, 1997.
The Age, 1973.
The Digger, 1973.
Direct Action, 1973.
Herald Sun, 1973.
The Tribune, 1973.
The Vanguard, 1973.

From Iain McIntyre, Disturbing the Peace: Tales from Australia’s Rebel History, Melbourne: Homebrew Books, 2005, pp. 35-41.

Steven.
Jun 28 2010 09:09

thanks!

flaneur
Mar 13 2012 23:59

At least the spam bumps interesting articles now and then. Also, the photo isn't there any more.

TomOrsagfromSol...
Aug 27 2012 09:49

This is a factual error - AMWU assistant national secretary [later to become a Labour Minister for Foreign Affairs] Laurie Carmichael. Carmichael was never Foreign Affairs Minister in a Labor government.
He was then a member of the reformist/soft stalinist Communist Party of Australia (CPA), which was rapidly moving to the right, so that its' union official members would have felt right at home inside the Labor Party, like John Halfpenny from the AMWU, who resigned from the CPA to join the Labor Party in 1979.
Carmichael remained in the CPA, but his claim to fame is writing the Prices and Incomes Accord. The Hawke and Keating Labor government, elected in March 1983, sold it to workers as way to gain wage rises without striking but it fact was a way to hold down their wages, an incomes policy.
Carmichael would attack any unions at ACTU congresses that went on strike outside the boundaries of the Accord.