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,
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
"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
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.
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,
Weevils At Work, Wendy Lowenstein, 1997, Catalyst Press.