Queensland canecutters' strike, 1934 - Peter Sheldon

Racist cartoon from union newspaper The Worker in 1925 depicting European immigrant workers in the sugar industry

The history of the victorious strike of mostly migrant cane-cutting workers in Australia. To secure the victory the workers had to overcome the bosses' resistance, the police and the racist trade union.

Submitted by Steven. on September 10, 2006

Like many other anti- fascists, Francesco Carmagnola was forced to emigrate from Italy because of fascist violence. From his arrival in 1922, he was increasingly active and prominent in organising anti fascist activities in North Queensland, Sydney and Melbourne. When the depression undermined these activities in Melbourne, he returned to North Queensland followed by some of his staunchest and most experienced anti fascist comrades.

Although the Depression was not as deep in Queensland, conditions were extremely difficult. Canecutting was extremely arduous work especially in the tropical heat. There were also specific health hazards.

The most important was Weil's disease which had horrible symptoms and at times proved fatal. Canefield rats, present in plague proportions during the wet summers of the early 1930's, spread the disease through their urine. Two doctors believed that burning the cane before cutting it would greatly lessen the danger. The cutters, increasingly worried by the growing sickness rate and its terrible effects, took this up as a demand in 1934.

Most of the cutters were migrants, especially Italians. "Their" union, the all-powerful Australian Workers' Union (AWU), had a long history of racism and sell-outs. In June 1930, for example, it made a "Gentlemen's Agreement" with the various bosses' organisations that at least 75% of all cutters were to be British or Australian subjects. The union thus effectively black-banned a large part of its non-British migrant membership.

A local anarchist group, spearheaded by the Danesi brothers, led a successful struggle against the Agreement. This strengthened the influence of the anarchists among the large Italian communities in North Queensland and also helped develop confidence in forms of struggle which stressed class solidarity and downplayed political allegiances. The arrival of Carmagnola and his friends the following year strengthened this tendency. For the next four years, they operated widely in the North Queensland cane field areas, harassing fascist representatives, propagandising against fascism and organising strikes to improve working conditions.

By 1934, with the growing incidence of Weil's disease, the major demand was for the burning of the cane. Under the local commercial and industrial awards, burnt cane attracted lower prices than green cane but these losses could be deducted from the cutters' piece rate wages. Rates were already low. Nevertheless, powerful sugar refineries led by the giant Colonial Sugar Refining Company (CSR), and the growers' organisations stood out against burning under any circumstances.

The workers had against them powerful employers, a hostile and racist union and the police. Nevertheless, they confronted the problem with great unity and imaginative and courageous direct action. About 200 of the most active strikers toured the Ingham District in motor lorries, turning over cane trucks and lorries taking cane to the mills. At times it meant violent confrontation with the police but, wherever they moved, the strikers constantly agitated among other groups of cutters.

This proved most effective. The fear of Weil's disease and the spirited organisation of the strikers as well as Carmagnola's renowned oratorical powers encouraged the spread of the strike north towards Cairns. At Mourilyan, 420 Italian cutters came out; at Hambledon 218 and hundreds more elsewhere.

The strike, a clear example of class solidarity, was gaining momentum and the AWU was finally forced to lodge an application to the industrial courts for the burning of the cane. The court granted this in September 1934, in the face of the overwhelming success of the strike.

It was a major victory and yet the strike had lasted barely one month. Workers had relied on their own resources, strength and initiative in the face of seemingly overwhelming opposition. This too at a time when most of the Australian labour movement had sunk into despondency and/or apathy as a result of the Depression and previous defeats. A short strike where workers took the initiative and attacked any threat of scab production had a better chance than the long drawn out struggles which had usually crippled workers' abilities to resist. Italian workers had shown that it was possible to breach the entrenched racism and to break through the artificial barriers which bosses used to divide and weaken workers. They had also demonstrated that their lives and health could not be bartered, were not the playthings of lawyers and union bureaucrats. There must be no attempt to value safety in terms of danger money and sickness only in terms of compensation.

The fight began again the following year as the AWU again sold out to the bosses. However, the victory of 1934 set an example to the cutters and the success was repeated on an even wider scale. Carmagnola, boycotted by the local employers, returned to Sydney to continue his anti fascist work.

by Peter Sheldon

Diane Menghetti, The Weil's Disease Strike, 1935, in DJ Murphy, The Big Strikes, 1983.
Gianfranco Cresciani, The proletarian migrants: fascism and Italian Anarchists in Australia, Australian Quarterly, March 1979.
Interviews with Frank Carmagnola and other strikers of 1934.

Published in Rebel Worker, Sydney, Vol 5 No 2 (26) April-May 1986



9 years 8 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by Steven. on July 31, 2014

BTW, found this contemporary newspaper cutting with some more information:


Dispute Over Burning To Destroy Rats UNRULY ELEMENT SHOWING ITSELF

Cane cutters in the Her tan River (Q.) district and the Macknade and Victoria mill areas have gone on strike because they are not allowed to burn the cane before cutting, in order to destroy rats, which are believed to have been the cause of the outbreak of Weil's disease. In addition to re questing that the cane should be burnt, the cutters want the 20 Der cent, burn

ing penalty, provided by the sugar award, to be borne in equal shares by the cutters and the farmers. In the Victoria Mill area eight gangs, including two or three British gangs, remained cutting throughout the day, but both mills expected to finish crush ing the cane on hand next day. The unruly element among the strikers is asserting itself, and, during the day, parties went from farm to farm over turning all cane trucks on the tram lines. Subsequently the police took action, and a number of summonses were issued against them on charges of intimidation.

The Farmers' Association, at a con ference later considered the ques tion of acceding to the men's de mands. Dr. Coffey (Commissioner of Public Health) and Dr. Sawers were present. Dr. Coffey strongly recom mended that the cane should be burnt, in order to prevent the pos sibility of an outbreak of infec tious jaundice. It is believed that a section of farmers are in 'avor of this. The cutters, however, demand green cane rates in the event of the cane being burnt, and the farmers are determined not to accede to this. During the day there was a disturb ance at Halifax, when, it is understood, on account of a demonstration at the police station, shots were nred Into the air by the police to disperse the crowd.