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.
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