Two epic industrial disputes

Christopher Sheil

Lockout and Bastard Boys are welcome representations of two of the 20th century's epic Australian industrial confrontations: the 1929 lockout on the northern coalfields of New South Wales and the 1998 lockout on the waterfront.

Separated by 70 years, unexpectedly, perhaps, these great clashes share much in common. Most obviously, both were overt attacks on unions that have traditionally been among the strongest and most well led in the country: the miners and waterside workers. Both confrontations also had the support of the conservative governments of the day, led by Stanley Bruce and John Howard respectively.

The epic status of the conflicts follows from the fact that unionism has been a natural feature of the mining and stevedoring industries since the 19th century. Major attacks on the mature foundations of unionism by employers acting in concert with governments inevitably carry connotations of attacks on the labour movement as a whole. Implicitly, if fully-committed stands by workers such as miners and wharfies can be broken, the field falls open to employers at large, at least in the short-term.

Moreover, no part of the labour movement can stage a spectacle like an industry union. Because they are defined by place not craft, attacks on workers such as miners and wharfies also invariably amount to attacks on the surrounding communities. In watching these films in sequence, the continuity between how heavily families featured in both 1929 and 1998 is striking. Mass lockouts of these workers automatically meant a much larger mass of distressed families, who suddenly had little else to do than stick together and fight back.

Other continuities tumble. Although the financial position of the employers was central to the public justifications for both lockouts, in neither were their books opened. Both involved the recruitment of scab workforces. Both travelled up to the High Court. Both exhibited extraordinary instances of the deeply moving phenomenon of large-scale working-class solidarity against the nation's rich and powerful.

And both are most commonly remembered by particular moments: the 1929 lockout for the Rothbury Incident, when police opened fire on several thousand protesting miners, fatally shooting Norman Brown and wounding dozens more; the 1998 lockout for the way that the wharfies were physically evicted from their posts near midnight in a paramilitary-style operation featuring security personnel with guard dogs.

Of course, there were also big differences. In 1929, some 10,000 miners were locked out for 15 months that ran straight into the Great Depression; in 1998, 2000 wharfies were locked out, and they only stayed that way for one month, during the then spluttering recovery from the 1990-91 recession. The difference in the physical scale and context of the two conflicts in these basic senses is in inverse proportion to their treatment in these two films. Lockout is less than one hour, Bastard Boys almost four.

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