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All the Way With Clarrie O’Shea

5000 unionists marched with Clarrie O’Shea (right) on the way to the court hearings that preceded his arrest.

5000 unionists marched with Clarrie O’Shea (right) on the way to the court hearings that preceded his arrest.

It’s May 16, 1969. “Call Clarence Lyell O’Shea,” commanded Justice John Kerr to the courtroom that was filling up with union members. A hush fell over the room, waiting for one of the true giants of the Australian labour movement to appear. 

Clarence, Clarrie to his mates and his enemies alike, took the stand in his own time. He had been summonsed (yes, it’s a word) to appear at the Industrial Court before. 

Clarrie had refused to attend his prior five court hearings - but this time he showed up with a few supporters. 5000, in fact. 

“I challenge the authority of this Court to deal with my case,” declared Clarrie, before even being sworn in. “I am merely defending the funds of my organisation.” His organisation was the Australian Tramway and Motor Omnibus Employees' Association, but they mostly just called it the Tramways Union. The funds he was defending were… unaccounted for. 

The union had accrued fines totalling around $13,000 for taking illegal industrial action in the course of vigorously defending and improving the working conditions of its members. It was no oversight: the Tramways Union had made a conscious decision to refuse to pay them. 

“I am a paid servant of my members, I am directed to protect their interests at all times.”

“I do not want to hear any speeches from you,” said Kerr, “except to know whether you do or do not intend to answer questions and to bring the books which you have been ordered to bring.”

Not only were they refusing to pay, but they had emptied their accounts to stow their money somewhere that the government wouldn’t be able to find and seize it. Thus, the demands for the union’s books.

The rank-and-file of the Tramways Union had been clear about not cooperating with the Court, and Clarrie took his role as a trustee of the membership’s will very seriously.

“I do not,” replied Clarrie, flatly.

That sealed it. News travelled fast, emanating out from the courtroom, and the dominoes were now laid out clearly for everyone to see. Laurie Carmichael, then Assistant Secretary of the Amalgamated Engineering Union (AEU), who was addressing the crowd gathered outside, was the one to break the news. 

The crowd of unionists outside the Industrial Court, May 16th, 1969

The crowd of unionists outside the Industrial Court, May 16th, 1969

“That’s it, the stoppage is on tomorrow,” Laurie announced outside the courthouse. “Don’t delay - return to the factories and mobilise your mates! This is the time for discipline!”

Back inside, even though the die was cast, there were motions to go through and there was a criminal to be dealt with. 

Clarrie was arrested on contempt of court after some righteous disbelief by Kerr. This would be the first time that Kerr’s actions ended up grinding a nation to a halt, but it would not be the last. 

It took some time to mobilise, but by the 20th of May more than one million workers from 27 different unions around the entire country would be on strike to protest Clarrie’s arrest. 

Even inside a prison cell, Clarrie was a threat to the system. Because of a heart condition, he was hooked up to an IV drip in his cell and had to be kept under observation. The prison guards treated him well and gave him regular updates on the strikes. They informed him that stoppages were taking place everywhere from Western Australia  to Queensland. 

The payment of Clarrie’s fines is, and is likely to remain, one of the great mysteries of the union movement. They were paid by a man named Dudley MacDougall, a retired advertising executive from Sydney. Historical accounts differ on whether he fronted the money himself or whether it was given to him by a benefactor who remained anonymous. Some, including Clarrie himself, believed that the money was funnelled through MacDougall by ASIO in order to avoid further social unrest. Clarrie also believed that the authorities’ biggest fear was that his health would take a turn while locked up, and that would escalate things even further. They were, he thought, just as keen to see him released as workers were. 

In any case, it certainly wasn’t unions or their members that caved and paid the money. They were prepared to strike for as long as it took. 

Clarrie was released on the 21st of May, less than a week after being locked up. Upon being freed, he addressed a gathered crowd outside HM Prison Pentridge in Coburg. 

“My release is a great victory for the workers, working people and all other democrats who have stood up against the shackling of workers’ struggle. I should like to congratulate everyone in Australia who has played and is playing a part in this magnificent struggle.”

The Industrial Court never made use of the penal powers again after its embarrassment at the hands of Clarrie O’Shea. 

It’s May 16, 1969. “Call Clarence Lyell O’Shea,” commanded Justice John Kerr to the courtroom that was filling up with union members. A hush fell over the room, waiting for one of the true giants of the Australian labour movement to appear. Clarence, Clarrie to his mates and his enemies alike, took the stand in his own time. He had been summonsed (yes, it’s a word) to appear at the Industrial Court before.

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