The bludgeoning weapons in this case testify to the reality that winning dignity for workers is not always a dignified process. These crude batons were reputedly seized from communist “dole strikers” seeking to storm the Trades Hall Council and bludgeon conservative union leaders, who, in their view, weren’t doing enough to support an increase to unemployment benefits.
Violent factionalism notwithstanding, this case also reflects a proud history of collective action. The working rights we take for granted today – like the minimum wage, annual leave, the weekend, and retirement savings - were all once radical demands put by working people with a bold vision.
In many cases unionists are still fighting to retain the conditions won a hundred years ago or more.
Take, for example, the Sunshine Harvester judgement of 1907, which determined that employers must pay a minimum wage that was sufficient for “a human being in a civilized community” to support their family in “frugal comfort”, regardless of the employer’s capacity to pay. While that decision set the precedent for the minimum wage protections we still have today, workers trying to live on award minimum wages know that these wages are a far cry from the “living wage” unions campaign for.
And while workers in union have progressively won campaigns to limit working hours, thousands of Australian workers are seeing those benefits eroded by casualised and insecure forms of employment, where working hours are far from guaranteed.
Today unionists continue to defend these rights, even as we advance new claims for dignity at work.