Recollections concerning the Ford Strike

Uploaded as part of the Anarchism in Australia project.

Personal recollections of Vincente Ruiz (hijo) about anarchist attempts to intervene in the 1973 Workers Control Conference in Newcastle, and the 1973 Ford Strike.

Workers Control Conference held in Newcastle during the Easter weekend in April 1973

From Melbourne Terry Hutton and John (…) representing the Melbourne Anarchists, and myself representing the Local Federation of the CNT in Exile, attended the conference that was principally organised by certain elements of the Communist Party of Australia in conjunction with the NSW branch of the BLF and its secretary Jack Mundey being the main spokesperson due to his well-known participation with the green ban issue at the time.

Following some discussion the three of us agreed that it would be an interesting conference, and that it would also be a great opportunity to expose the concept of workers control from the anarcho-syndicalist point of view.

We did not intervene in any way during the first day, with the Agenda flowing fairly smoothly representing the different Marxist points of view of how workers control should evolve and be put into practice. Although the theme was constantly repeating itself, just like a scratched record, “the cadres of the so called revolutionary party would be in charge”. On numerous occasions the industrial actions being taken at the time by the NSW BLF branch were upheld as examples of workers control together with the joint resident group community green ban actions.

It was in the afternoon of the second day when question time was opened that I took the opportunity to ask permission to address all those present and ask a question. I offcourse introduced myself as a member of the Spanish anarcho-syndicalist C.N.T. in exile and followed up by sighting the examples of successful collectivisations that occurred following the military coup of the 19th July 1936 in the major industrial townships around Spain as well
as the agricultural lands in the regions of Estremadura, Andalucia, Levante, Cataluña and Castilla, a process that operated in many areas right up to the last minute in the early days of 1939. I then proceeded by seeking clarification as to whether the proposed concepts of workers control would be subject to the direction of an “avant-guarde central committee” that would dictate production, working hours as well as remuneration, or, would real self-management prevail with all members of the work place being the ones to determine both social and economic policies by which their daily working lives would evolve.

Needless to say that during the course of my address numerous attempts were made to shut me down. If I recall and my memory does not betray me, the clarification I was seeking was never answered.

The Ford Strike 1973

One must understand the environment we were dealing with, to begin with the majority of the work force were immigrants with little or no command of the English language who in turn were the lowest paid, working under the worst conditions you could ever imagine.

Quite a number of the Spanish immigrants I knew worked at either Ford or Holden and some of the stories they would relate about their working conditions were quite horrendous. In summer extreme heat and in winter the complete opposite. They would also tell me that their remuneration was calculated under the model of “piece work” which they use to pronounce as “piss wick”, when prompted to explain what they meant they would tell me that they would get paid by piece or task they had to constantly repeat day in, day out. This method of operating a production line meant that if any worker was slower than the person next to him, that other persons earning capacity would be affected, causing on many occasions confrontations amongst the workers. Many of the workers suffering severe injuries in their endeavours to maintain the required momentum, injuries that would eventually lead to the loss of their employment because they could not keep up with the pace the company wanted the production line to operate at.

And although there was a history of strikes at both Ford and Holden the union bureaucracies always managed to convince the workers to accept the offers put forward by the employers which always was the minimum increase in wages and diluted conditions of employment with the underlying threat of “you do not want to create a situation where you could lose your employment”.

If my memory does not betray me it would have been either at the end of March or maybe early April 1973, there was an attempt for a substantial increase in wages but most of all the 17.5 % loading on annual leave that already existed in many other industries. After innumerable goings and comings by the union bureaucracy a meeting held in May saw the Ford worker walk off the job. Some weeks later the union came back to the striking workers calling a mass meeting at the Broadmeadows Town Hall and strongly advised that the striking workers accept a $3 a week pay raise.

A number of the Spanish immigrants and in particular Luis Costanza a libertarian militant, conveyed to me what was the course of events that transpired from this moment on.

A vote was taken, and the workers rejected the offer put forward by the company, however the union secretary declared that the vote went in favour of accepting the offer from Ford and he ordered the workers to return to the shop floor. As Luis explained to me the secretary had just dug his own grave, and he was very lucky to get out of the town hall alive.

It was two days thereafter that the factory at Broadmeadows was attacked. Luis pointed out that the frustration of the striking workers could be seen, however their desire to take control of their destiny was stronger, without the support of the union they produced numerous leaflets, they organised picket lines, as well as quite a number of meetings where decisions were made by the striking workers on the picket line as well as informing all present of the events happening.

Luis Costanza who had been distributing anarcho-syndicalist journals and magazines for quite some time, grabbed the opportunity to organise a meeting of the striking workers to explain how they could organize themselves in a non-bureaucratic way, where they could control their own decision making process and take the necessary direct action when required. Three of us were invited as speakers at this meeting Terry Hutton, John (?) and myself, we spoke to those gathered in English, Italian, Greek and Spanish, explaining the organisational process of revolutionary syndicalism. We spoke for almost 1 hour and then answered questions for approximately half an hour. A lot of interest was shown by those present in having a better understanding of organising in an anarcho-sydicalist way, but in particular how decisions were made and how votes on issues at hand were taken. When we explained that it would be the shop floor that would each and every time make the final decision, and that there would never be the influence of union bureaucrats all those gathered erupted in applauses.

By what Luis indicated, the Geelong factory also went out in solidarity.

Unfortunately the union leadership had already put into process the betrayal of the striking workers. A number of the Spanish workers from Holden informed Luis that the worker at Holden had collected money to help out the striking workers at ford. When the ford strikers asked the union bureaucrats where the funds collected were, they expressed no knowledge of such fund.

By the end of July a lot of the families on strike were having financial difficulties, the arbitration commission ordered a return to work, even Bob Hawke the president of the ACTU strongly suggested that the workers return to work. The strike regrettably capitulated under the false promises that the workers issues and concerns would be looked at.