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Striking Matilda (1969)
(Refusing to carry the bag)

Once there was a tram-man refusing to be leg-roped
Under the bans of a Co-ercion Tree,
And he sang as he watched all the workers boiling
Who'll come a-striking Matilda with me?

Chorus Who'll come a-striking Matilda, my darling,
Who'll come a-striking Matilda with me?
Striking Matilda and leading the ACTU
Who'll come a-striking Matilda with me?

From Darwin to Hobart, from Perth across to Sydney,
The workers stopped toiling, demanding Clarrie be free
And they called on the Government, pressed upon the ACTU
You come a-striking Matilda with me.

Down came MacDougall, flourishing his money bags,
Up jumped the Government and greeted him with glee,
You're the jolly joker to settle all this turmoil
You're just the type to come a-waltzing with me.

But the workers were questioning all about the PENAL POWER
They'd had a gutful of the Co-ercion Tree
And Albert not wanting a ghost in his billabong
Told Gorton, You'd better waltz your Matilda with me.

by Poet Laureate, Trades Hall, Melbourne - 21/5/1969.


Clarence Lyell O'Shea, more commonly known as Clarrie O'Shea (1906-1988), was the Victorian State Secretary of the Australian Tramway & Motor Omnibus Employees' Association who was jailed in 1969 by Sir John Kerr for contempt of the Industrial Court when he disobeyed a court order that his union pay $8,100 in fines, under the penal sections of the Conciliation and Arbitration Act.

O'Shea's jailing triggered the largest postwar national strike largely organised by left unions when one million workers stopped work over six days to demand "Free Clarrie and repeal the penal powers". On the sixth day O'Shea was released when the fines were paid by a man who claimed to have won the New South Wales lottery. Over the previous five years, the Tramways Union had militantly defended and improved the conditions of its members. The union had accumulated 40 fines totalling $13,200 imposed on it by the Conciliation and Arbitration Court.

Due to the inaction of Melbourne Trades Hall, 27 unions had caucused together in response to the attacks on unionism by the widespread application of fines. They called a mass delegates meeting for the day of the hearing that was attended by 5,000 delegates. After the meeting the delegates marched to the courthouse led by Clarrie O'Shea.

In court O'Shea refused to take the oath, then refused to present the union books, in line with the wishes of the members of his union, and was formally arrested and sentenced by John Kerr for contempt of court on Thursday 15 May 1969 and taken to HM Prison Pentridge. This led to immediate walk outs on the Thursday, and a general strike which paralysed Victoria on the Friday. There were two 24-hour stoppages in Victoria, involving 40 unions. All trains and trams stopped, delivery of goods was severely restricted, the power supply was cut and TV and radio broadcasts were disrupted.

Protests and strike action also occurred in regional Victoria with the Geelong Trades Hall Council supporting the strikes and similar action in Bendigo, Ballarat, and the Latrobe Valley. All together, about 500,000 workers struck across Australia on Friday, 16 May. The Trades and Labour Council of WA, the Queensland Trades and Labour Council and the United Trades and Labour Council of South Australia all called statewide general strikes. In Queensland, mass meetings or strikes occurred in 20 cities, while Trades and Labour Councils in Newcastle, Wollongong and Canberra called out members of affiliated unions. The Tasmanian Trades and Labour Council also refused to sanction any action, while 22 affiliated unions representing 50,000 workers (80% of Tasmania's workforce) organized a general stoppage.

Protests calling for O'Shea's release occurred outside HM Prison Pentridge in Coburg over the weekend. On Tuesday 20 May, Dudley MacDougall, a former advertising manager for the Australian Financial Review, acting on "behalf of a public benefactor", paid the union's fines. Kerr ordered O'Shea to be released. Although the penal laws were not repealed, they have never been used again.

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australian traditional songs . . . a selection by mark gregory