Percy Laidler in 1940. This was one of the two photographs of Laidler at the front of the original print edition of Solidarity Forever! (The other one was the 1908 portrait appearing in chapter 3 of this electronic edition.)
It had been intended to continue this book to the end of the anti-fascist war, covering another twenty years. There was so much to say that the practicable move was to break it off at 1925. There are others who are writing about various radical activities during the period 1925-45, but the earlier periods are fast becoming irretrievable.
In this chapter the events of the twenty years 1925 to 1945 are briefly summarised.
Preceded by big strikes in the Timber, Waterside and Coalmining Industries, the first big event was the economic depression. Only those who actually experienced the economic crisis, commonly called the "depression", really know its severity. It is not surprising that that generation is still accused of being "depression minded". The scars are too deep to ever erase and they come through into the later generations.
Unemployment reached a percentage of 29% in Victoria in 1932. Australia, with 6½ million population, had half a million unemployed: add on the dependants and you have some idea of the immensity of the tragedy. The employed had wage cuts of at least 10%, a large section had work rationed and the employed helped to keep their unemployed relatives and friends.
Apart from the capitalist class everyone, almost without exception, suffered privation. The old-age pensioner had to help keep his children and grandchildren from his pension.
Soup kitchens, hand-outs, evictions, starvation, police brutality, gaoling and newspaper slander were the lot of the unemployed. They replied with demonstrations, strikes, organisation of self-help (communes) and fought the evictions.
At first there was no "dole" and the unemployed were given a bag of mixed food as their weekly ration. After an heroic strike of five weeks, when they refused to take the bags, they got a 5/6 order on a grocer. In the end, Victoria achieved the highest dole (called "sustenance" by the Government) in the Commonwealth—but only after several strikes. In 1935 the rates were raised to 25/- a week for a married man, 16/- for a single person, and 3/- for each child. The men had to work on relief jobs, one, two or three days a week, for which they got more than sustenance, but this was not the case in other States. The men called this, "working for the dole". The dole was means-tested. That is to say, if Grandma lived with an unemployed family her pension was taken into account.
If a juvenile member of the family was working the only way the boy or girl could retain his or her wages was to leave home. Men worked on the Shrine, some were winners of the Victoria Cross and Military Cross in the 1914-18 war and their names were ennobled on the walls inside the Shrine, but they still suffered as anyone else. Lads of 15-19 years were sent to farmers to be "instructed" at 5/- per week.
In the middle class suburb of Kew, there were 1,000 known unemployed and amongst the number were Doctors, Dentists, Bank Clerks and Managers of industry. It was harder for them to turn to "navvying", the type of work given to men to enable them to work for the dole.
Muriel Heagney organised centres for girls and women and at one period five nurses applied to enter, one had been a Matron of a hospital, another a sub-matron.
An idea of the scarcity of work can be seen from the fact that a two-line advertisement for a junior typiste in 1930 brought 237 applicants: already at 8 a.m. Little Collins Street was crowded.
An advertisement for 50 vacancies in temporary Royal Show work brought 1,800 women. They gathered four hours beforehand and 17 fainted.
Small businessmen were badly hit. In a two mile stretch from Brunswick Road to Bell Street in Sydney Road there were 31 butcher shops in 1929; in 1933 there were 18 butcher shops and similar reductions in other types of shops. Roley Farrall had a milk round and he said the only ones that could pay were three or four prostitutes.
The Education Department was surprised at getting 10,000 applications for grant of school books at the beginning of the 1931 school year. The usual number was 1,500.
There were strange speculations from the "educated" as to the cause of the crisis—"sunspots" was one suggestion. A Professor said the cure was, "don't talk about it!" L. F. Giblin, Ritchie Professor of Economics, wrote ten letters to "John Citizen" per medium the Herald. The simple gist was that the workers should work longer hours and get less pay—or in other words, increase production and decrease consumption, the very condition that then existed.
An American society female urged wealthy people to eat more and cause more employment.
The heroism and sense of humour of the unemployed were tremendous—only these qualities could preserve them.
Estate agents and bailiffs were particularly hated because of evictions. After one eviction the unemployed reciprocated. They tossed everything out of the agent's office. Through the window and door they threw typewriters, papers, furniture and everything in sight. The evictor was evicted.
In Carlton, without warning, a jam handout would be announced and the unemployed had to provide a receptacle. There would be a mad rush over to the cemetery, a quick sluice out of the jam and pickle jars containing flowers and these became the receptacles for the jam hand-out. The dead helped the living.
Gus Marusich was given a sentence of six months for having "insufficient means of lawful support": he was on the dole.
Ernie Thornton, later Federal secretary of the Ironworkers' Union in its militant days, rode a bicycle from Melbourne to Ballarat (a distance of 70 miles) to speak at a meeting. It was snowing at Ballan and he had to walk most of the way to Bacchus Marsh because of a headwind.
The courage, tenacity and heroism of the unemployed leaders took a toll in premature deaths.
The police in Sydney were more brutal than in Melbourne one of the active unemployed hanged himself in gaol, another became insane from blows on the head.
In Melbourne in one week of demonstrations 100 unemployed were arrested. In the same week 100 joined the Communist Party (not necessarily the same people) and Ralph Gibson says in his book, "My Years in the Communist Party" that there was a queue in Russell Street waiting to join up.
It has frequently been stated that the crisis lasted till 1933 or 1934 because employment figures started to rise and the number receiving the dole decreased. In the opinion of many of the unemployed battlers, and the writer, the crisis and subsequent depression lasted until 1939 and was solved by the war.
Employment did increase, but at the expense of juvenile labour and cheap female labour. There was no university education for workers' children in those days and precious few went to High School. Leaving age was 14 years but a permit could be obtained in necessitous cases to leave at the age of 12 years. Boys could work in a factory at 14 years and girls at 15 years, but girls could work in other than factory work at 14 years. Work between the ages of 14 and 16 years is listed as "child labour" in the Commonwealth of Australia Year Book. The 1939 Year Book (p. 716) states: "Juvenile employment in factories reached its maximum in 1937-38."
In addition, relief schemes were better organised and workers on these schemes, even if only doing two days a week were taken off the dole and counted as though in the workforce.
The mighty battlers of the depression were still out of work when the war began. At best, they could get a certain amount of casual work. One of the Footscray leaders recently recalled at an ASSLH meeting, how he and his mates were in a queue at the back of the Footscray Town Hall, waiting for the dole, on the Monday that the press announced the war had begun. They solved their economic problem by joining the AIF.
A vast number of the experienced unemployed leaders formed the core of the Sixth Division. It is generally agreed that the Australian soldier was a good soldier. As far as this war is concerned the reason seems plain, that those first in the field were a mature, experienced group of men who had worked and fought together for a period of time up to ten years and they transferred their knowledge and experience to the AIF. A large number knew each other from the past and were better able to combine. As a Carlton unemployed leader said of his experiences during the war—"We had two strikes and won them both." (Some would call them "mutinies".)
Fred Farrall served in the 55th battalion during the first world war. In an article entitled "Trade Unionism in the First AIF—1914-18" (Recorder October 1971) he states:— ". . . the 1st AIF was an army of a new type. Firstly, it was a volunteer army, and secondly, the most important, within its ranks were a big percentage of trade unionists. It was undoubtedly this influence that made it the most democratic army in that war."
Again, "In no other army was there so many officers with workingclass background as in the First AIF." Fred himself was in three strikes in the army and in contact with a fourth. In the last one, on board troopship to return home, an officer named Colonel Cheeseman wanted the men to shift quarters and when they refused he threatened them with the loss of 28 days' pay. A bushman acted as spokesman for the soldiers and mentioned, "We are a long way from land, the water is very deep and some nights are very dark."
The men were not moved, and they lost no pay.
When Laidler walked down Bourke Street, many people knew him and he stopped and talked with all and sundry. After the war began he couldn't walk down Bourke Street without meeting three or four ex-Unemployed Workers' Movement (UWM) men in uniform. Laidler would say, "God spare my days, I never thought to see you in the King's uniform." More than once the reply was, "We've got to learn to use the guns, you know." Really, they mainly joined as being the only means of providing some security for their wives and families.
Laidler played an active part helping the unemployed but would be chiefly remembered by thousands because of two lantern lectures which he repeated dozens, if not hundreds, of times at the request of suburban and country branches of the UWM. One entitled "Cold and Hungry", and the other, "Poverty and Plenty", well represented the simple type of propaganda which he knew would reach the largest number of people. Most of the unemployed had never before been in touch with political ideas and he set out to educate them in the basics of Marxism. Some branches would ask for the same lecture to be repeated two or three times. Laidler spared no pains in perfecting his speeches and repetition did not spoil them because he always relived them as he spoke.
He spoke at mass meetings and was always on call for bailing out arrested men.
Parallel with the rise of the UWM was an intense interest in the Soviet Union (the land without unemployment). Laidler became one of the sponsors of the Friends of the Soviet Union organisation which met in a hall in a'Beckett Street.
From the time of the Soviet Revolution, which he greeted enthusiastically, Percy made a zealous study of changing conditions in the USSR. His listeners often took it for granted he had spent much time in that country, whereas in actual fact he had never had the opportunity to visit it.
He chaired and spoke at meetings and took collections for the Movement Against War and Fascism, Spanish Relief, Australian Soviet Friendship League, Sheepskins for Russia and many other similar organisations. He participated in campaigns on Abyssinia, Count Von Luckner (the Nazi spy) and many others. When the left was supporting the war, after its "phoney" stage, there were as yet no diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union, although it was our ally. Representatives from most of the allied countries spoke from a platform in front of the Town Hall at lunchtime on December 12th, 1941. National anthems of Britain, America, the Soviet Union and other countries were played. A large crowd heard the speakers who were mainly consuls of the allied nations. In the absence of a consul, Percy Laidler spoke for the ASFL voicing confidence in an allied victory over Hitler.
In 1934, R. G. Menzies, then attorney-general, attempted to emasculate the Australian Anti-War Congress being held in Melbourne by barring New Zealand's representative, Gerald Griffin, and the World Congress delegate, Egon Erwin Kisch, from landing in Australia.
The peace movement fought for their admission and the quality of the campaign plus the initiatives of Kisch and Griffin themselves resulted in them successfully performing their mission. Laidler worked strongly in this campaign. When the "Strathaird" with Kisch on board arrived in Port Melbourne, Laidler was one of the speakers on the boat deck when a meeting was held with those who managed to get through a police cordon, posing as friends and relatives of passengers. Sympathisers who did not get through hired boats and came around the ship to call out support. It was during this campaign that the first "big" collection was ever taken up in Melbourne, or possibly Australia. It was over £100 at Melbourne Stadium and Laidler took up this collection. Harry Scott-Bennett was so excited that he called for three cheers for the collection.
Kisch became friendly with Percy as Perc was a very good magician, performing every day at the shop, and Kisch was a keen amateur. Kisch learned quite a few moves whilst with Percy for whenever he had a break in his speaking engagements, he would come in for a lesson.
Another big event in which Melbourne demonstrated its opposition to fascism took place in 1938 when an Italian warship, the "Raimondo Montecuccoli" (which had recently been shelling refugees from Franco's terror along the Spanish coast) visited Melbourne. Sailors on board beat up an Italian-Australian. They knocked him unconscious and made him a prisoner with a view to abducting him to Italy. He had an Australian wife and child.
"Wharfies got to know about it and within a few hours Laidler had negotiated with the Italian ship's officers for the man's release." (Ralph Gibson: My years in the Communist Party.) That night a gigantic demonstration was held on the pier. It had been called by word of mouth, yet thousands were there. They milled in stormy anger and endeavoured to break through the cordon and get on board the warship, in this they were unsuccessful. Had they done so, there would have been a bloody massacre. Laidler was again called in to calm the highly emotional crowd, and channel its intense feeling to constructive ends.
Percy Laidler in the 1930s. This photo was used to illustrate "Meet Percy Laidler", an article in the June 1937 issue of the Communist Review.
In its early days the Communist Party was nursed by Laidler. Torn frequently with internal dissension there were times when the leadership felt they could not trust each other but they all felt they could trust Laidler. He became the CP banker—all money went through him, and this continued for some years. Customers in the shop must have wondered at the steady and continuous clink of coins being counted on Monday morning. It was the Yarra Bank collection and often the collection from a Sunday afternoon meeting in one of the city theatres, i.e. Princess, Palace, His Majesty's or the Temperance Hall. Customers were dropped abruptly when money came in.
On one occasion, the party being riddled with police spies during the depression, the three leading members came over to see Percy and one said, "Which one of us do you think is a police spy?" The Communist Party greatly valued the way that he could get them a hearing with Trade union leaders and Labor politicians, who felt embarrassed to turn down any request from Laidler.
As he regarded himself as an equal with all men and had no trace of inferiority complex, which was very common to new people in the CP, he was usually asked to lead deputations to Sir Thomas Blamey, Chief Commissioner of Police; T. Tunnecliffe, Chief Secretary (his brother-in-law); Premier Jack Cain and other Ministers. He could always secure a good hearing with these people.
Throughout his whole active life he had an intense appreciation of the need for united action and contempt for sectarianism that hindered it. The CP's worst feature was its complacent sectarianism and Laidler hammered the members on it.
His own best achievements at securing united platforms were: the revival of May Day, the organisation of the 20th anti-conscription anniversary and the Tom Mann 80th birthday celebrations at which John Curtin (leader of the opposition) and many of the labor politicians spoke on the same platform as lefts.
During the war, on the suggestion of Prime Minister John Curtin, Laidler did great educational work winning support for Russia by lecturing on behalf of Army Education. His subject: "Our Ally, the Red Army." He came into contact with thousands of soldiers around army camps in Victoria, dispelling their abysmal ignorance of the USSR. He spoke at American camps and found them very unused, and unreceptive to lectures. One of the higher-ups said to him at one camp, "there would have been more here if they knew there would be pictures." In many camps were the UWM men who would come up and remind him, "I heard you speak on 'Cold and Hungry'." At the Frankston P.T. (Physical Training) camp he found no less than seven ex-UWM men were instructors.
• • •
When Percy Laidler entered the working class movement, reformism was rising, and parliamentary seats easily obtained. Many of Tom Mann's pupils used the knowledge gained from him to advance themselves along the path of personal opportunism. During the economic crisis some of these former colleagues were in power—part of the State apparatus. They ordered the baton charges on the unemployed, the gaolings and deportations. Percy unhesitatingly ranged himself against his former colleagues on the side of the workers and unemployed. The behaviour of the Labor politicians and leaders astounded and shocked many, who had great faith in the Labor Party. The cynicism of today did not exist to any degree, at the beginning of the economic crisis.
Laidler's stand lifted up the hearts of many people suffering disillusionment and tending to defeatism: it helped restore their faith in man and in workers' organisations.
It may be observed that this book is not very much about Laidler, but rather the events connected with him. In fact, he is not even mentioned in some chapters. This would be how he would like it written as one of his best attributes was his objectivity in thinking, he was never subjective. The opinions of others may give some idea of his character.
Tom Mann: "There was Percy Laidler, a shrewd debater, excellent worker, and straight goer."
Ralph Gibson: "This dynamic little man, who helped found the Communist Party, but did not finally join it, had given splendid help to all the progressive movements of his long lifetime, from the old Socialist Party, the Industrial Workers of the World and No Conscription movement onwards. A powerful speaker with a fine organising brain and great courage, he had as important an influence on me as on many others."
Again, Punch of 1909: "Unemployed Leader Percy Laidler, who is making such violent speeches at the Barrier, and who nearly got up a riot in the vestibule of Federal Parliament House one evening, is about the best mob orator that has struck Melbourne for many years. He was a quiet sober-sided clerk in Ballarat before he suddenly jumped into notoriety as an unemployed agitator. Possessed of a tuneful, strong and vibrant voice and having a command of a particularly ready flow of unhackneyed figures of speech, Laidler is a very persuasive and powerful personality when addressing a mob."
One of the few "goodies" in Frank Hardy's book, "Power without Glory" is the character "Percy Lambert", who is named for "Percy Laidler".
There are a number of people important to the working class movement mentioned in this book but many equally important are not mentioned, not from lack of appreciation of them but the restrictions of the covers prevent many being given their due. Some have been written about elsewhere. In the main, an endeavour has been made to write about those who have been neglected. At the danger of now omitting good men and women who should be given their due by some writer, a few such are referred to here:—
Jack Chapple, Jim Bergen, Bill Scanlon, Tom Gleeson, Charles Franklin, Bill Turner, Albert McNolty, Jim Coull, Perc Hill, Vida Goldstein, Doris Blackburn, Goff Bullen, the Tilley family, Bella Lavender, Dr. Maloney and many rank and filers.
Laidler was a realist rather than an idealist. On the eve of May Day after the death of anarchist J. W. Fleming, it was suddenly recalled that Fleming had asked that his ashes be scattered on the Yarra Bank on May Day. They did not have the ashes. Said Laidler, quizzically, "Does it matter what ashes they are?" A member of the Butchers' Union took the hint and came along with a large biscuit tin full of ashes. He got up and made a speech about Fleming, punctuating it with the throwing out of handfuls of ashes, which blew in the Melbourne wind all over the crowd.
Percy Laidler in the early 1950s, with grandson Alan Walker.
Friend to all in need (when desperate, unemployed came for money); women came to consult him about the need for abortion; men about their troubles with the police; people came for references and introductions to politicians—he was recipient of all manner of confidences.
He always had a sympathetic ear for workers born in other lands, who had a difficult time before the influx of immigrants. He worked with the Greeks, Italians and often spoke for the Jewish "Gezerd", a workingclass organisation interested in disseminating knowledge about Birobidzhan, the Jewish Republic in the USSR. When the revolution occurred in China the Young Chinese organisation was keenly interested and had Laidler speak to them frequently, in a premises in Little Bourke Street. He went out to the Indian quarter (off Little Lonsdale Street) and got some along to a May Day procession. When the Spanish war began there were no Spaniards in contact with the movement, Laidler went off to the Fish Market in the early hours and located sympathetic Spaniards.
Laidler was closely associated with the aborigines living in Fitzroy, and also got a response when he asked them to participate in demonstrations and meetings. Two families, the Clarkes and the Lovetts were reliable supporters. Both were large families well known in Fitzroy.
He regarded all men as human beings and quite a few notorious "underworld" men and gamblers used to call in the shop—some interested in conjuring tricks (especially the Three Card Trick, which he taught to Squizzy Taylor). A wellknown man, Barney Cotter, used to bring in his little golden-haired granddaughter to be admired and entertained. Henry Stokes, wellknown gambler, offered money for sheepskins for Russia and respectable members of that committee were not keen to take it. His friend, Gwen Snow (ex-IWW and OBU Propaganda League) said, "Where is Percy Laidler, he'll take it!" Stokes warned Perc of an official of one of the organisations, telling him to be careful of him because he was a gambler, "he sits gambling all night at my place." Bert Payne was introduced by Perc to a racecourse urger. Next time Bert saw him was at the races, but the man recognized him and said, "No, I won't do you."
At a time when there was a lot of hostility towards the radical movement one of the "underworld" came in and offered the assistance of himself and friends as a bodyguard. Perc told him it wasn't necessary.
Laidler was a great standby. Thousands have looked to him as a working class fighter who could not be bought and could not be shaken. "Solidarity forever" was his favorite song.
He died at the age of 73 years on the 21st February, 1958. A secular service was conducted by Mick Considine, and speakers were Senator Don Cameron, A. McNolty (the vice-president of the Labor Party) and Ralph Gibson of the Communist Party.
The book Solidarity Forever! is Copyright © the estate of Bertha Walker 1972.
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