1971 day of protest for retired workers

On the 21st of July we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the ACTU’s 1971 Social Services Day of action.

The day of protest was organised by the ACTU and called for a $5 increase in the old age pension.

The old age pension had been introduced nationally in 1908 by the Fisher Labor government (a state scheme was introduced in NSW in 1901).

The pension that was legislated in 1908 began at age 65. At that time, life expectancy for women was 59 and for men it was 55.

Union advocacy for an increase to the pension and the creation of superannuation schemes took off in the 1970s (though there had been activity before then).

From 1945 – 1971 the post-war boom saw a mass transformation in living standards. High levels union density meant this was distributed more fairly than before. Workers were living longer and the inadequacy of the current system was becoming clear.

The 1971 day of action was part of broader union action calling for the pension to be increased.

Tens of thousands of workers stopped work at the ACTU’s call.

5000 workers marched through Wollongong. At least 20,000 stopped work in the city, with especially strong participation from the Ironworkers at the city’s steel mills.

There were multiple rallies across Sydney and Melbourne, and others in Adelaide, Canberra, Brisbane, and other centres.

The Sydney City Council tried to prevent a protest – but a giant meeting in Wynard Park took place anyway.

This protest took place during the Springbok tour of Australia. One FEDFA member who spoke at the Wynard Park rally said:

“This bloody government can send 400 coppers to Canberra to protect racist bastards who are supposed to be sportsmen, yet they can’t protect our own pensioners.”

While it is no surprise that the Conservative McMahon government did not respond, this union advocacy helped lead to Whitlam increasing the pension rate when he came to power.

Unions continued our advocacy for the right to a retirement that was decent, dignified, and supported. This led to the creation of industry-based superannuation schemes, and in 1992 universal superannuation.

Unions are the only organisations made up entirely of workers for workers. Because of this we know how important it is for working people to have support all throughout our lives.

So you can bet that just as we did in 1971, we will continue campaigning for the rights of retired workers to live in dignity with the support we deserve!

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