Some experiences of a Party member active in the trade union movement
by Steve Gibson
Although I have been involved in the union movement at various levels for 45 years, I find it extremely difficult to even begin to describe my experiences in a coherent structured way. This is due in the main, I think, to the uneven nature of the record of events, the highs and the lows, the recollection of periods of huge successes followed, sometimes rapidly, by equally substantial losses – such is the reality of working as a political activist in the union movement.
Past President of the Socialist Party Jack McPhillips decades ago warned me that such involvement is like riding the ocean waves: when on the crest of a wave the feeling of exhilaration should be tempered by certain knowledge that there is a trough into which descent can be sudden and shattering.
It was because of my interest in unionism that I came into contact with the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) and accompanied others from the CPA to the Socialist Party of Australia (SPA) in due course.
It was in the 1940s when, as an apprentice, I first joined a union, the Timber Workers Union. From that time on, apart from a couple of brief transitory jobs, I have been a union member. It was not until I came to Melbourne in 1957 and joined the Tramways Union that I really commenced to take an interest in what was going on around me. The legendary Clarrie O’Shea was the figure who first commanded my respect and whetted my appetite.
Later, when I joined the Victorian railways, I had the privilege of being fireman to a staunch rank and file unionist who, whilst not being a member of any political party himself, was a great admirer of Australian Railways Union (ARU) Secretary J J Brown and told me many stories to illustrate his leadership qualities. We were not members of the ARU, as enginemen our union was the Australian Federated Union of Locomotive Enginemen (AFULE), but J J Brown was the dominant figure in railway unionism of the time.
Largely as the result of my driver’s encouragement, I became actively involved in the affairs of the AFULE. When the late Glen Moorhead came to Melbourne from the country, I had my role model. I worked closely with, watched and listened intently to and generally attempted to emulate Glen.
It had not escaped my attention that each of these respected union leaders and activists was a communist and, not surprisingly, so was I, soon afterwards. The Rail Branch of the CPA in Melbourne had a proud history and record. It was a worthwhile experience being part of it, even though only for a relatively short period.
A feature of the branch activity was the correct and successful work with forces from the left of the Labor Party, ensuring a strong and representative union leadership and democratic procedures. To some extent these forces of the left were compelled to work together because of the legacies of the then recent split in the ALP resulting in the formation of the DLP and the on-going efforts of the Groupers to sabotage the left leadership of strategic unions, of which the ARU was one.
The AFULE, on the other hand, was, at a State and national level, seen to be fairly safe and middle of the road even though, at least in Victoria, there was an unbroken chain of involvement on the part of a succession of dedicated communists and other left-wing activists.
All of that changed in the late 1960s and early 1970s when, as the result of a great deal of painstaking work and attention to detail on the part of the well-developed left grouping in the union – a grouping which ranged across several States – we were successful in winning a number of leading positions in the union.
Through a combination of well prepared forceful initiatives on the part of the Party comrades and supporters holding leading positions and good on-the-job organisation, we forged ahead and made substantial gains for the membership.
During this period, our Party branch also flourished with quite a number of recruits, impressed (like myself in earlier days) with our methods and dedication, wanting to join our ranks.
Our very successes made us a prime target for the forces of reaction who soon set about us. The attack came from the right wing of the Labor Party and was concentrated mainly on the Victorian branch of the union. That section of the Labor Party was known as Centre Unity, later to become Labor Unity. They were referred to by one long-time left-wing ALP metal trades union leader as the “Masonic groupers” in a discussion I had with him.
They did their work well. They used as their front man a former ALP member who had left the party some years earlier over the State aid to private schools issue. He was a train driver working in a depot with a record of militancy and sharp ideological struggle, there being among its membership many prominent activists from the left and from the right. He joined an ALP branch in a northern suburb, a branch which was known as a Socialist Left stronghold.
An amusing incident occurred when I was contacted by a local State MP who was a member of that ALP branch. He asked whether I knew an AFULE member who had just signed up in his branch. “Know him,” I said, “I know him alright.” The MP came around to my house and I told him all that I knew. He was very concerned at what he saw as infiltration of the branch by the right of the ALP. “Thanks, mate,” he said. “I’ll guarantee this much, he’ll never get near the executive of this particular branch!” Within a year or two, not only was he on the executive but he was on the campaign committee of that very parliamentary member!
This person soon gathered around him a band of like-minded individuals who were tireless in their dedication to the task at hand. Good organising and pursuit of issues important to the members, although usually of the basest character, were combined with a relentless barrage of anti-communist propaganda, the like of which I have not seen or heard of before or since.
Because their union branch was numerically strong and very close knit, they were very difficult to combat. The existence of our comrades and allies in that union branch was sheer hell. They were abused, ridiculed, character assassinated and vilified. Those of us in the leadership, while subjected to the same barrage, did not have to live with it every hour of every working day.
All of this occurred in the period when big changes were being made in the Australian Labor Party. Bob Hawke was being prepared to, first of all, gain pre-selection for a safe Labor seat and then topple Hayden as leader. Similar preparations were being made in Victoria, the political climate being one of real optimism that Labor could win office for the first time in years.
Their well thought out strategy centred on ensuring the union movement was captive and wholly supportive of getting Labor into office and keeping it there, whatever the cost. Under these circumstances, “troublesome” union leaderships had to be removed and replaced by enthusiastic ALP people or “toadies”.
That they succeeded is self-evident. In the AFULE, we were wiped out and had to begin the painstaking but necessary rebuilding work. Not surprisingly, for various reasons, some objective, some subjective, many of our colleagues left us, including a number who were members of the Party branch. The rebuilding work therefore starts from a very low base, but start it must.
The rail and tramway unions have now amalgamated. This brings us new opportunities accompanied by new difficulties and obstacles. Additionally, with the establishment of National Rail, the industry is fragmenting. Add to this the push towards privatising public assets, including government transport enterprises, and the picture is rapidly changing.
The number of workers now employed is substantially reduced and that trend will continue into the next decade unless resolutely challenged.
There is also a discernible lowering of commitment and interest in the union on the part of many workers. This can be illustrated by the fact that since the Kennett Government discontinued the practice of deducting union dues from the payroll, large numbers of members have made no effort to pay arrears of dues which mounted during the period from the date of check off discontinuation until alternative arrangements could be made. In the 1970s such a situation was unthinkable and very rarely was a member unfinancial.
Admittedly we operated a tight closed shop operation but that is not the entire story. I remain convinced that the union membership sees the union these days as largely irrelevant. Why? Clearly because of the chum chum attitudes which characterise union-management negotiations. The unions, while the ACTU leadership obviously sees the interests of its affiliates best being advanced by working out deals with the government rather than leading the workers in struggle, obligingly follow suit.
The union in many cases is reduced to the level of a facilitator, an agent or a “party” in negotiations. As such, how can it be seen by its members to be an organised and dedicated instrument relentlessly pursuing their aspirations and resolutely protecting their wages, conditions and standards?
The first and foremost task of Party members whose main area of work is the union movement must be to overturn this modern pragmatic opportunistic approach and to expose it as a load of rubbish. Our work must be different in that the long term consequences of this or that agreement or decision must be thoroughly taken into account.
There are many lessons to be learned from the experiences of comrades who have been there, done that. It is a mistake, however, to advocate a return to tactics which worked in the past while ignoring the present day realities. In my opinion, the most important and demanding task is that of combatting the ideological disease which has swept through the trade union movement, sapping its strength.
There are a number of avenues which can be travelled in pursuit of this objective, but surely the only one which can be really effective is the one which leads to recruitment from the enterprises themselves. There is no denying the fact that the union in which I have spent most of my working life was at its strongest and most effective when the Party branch was also at its strongest, numerically and ideologically.
This enabled us to correctly estimate the feelings of the workers, to differentiate between those issues which were of great importance to them and those less pressing. It gave us the opportunity to look at problems in an all-sided way, to thereby determine the sort of campaign needed and the one most likely to attract the greatest measure of membership support and involvement.
An essential part of this process was to patiently and persistently work at developing the necessary unity between ourselves and others of left and progressive persuasion. I have found that this is the most difficult task of all, particularly when developing a fraternal relationship with active members of the Labor Party. This is not surprising, given the stage of development of the left forces in an advanced capitalist society of the kind we operate within.
Nowhere in this sense can we find a more descriptive and apt summing up than that marvellous phrase: “One step forward, two steps back.” It remains apt only if we remember to continue to take the one step forward as against a full retreat.