Comrade Jim “Jimmy” Donovan. Photo: CPA
Comrade Jim “Jimmy” Donovan is a lifelong member of the Communist Party of Australia where he is a member of the Maritime branch in Sydney and is also the President of the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) Veterans Organisation. He is a retired wharfie and leader of workers in what was the Waterside Workers Federation (WWF) but is now amalgamated with other unions covering workers in the Maritime industry to form the Maritime Union of Australia.
The Australian Marxist Review has conducted this interview with Jimmy to bring forward some of the events and history of the party.
AMR = CG, JD = Jimmy Donovan
AMR: Comrades, I would like to begin by thanking Comrade Jimmy Donovan for agreeing to be interviewed by the Australian Marxist Review to talk to us about the history of our party and his experiences within the communist movement.
JD: It’s an absolute pleasure.
AMR: When did you join the Communist Party of Australia and what was it like to join it?
JD: Well, oddly enough, it sticks in my memory over 60 years later but I was working on the NSW railways as an apprentice boilermaker to start with and then as a boilermaker. I joined the party on the 5th of December 1957. What was it like? Well, I joined the party because there were great people that I was involved with as an apprentice boilermaker to start with, and the leader of the boiler makers of that period of time was Hughey Grant, a sort of raconteur type of bloke. He wasn’t the quintessential, how do I say this, communist but he was the secretary of the Redfern branch of the boilermaker’s society, and he was a very entertaining, charming person so that was one of the reasons. I joined the party on that date, I have never left it, till this date in 2023, and I have no intention of ever leaving it.
AMR: What was the branch of the CPA that you joined?
JD: It was the Redfern branch of the Communist Party of Australia and it consisted of any person, anyone who worked on the railway and especially at the Redfern part there was two party branches as a matter of fact. There was the loco branch and the wagon branch. On one side of the workshop was locomotive repair, where I was a boilermaker, and on the other side the coaches were repaired, the trains that carry the passengers that’s where they were repaired and built, mainly repaired because there wasn’t that much built from scratch but there were the two sides, and there were two branches of the party!
The beauty of it was there was a tunnel that went under from the locos side to the other side where they did all the coaches, so we used to travel across and meet one another. In the railways you could go missing for four hours and they wouldn’t know.
JD: So, we would be transgressing and go from one side to the other talking about the party and talking about what we were doing, can we improve our work, etc., etc. And it was very good, a learning curve for a 17-year-old, 18-year-old boy.
AMR: So these branches were they locality or workplace branches?
JD: They were workplace branches. Loco, that included the repair and, we never ever built them from scratch, they were always bought overseas, sent out and of course those locos they were steam driven and so they were fired up through the majority of their life and of course they, when the inside of what they call the firebox was the most intense part where the heat was and where the steam was produced to move the train. And so, we used to repair them at Everleigh, and on the other side, the wagon side where all the other work was done on the coaches, that is the coaches that carried the passengers. We used to travel between one side and the other and we did a lot of party work during the working hours, a lot of party work.
AMR: That’s excellent!
What were the kinds of party work that branches engaged in in these workplace branches?
JD: To build the party was the main feature of the work that we did, sometimes we were successful and sometimes we weren’t. We would build our numbers up every now and again, but people got older and they retired, a lot of people just opted out for personal or any other reasons, and so our numbers fluctuated greatly during that period of time we were able to bring in a lot of young people to the party on the loco side because of the work that the communists were doing in the movement, in the trade union movement in that period of time because the boiler makers, the what were they called the machinists, a couple of other trade unions were communist led. Hughey Grant as I already said he held the Redfern branch (of the Boilermakers Society), we held the national position, I can’t think of his name now, but we held the higher positions in that union and so did many other communists in that period of time! And especially held which I later joined in 1963 the waterfront and of course the Sydney waterfront was officials galore for the communist party. Still in that period of time there was unity with the ALP forces and with the non-aligned people. So, it was a really interesting period for me as a young bloke to join the party and be involved.
AMR: When you moved to the waterfront, what was the nature of the party’s organisation on the waterfront at that time, how many branches were there?
JD: Yes, well oddly enough there were four branches, two of them named after a dispute and there were two areas that were of the pickup for wharfies, they were called the street and the deep sea. The street, the bin there was the party and in the deep sea which is down at Walsh Bay there was another branch of the party, and in the 2 other areas there were 4 branches of the party in Sydney, let alone any other part of Australia. And so it was, there was always something happening, and it was only happening by the communists! There was always job meetings, we would organise for party functionaries to come down to the waterfront and have a speech about the latest economic or the latest positions, where the wars were, wherever there was something happening we would get the party organisers, people like Jack McPhillips and Peter Symon who was the General Secretary of the party was a wharfie in South Australia and so he knew a bit about it. But no other branch of the Waterside Workers Federation was as organised, as well organised as the Sydney branch.
When I went, when I left the railways in 1963, in fact I didn’t leave of my own accord, I was helped out by the works manager and the assistant works manager because of my politics. Anyway, they did me the greatest favour of all because I came onto the waterfront and here was this hive of activity. It was just a change; it was a breath of fresh air. We thought we were good, we had two branches of the party at Everleigh, but when I got down there as I just said just a little while ago there were communists organising something. The party would have a fraction meeting, what they called a fraction meeting, not a faction! A fraction that meant it was a fraction of the (party membership) that only met to discuss things about the particular areas where comrades worked. We would have them, and nearly all the officials, when I went there was Bob Bolger, Maddy Monroe, Stan Moran the treasurer; wonderful, wonderful people. They were doing something: they were organising political marches, demonstrations, and not only that there was a great fundraiser for the party. We would stand on the pay line in those days, as a communist, with a little cup, for the party! (Chuckles). Micky Power, another great comrade, lovely, wonderful man, he did more collecting than any other person in the party. And there would be a few wags going past saying “Mick when are we going to have that party?,” you know Mick was an old fighter, he’d always admitted he may have had one too many (fights), he’d come from Melbourne, he reckoned he’d had one to many, but he said that the worst thing that had happened to him was that in those days had he been able to advertise on the soles of his shoes he said “cause every time I got knocked out you would go down and your feet, the soles of your feet were showing and you could be advertising.” So that was the type of bloke that Mick was.
As I said, we had party organisers, the Sydney waterfront had a party organiser paid for by the four branches on the waterfront. Now you think of it, here we had our own organiser, and he knew about the waterfront. Eddie Marles was the first one, good bloke Eddie. He came to all the meetings, and the stop-work meetings, and everything that was going on so he could learn the tasks before him as being the party organiser. And then we had the marvellous Jack McPhillips. We even opened a headquarters at 111 Sussex Street. It was an old fish and chip shop and we; you got no idea what we had to move out of there when we set it up at 111 Sussex Street, and that is where Jack became the first full time organiser paid for by the wharfies, the 4 branches, and he became the party organiser. And we’d get Jack down, Jack was a very, he was a hard man really. Some of the party, not in the waterfront, but in the Party Jack got people offside. But nevertheless, the work that he did offset that by a 1000 per cent. So, Jack became the first organiser after Eddie Marr and here we had our own communist organiser on the waterfront, and it was really it was getting down to meetings away he would go and nobody would dodge a meeting. Don’t know what it was, they were there in those days prepared to go and listen in their own time during smoko to an organiser of the Communist Party of Australia to get the latest of what was happening. So, you can see in that period the waterfront was a hive of activity, wonderful activity.
AMR: The Waterside Workers Federation had its own structure including vigilance officers, could you describe these and their roles?
JD: When I first joined the waterfront there was the national body, Jim Healy had retired by then and Charlie Fitzgibbons had taken over from the communists, he was a member of the ALP, we will deal a bit with that later, but in Sydney (WWF branch) there was Tom Nelson as the secretary, Stan Moran as the treasurer, and then we had Bob Bolger, Matt Monroe as vigilance officers, like organisers, they would be what you called organisers today. And then we had Ronny Maxwell who was paid by the employer, he was in charge of the distribution of labour, and we were able to get him a job to be, he was a communist and a well-known communist. In fact, he stood, him and a chap from the sheet metal workers, will remember his name in a minute, both of them stood for the city council and were both elected as councillors in the 1950s.
The queen came out I think in 1954, 56, somewhere around that period, anyway she had to meet these two communists as they were councillors on the city council! And they were entertaining. It was in all the papers, the rotten Telegraph “Queen forced to meet communists” or something like that. But anyway, the party, even though they tried to make it subjective, we still got some good publicity out of it, you know because communists are meeting the queen! What more do you want? Here, do it for us! They would have been better off saying nothing.
And here we are, Ronny Maxwell was loved on the waterfront, he was a messiah to workers because if you had a problem, he would fix it up. If you failed to go to a job, or if you was missing off the job, or you did something wrong on the job and you had to front the what they called “The Authority” in those days, the Australian Industry Waterfront Authority, and they were no good as it was under Menzies when it first kicked off.
They were ruthless, and even for missing a job you would have to fight hard to retain your job. If you hit a foreman or knocked someone over or a supervisor or someone like that you were sacked automatically it was hard to get your brief back.
What they called your brief, everyone had one, the authority would just rip it up as they used to say and you were no longer a wharfie. Ronny Maxwell had to deal with all of that, and he dealt with it magnificently. He was loved by all, but recognised as a communist. Maddy Monroe was recognised, you know “here he comes, here comes a commo, he’s going to have another meeting, ah well we’d better go down,” you know.
JD: Maddy was a character. And then Bob Bolger, he was quieter than Maddy but nevertheless so then was Tom. I didn’t serve on the executive with Tom Nelson, he left in 1970 and I got elected on 1972 as a vice president, but I still have my fraction meetings where Tom would come along and explain to all the rank and file what the position was and what we were trying to achieve, whether it was more blokes on the job or higher wages, better conditions. I mean when I first joined the waterfront there was three weeks leave you know and you had to do thirteen years to get the long service leave, well all that’s gone. And all that happened under the leadership of Charlie Fitzgibbons which we will deal with in a minute, but the majority of the changes and the good changes came when the communists were either in the federal office and or in the Sydney branch. And there were communists in Newcastle and Melbourne, although Melbourne disintegrated in the 1960s over the “China line.” The officials, a couple of the officials down there were what they called the “China line people” and it disintegrated, and we lost all the positions.
AMR: What was the relationship that existed between the branches in the Maritime industry?
JD: The 4 branches on the waterfront, it was pretty competitive. One would be boasting that they’ve collected the most money, the other would be gloating that they’d had the most job meetings, another would be gloating because they’d held more demonstrations and you know, so a good healthy competition between the four branches (on the waterfront). At the end of each year, we would all come together and celebrate around the Christmas period of time and all gloating about who’d had the best year, what branch had the best year. So it was competitive, communists competing against one another to see who had the best year and who had collected the most money. Of course, you know it was a great period.
AMR: It seems to me that many of the leading communists that you described were really loved members of the waterfront, and this reached right across the waterfront. What would you think were some of the methods of work that they used in establishing this credibility and respect amongst workers?
JD: Well, Jim Healy and Tom Nelson, Healy was the national secretary of the WWF, and Tom Nelson was the Sydney branch secretary. Both of those had a lot in common. Marxist-Leninists to start with, they knew the working class and the reasons that the working class were being robbed because of the very nature of capitalism. And for them it was pretty easy for them as they were gifted orators, that’s an important part being an orator and a gifted orator, explaining the position to the workers, why we are doing this and why we are doing that, and why we are not doing this and not doing that. The waterfront was known as the place where there were more stoppages per head of membership than anywhere else in Australia. We were achieving it; they had the leadership to achieve it and we used to achieve. Some new members of the MUA came in on Wednesday of this week and we were offered the veterans a half an hour to go and talk to these new inductees. And we took that up, I normally go and do the induction of new members I have been doing it for years and I do that because as a communist I start from the very fact that I don’t tell them that I am a communist at the start, but at the very end I say “the majority of the conditions that you are going to enjoy when you come onto this waterfront was never ever given, the boss has never ever given anything to you for nothing.” The reason I do the classes for the new inductees is because of the communist of the leadership majority and of the united front of the party; we were bringing on board progressive ALP and independent progressive people. That’s how they worked together and that’s why you are going to get the best wages and conditions of any worker in Australia. I point out that it was won by communists.
Another reason that the leaders were revered, and they knew they were communists, they never ever jammed down in stop work meetings, wherever there was a meeting they never jammed down that “I’m a communist and I’m doing this because I’m a communist.” Nothing! They never ever spoke about it, they were known as communists, they were known! They didn’t shove down the throat of the workers that “you can only get this if you are a communist and if you are not a communist you will get nothing.” Never ever! I never heard Tom Nelson in all the years that I was a wharfie, before he retired, of him ever saying that this all comes about because I’m a communist, I’m a member of the communist party, not once! And neither did any of the other communists. They were known! When the groupers tried to come to the fore in the 1950s, the Catholic reactionary groupers, they tried to use that as a wedge that there is a communist. And of course, Hungary in 1956 didn’t help, and Poland didn’t help, we will deal with that a bit later, but they (the groupers) went to town on the communists, they went to town on us! In that period of time, I wasn’t on the waterfront in 1956, but it was, the reactionary catholic people, mainly in Melbourne, there was a little bit of a sprinkling here in Sydney, but it didn’t get off the ground. I suppose, well put it this way, workers would have thought that “alright they shouldn’t have done what they did in those countries but nevertheless they are the people that get me a wage increase and better working conditions, keep having them as part of my leadership.”
AMR: Before you mentioned how the “China line” and the Sino-Soviet split led to significant setbacks to the organisation in Melbourne, do you remember when that started and how that process with that split began?
JD: I do remember it happening, as to the finer details I must say that the 83-year-old brain can’t fully reflect how it came about and started, well it came about because the Soviet Union tried to assist the Communist leadership of China, but they wanted to do it the Soviet way. The Soviets and Chinese took exception to the method and ways that the Soviet Union was dealing with it in China. In the end the Chinese said they’d had enough; we aren’t going to tolerate it anymore and that’s when the split arrived. And then there were the communists here in Australia, mainly in Melbourne, a few in Sydney that agreed with China’s position and then of course left in droves and formed the China-line group of the communist party aligned to the Chinese position. That didn’t help, it really didn’t help in any way. In fact, it really fractured the party in that period of time. Not only that some of them, there was a bloke here in Sydney called Sidney Clare, in the end there were only about two or three of them here on the waterfront in the China-line party, but nevertheless he was causing a lot of havoc and a lot of discontent by attacking the people that he helped get elected two, three and four years before. Clare and his China-line people at the stop work meetings, in fact in the end were howled down by the workers, they’d yell “sit down!” they’d say “sit down! We’ve listened to this crap! Sit down! Let’s get on with the business of the stop work meeting, you’ve got a problem you sort it out, but we’re here to sort out what’s in the best interests of the workers!” You know, so they were howled down. Let me tell you they never recovered. Sidney Clare stood in the elections for office on many occasions, but got two votes, him and his best mate. Nevertheless, it was a fracturing and disturbing time in the party in that period.
AMR: In the mid to late 1960s changes occurred to the old CPA that led to the formation of the SPA. Do you remember much about what was happening at the time?
JD: Yes, I was up to my eyeballs in it. We had as I said Jack McPhillips had become the party organiser on the waterfront and we were in constant contact. Jack was in my view a great teacher of Marxism-Leninism and we used to do a lot of schools and he kept young people like myself, well I wasn’t young then I was in my 30s, but he brought us up to, you know some things were happening that were even beyond Jack, but nevertheless there was a tendency that, there is always an answer to any crisis. In the end there was an answer and that was to expose these people for what they really were. You know they used the split during that period of time for their own benefit. It didn’t benefit the movement, it didn’t benefit the trade union movement, it didn’t benefit the communist movement, in fact it hindered it because there was this competition between what you would then call the Soviet aligned communists and the Chinese aligned communists, more so in Melbourne. But it did, it fractured the movement with devastating effects.
To some degree we recovered, but the China-line never grew beyond what it started out with, and of course it doesn’t even exist today on the waterfront. But the communist party exists and is vibrant, well we’ve got the National Deputy Secretary of the MUA Warren Smith, we’ve got Paul Keating Sydney branch secretary, we’ve got Paul McAleer as a leader in the ITF here in Australia, International Transport Federation. So you know the party if you look back as a secretary, since 1937 when Jim Healy was elected, the majority by far have been communists at the helm. So, you go up to Tom Nelson 1948 until 1972, then Bob Bolger, then we had an imposter by the name of Tom Supple, who was a careerist and anyway we got rid of him (laughs), with great delight! He was never a communist, never a communist! party member for thirty, forty years. Anyway, he went up to help Tom move and in the bin was the forty-five volumes of the selected works of Lenin! And Jimmy said to Tom “What are you doing with these!?” and he said, “ah I’ve read them three times, I don’t need them anymore.” Three times! He wouldn’t have read one paragraph three times! He was an imposter! He wasn’t a communist, he was masquerading as a communist. So it’s very interesting in that period. Bob Bolger, he was a lovely bloke Bob, but he was taken in by this Supple. When we got rid of Tom Supple then the party improved considerably because we have been spending time and effort trying to fix problems he caused, we got rid of him and away he went, so the party started to function a whole lot better. Then some years later I was elected as the secretary treasurer of the Sydney branch and so it was back in good hands. The branch was back where it should be with a communist at the helm.
AMR: When were you elected as the secretary treasurer of the Sydney branch of the Waterside Workers Federation?
JD: Well let me say that I was first elected as a vice president. A vice president in that period of time gave you access to about 6 months in the union as a relieving officer. There were 4 vice presidents. There was the president, secretary, treasurer, vigilance officer who later became an organiser, two of those, and 4 vice presidents. I was elected in 1970 as vice president, in 1969 I stood against an organiser/vigilance officer. In 1972 I was elected as president of the Sydney branch. In 1993 we amalgamated with the Seamen’s union to become the Maritime Union of Australia and I became President of the MUA.
And so I retired in 1999. I retired in my opinion a bit early. I was only 59 and in reflection I could have stayed on a few more years. The Wharfies, the union officials didn’t get anything better or more than what the wharfies got, we equalled our wages to what they got, we got the same holidays as what they got, the same everything. We didn’t put ourselves above and beyond what the wharfies were getting, and the seaman at that time 1993, what they were getting is exactly what the officials got. That worked out as no one could ever go “how come you are getting an extra week of long service leave or an extra week’s holiday” or you know something like that. We were never open to any criticism that we were getting more than what the rank-and-file members of the union were getting. That’s continued until right till today, as I said I retired in 1999, I think I went a bit too early.
AMR: There was the Clarrie O’Shea strike that occurred in 1969 against the penal powers which was quite significant, do you have any recollection of this?
JD: Oh yes I do! You know, you often look for martyrs, if you can get a martyr and a cause and the reasons are right, right for what we did at that period of time. Clarrie O’Shea was, it happened at the perfect time. Here’s the first official, the last official before Clarrie I remember being jailed would have been Jack McPhillips. Or Ted Roach? Ted Roach was the assistant national secretary of the Waterside Workers Federation. Jack McPhillips at that time was the assistant secretary of the Ironworkers, both of those men were jailed because they refused to give details because the New Zealand wharfies were out and money had been collected to send over there to the New Zealand wharfies to help them out, and it was quite a substantial amount of money. Both of them refused to divulge where the money was and they were both jailed. That was in the 1940s. So, when Clarrie O’Shea, he was the next martyr that came along if I can be as bold to put it that way. When this happened, you didn’t have to go around to jobs and tell people to stop work on the waterfront, they were stopping work! Because they had heard that you know here’s an official of the union being jailed by the penal courts! What!
We’d been fighting against this for so many years, so you used to go around to hold a meeting, but when we went around to all of the jobs they’d already stopped and gone home. So the officials didn’t have to tell the workers to stop work because Clarrie O’Shea was most probably the catalyst. They never ever tried it again, because they know what the reaction was in that period of time. I’m not sure if it would be Bob Hawke who was the Secretary of the ACTU, I’m not sure. But anyway, it was a spontaneous walkout by the whole of the people who were capable. The unions who were capable in that period to go out in support of Clarrie, who was being jailed. You need a catalyst, that catalyst was it, he was the martyr because they had used the penal provisions, which were anti-working class and so anti-communist, they are even worse today.
It was a day that I will never ever forget. We went up to Hyde Park, by the time we got to Hyde Park the joint was full, full of other unionists. We marched up from a couple of the areas, Woolloomooloo, from Darling Harbour, from Pyrmont, and the coppers, the coppers didn’t expect it, they weren’t prepared and here we are marching up the road stopping traffic and they couldn’t do anything, there was none just a couple of them “what are we going to do here? Just let them go.” So it was a good period.
AMR: So that protest, that occurred on the day he was jailed or was it a short time after?
JD: It occurred on the day he was jailed.
AMR: It’s a shame because on one hand you have the working class being very highly developed in this time, but on the other hand the divisions within the communist movement were only increasing.
JD: Yes, it was, I have to say it was an interesting period. Brought about by Aarons and his cohorts. Dixon was one of them, and the last person who I thought would be swayed by the Aarons in their anti-Sovietism and also their methods of work by the Aarons. To me, I had been in the party then for 12 years, but the method and way that Aarons had become so anti-Soviet, and not only became anti-Soviet, the capitalist press sought every remark of his, not of the party, but they sought every remark that they could get their hands on portraying because obviously he was anti-communist. It was anti-communist propaganda. And Aarons fed, fed, and fed them. It was an awakening period for me. How could this happen? Because the rest of the world was going anti-Soviet, he wanted to be anti-Soviet. Here is a time in my opinion that you become more pro Marxist-Leninist and more supportive of the Soviet Union, and we did. We did that!
The Socialist Party of Australia was formed in 1970. I went to the founding congress of the party, and Christian it was a relief that we’d left them. When we left I didn’t feel as though there was a big void within my political life, because I had then joined the Socialist Party of Australia. The Socialist Party grew by virtue of our persistence, we didn’t grow in a lot of numbers, but the strength and the teachings of the party was higher because we had been through this awful period, we had learnt by it. The old saying, if you don’t learn anything by the struggle you have been in you shouldn’t have been in the struggle. Go in it, but learn something from it, and that was a great teaching. We learnt, I learned because we had people like Peter Symon. We had people like Jack McPhillips.
We had people like Bill Brown, Freda Brown, Freda was the president of the World Federation of Women. She was a wonderful, wonderful woman. When she became president, she lived overseas for many years and her husband Bill Brown was a journalist on the Tribune, and then later on, on the Socialist, the Socialist Party’s paper from the 1970s. We had people like that had come over and from their perspective is one of the reasons why we formed the Socialist Party, one of the reasons because they were so respected from within the communist movement and the communist party, when we formed the Socialist Party, we had people like that who were renowned communists and well-known communists but who could not continue in the Communist Party because of what Aarons and his cohorts were doing to the party.
When people like that have given their life to the party, a lot more than what Aarons has done. I don’t remember one thing that Aarons has done that he was noted for doing or saying that enhanced the Communist Party. I don’t remember. I remember a lot of the teachings and sayings said by Freda and Bill, and the people like that, people like Jack McPhillips and Peter Symon. I can remember because they were genuine Marxist-Leninists; they were genuine. They knew what Marxism-Leninism was all about. The Aarons knew nothing. All they wanted to do was get on the bandwagon of anti-Sovietism.
AMR: What do you think was the basis for the growth of this anti-Sovietism by the Aarons leadership but also not only them? Were there discussions around this in the branches at the grassroots level of the party that indicated that this process was underway?
JD: I may be a bit presumptuous here, but the Aarons to my knowledge didn’t make much of a positive contribution to the party. By their actions in relation to anti-Sovietism that was being expounded at that period of time, to me there was an ulterior motive. There had to be an ulterior motive. Laurie Aarons I think could see that his time at the leadership of the party was coming to an end and he didn’t want to go out a loser. He wanted to make sure that if he went that the whole party suffered.
I just think there was a bit of that involved with Aarons because his position was starting to wane considerably, and had we remained within the party I don’t think we would have had the forces or numbers to oust him. But then, when we left there’s no doubt in my mind, that’s when a number of the party people started to wake up. Mavis Robertson was another supporter of what I call the Aarons and she left the party; well the fighting was at its fiercest and she became a journalist for some paper. So, you know it really showed that here was this Mavis Robertson, one of the proponents of the Aarons position and then goes and leaves the party and goes and works for somebody else. She really was a bitter opponent; we were pleased to see her go but by that time we had already left and formed the Socialist Party. You know, had we not left when we did and formed the party I am of the opinion that we wouldn’t have maintained the forces we had when we finally established the party and got it going. Had we not done it when we did it then we wouldn’t have had the forces, a lot of people would have gone “stuff it, I’m sick of this infighting, I’m sick of this and that.”
But then when we formed the party it was a “hang on, let’s see if there’s a difference with the leadership,” and then it was Peter Symon and Jack was the, how do I say it, Jack was a go-getter. Jack wanted things done yesterday. His impatience I think got the better of him, but he was a very fine Marxist-Leninist. If it wasn’t for him, there would have been no classes, no Marxist-Leninist classes in the Maritime branch. He did them all. From the formation of the Socialist Party Jack did all the education. And in that period, wharfies if you got a bit of time off we used to meet. In fact, the first party schools were held at my place in Gladesville. I had a big backyard and I have got photos of it as a matter of fact where the first school was held there in 1975.
There was very little education when Aarons and them were around, they buried it. Well, I suppose they didn’t want any education, people getting educated because that would have moved them away from their point of view. You know you have got to have a bit of education.
Well what I’m saying about Jack, he put people offside there’s no doubt, but he put the right people onside. He put the right people, people like Harry Black, people like Ina Heitman, people like Tom Nelson the secretary of the Sydney branch (WWF). Jack would often before he went to the party HQ call in and have a talk with Tom Nelson, and the bloke that took over from him Bob Bolger he didn’t want Jack coming in anymore because he didn’t want to be educated. You could see it. Him and that Tom Supple. Anyway, so they banned Jack from coming into the union rooms. When I got elected I unbanned him and brought him in.
You know, a very interesting time. It educated me and other people, I’m just going to mention some people, Jack and Harry and Micky Power. Micky Power was an old fighter, an old gutter fighter from Melbourne, but he loved, whether he could understand it as much as he thought he did, he loved Marxism-Leninism. He loved Jack, he used to go to the pub next door at the Royal George next door to 111 Sussex Street late afternoon when Jack knocked off. We would have a few. Jack didn’t have much of an income so we bought all of the drinks. We were wharfies earning a fortune and so we paid. And then we had people like Ina Heidtman, who was the party maritime branch treasurer, Tom Nelson’s secretary. A wonderful, wonderful comrade.
AMR: Sometimes communists find that their family members end up being affected by their membership of the Communist party in one way or another. Have you had experiences with this?
JD: No, I haven’t myself, my family has been 100 per cent behind my party membership. Even my two boys who are now in their fifties, and my grandchildren know that I am a communist and they ask me questions about it because my two sons have told them that pop’s a communist, but they are up to their 30s now but of course the anti-communism that was around when I was twenty and thirty isn’t here today, so they didn’t ask any what you would call inquisitive questions. There’s no anti-communism in them whatsoever because it hasn’t been around. My family, my two boys, my first wife Shirley, well we held the party schools at our house up in Gladesville. My wife then, who died some years ago, Shirley was the main supplier of lunch, we always with Jack McPhillips you always had morning tea, lunch and afternoon tea. He was insistent on morning and afternoon teas, let alone lunch. And my wife supported me when she was alive and we were married, and my present partner now of many, many years Julie is the same. I told her yesterday I was doing this interview and she said “oh that’s interesting, tell him to give you a copy” and I said “I don’t think it will be ready yet darling.”
AMR: Before the split a move was made to disband the CPA Maritime branch, do you remember much of that? What happened and how did that occur?
JD: Ah well of course. The Aarons mob saw their enlightenment and the growth of the party in the social movement, you know the student movements, the peace movement, and the Hiroshima day movements, you name it, rather than the rank and file. They attempted, just before we formed the Socialist Party they made a decree that all of the members of the then Maritime branch should go into a non-industrial branch and dissolve the maritime branch.
Then when the Socialist Party was formed, the majority of the true Marxist-Leninists went with the Socialist Party. They went with the Maritime branch of the Socialist Party because they were the leaders. Tom Nelson was the secretary of the Sydney branch (WWF), Bob Bolger was a vigilance officer, Tom Supple he was no good he was a vigilance officer. They all came over. Maddy Monroe! And so the majority of the leadership, you see this is one of the things that happened, E V Elliot and Tom Nelson were talking one day. They were joining the party due to loyalty to the seamen’s union officials, because all of them, Pat Geraghty was the then national secretary, E V Eliot was the past secretary, Cathy Switherson one of the most loved and liked officials of the Seamen’s Union ever, there was Billy Langwoods another part-time official, there was Alan, I can’t think of his name. They were all well-liked seaman, and so the seaman flocked to the Socialist Party. But then as Elliot said “don’t think there’s too many Marxist-Leninists amongst them.” You know and he was right. They were coming there because of the loyalty to the union officials, the union movement led by members of the Socialist Party. And he was right as within a short period of time a lot of them left. The ones that stayed became very loyal.
Then it happened in the Maritime branch between the seaman and the wharfies, that was disastrous. It came about by the work of Jack. At one particular meeting Donny Henderson, a lovely bloke, a good bloke, Trade unionist, he was the secretary of the fireman and deckhands’ union. They were about 600-800 strong, you know, a lot of people. Donny Henderson became the secretary of that and the next minute, Jack’s trying to move in and give Don some assistance and help. Don was the type of bloke that didn’t need any assistance. That’s his thinking, and Jack, the next minute they’re blueing, and the next minute Don Henderson is leaving the party. I will never forget; we were meeting at the Royal George Hotel. Underneath the hotel, this was funny, underneath the hotel there was this room and it was a wonderful space for party meetings.
So we knew the bloke that owned the pub, we said “can we hire that downstairs,” he knew we were the Socialist Party then, he said “yeah by all means.” So we hired it off him, we ripped up all the lino, put a new floor down, we knocked off the flood boards from the waterfront, they were the plyboard the 7 ply, and we laid them. Mick and myself and a couple of the other boys, I’m pretty sure JG was there as well, he helped too. Anyway, we got that and that’s where the branch used to meet. So getting back to the point, I remember Don Henderson storming out of there one night after an argument with Jack, no. We knew there was a contentious issue, and that the seaman and the fireman and deckhands’ union were on the brink of leaving and forming MUSAA. And so, there was an argument down in the meeting room, anyway I remember Donny Henderson coming fuming out of the room, I had been out and I was coming back in, and he said “I will never ever go to another fucking meeting with old Jack McPhillips, I’ve had enough, get fucked!” Him and Jack had had another blue. And next minute they’re gone. They went to form MUSAA. It was a bad time, and it was bad timing yes because we were just starting to really get on top of things. But anyway, did you ever know Jack?
AMR: I never had the chance to meet Jack McPhillips unfortunately.
JD: Yeah you are right, it is unfortunate really. He had a bad side to him. It wasn’t all scones and butter and jam, there was another side to Jack. But anyway, I loved the man. He was an intellect. There is no doubt in the world. He could sum up and pick up things, and do things, and of course he had that intellectual capacity which I’ve never had. I’ve never had. I never pretended to have it and will never pretend to have it.
AMR: The SPA in 1983 had a serious split which formed the Association for Communist Unity (ACU) and MUSAA (Maritime Union Socialist Activities Association) and one of the central points of that was that of the Accord.
JD: In 83 was it?
AMR: Yes it was.
JD: Ah, I thought it was earlier.
Of all the other questions you have asked this is the hardest. Yes it is starting to come back. There were a number of trade union officials, including communists that disagreed with Jack McPhillips’ writing on the Accord. I’m just trying to think. What was happening then was that there was a softening of the right. The right was softening their position to a lot of things including the party. A majority of the people who had opposed the party and opposed the formation of the party (SPA) were going or gone. I say there was no reason to be “anti” really. All it was probably going to do was bring further disunity. Now in a period of time where the right was getting on top, Bob Hawke had become the president of the ACTU, and there were a number of the communists saying “well he’s better than what we had before so let’s not try and upset him, let’s try and bring him onside. We don’t have to be ‘anti’.’’ So there were a number, especially in the Maritime branch who, people like Jack, said “but that’s not the issue, the issue is that if they are going to continue to adopt this line, it’s the workers who are going to be the ones who miss out.” The working class will miss out because the leadership of the unions who are going to go along with this handsy pansy sought of thing are going to, there will be no increases in wages or conditions because they are going to go hand in hand, that you can sit down with the boss, and of course this is what the accord was all about, and in fact the employer especially on the waterfront, they became more cocky.
They sought of knew that if we were to take action against a particular company or a particular issue, that Hawke and Keating and these people had agreed to, they knew they had them on side and they would have us offside. It was a period of unsettlement; it was very unsettled. I can remember Jack McPhillips and Peter Symon, and some of the other leaders of the party, they were absolutely scathing of anyone who saw this as a way forward. Cause what it was, it was capitulation! The fucking accord. I mean Jack’s book, some people got crook at Jack in the manner he had written that little book on the accord, the pamphlet, have you ever read it?
AMR: Is this the one on the trade unions?
JD: No, not the trade unions, on the accord.
AMR: I don’t believe that I have.
JD: Ok, and Jack exposed it in a little 20 pages, I’ve got one at home as a matter of fact, he exposed it for what it was. It was a sell-out! We were capitulating to the employing class that we were not going to take any more action in defence of or in furthering wages and conditions. We were giving them carte blanche to attack us knowing full well we were not going to fight back. I reckon that any person with any decent mentality or reading ability could see that this was the greatest sell-out of the working class in Australia than ever before. I would even go so far to say that the sell-out was worse than the depression, because at least during the depression they were still able to fight and to win some things, here this was the depression 100 times over and no, we are going to give in, we’re going to let them kill us!
AMR: With the accord, people who had been known as communists like Laurie Carmichael were key parts in the implementation of the accord.
JD: Yeah, and they knew. I mean Hawke must have blessed himself, he must have gone, I don’t know if he was a church going person but if the pope had been here he would have gone and kissed his feet. Aarons onside! We’ve got fucking Aarons, were home. Because the influence that Aarons still had, he didn’t have it in the maritime branch, but the influence that he did have, it was absolute capitulation! You know, blind Freddy! Even if you couldn’t read you could see that this was the greatest sell-out that had ever come before the workers in this country, ever! There was a couple in the Maritime branch (of the SPA), they said “oh let’s not get people offside, Hawke’s going to be the leader, he’ll go one day and be the Prime Minister of Australia, let’s not get him offside.” Oh, so that means you are going to capitulate! Those people were absolutely right, he went on to lead Australia, you know, and of course out of that came Keating, fucking jeez. How they couldn’t see the writing on the wall I’ll never know. Never ever, ever know! It was so stark, that this was the greatest sell-out of workers in this country.
AMR: What influence do you think that the divisions in the communist movement had on the successful implementation of the accord?
JD: No doubt, when the Aarons came out in support, and people in the maritime branch and Jack McPhillips and Peter Symon opposed to it, I think that they would have known that the fledgling party (the SPA) would have been outflanked as it was going to be formed, wouldn’t have the power or the sway in which the previous party (old CPA) had. There’s no doubt that the party even though it had lost its influence in a lot of the unions, it still had communists still there and around that could sway people. And when they (Aarons) came out, it was a disaster, it was one of the most disastrous periods of the communist movement in this country. Without a shadow of a doubt.
AMR: It’s notable that after all of this, the Association for Communist Unity and MUSAA no longer exist, they largely folded into the ALP, at least from what I understand.
JD: Yes, yeah. That would be an interesting question for JG. Because JG went with MUSAA, and I would be interested to see what his answer would be to that. Yeah it would be very interesting. The seaman went, you see, but then JG, that’s why I don’t like JG; I love him, he worked it out! There was fucking nothing there. Nothing whatsoever going with MUSAA, and of course then he come back, he was one of the first to come back and join the party. Yeah and that’s why I admire him. Yeah, we go back a long way JG, and he, when I talk about him its honest in what I’m saying, and he does the same thing. I remember when we were at a function or something I will speak and then JG will speak, or he’ll speak and then I’ll speak. We’re both on the same wavelength, it’s a great comradeship and a great friendship we have together.
AMR: I have heard of some others.
JD: Yes, I know some people were scathing about the branch allowing George Gotsis back. George took a bit of time assimilating back into the party, but it was made easier by people like myself and even Harry and Jack. We didn’t rush to him with open arms. We went to him and said “well mate, welcome back,” we weren’t castigating him, we welcomed him back. He settled in but it took a time for him to settle in, but then the old George came out, and even though he was hard to understand he was a communist.
I did his eulogy, one of the people to do it. And I was so appreciative of his brother Dimitry coming over and saying because he was castigated by another group of people when he came back to the party and in my eulogy I said “George was castigated by people, that he came back to the movement that he should never have left, which was the Communist Party. And those people are now scathing about him now that he’s no longer alive.” And his brother came over after the funeral and he said “thanks for saying that,” he was very appreciative. I loved George, I loved him very much, and when he came back, I was so pleased, so pleased. He was genuine, he, if George could speak better English he could have gone a long way. He would have been an official of the union without a doubt. Even with his liability of not speaking English well, you know, a lot of Greeks were good at it, but George just didn’t have that. You could imagine well I don’t know much Greek, but I would love to hear, I would love to be able to speak Greek because I wanted to know at all the functions and meetings I went to where George would speak, I would love to have known Greek language so I would have understood more of what he was saying. A wonderful man. I’ve got a tear in my eyes; I’m not joking. I was so pleased when he came back.