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Issue # 1422      5 August 2009

Phyllis Johnson – a life of struggle

Phyllis Johnson, Communist, lifelong activist for the cause of the working class and campaigner for the rights of women, died on Monday July 20. She was 92.

Phyllis Johnson was born in 1917, in Albany, Western Australia. Her father, Washington Mather, was a wharfie, the Secretary of the WA Lumpers’ Union, loading coal, wheat and fruit onto ships bound for the Eastern States. He went on to contest the seat of Albany for the Labor Party and eventually to become the President of the Waterside Workers’ Federation. Her grandfather had contested the seat of Dundas in 1896.

Phyllis grew up in what she called “the dark, dreary days” of the Depression, “when bread, dripping and potatoes and kettle soup (salt, pepper and hot water) were usual meals. I can remember my father walking eight miles [12.8 kilometres] to work a relief shift on the roads.”

She moved to Sydney in 1933, getting a job as a typist on a wage that, like the wages of other women workers, was only 54 percent of the male basic wage. During this period of the Great Depression, she became involved in many anti-eviction struggles, unable to stand by while families that could not afford to buy food were evicted for failing to pay the rent.

Always militant, she soon joined her union and met politically active women like Jesse Street, prominent in the women’s movement and the movement against war and fascism. In 1937 Phyllis attended a meeting to mark International Women’s Day and later that same year joined the Communist Party. “I have remained a Communist ever since”, she declared when receiving the Eureka Medal shortly before her death.

It was also in the ’thirties that Phyllis first saw a photograph of Monty Miller in jail garb at a house in Downing Street, Paddington. “This led me to seek out written material on the Eureka Stockade, and its leaders, such as Miller, Lalor and Garabaldi. I realised the historic struggle by miners in Ballarat and the goldfields was a great and early movement for working class rights and justice,” she recalled.

In the late ’thirties, together with Eddie Allison of New Theatre and others, Phyllis was part of a Communist Party initiative that took drama to the people, staging plays on topical themes via the back of a table-top truck at street meetings and at factory gates.

During the period when the Axis powers were actively preparing for another World War, she was part of the campaign Against War and Fascism and actively took part in the Aid To Spain movement during Franco’s Nazi-backed assault on the democratically elected government of the Republican Spain.

Phyllis actively participated in the boycott of Japanese goods following Japan’s invasion of first Manchuria and then the rest of China during the 1930s. In 1935, she was able to play a leading role in unmasking Count Von Luchner as a Nazi agent during his Australian visit.

Before and during the War, Phyllis continued active community work in the Sydney suburb of Paddington – for improvements to schools and playgrounds, for the repair of storm damage, etc – and at the same time was an active member of the War Loan Council.

During the War, she initiated a special type of emergency care for pre-school children whose mothers had undertaken work in factories: “We got together a group of women with pre-schoolers themselves to negotiate the use of local halls (church, progress, etc) in a dozen suburbs, equipping the halls with palliases, arranging simple kindergarten programs and providing milk and a sandwich lunch.”

Also during the War years, she ran a weekly broadcasting session, Women for Victory, on Sydney radio station 2KY. The activity was significant in helping develop the role of women in the war effort and also in helping them to recognise the importance of defeating Fascism not just in Europe but also in our own region.

In 1943 Phyllis appeared before the first NSW Bread Inquiry, into the baking, distribution and pricing of bread in the state, and remained actively interested in this question for the rest of her life.

She was a vibrant public speaker. “It was in the Communist Party that I learned the techniques of public speaking,” she later recalled, “techniques that stood me in good stead in the war years when I became a volunteer on the Liberty Loan Industrial Panel, visiting factories during the lunch-break to urge contributions from the assembled workforce.”

In the post-war period, Phyllis and others – with the co-operation of the NSW Health Department – were able to get the government to issue free milk to school children, and to undertake the triple vaccination of children for measles, whooping cough and diphtheria. “In this same period, I was part of the successful campaign advocating the introduction of the ‘Oslo lunch’, a Scandinavian innovation for better children’s health, into many NSW school canteens.”

Her experience of anti-eviction struggles led, in the 1940s, to Phyllis becoming an advocate – appearing gratis – before the Fair Rents Board, a body established under legislation that followed a mathematical formula to determine a fair rent. “The Board was the bane of grasping landlords because tenants frequently gained substantial reductions in rent through its intervention.”

In the 1950s and ’60s, while raising her own small children, Phyllis worked on school committees and continued to be an active member of the women’s movement. In 1971 she was a foundation member of Women In The Community, an organisation promoting the status of women in both government and public forums. Subsequently, at different times she held the positions of President and Committee Secretary.

Phyllis had a fine grasp of Marxist-Leninist theory, which stood her in good stead when counter-revolution was fomented in several countries as part of moves to destabilise the socialist world, notably in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968. Phyllis was not taken in, and never wavered from her principled Marxist-Leninist position: she stayed with the Party after the Hill group split in ’56 and elected to join the Marxist-Leninists of the SPA when the Aarons group forced the old CPA to split after ’68.

In the 1970s, with Australian families facing the crisis of inflation, Phyllis was again prominent when she founded an organisation that became well-known throughout Australia and even internationally: CARP, Campaign Against Rising Prices. “It became well-known”, she noted, “because it spoke up and also acted,” Like Phyllis herself.

“On one memorable occasion, a delegation of us disrupted a session of the NSW Parliament. I refused to be brow-beaten by the Speaker and so panicked him he sought refuge in the gents’ toilet!”

Nevertheless, CARP’s status and her activity on behalf of consumers soon became such that in 1976 NSW Premier Neville Wran appointed Phyllis to the Sydney Farm Producers’ Authority, the Bread Industry Committee and the Egg And Poultry Collective, to be a government representative (without remuneration) on nutrition and pricing.

In 1974, in preparation for the United Nations’ International Year of Women in 1975, she successfully moved a resolution at a meeting of women in Bankstown that changed a pallid proposal to place a plaque commemorating women in a local park into a proposal to lobby local council and state government to establish a Women’s Refuge and Crisis Centre. This led eventually to the women’s refuge and crisis centres in Glebe, Blacktown and Bankstown.

In readiness for receiving the Eureka Medal earlier this year, she wrote: “I have always believed in speaking out, and have done so in support of many causes, including peace and détente, consumer protection (health, diet, commodity labelling and chemical additives in foodstuffs), as well as the needs of pensioners and women’s rights (including equal pay).

“I have always supported workers on strike for wage increases and improved or safer working conditions, joined picket lines, marched in protests and rallies. I have been jailed on two occasions, once for stopping traffic in Kings Cross during an unauthorised public meeting in opposition to Menzies’ policy of conscription and did one month in Long Bay Women’s Penitentiary after the Communist Party was banned in 1940 (also an act of Menzies).

“I have never been afraid to address any organisation or institution: I have spoken for the needs of working class families to unions, factory gate meetings, women’s organisations, vegetable farmers, red meat producers, the Conference of the NSW Apple & Pear Growers’Association, even Federal Cabinet.”

Rob Gowland, Guardian columnist and Secretary of the CPA Branch to which Phyllis belonged, paid tribute to her as “someone who epitomised the best qualities of a Communist: she was dedicated to the working class, she was tireless in her defence of workers’ rights and conditions, she was courageous in defence of the Party.

“She had an extraordinary capacity for work and activity, but was acutely conscious of the contribution made by her children and her husband, Johnno, a former photographer for the Communist Party paper Tribune. She was inordinately proud of Johnno as a maker of violins, and would show visitors around his workshop in their home at Bankstown with evident pleasure.

“She lived – to the full – the credo she expressed in the words: ‘I have always striven to do my best on behalf of the working people. I believe we can have no higher goal in life and cannot in good conscience do less’.”

She was, in every way, an inspiration.

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