- by Peter Wills
- The Guardian
- Issue #1980
Growing up and working on the railway in the sugar-growing town of Tully, I often heard mention by union delegates of Jack Henry. He was well known in the area, particularly amongst the descendants of the Italian migrant cane cutters who held him in high regard for his tireless work during the 1934-35 cane cutters’ strikes. They said he was the most anti-racist man they had ever met, and they were grateful for his help and organising skills
Born on a farm near Grafton NSW in 1904, Jack moved to Queensland in 1922 at the age of eighteen, and he worked in southeast Queensland until 1925 when he moved north to the newly opened cane fields in Tully to work as a cane cutter. Having been part of the labour movement since he was thirteen, he had joined the Australian Workers’ Union (AWU) – the largest union in Queensland at the time, dominating the state Labor government. It was, in essence, a right-wing bosses’ union that supported the profit motives of the sugar farmers and millers.
After the cane cutting season was finished and the cane cutters were laid off, many of them would travel to Brisbane looking for work, and this is where Jack was first exposed to and embraced Marxism. During the 1927 cane cutting season, Jack read Marxist classics such as Das Kapital and The Communist Manifesto.
Jack joined the CPA in 1931 and quickly gained the reputation of a highly effective advocate for workers (and migrant workers in particular). As a result of his efforts, the CPA grew quickly in North Queensland, gaining many new members, especially the Italian migrant cane cutters. This was in no small part due to Jack’s tireless efforts to protect them from racist attacks from the AWU. Jack’s organising skills helped the plight of the cane cutters and gained him wide respect amongst the sugar industry workers.
By 1933 the CPA had grown so much in Queensland that it was decided to create a ninth district. Jack was put in charge of the ninth district, which stretched from just north of Brisbane to the Torres Strait Islands. During this time, a branch office was opened in Innisfail, and despite the huge area the new district covered, Jack’s reputation as an advocate for the working class grew. The Party’s rapid expanse during this time included recruits from the mining, dairy, meat workers, sugar, railway and transport industries.
In 1934 Jack ran in the state election for the federal seat of Herbert (Townsville), and while only managing 8.3 per cent of the vote in the following year in the state election he managed to pull in 18 per cent of the vote. Although unsuccessful, his experience paved the way for the election of Fred Patterson to state parliament in 1944.
In 1935 a particularly bitter strike dragged on from August to October. The AWU tried to stop the strikes, but they were side-tracked by Jack who had organised the cane cutters into a powerful force. During the strike, money was in short supply. Jack’s organising skills were most valued and appreciated during this time, organising fundraisers for the striking cutters via raffles, dances, and other activities. Not only was he was responsible for keeping the striking workers and their families fed but he contributed a great deal to the coffers of the CPA.
The state Labor government attempted to stop the strike by sending in the police, issuing £100 fines, evicting cutters from their barracks, and even shooting at them. However, the cutters remained staunch. With Jack Henry standing behind them every step of the way, they eventually prevailed. The burning of cane prior to cutting was mandated by the industrial court from that season on.
Jack was an early feminist and would not tolerate any interference by male members of the CPA into the various communist women’s associations. He went on to a long and distinguished career with the CPA, eventually becoming a member of the Central Committee. Jack moved to Sydney, but it was his time in Tully defending migrant cane cutters that he is most fondly remembered for. His ability to motivate and have workers recognise and resist the forces of capitalism and recognise them as the oppressors of the working class was perhaps his greatest talent. ϑ