||Issue No. 153||20 September 2002|
Less Is More
Interview: Still Flying
International: President Gas
Politics: Australia: A Rogue State?
Unions: Welfare Max
Bad Boss: Welcome to Telstra!
Health: Fat Albert: The Grim Reaper
Satire: Iraq Pre-empts Pre-emptive Strike
Poetry: A Man From the East And A Man From The West
Review: The Sum Of All Fears
The Locker Room
Week in review
Why We Are a Terrorism Target
Radio Doco on 1973 Ford Strike
An Atmospheric Piece
Vale: Jack Ferguson
Labor Council secretary, John Robertson, said that one statement summed up a “highly principled” man who this week lost his long battle with mesothelioma, contracted as a young building worker.
Ferguson was likely the last of the old labor school - a dedicated, unapologetic left-winger, who left school at 13 and saw wartime service in Borneo and New Guinea, before cutting his political teeth as a brickie and an official of the Building Workers Industrial Union.
Ferguson served as Minister for Ports, Housing and Public Works and is remembered for creating, and preserving, many of the open spaces on Sydney's foreshores.
He was acting NSW Premier for three months when Wran stood aside in 1983, during hearings of the Street Royal Commission.
Current premier, Bob Carr, recalled Ferguson being driven by "classic" Labor concerns.
"He had the stubborness and a sense of principle - the idea that workers always came first; that a Labor government was judged on how it looked after the poor; that a Labor MP never forgot who put him there and why."
Ferguson and his wife, Mary, lived out their 51-year marriage in a house he built with his own hands at working class Guildford. He began the project after Mary accepted his 1947 proposal but wouldn't marry until the job was completed nearly four years later.
While he is a beacon from Labor's past he and Mary will have a significant impact on the movement's future.
Sons Laurie and Martin are federal party front benchers, while their younger brother, Andrew, is the NSW secretary of the CFMEU Construction Division, a union that grew out of his father's BWIU. Daugthers Deborah and Jennifer are active party members.
Thanking Labor Council delegates for their sentiments and support, Andrew Ferguson, said it was his father's wish that supporters donate to Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in lieu of flowers.
"Dad was very impressed with the standard of the public health system," he said.
"He had inhaled asbestos as a young man and it has been hard watching him struggle to breathe for the last nine months. It's a terrible way to die and has only increased our determination to fight for workplace health and safety."
Below, former Cabinet colleague Rodney Cavalier, presents a personal memory of the man whose funeral will be held at St Patrick's Catholic Church, Guildford, at 10am next Monday.. .
RODNEY CAVALIER REMEMBERS JACK FERGUSON, BUILDING WORKER
When Jack Ferguson started work as an Organiser for the Building Workers' Industrial Union, it was the first time he had ever worn a tie to work. Pat Clancy, NSW Secretary of the Union, expected his men to look the part; a clothing allowance came with the job. Somewhat delighted at this turn of events, Jack's wife Mary took him to the Reuben F.Scarf store at Auburn and kitted him out in a green sports coat, a green-and-white glo-weave shirt and pants with green material. (When it comes to Mary and recall, the detail is microscopic.)
Jack's first day visiting work sites was 15 November, 1957, a day which would be typical of all his days until his election to the NSW Parliament in 1959. He was going from building site to building site as cottages were under construction in the St. Elmo Estate at Campbelltown. Each site had a different builder. The number of workers was rarely more than six. On his report sheet, Jack would enter the numbers, breaking them into carpenters, bricklayers and apprentices.
His activity involved the basic work of a union organiser. He checked whether the employer was complying with the provisions of the Award. He was exercising the full reach of the law to protect the most basic rights of working men: whatever strength the BWIU possessed depended on mobile union officials getting out and about, armed with the legal power to check conditions and demand enforcement of legal entitlements. On his first day he forced one employer to pay a 17-year-old apprentice an additional ₤39/1/- (a veritable fortune for the time) for underpayment of wages.
There was more enforcement later that day. Jack recorded: "I got the builder to go to the bank & make the payments in my presence. Then signed up both boys in the union."
The sums were ₤11/8/9 and ₤22/12/-. Employers were responsible as well for fares to work. On that day, after checking the wages books, he forced another employer to write while he was present cheques for sums of ₤72/11/- and ₤61/12/6 for underpayment of fares. Employers, left to themselves, had little concern for other than the completion of the job at hand. One apprentice had no apprenticeship papers, he was not enrolled at a technical college. Having signed the boy as a member of the Union, Ferguson arranged his "Tech" enrollment.
Ferguson was checking the union membership of all workers on the jobs. He was checking whether they were members of the BWIU and whether they were fully financial. If they were not financial, he made arrangements for them to pay off the dues owed at a fixed sum per week, an arrangement which necessitated his visit to the site for weeks on end. (No payroll deductions then.) If they were not members of the BWIU or any other union, he would offer whatever persuasion he considered appropriate to get the worker to see the error of his ways. If the worker remained unconvinced, Ferguson would speak to the union members about the presence of such a person. He had no hesitation about demanding that an employer shed the services of a worker who refused to join the Union.
The battle was not only with the bosses. The BWIU had been deregistered, a breakaway union of carpenters (the Australasian Society of Carpenters and Joiners or ASC&J) had gained registration to fill the legal void - though void it was solely at law - while another breakaway was trying to organise a union of bricklayers. The BWIU organisers were expected to take members back from the carpenters' union. Relations between the two unions were bitter. Jack devoted a lot of his time to guerilla warfare against the ASC&J whenever he encountered its members on building sites. Wherever he encountered ASC&J members, he recorded them. Wherever he confronted them, he did what he could to transfer their membership to the BWIU. Individually and in small groups he was causing a steady defection from the rival union. When inspecting three cottages at Condell Park, for example, he reported: "Both carpenters are members of the ASC&J. Had a long talk with them, will go back & see them again as I feel sure that we can win them over to the BWIU."
In the three years he served as an Organiser, Jack visited building sites as diverse as large-scale factories and shopping complexes where there might be scores of carpenters down to cottages where there might be just the one bricklayer or carpenter accompanied by a single apprentice. Apart from building sites, the other locations for members were the many joinery shops which prefabricated doors and frames. That was in-door work, locations where the employer had no excuse for not providing all facilities.
The Australia of the 1950s was what he encountered every day. It was a world where the presence of any immigrant, referred to as "a New Australian", rated mention each time. Women had no place in that world. The one occasion that a woman entered a building site was short, her presence ended very suddenly. In February 1958, in response to a report at the Cabramatta Branch of the ALP that a woman had been seen at a local building site, Ferguson visited the site, found that a woman was working as a labourer, confronted the foreman and, as he reported, she was "put off straightaway".
The daily report sheets of Jack Ferguson are a rich source for the social history of working Australians in the late 1950s. Every site warranted its own report, one which contained the basic details of date and address, the size of the workforce and its occupational breakdown, spaces for entries on awards compliance and conditions, tool lock ups and first aid. Most valuably there is a large space for any additional comments by the Organiser.
Never confident of his handwriting, awry in his spelling, Jack nonetheless forced himself to write a few lines, sometimes many. Occasionally he had Mary type his comments. Some of those entries were as follows (original spelling and grammar preserved).
· Visited the job one day. Went back the next morning and held a meet at 9 o'clock and a rep elected. The matter of safety in fixing Purlins on the roof was raised. Back into the union office for advice, held a meeting next day and explained the position to the members, took the matter up with the foreman, the meeting decided to ask the Department of Lift & Scaffolds to inspect the job. On this job there are two old hands of the Firm who raised the question of working one hour extra a day so they could have a extra day at Xmas. Told the meeting the union attitude and there was a good response from the membership. There is one ASC&J on the job.
· Asked the employer for time to address men in working hours, he agreed, I read the amounts owing to each man & roasted them for working under the award & told them they were liable for doing it.
· The partners took a very bad stand about the rights of the union to come on the job during working hours.
· Had a lunch time meeting on this job, the nationalitys of the five carpenters are one Dutchman, one Dane, one Pole, two Italians. They were very interested in the unemployment position, and finance for home building also Immigration, the two Italians also keen on the question Peace & armament.
· Had quite a lot of trouble & I became very heated, had to go away & hold a lunch time meeting, when I came back we had all cooled down. The carpenter joined the union, the other two agreed to pay off their arrears.
· Another small builder feeling the pinch, finding it hard to get work, says he was beaten by œ100 on a œ800 job. Tells me he quotes on anything he can.
· Had a rep elected who is a Maltese & a very good chap, prepared to speak up & say his peace, as I have found so many of the Maltese.
"The reports were the worry of my life," Jack told me. Pat Clancy read them carefully to get a feel for the industry. On Thursday afternoons, the Organisers had a meeting with the other officials by which time Clancy had read all the reports. The collective discussed tactics and strategies, the officials went over the status of the multiple overlapping public campaigns the BWIU was always pursuing. They criticised each other and received criticism. "They were the greatest political experience of my life," Jack recalled.
They were communists for the most part, a cause of zero concern for Jack Ferguson. "I never saw them do anything that was not in the interests of the workers." Clancy was one of Jack's most important mentors. Here were two men steeped in struggle, both self-educated, immensely wise, brilliant strategists capable of thinking decades ahead. The young man had so much to learn from this giant in an era when unions were led by giants who had, one and all, come from the ranks.
Jack could recall a big mass meeting at Leichhardt Stadium which the bosses tried to take over - the companies shipped their workers in by their vehicles. The President of the Union made a tactical error. "I forget the issue," Jack told me, "it was about working conditions, wages and that. Leichhardt Stadium is packed to the gunwhales. [The President] is trying to raise the issue of peace as the big issue, the workers are only concerned about the wages. It near cost us the meeting. I remember Clancy used to stand in the ring and Clancy took the meeting back. At that time I got up and spoke and I spoke in support of the line the Union were adopting, evidently I must have made an impression."
The organisers were the front-line of the Union office. They had to perform or the Union would languish. Clancy did not leave his organisers in the one area for too long. "Clancy changed you around often, otherwise you became too settled and you avoided the small jobs. You went in cold-deck. You had to find the jobs yourself."
Basic organising did not, however, mean the abandonment of the wider political imperative, an imperative for Ferguson as for Clancy that amounted to nothing less than achieving the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth. "There were campaigns all the time - housing, peace, unemployment. You had to do your organising work and the campaigns. That meant you arrived at the jobs for breakfast, you had lunch with the blokes. The sheds often had dust from cement and other materials."
Whenever possible, Jack tried to have lunch with the blokes. "I made it a point if possible. When I was working on the job I always took cut-lunches. You worked on jobs where there was not a sandwich shop next door. You had your boiled billy. The blokes would give you a cup of tea." Mary, of course, cut him that lunch each day.
The workers were entitled to a smoko break in the morning of 10 minutes. Lunch was supposed to be 42 minutes. "You always resisted breaking it down to half-an-hour. We said you needed 42 minutes to recover and get your breath back. Now the bastards are working 20, they want to get home early to the pub or somewhere. Fools. You need to have a rest. We used to fight against the workers cutting their time."
Jack's work took him everywhere. One day he was stopping work on the Chemistry Building at the University of Sydney (for which he copped a serve in the Commission), another day he was at Lithgow High School before work starts having left his Guildford home in the darkness. Most days he was in and around the western suburbs of Sydney as the paddocks of a once-rural economy disappeared under building sites for cottages to house working people and their families.
And every night virtually, including weekends, Jack Ferguson was not idle. By now his five children had come into the world, a cluster of babies and the very young. He was an Alderman of Parramatta Council, the ALP was requiring his attendance at Guildford Branch and the other branches in his ward, plus Granville SEC and Reid FEC. There were all the night meetings of the Union.
Holding union office was not a sinecure nor was it much of an advantage in positioning oneself for ALP preselection. With the Cold War raging, being proud to be an official of a Communist-controlled union made you a target of those who controlled the ALP in the State. But win a preselection Jack did: instead of waiting for the Left's citadel of Granville to fall vacant in 1962, Jack chanced his arm on Merrylands three years early, condemning himself to the probability of preselection challenges from ambitious Right-wing operatives who could always play the anti-communist card against him and rely on the support of ALP Head Office. Not until Jack became Deputy Leader could he be certain of his selection next time around.
Jack did not leave his Union nor his mates behind when he was elected to the NSW Parliament. He became a member of the BWIU State Executive after he became an MP and remained there until he became a Minister. His involvement was not nominal, especially when it came to the internal affairs of the Labor Party. At the 1973 ALP Conference the Left was formally split - as the Left usually is. The split of the early 1970s mirrored the split in the Communist Party between pro-Soviet and non-Soviet forces.
All of Jack's friends inside the ALP Left were decidedly non-Soviet (if only because they admired the Aarons' line of Australian independence) whereas the BWIU leadership subscribed to whatever line came out of Moscow. It did not please Jack to disagree with Clancy but disagree he did. At the ALP Conference the Right had done a deal with the pro-Soviet elements in order to remove Senator Arthur Gietzelt from the ALP Federal Executive. Arthur was gone for all money, gone long before the weekend, gone the night before, gone until just before the ballot opened. In the meantime, Jack had seen Clancy, Jack had pleaded with Clancy, Jack cashed in a lot of chips with Clancy. If necessary, Jack would resign from the BWIU Executive. He left that resignation with Pat to consider.
So it was that Clancy let it be known to the BWIU's ALP delegation they should stick with Arthur. So it was the BWIU delegates voted. So it was that Arthur was re-elected - by an overall margin far, far less than the votes the BWIU cast.
Jack only ever attended Annual Conference as a BWIU delegate though he could so easily have gained passage through his local electorate councils or the parliamentary party. Jack stayed with the BWIU because he thought it an honour without peer to be considered worthy of representing building workers. Much of the genius of his subsequent counsel in the NSW Cabinet was relating the impact of lofty decisions on a building worker and his family.
When, finally in the late 1990s, Jack was absent from every day of the Annual Conference, we knew that his body was letting him down. Some of the most beautiful memories of a cavalcade of memories are Jack in the Sydney Town Hall, sitting in the BWIU delegation, surrounded by old mates who could remember him as a brickie and surrounded by very young blokes not born when he left the tools. He was with them in 1983 when he was Acting Premier of New South Wales - when he was entitled to 24-hour police protection, when (certainly) he was entitled to be lorded. People came to Jack at ALP Conferences, delighted to see that he was still well, bringing up the old fights, the great moments, those times when the Left had its victories and its defeats in defence of honour. You knew where you could find Jack. He was always with the BWIU. He might move around but he never sat down anywhere else.
It was the same each year. It was the same when he was Deputy Leader, or Deputy Premier, Acting Premier, it was the same when public office was behind him and he was a grand patriarch. Jack passed the three days and two nights the same way each year: sitting with the BWIU, paying close attention to the proceedings, right arm straddled the length of two chairs, in one of the rear blocks where the delegations persona non grata are placed. This was the ALP in conference, he was acting Leader and he was a delegates like any other. What was said should matter.
The best part of any of those days was when the Chair gave the call to Jack. He would come forward acclaimed by the delegates, welcomed by name by the Chair. It did not matter. His beginning was always the same: "Delegate Ferguson, Building Workers' Industrial Union". And we would applaud all over again.
His passing is the passing of so much of what is fine about the Labour Movement.
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