|Issue No 47||24 March 2000|
Unionist Honoured Posthumously
Wal Liddle was one of the people who built the union movement at the grass-roots level - never a high-profile official, but an on-the-job activist - the very life-blood of the union movement
This week Wal Liddle received the highest award bestowed by the Labor Council of NSW. He received it posthumously, the first posthumous award bestowed by Labor Council, as Wal died tragically of an industrial illness last year.
Wal's working life started as an apprentice at Waddington's Engineering in Clyde during the Second World War. Aside from building railway carriages he also worked on merchant ships for the American cargo fleet.
As well as learning the trade Wal had the responsibility of 'billy-boy'. In his writings he described it:
"Morning tea was a sacred ritual for the workers of the company and pity help any billy boy who didn't have the water ready on time, or any apprentice who spilled the liquid amber. The twelve billies which were in my charge were reasonably easy to handle on the inward journey but rather difficult to balance on the return. I carried two wooden sticks on which were hung six tin receptacles full to the brim, one stick in each hand."
While just an apprentice Wal also witnessed the fatal electrocution of a tradesman, and saw at a very early age just how dangerous the workplace could be.
At the war's end Wal transferred his apprenticeship to the building industry.
Like many of his generation who had lived through the Great Depression, Wal came to the conclusion that the system itself was fundamentally flawed for working people. So at the age of 17 he joined the Eureka Youth League and some time later the Communist Party.
At age of 23 he was elected union rep for the Building Workers Industrial Union at Vandyke's prefabricated housing factory at Villawood. This was the time of Cold War - fierce struggle between left and right - reflected in an equally intense on-the-job struggle between BWIU and a union the bosses had instigated - called the ASC&J. In what was, at times, a very hostile political environment Wal stood up to be counted while many ducked for cover.
This was the first of many jobs where Wal was delegate for the union. He was also delegate on the construction of the nurses quarters at the Royal Prince Alfred hospital in Camperdown - his first large-scale construction site.
Despite his earlier experiences in heavy industry, Wal was taken aback at the toughness of the work. These were the days when concrete was mixed on site, and it was wheeled about in rickshaws - double sized wheelbarrows full of liquid concrete. These had to be pushed up narrow ramps and across planks by a single worker - it was back-breaking work.
But it wasn't just the labourers who had it tough. In one of his writings, Wal vividly described the conditions that he worked under:
"The methods of construction in some cases were pretty hairy. I remember building the structural support timbers to the nursing quarter balconies. No scaffolding was provided so at one stage you would be balancing on narrow timbers ten feet above the floor below, with the possibility of falling and rolling off the edge into the infinite space down to street level."
Wal was sacked from this job after arriving back to work 5 minutes late from lunch - he'd been doing union work. In an ironic twist, when the case was taken to the Arbitration Court, the proceedings had to be held up because the judge was half an hour late!
After the RPA job Wal worked on the construction of the Kent St parking station in the city, the Redfern Mail Exchange and the Davies Coop Textile Factory building on Victoria Rd at Rydalmere. On all these jobs he was a union rep.
Wal had a great interest in writing and throughout the 1950s and 60s his articles were a regular feature in the union journal, the Building Worker.
Wal was already known to many of the leading figures in the BWIU. But at Davies Coop he also came into contact with people such as Maurie Lynch, Don McHugh and Joe Ferguson - some of the key activists who transformed the Builders Labourers Federation - the BLF - from an obscure right-wing union into one of the most prominent unions in the country.
But they weren't the only significant labour movement figures he met. Another BWIU delegate - who was also an ALP member - Jack Tarlington - had invited a speaker from the Labor party to address the workers because there was an election coming up.
The speaker was the member for Merriwa - Gough Whitlam. This was the period of the Cold War, and in fear of the 'Red Bogey', Labor Party policy was that no member should speak on the same platform as a member of the Communist Party - to do so would mean instant expulsion. Jack Tarlington was well aware of the policy, but he wanted Whitlam to speak to the workers - and because Wal was a leader on the job, as well as a mate - he didn't think it fair to exclude him.
The meeting turned out very successfully, with Wal as chairman, introducing Gough and making some congratulatory remarks at the end. Afterwards Jack walked Gough back to the main gate where Gough remarked that Wal was a 'great fella' and why didn't Jack get him to join the Labor Party? When he was told that Wal was a communist, Gough had a fit!
But Wal's political activity extended far beyond putting Gough Whitlam at risk of expulsion from the Labour Party. He was involved in all the major political struggles of the period - and such campaigns as trying to get the atom bomb banned - and helping with the struggle for aboriginal rights amongst other things.
Wal was also elected by job delegates to represent the union at the World Youth Festival in Poland in 1955. Whilst he remained a socialist to the end of his life, Wal's misgivings about the regimes in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, grew ever larger as the years went by.
Summing up his political thoughts Wal told last years State Conference of the CFMEU:
"The fight has been long and hard with many working-class casualties on the way caused by the stress and strains of being a militant or union rep. For us Communists it was even harder because of the media's 'Reds Under The Bed' campaign. The excesses of the Soviet Union didn't help with the mass starvation caused by the forced agricultural collectivisation of the 1930s, the 'Show-Trials' of 1938, and the continuing torture and imprisonment of anybody who disagreed with the leaders. But the ideas of socialism gave us a steel backbone of which I'm very proud."
Whilst Wal was never a high-flyer in the union, he was a genuine leader amongst his fellow workers - right at the coal-face. And many of the conditions that building workers enjoy today were won through campaigns in which Wal took part - these included numerous wage campaigns, wet weather pay, dirt money, multi-storey allowance, tool allowance, and basic amenities on the job such as decent dressing sheds, and adequate washing and toilet facilities.
Indeed on some jobs - Wal and those with him led the way - such as in the struggle for multi-storey allowance, payment for public holidays and site allowance. And despite the pain of his illness Wal's union activity continued through to the crucial MUA dispute last year.
Beyond the struggles that he personally participated in, and his own writings, Wal has left a further legacy for the future generations of building workers. In appreciation of the assistance of the union's efforts in winning him compensation payment for his illness, Wal made a magnificent bequest to the union. This was to be used to educate younger building workers.
Arising from this bequest, the union will be preparing a series of booklets titled the Wal Liddle Series. In diametrical contrast to the political orthodoxy of Howard's Australia, Wal's life wasn't about 'looking after Number One' - it was about looking after your fellow human being - at times at great personal cost to himself.
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Last Modified: 15 Nov 2005