Interview: On Holiday
Unions: One Day Longer
Industrial: Never Mind the Bollocks
Politics: Spun Out
Economics: If the Grog Don't Get You ....
History: Taking a Stand
International: The Split
Legal: Pushing the Friendship
Poetry: Simple Subtractions
Review: Sydney Trashed
The Locker Room
AFL-CIO Not The Only War
We Love Morris
A Readers Suggestion
Taking a Stand
The Green Bans have iconic status in trade union historiography, as does one of the main instigators, Jack Mundey of the BLF. As an example of trade unionism reaching beyond the focus on wages, conditions and jobs, it is recognised as a key event in the development of environmental, politics and in consciousness raising, as a part of the "new left" developments associated with world wide discontent with the capitalist order from the early 1960s. Greg Mallory links this "new thinking" with some earlier events and actions by waterside workers in Australia. The refusal to load pig iron, like the refusal to build office towers, was an action by union members concerned with the good of humanity as a whole, not an action designed to further the interests of their members alone.
Mallory examines these moves into "Uncharted Waters" in his new book of that name. He looks at theoretical issues that were under intense discussion in the Communist Party of Australia and the influence of syndicalist and Wobbly ideas on the outlook and actions of unions and key members of the CPA.
The BLF development was focal point of the "Turbulent Decade" from 1965 to 1975. The turbulence of the time is examined in the contributions to a conference organised by the Sydney Society for the Study of Labour History. The collection of papers looks at anti-Vietnam protests, the rise of the counter culture and the development student politics, women's liberation, Aboriginal rights, sexual liberation, gay and lesbian rights and the anti-apartheid movement. The changes in trade unions as pushed by these developments and the influence trade unions themselves had on this decade is discussed by union figures, as is the changing structure and nature of the ALP in the period. The book is based around papers from a conference held in Sydney in 2001 The conference was framed around the years 1965, when Menzies committed Australian forces to Vietnam, and 1975 when the Whitlam government was sacked. The flavour of the 60s, as we refer to it, was perhaps most reflected in public policy by the advent of the ALP government, so the papers presented discuss and comment upon some of the popular current for change that ran through Australian society in "the 60s" and which the Vietnam War provided such a powerful focus and drive to forces for social change.
Greg Mallory takes a directly trade union approach to the issues that propelled activists in the 1960s. He does this by pushing us back to the role of the Communist Party and the Waterside Workers Federation and he rescues from the memory hole the actions of Ted Roach and the Port Kembla workers in particular, in confronting the same Robert Menzies in the time before he had his unfortunate resurrection in the Cold War. As John Howard has sadly found now, in the 1950s the times did suit Menzies but it did not mean that Australians were his lapdogs and the discussions in these two books of the WWF and the BLF show how important the trade union movement is in mobilising dissent. Today we can see this again with we hope the most sustained campaign against the sophisticated monolithic spin of the Howard era coming once again from the unions. And the success of this campaign is coming from unions acting atypically by openly campaigning on issues of community and the good society, not on the narrow tracks of wages and conditions. Certainly for good society we need those but to capture a mood we need to talk about them differently.
Mallory starts out to tell us the stories of the WWF and the BLF, and they are great stories, but his aim is more than that. John Moses, a historian and theorist of trade union action, is quoted by Mallory and sums up where he is headed:
The object of trade union behaviour...is not the building up of a massive trade union bureaucracy but the encouragement of the growth of socially aware, responsible and creative workers. It is a process which sees a reciprocal relationship\between the union and the individual members, between the union as a force opposed to capital on the one hand, and an instrument for the emancipation of individuals on the other." (Moses, J. Trade Union Theory from Marx to Walesa. Berg Publishers, London, 1990)
As we see today, labour movements and progressive forces have allowed themselves to be tarred with a brush that paints collective action, sameness, narrowness, do as you are told" on us. The key that academic activists like John Buchanan and Chris Briggs (to name but two) turn is that collective rights are the only means of providing that emanicipation of the individual. The reason for the workplace rights campaign succeeding is the hitting home of the issue that individually at work you are at the mercy of forces more powerful than little old or young you. The union does not control your work, but helps ensure you have rights while doing that work.
The union can also provide a way of expressing your broader socia concerns acting on those concerns. Workplace information, and actions can be transformative and can provide a window on the world through which you can step into action to change the world. The WWF did this, the BLF did this.
Connecting via the "new social movements' of student action, women's liberation, gay activism, Aboriginal rights, anti-apartheid and more broadly the anti-Vietnam campaign also provide that essential group support that re-enforces your deeply held values. Eric Aarons in his book "What's Right" talks about these issues in a different way. He explains that he thought the theoretical insights of Marxism were what underpinned his moral compass. But his continued thinking and observations lead him to reappraise this viewpoint. He rather saw that his morals and values were at the core of what makes us humans and the Marxist philosophy was not the central driving force in his ongoing commitment to making a fairer society. Alexander Cockburn in his book "The Golden Age Is In Us" makes a similar point in a different way when discussing Noam Chomsky (p290):
People will go to a talk by Chomsky partly just to reassure themselves that they haven't gone mad; that they are right when they disbelieve what they read in the papers or watch on TV.
As Chomsky himself puts it (quoted by Cockburn):
"Any time you find a form of authority illegitimate, you ought to challenge it"
That is what these unions and social movements did. The wharfies were supposed to be wage plugs who just did as they are told. They weren't supposed to think about the facts of actions having consequences. The action of loading pig iron to sell to a government waging war wasn't supposed to be questioned by them. Builders' Labourers' were supposed to just turn up and be the lowest of the low on building sites. By starting to think about what those buildings were for, what those building were replacing, what could be done with their labour power instead of the project they were expected to blindly participate in they stepped into that terrain of questioning authority. Once this questioning began it went in all sorts of directions. The structure of the union from the early 1960s enabled and encouraged this thinking and so they became perhaps the best example of what Moses refers to in the quote above: socially responsible and aware creative workers.
Let me hasten to add that these two books are not dry tomes. The writers, editors and contributors have been creative activists in trade unions and other social movements. Greg Mallory and those who organised the conference on the Turbulent Decade have tapped a rich vein of reminiscence and ideas. Read these books and then, as John Robertson said to Australia's largest union meeting on 1st July 2005, "get out there and get on with it."
A Turbulent Decade: Social Protest Movements and the Labour Movement, 1965-1975, edited by Beverley Symons and Rowan Cahill (Published by the Sydney Branch, Australian Society for the Study of Labour History, PO Box 1027, Newtown, NSW 2005)
Greg Mallory. Uncharted Waters: Social Responsibility in Australian Trade Unions (published by Greg Mallory in Brisbane, 2005) Contact Greg at [email protected]
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