Communique from a Past Vanished

by Ian Curr

There are truths so evident, so much a part of people’s knowledge, that it is now useless to discuss them. — Ernesto Che Guevara.

Recently there was a Q150 conference on the history of labour relations in Queensland sponsored by the Qld State Government.

I had been accepted to present a paper ‘After the Waterfront – the workers are quiet‘ but declined their offer and did not attend.

Payment of a fee ($200) and attendance would be rewarded with a ‘free’ copy of ‘Work and Strife in Paradise: 150 years of Labour Relations History in Queensland, 1859 to 2009’ edited by Bradley Bowden, Simon Blackwood, Cath Rafferty and Cameron Allan. The blurb that went with the book read:

Despite past emphasis on the large-scale strikes that periodically raked the state this book finds that consensus normally prevailed.

This blurb is ironic, if only because at least one of the authors, when he was more ‘worker friendly’ would get up at meetings a call for a general strike. That he would do so was interesting enough, chiefly because he would blurt out this dictum regardless of the current state of working class organisation.
I still remember him doing so one night in a meeting of the Trade Union Support Group at the old wharfies club late in the long running  SEQEB dispute which resulted in defeat for the workers after many months struggle in 1985.

Perhaps it was this defeat that led the author  to accept consensus with the boss as being ‘normal’ — a death on the knees if ever there was one.

Another academic, a labour historian of the Left, reported to me that the conference saw the problem with industrial relations in Qld as being the Australian Workers Union (AWU).

In a distant past, the AWU was to be the One Big Union (OBU). That was after the Great Shearer’s strike in the 1890s. But, as that labour historian would know, it all turned out bad , the IWW (wobbly) dream of an OBU was lost.

Ernie Lane described this in his book Dawn to Dusk – reminiscences of a rebel:

But industrial unionism secured the support of a very large number of unionists and the One Big Union soon became the most prominent question in the whole field of unionism. The A.W.U., although on the surface a basis for the O.B.U., was in reality just a mass organisation under the control of a central authority and in close alliance with the Australian Labour Party. With its usual opposition to any movement that threatened the dominance of the A.W.U. that organisation bitterly fought “The Reds,” as all militants were termed, and denounced as disruptives all those inside or outside the union who urged the claim of the O.B.U.— Chapter XIII. Militancy Sabotaged.

More recently the AWU has some bad history to live down. Take the Mt Isa Mines dispute.

The Mount Isa miners dispute was a major confrontation of miners with the company, the government, the arbitration system and even the leadership of their own union, the Australian Workers Union, who expelled Pat Mackie from their ranks, against the demands of the strikers, who had a number of grievances against the company, were looking to end contract labour, and work for wages.

The government of the day led by the Country-Liberal Party coalition under Premier Nicklin declared a state of emergency, gave extraordinary power to police, and flew in a special squad of police who put a blockade around Mount Isa, to prevent support getting to the miners. The mine closed for four months, and when it reopened miners picketed the gates, virtually closing it for another two months. In a show of complicity, the AWU called on the government to take measures to end the picket.

The government complied, putting into force exceptionally harsh legislation allowing police to enter houses without warrant, and to seize banners, pamphlets and other material used to support the strike. Meanwhile the Federal Government was taking measures to have Pat Mackie deported.

Nicklin described him as ‘a vicious gangster unfit to mix with decent society.’ However his name became a household word as images of the strikers were frequently broadcast on national television. — from Lachlan Hurse on Pat Mackie

I wonder if many ALP members have seen the billboard on the corner of Dorchester & Gladstone Road, Highgate Hill, not that far from the house ‘Cosme’ where Ernie Lane lived nearly 100 years ago?

'Anna Bligh voted to sell off profitable public assets. Queensland working families will remember at the next state election, Anna.'

That says a lot about an IR conference of Labour academics and practitioners that they would point to the AWU (Australia’s Worst Union?) as being the main problem for industrial relations in Queensland.

So do they think the malaise is not the Treasurer (Andrew Fraser) and the Premier (Anna Bligh)? Not even the Labor Party as Ernie Lane pointed out in ‘Dawn to Dusk’? The AWU must carry all the blame?

I wonder what their take is on the  mining transnationals like BHP ripping the guts out of land that they do not own [aboriginal land (sic)]? And the open invitiation by Anna Bligh to Gina Reinhardt (Hancock) and BHP to buy into rail and coal in Queensland. You can be sure workers rights will not be a problem for them.

‘bhp billiton – undermining the future’

Do they read the business pages of the daily papers? Did they see that BHP Billiton has emerged as the money-bags behind the Queensland coal industry’s bid to buy the state’s coal freight network.[BHP behind bid to buy Queensland Rail’]

If they would only emerge from the Universities and public service departments for long enough they might see that opposition to privatisation is in the high 90s.

You would think the June State Labor Party conference could not be so stupid to back the sell-off of public assets? Do they really accept the line that all the growth is necessary, all the profit and the debt is necessary, all the roads and tunnels are necessary. Don’t they merely fill up with cars again after a while? Do we need  all the rail links for coal to be dragged to port so that power stations and smelters  in India and China can fry the planet?

Even allowing for polling bias, with public opposition in the in the 90+ %, it is a pretty clear indicator that the public don’t swallow the spin that the state labor government has put on it, even if it means we get the other mob who still yearn for a Joh to sell-off the state in exchange for Comalco shares.

Say the polling figures were out by 30% and opposition is only 60%, what democratically elected government could survive that level of opposition?

And it is the Anna-Bligh-led ‘Left’ faction of the ALP that wants to float QRail on the stock exchange.

What is the plan, Anna? Sell off Queensland Rail to BHP? Is that what the Labor Party really wants? BHP can be trusted to do a better job than state owned QR, can’t they?

You would think the State Labor government would get cold feet after the public float of Telstra.

Did anyone win out of that debacle? Telstra shareholders? Consumers? Workers? Retirees?

I supppose some American CEOs and their cronies received some big payouts.

Of course the ALP does not have a ‘Left’, not since George Georges.

If you don’t know who George Georges is, he was a labor Senator for Qld who resigned from the Labor Party when the Hawke Federal Labor government de-registered the Builders Labourer’s Federation in 1986.

Nowadays even the AWU comes across as being to the Left of Rudd & Swann on border security, on privatisation, on refugees. But then the proverbial Genghis Khan is to the Left of Rudd and the rest of the Queensland mob.

Is there anything in history that prepares us for this?

A well meaning academic suggested that I reprint “Many Ships to Mt Isa — an autobiography of Pat Mackie” and “Mt Isa: Story of a Dispute” Pat Mackie & Elizabeth Vassileef which tells the story of how workers defied Mt Isa Mines and their union (the AWU) to win a 8 month long dispute in 1964. [See Vale Pat Mackie and Many Ships to Mt Isa — an autobiography of Pat Mackie]

I ask myself, will an old wobbly’s reminiscences of the 1964 Mt Isa mines dispute help us understand the current crisis for workers and their unions? Sure the mining multinationals are still here ripping off the workers and tearing up the land that does not belong to them. That has not changed.

Even knowing our vanished past, does that help us understand why the State Labor Conference in June 2009 voted 207 to 156 in favour of selling ports, rail, power and water?

Somehow I do not think history explains this.

I think that we need to be creative in our interpretation of these events and to do what is needed to resist the sale of public assets.

We could begin by realising our problems are contemporary, they may have origins in the past but they are not buried there, so they can be changed.

Ian Curr
December 2009

One thought on “Communique from a Past Vanished

  1. Keitha Morgana says:

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