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Humphrey McQueen on May Day

Humphrey McQueen at Leightons in Eagle Street Brisbane 21 Sept 09

Speech by Humphrey McQueen – May Day Dinner, Adelaide, 2011

Although we are more than half way through our May Day dinner, it is never too late to say grace: ‘For the food and drinks that we are enjoying, we thank the working classes’. We have already expressed our thanks to the catering staff who know that the good things have come from further afield than their kitchen. Hence, we thank farmers and fruit-pickers; the factory hands who built the tractors and trucks; the navvies who laid the expressways and rail tracks; the building workers who constructed the processing plants and warehouses; the packers and delivery drivers; the clerks in offices and supermarkets. It is to them, and many more, that we owe the food we put on our tables three times a day. Hence, we owe all our meals to the entirety of the working people, to a social continuum of human creativity around the globe. We should have the grace to thank them.

Women still carry a disproportionate share in the provision of food and drink, waiting on tables at home and in commercial outlets. They labour in chicken factories as the modern domestic servants who are out of sight and so often out of mind. It is more than ever appropriate to call them to mind in this Centenary year of International Women’s Day which began as a socialist action to end the double oppression of gender and class by abolishing wage-slavery.

Today, more than half of union members in Australia are women. Often they are young and frequently in pink-collar jobs. How is the labour movement to address them? Many in the workforce are non-unionists, or were compelled to join in sweet-heart deals between supermarket chains and union officials. Engagement with the majority of workers now outside unions requires more than the deduction of membership dues and the promise of ten percent off at a list of business outlets.

In New Zealand and around Melbourne, ‘Unite’ is showing how young workers can organise each other in an industry that likes to call itself hospitability. Unite pickets venues that are not meeting even the minimum standards required under award standardisation. They dob employers in to the Tax Office. They select the worst example to publicise as ‘Cockroach of the Month’. Their efforts show how much can be won through self-organising and inventiveness. They are teaching each other how ‘weak is the feeble strength of one’.

‘Unite’ is only one proof that success is possible. Comparable victories are being won through ‘Clean Start’ supported by United Voice. In Wisconsin, the spark for the nation-wide upsurge to block the destruction of unions among government employees came from women teachers and their students.

Activism around the jobs is a start. We also need to convey a sense of what the labour movement is on about beyond securing penalty rates and Superannuation contributions. Appeals to social justice, decency and social equality help us to hold onto the wins from the most mundane struggle.

How are labour values to be presented to young women who have had no experience of unionism? Is the clinched fist threatening, suggestive of domestic violence? Should we favour the image of clasped hands, one male and one female? Socialist Parties in Europe adopted the red rose, recalling the slogan of the early socialist feminists for both ‘bread and roses’. A flower by any name is subversive so long as we never forget the thorns that the boss puts in the way of our grasping the promise of a better future.

I do not know how to reimagine the culture needed to get the message of unionism and socialism across to the young women. None of us will find those solutions unless we are prepared to question the aptness of images and slogans from 100 years ago. The battering that our movement has taken over the past thirty years should teach us to take nothing for granted.

Last year’s feature film, Made in Dagenham, helps us to think about how to reach people who shy away from proletarian propaganda. The movie explored the 1968 struggle of women machinists at the Ford vehicle plant at Dagenham in the UK to win equal pay for equal work. The characters retained the richness of their lives beyond the gate by including pressures from families and an interest in clothes.

The response of coming out of the cinema was that every worker should see it. Unions should have targeted their giveaway movie tickets for recruits to get them along to Made in Dagenham. The new members would be shown that equal pay did not fall out of the sky. The bosses did not wake up one morning and decide to end one part of their exploitation. More generally, such stories help women under thirty to grasp how much of what they take for granted they owe to radical feminists.

In the world of feature films, Made in Dagenham is a rare bird. If we relied on the mass media for ‘news’, workers would believe that they exist only when on strike. At the entertainment end of television, work is focused on cops and nurses, with the occasional waitress. These shows about the police and forensic medicine carry a double bias. First, the rest of the workforce never sees our contribution to social good on screen. Secondly, the kinds of crimes that are the subject of the television series avoid topics that would reveal the class bias of bourgeois justice. Proletarian ideas are silence by a system of mass distraction.

Let me suggest a way of tapping into the popularity of crime shows while putting a working-class point of view. Why has there never been a crime-cum-medical series based on occupational health and safety? To ask the question is to give the answer. The commercial networks are not going to offend their advertisers. The managers of the tax-funded channels are unlikely to upset their political masters who are in thrall to the big end of town. Nonetheless, for the sake of argument, let us pitch our OH&S series, which we might call Doctor Bone. The easy part is to come up with plot lines. The season could open with one on Daniel Madeley and how the legal regime has done everything to shield his murderers and nothing to save his life. The second week could be on the Ark Tribe case, where a labourer is persecuted for trying to enforce the existing OH&S standards.

We need always to be on the alert for any cracks in their system. Forty years ago, the SA Film Corporation gave us Sunday Too Far Away based on the 1956 shearers’ strike. A sequel has been too long in coming. So let me suggest a project for you to lobby the Adelaide Film Festival to sponsor. All the research has been done by Paul Adams. The title is striking: ‘The Best Hated Man in Australia’. We are speaking of the Industrial Socialist Labor Party member for Broken Hill, Percy Brookfield, who, in the words of Mary Gilmore, ‘died for his people’ when shot by a mad Russian on Riverton railway station, a little over ninety years ago. Buy the book. Read it. Give one to mum next Sunday. Campaign to turn ‘The best hated man in Australia’ into a feature film.

If I am optimistic that the Brookfield movie can slip past the gatekeepers, I accept that my next suggestion is doomed from the start: a television drama series on the criminality of corporations. However, there is value in pointing out why it cannot happen, and even more lessons to be drawn from sketching a couple of episodes. Once again, there is no shortage of plot material.

The first installment takes us back to food. It will be a two-hour special on how Dick Pratt stole from every man, woman and child in Australia. Like all bosses, he was not content to extract unpaid labour from his employees. He conspired to fix prices for cardboard boxes. That collusion added a fraction of a cent to every package we bought. No one knows how much he stole but he was fined $40m. by the Competition Commission. That body went after him because he was also stealing from other capitalists – and that really is a punishable offence. He covered up his crimes by giving to charity and to the arts. He had stolen those donations from every pensioner. His mates claim that his theft was out of character. How likely is it that Pratt had been honest in his dealings until he woke up one morning and thought it might be a bit of a lark to steal millions of dollars? No. Like the rest of his class he got into business by swindling as well as by exploiting wage-slaves. A police inspector in Charles Dickens points out that while most murders are done by amateurs. Thieving, on the other hand, takes professionals.

Our corporate crime series will follow up with how Wal King of Leighton’s could never understand why it was dishonest to produce fake invoices for building contracts. He defended himself by telling the judge that price-fixing was ‘the culture … and custom that had been long-standing in the industry than had been handed on for years’. For once, he was telling the whole truth. Week three will track the founder of the rival construction giant Transfield, Franco Belgiorno-Nettis, who was more honest. He admitted to corruption and strong-arm tactics. He said that he donated to the arts to cover his crimes ‘with a veneer of civilisation’.

While Pratt and Belligiorno-Nettis were whitewashing their barbarism with culture, the Coalition abolished the Art and Working Life programs in 1996. That attack was only to be expected. What needs explanation is why the programs were not continued by union funding or through the State ALP administrations. And why were they not revived during the WorkChoices campaign to defeat Coalition? The ALP’s record in retaining so much of WorkChoices, of supporting the ABCC and for the harmonisation of OH&S, shows that there was never much chance of funding for a new Art and Working Life. A government which will not give right-of-entry to union officials to check on health and safety is not going to let artists on site to encourage workers to take control of their workplaces.

Hence, the benefits to our class from the arts will have to be won outside government channels. Making a movie or a television series costs millions. My next suggestion for reviving working-class culture is both free and priceless. Singing is the prime means for gathering collective strength. It is great good professional artists to link up with workers on the job. The artists will earn a lot. An alternate culture is needed in the workplace. Alternative means more than content. It also means mass participation.

On the march yesterday, performers sang for us but I heard not a note from the marchers. Had the procession been through Rome, ‘Bandiera Rosa’ would have resounded along the Via Nazionale. Rex Dunn is anxious to lead us in ‘Solidarity Forever’ at the close of these proceedings. But why did we not start with a song? Nothing is more effective at bringing us together, and to awaken us to our collective strength. My one regret at being with you in Adelaide this evening is that I could not be in Canberra where a group of young activists are reviving May Day after twelve years. One of them sent an email to say that getting the crowd to sing ‘Solidarity Forever’ at the start of the rally transformed its atmosphere.

It seems that we have to be homeless and one of the long-term unemployed before we in a choir. It is a universal human right to sing and to play an instrument. If every child must have a computer, why not also a clarinet or a cello? Why not learn to compose on the computer and not just download someone else’s creativity on an i-Phone? Music is a potent contributor to the socialising that is essential for the classroom behavior that allows for effective learning. Instead of leaving school with a delight in singing, many are disabled by being taught that they cannot hold a tune. A music-teacher friend assures me that this need not be so. So, whether you warble like a currawong or caw like a crow, sing out.

The term ‘elite’ is a weapon to deprive working people of access to the expanse of experiences that our forebears invented. There was a time when we took if for granted that nothing was too good for the working class. No household should have to spend $30,000 in fees at Methodist Ladies College for its children to appear in Mrs Carey’s Concert. The aim of education is to lead, not to instruct. The objective is for everyone to know enough about every art form to make informed choices. Then we will know how to enjoy both Pavarotti and the Pigrim Brothers.

When the Prime Minister was Minister for Education, she assured the Australian Industry Group, ‘the areas covered by my portfolios – early childhood education and childcare … are all ultimately about the same thing: productivity’. For her government, the purpose of a pre-school is to lift productivity. Pre-schoolers are from three and four years of age. Even in the days of the Dark Satanic Mills, not many of the child labourers were under five. The hope in pre-schooling is for the littlies to learn how to be social through playing together. Let kids be kids. In North Korea, Julia Gradgrind’s attitude would be seen as state totalitarianism. Here, subordinating pre-schoolers to the market is lauded as free enterprise. This government-sponsored serial child abuse does not stop at the kindergarten gate. At every level, education is being stripped back. Instead of leading students towards thinking, NAPLAN is a retreat to drill and instruction by rote.

Culture in its varied meanings is my theme. The Masters of the Universe have coined the phrase ‘soft power’. As with so much of political spin, the practice is the opposite of the terms. Yes, soft power is about power. Their culture industry is to soften us up for the exercise of hard power to control our economy and armed forces. If children grow up thinking that ‘nothing good comes out of Australia’, that all television, music, movies and video games come from the US of A, then it is easier for the agents of US influence such as Senator Ahbib to convince them to sign so-called free-trade treaties and act as deputy-sheriff.

The pressing danger to local cultural production is from the new trade treaty. Under the terms proposed by the US state on behalf of its corporations the already inadequate quotas for Australian content in television program will be illegal.

The marginalisation of local creativity has a more complicated outcome with evil effects for our public life. The notion that all good things come from England or the USA has been called ‘the cultural cringe’. The school-teacher who popularised that phrase, A A Phillips, also recognised the danger of our over-reacting against the feeling of inferiority. The cringe flips over into a strut. We declare that everything Australian is better than everything from anywhere else. In this roundabout way, a failure to promote local music and movies feeds the Hansonite mentality. In place of the cringe and the strut, we need the confidence to say that, although we do some things very well, but we are also not much chop at other things. In developing a culture which advances the interests of our class, workers can render both the cringe and the strut ‘un-Australian’. In their place, we can take up the slouch – the relaxed upright stance.

The culture wars have turned into the history wars. Arguments about what made the Australian nation have gyrated around the claim that Australia was born on the beaches of Gallipoli. As we move towards the ANZAC centenary in 1915, a flood of propaganda will tie our sense of ourselves to military misadventures will rise. This version of our past has a double danger. First, it supports involvement in Iraq. Afghanistan, and anywhere else that Washington decides.

The militarisation of our past also distorts the story of how our freedoms have been preserved. We have to replace the black armband with a red armband view of Australian history. We need to promote the story of how indigenous Australian fought the invaders as much as how they massacred the first Australians. We dare not leave the retelling of ANZAC to the warmongers. The Left has a story to tell about why and how wars are waged. We must not say ‘They can have ANZAC’ while we take refuge behind the Eureka Stockade. That defensive tactic saw the disaster at dawn on 3 December 1854.

Central to the ANZAC legend is the man with a donkey, John Kirkpatrick Simpson. The official promoters of his courage and sacrifice lie about his life. Simpson was a red-hot trade unionist who wrote to his family in England asking when the English were going to have a revolution and get rid of all those ‘dukes and millionaires’. Imagine how Simpson would have reacted to the latest wedding to breed ever more right royal parasites. Simpson gave his life doing what he had learnt to do in the labour movement – serve others.

The next eight years are going to see the centenary of the First World War used to distort popular understanding of what working people did in those years. This propaganda will be used to weaken our resistance to exploitation and to war. Hence, the culture and history wars are elements in the defence of living standards. As part of campaigns to expose the bias in the official history, we have to promote the anti-conscription movement which twice defeated the efforts to force more Australians into the slaughterhouse. In 1916 and again in 1917, most Australians voted NO. We have to campaign to make those votes by the Australian people into national days. The millions of dollars in taxes allocated to promote ANZAC should go into celebrating the victories over conscription. At the time, the labour movement feared that conscription for overseas service would be followed by industrial conscription to serve the war effort.

We are less than five months away from another chance to show how workers defended our liberties by battling on the home front. September 22 will be the sixtieth anniversary of the defeat of the Menzies drive to outlaw the Communist Party. The aim was to disable the labour movement by interning its militant leadership. Cabinet ordered barbed wire to imprison a thousand Commos and their families. The proof of being a Commo was if ASIO said so. When Labor leader Dr Evatt set out to defeat the legislation, only 12 percent of the electorate was against the ban. Over a year, he led a mass campaign which turned that minority into a majority of a little over 50 percent.

Evatt appeared for two of the ten unions that took the Act to the High Court, which ruled it unconstitutional. Most of those unions are now merged into the CFMEU, the MUA and the AMWU. They need to come together again to celebrate their win. More importantly, we should take the occasion to make all workers aware of how a lost cause can be turned into a mighty victory.

From reflecting on art and working life, I now want to explore the links between paid work and all the senses of culture, from personal relationships to scientific discovery.

Yet again, the disabled are being told that work will be good for them. Indeed, it should be. However, many of them know that it was paid work that disabled them. Traumatic injuries or a succession of sprains make many labourers unable to work past forty. More than ninety percent of employees report being bullied or harassed at work. Under these circumstances, it is easy to forget that work should enrich us socially and intellectually. Work should call forth the finest of our capacities and plumb the depths of our creativity. Social labour is the foundation of science because it is by changing the world that we understand it.

The recent past has seen a double-headed retreat from those ideals, in practice and in our expectations. On the practical front, paid employment is now fragmented. Speed-ups and casualisation deprive us of the pleasures from getting to know many of the people we work alongside.

On the question of the shrinkage of expectations we can think back forty years to when worker control was high on our agenda. A worker-control collective flourished in Adelaide factories. In response, the Dunstan government set up an industrial democracy unit.

Little of that promise remains beyond the token of an elected staff representative on the boards of the ABC and government schools. Universities have lost student power; the collegiate direction of courses and research has fallen to management by experts in ignorance. Until we reclaim the right of producers to be our own managers, Australia will not be a democracy.

The last kind of democracy that Washington wants to encourage is for Chinese wage-slaves to occupy the foreign-owned factories. That is the most terrifying form of terrorism.

The loss of ‘Art and Working Life’ is, like the loss of worker control to overcome alienation and exploitation, marks out a shrinkage of hope within our movement. More than bodies and individual intellects have been disabled. The ALP’s worship of market forces has disabled our vision of what organised labour should be about.

We began by saying grace to thank the working classes. That sentiment is not heard from the after-dinner speakers at the nine-course dinners when the Top End pays $10,000 for a place to talk to an ALP cabinet minister. On those occasions, the diners are regaled with the platitude that ‘man does not live by bread alone’. Tonight, I have made that point from a different class perspective. In talking about the need for a culture which serves Australia’s working people, I have been reflecting on the principle that the class struggle cannot be won by demands for bread alone. Our class needs to revive every dimension of our culture. Thinking about how to weave the strands of art and working life into worker control will make us think again about our place in the world.

Despite this focus on the ‘roses’, I want to conclude by returning to bread. Indeed, I want to propose that we take up the crudest possible demand: that no one need go to bed hungry. In advancing this proposition, I am not being so utopian as to say that everyone should have a healthy diet. It will be enough if people can to go to bed stuffed with Big Macs or Kentucky Fried Chickens. My crude demand does not call for the elimination of diabetes or obesity. It will be enough if no one need go to bed hungry.

Is this reform as minimal as it seems? We have not been able to achieve it in Australia even during the boom years. On the world front, the situation has gone into reverse. The upsurge in the Arab world is being powered by the mounting food costs and shortages of staple items. Beijing complains that China is the victim of the four global food cartels. Mounting fuel prices push up the prices for crops. The number of people going to bed hungry is on the increase.

Here is a paradox. The crudest demand becomes the most revolutionary, as Adorno said it would. Think of all the changes that will be necessary to make sure that no one need go to bed hungry. We will have to bust up the cartels. That will mean challenging the political power of the US imperium. Most immediately, our crude demand means rejecting the latest trade treaty to hand more power over to US corporations.

People in the third world will have to rise up against the regimes that thrive off the distorted development of growing cocoa, coffee, sugar or tea. Che Guevara pointed out fifty years ago that the poor do not live in undeveloped economies. Their misery is because they live in societies where development is distorted to supply corporations with profitable commodities. The result is that they are not able to feed themselves.

This crudest of demands offers a further benefit. It shows that this world is not the best that our species is capable of creating. We are told that there is no alternative; that capitalism is the only game in town. I am not a pessimist. Like Ford Maddox Ford, I do not want this kind of society to survive.

My parents joined me up in the Labor Party as soon as I turned fifteen in 1957 to make sure there would be a quorum. I got a badge inscribed ‘The Unity of Labour is the Hope of the World’. We marched yesterday morning, and are here this evening, because we still believe in that, no matter how ‘cowards flinch and traitors sneer’.

Earlier tonight we heard Ark Tribe tell us about how he had found solidarity in 1986 when he became a brickie’s labourer in Melbourne during the de-registration of the BLF; he went on to say how he has experienced that support throughout the two years of his persecution. It seems appropriate to end these reflections on reviving a working-class culture with the sentiments of a brickie’s labourer from ninety-five years ago. I conclude, therefore, with an article written in 1916 by the Victorian secretary of the Builders’ Labourers, Ben Mulvogue. What he hoped for then is what I have tried to inspire this evening.

The union movement is idealistic in its essential arts by widening the scope of benefits derived from its ever-expanding usefulness.

The betterment of the conditions of the workers has been brought about through organisation. A union constitutes a school for the working class, wherein they learn self-reliance, learn their rights, privileges, opportunities, as well as their possibilities.

The union instills thoughtfulness in its membership, and broadens the mental horizon, thereby bringing hope and cheer to the hopeless and cheerless.

The union imbues its members with a longing for a better and brighter future by increasing wages and diminishing the hours of toil.

The union does antagonise, and strives to abolish many things that are, and advocates and tries to inaugurate changes which should, and will, be made in the future.

Increased wages mean increased opportunities to live a life in harmony with the high aims and aspirations of the union movement.

The union has made possible progress not only for the working people, but advancement in many other directions – morally, socially, and intellectually – and is traceable to the existence of the organisation of the workers.

The object and aims of the union movement and the realisation thereof have been the dream of the sages and seers, and the prophets of the past ages.

Every new demand for better physical protection of the workers ensures a great ideal development for a future generation.

One response to “Humphrey McQueen on May Day

  1. State of Play of the Unions
    I saw the film ”Made in Dagenham” last night. This is mentioned in Humphrey McQueen’s speech on May Day as a means of raising consciousness about the need for union struggle. Or as Humphrey puts it:

    “helps us to think about how to reach people who shy away from proletarian propaganda”.

    The movie explores the 1968 struggle of women machinists at the Ford vehicle plant at Dagenham in the UK to win equal pay for equal work.

    Firstly, the film does get to you. Even though you wouldn’t expect it from the trailer – it looks like another Hollywood Dolly Parton “Nine to Five”

    However some aspects of the film struck me as being no longer applicable to our current situation.

    Firstly the mid-to-higher echelon of the union claimed to be Marxists, even the sell-outs.

    There was a good scene where the male union reps argue about the role of women and equal pay.

    The Bob Hoskins character counters the union heavies who are opposed to Equal pay with a line from Lenin saying that a society should be judged by social status attained by women. The higher the status of women the better the society. The Hoskins character argues that this meant the union should go for equal pay for women. His character was pivotal because he helped the women overcome the male dominated unions’ resistance to their cause. He supported their struggle without trying to run it. This character was savvy about the close co-operation of management and union sell-outs.

    That such union delegates would be arguing socialist politics no longer exists. At least not here in Australia. No socialist organisation exists within Australian unionism.

    If the film had a failing it was that it did not describe how the women machinists got to the position of a unanimous vote for a strike (the first ever for women at a Ford plant) – this vote fro a strike was an early scene in the movie. What I am saying is most of the real union organising had been done before the film began. The recruiting of the women as members, the level of class consciousness was not depicted in the film.

    Union organisation in most workplaces now is no where near that level – in the film they showed the transition from one shop steward to another – now we don’t even have delegates in most workplaces. We are at a different starting point with a different economic structure. Australia is nearly as bad as the United States where the working class survives through private debt – private debt that has been bailed out by government debt since the GFC. Australia has been better able to survive that crisis because it has higher wages and higher tax revenue from those wages to fund services. This is fast disappearing.

    We don’t have a Barbara Castle either – for all her shortcomings – she was still willing call Ford’s bluff when they came out with the age old threat of withdrawing all their car plants offshore. Castle, the Labour minister for state and employment, helped resolve the strike, which resulted in a pay rise for the women machinists bringing them to 92% of what the men received. As a consequence of this strike, Castle put through the Equal Pay Act 1970 which was introduced in Australia when Whitlam won in 1972.

    These days young women have become inured to casual work – they go from one low paid job to another – their consciousness is low because they have accepted this as a fact of life because there is no socialist or union organisation fighting against it.

    Sure we have unions with American sounding names like “United Voice” and “Unite”. The unions making up these amalgamations had the lowest numbers for years in the annual Labour Day march in Brisbane in 2011. The unions involved are the Community & Public Sector Union (CPSU), Australian Services Union (ASU), Queensland Public Sector Union (QPSU) and the Liquor Hospitality & Miscellaneous Union (LHMU). The largest of these the CPSU have few real delegates and when they do they hand pick the appointees and never organise a vote of the members to elect their delegates. many of the union members are managers who entered the public sector in the 1970s and 1980s. They have long forgotten what it was like to be a young worker and little personal experience of casualisation.

    As Humphrey McQueen knows it will take more than a trendy name like “Unite”, a modern slogan or PR to fix these problems.

    To get some idea about the state of play of the unions in Brisbane readers may wish to have a look at https://workersbushtelegraph.com.au/2011/05/03/labour-day-unity-amalgamations-google/

    Ian Curr
    May 2011

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