May Day: Workers of all countries Unite!

Why does union membership continue to decline?

The Communist Manifesto
The Red Contingent

Pete Seeger – L’Internationale
Billy Bragg – Internationale
Jumping Fences – Brisbane Barrio live at Foco Nuevo with intro by Lachlan Hurse


Jeff:  Ian, what year did the Red Contingent start in Brisbane Labour Day?

Ian: 1978 was the first year we carried the Red Contingent banner. There were 12,000 people behind us including the socialist parties, the Latin Americans, the Campaign Against Nuclear Power, and the Civil Liberties Coordinating committee with their Unite in opposition to State and Federal governments banner plus the anarchists and Friends of the Earth.

The Red Contingent continued to be strong until the SEQEB dispute in 1985. After that defeat, everyone seemed to be absorbed into the union contingents except an increasingly smaller group that marched at the back. We had a bit of a boost when all the wharfies were sacked by Chris Corrigan during the 1998 MUA – here to stay dispute.

Jeff:  Were you there at the Labour Day in the Vietnam era when students clashed with officials?

Ian: No, but Hughie Hamilton (former Secretary) told me that the Building Workers Industrial Union (BWIU) let them into their contingent. Nor do I think they marched as the Red Contingent.

Jeff:  There is a connection, though. After the clash, the TLC/ALP tightened control over participation and slogans. Several years later, the Red Contingent as a separate gathering at the back was in part a reaction to official exclusion of the far Left. This has been a recurring pattern in Brisbane Labour Day history going right back to the early 1920s.

Ian: Yes, we were aware of the previous history but we put the proposal for a Red Contingent to the Civil Liberties Co-ordinating committee for an alternative May Day … we proposed a march to Victoria Park across the road from the Ekka. We wanted to differentiate socialists from the Labor Party in Queensland, hence the Red Contingent. We were attacked for doing so by libertarians and sectarians. One well known ‘anarchist’ Brian Laver claimed that we represented “the authoritarian left comprising some of the most ruthless Marxists in the Western world” at a May Pole event across the road from the Exhibition grounds. A man wearing a dressing gown defended us as we played knock ’em downs with Joh Bjelke-Petersen as our main target.

Across the road inside the Ekka grounds, Dan O’Neil was trying to get a trade union speaker from Chile on the official platform and was knocked back by the Trades and Labour Council led by Fred Whitby.  We were pretty angry because that was a breach of faith by Labor Party officials with the international solidarity movement with the Chilean people who had been suffering under a military coup only four years before.

Also Tom Burns (state leader and national ALP President) complained from the official dais  that women would not come forward and participate in the labour movement.  Bill Hayden (then leader of the federal ALP opposition) said that the civil liberties (democratic rights) movement were ‘a bunch of Johnny-come-latelies‘. Amidst the mayhem, the unions had organised a giant piss-up behind the semi-trailer used as the speaking platform.

There were thugs stationed to prevent intervention. However women did storm the platform and Megan Martin from the Civil Liberties Co-ordinating committee (CLCC) spoke on the official platform with someone holding up a loud hailer so Megan could be heard after the Trades & Labour Council (TLC)) disconnected the battery for the PA.

The following year, 1979, saw the CLCC organising our own platform with thousands present … both Joe Harris and George Georges from the Socialist left of the ALP spoke from this platform over near where the kiddies rides were in those days and stalls were selling pink fairy floss. Joe Harris was beaten up later that evening as pay-back for his participation in the alternative platform.

Bowen Bridge road was the approach to the Ekka back then and was full of red flags. The first union contingent had arrived before the last of the Red Contingent had even set off from Mary St near the Exec building. It was a sight to be seen.

Jeff: Great details. Thanks, Ian.

March route for Workers of all countries Unite! on Monday 3rd May 2021

Here are a gallery of images from May Day’s of the past (click on them and see a larger version with comments:

One thought on “May Day: Workers of all countries Unite!

  1. The Red Contingent on May Day '21 says:

    I have received several queries about the so called “banning” of the Red Contingent on the annual May Day march (2021) plus a query about my being “cancelled” by 4ZZZ. As is often the case in human affairs, neither claims are strictly true.

    Bob: You were conspicuous by your absence at May Day.

    Ian: I was not absent. I marched with my old union on May Day, the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU).

    Bob: X tells me the red group was banned from May Day.

    Ian: The Red Contingent melded into their respective unions or were invited to join by a particular union. It is the first time since 1977 I have not marched in the Red Contingent. [There was no May Day in 2020 because of COVID19].

    Bob: Does that (banning) include Socialist alliance, also apparently absent.

    Ian: Members of Socialist Alliance did march on May Day, however you may have your socialist groups mixed up … another group, Socialist Alternative, sold their newspaper but chose not to march. They were not banned. Michael Clifford, the General Secretary of the Queensland Council of Unions (QCU), chose to look the other way when union organizers told him that they were allowing sections of the Red Contingent into their contingent.

    Bob: I think X said you had marched a the back of May Day for 40 years.

    Ian: I joined my first union in 1967 and have been a member of a union till I retired in 2010. I always march in the Red Contingent to distinguish the socialist movement from the ALP.

    For example, the Australia Cuba Friendship Society were invited to join with the NTEU contingent. And the (non-affiliated union) the Retail Workers (RAFWU) marched with the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA).

    Bob: You did much better than L’s ‘Feminists for Life’ group which only lasted one year in the 80’s

    Ian: I saw L. in the usual place with her ‘pro life’ placard. The women in my old union sang out in response: “Not the Church, not the State, women will decide their fate” as we passed. Where were you?

    Who were the “Feminists for Life” and which year did they march? Does L. have any photos? Tell her I am interested because I intend to publish “A History of May Days in Meanjin”. I am gathering all the material together atm but it is a big task.

    BTW the ‘Bring Assange Home’ group were allowed to have a stall inside the Exhibition grounds, they were aided in doing this by an organiser from Just Peace … I suspect Anthony Albanese supports Julian’s release (albeit on limited grounds). However ‘Albo’ did run for cover when X. challenged him to support Julian publicly on may Day. I think the Brits will oppose Julian’s extradition to the US on legal grounds and then Assange will be yet another person who has overstayed his UK visa. If I were him I would not be returning to Australia … the Australian government is too close to the Americans for Julian to be safe. ASIO will be on his back for the rest of his life.

    Ian Curr
    Red Contingent

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