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