|Interviewer: Robin Hughes
Recorded: October 4, 2000
This is a transcript of the complete original interview conducted for the Australian Biography project. Each transcript page covers one videotape (approximately 35 minutes). There is also QuickTime video of the full interview available. To play the video, click on the icon in the right hand column. In addition, each question in the transcript is linked to the video. Clicking on a question will play the video from that point. (Help with this feature.) Optionally, you can download the video file for offline viewing (approx. 10MB).
The interview has been left it in its original state so that you can get a sense of how the conversation developed. The repetition of some questions, or a question followed by another question, is often due to the end of a particular tape or some other interruption, and has been indicated at the appropriate place in the text. There has been minimal tidying up of the text so that the flavour of the encounter has been kept.
So what was the exact offer that you got that brought you down to Sydney?
Well, I'd ... I'd ... The captain and coach of a team up there had played with Vic Hey, who was a legendary coach of Parramatta at the time, and he suggested to Vic Haye that I come down and so I came down to ... They used to have trials and so I came down that way.
And it was because of your outstanding performance up north?
Well, relatively speaking. I mean I guess the thing that made me look better than what I was, was that in the country, I trained all the year round. Even in the cricket season I used to run many miles of a morning and so I was pretty ... I was real physical fitness crank and I think it made me look better than what I really was, because in Sydney I was pretty ordinary player. I got graded with Parramatta but mainly played reserve grade, but I played football for about eight years, and I played with Parramatta for three years and then I went coaching in the country around Sydney for another two years and as I got into my later twenties I became more involved in unionism and ... and then of course politics. So, I suppose the football stars my eyes, coming down to the big smoke, but I was an average footballer and then I of course, because I hadn't finished my apprenticeship with the plumbing, I got a job ... I got a number of different jobs working in heavy industry.
I'll get you to tell me about that in a minute. I just want to ask you first of all, what was it about football because this was something that a lot of country boys aspired to: the chance to try out and get into a city team and come and do that. What ... what ... what was it that was the attraction for you? What were you dreaming of, imagining, when you came down to do that?
Well, I think it's like anything that you ... you try and excel in. It's ambition to play well and to go further and so I guess it was just that. And you'd read all ... I mean, as I mentioned, in either sport I was in I always read very seriously, if I could use the word, about the history of that sport: boxing and cricket and football and I've still got a pretty good knowledge, particularly in those periods ... that period and so it was this great interest. It was the interest in my life, I'd say. I was a bit, quote: sporting mad. And I think it's true what you say, I think it's ... there are many young men, particularly men of my era who were just, you know, crazy on football or cricket and ... and were seeking to improve and to hopefully play on a higher level.
And you say that when you got to Sydney it became evident that you weren't as good as you'd looked. Was that a very big disappointment to you and how did that become apparent to you, that you didn't have quite the promise that everybody up north had thought you'd had?
Just natural awareness. No, I mean, well, you know yourself that if you're in the country where you're very fit and had the advantage over other people, of course it's not difficult to look better but down in Sydney of course you've got much more competition for the places and ... and so, it was that, plus the fact that I became ... I hadn't finished my apprenticeship in North Queensland and so I did a number of different areas of work to earn a living. I mean, football in those days wasn't the highly paid proposition it is today, and so workers ... The work was the most important thing and football was secondary. And so I went into the building industry after a number of years and it was there that I became concerned about the lack of safety, about the paucity of conditions and where my interest in trade unionism and egalitarian attitudes really developed ... in a period. I might say that my father was ... had a background of left wing Labor. He was a ... he was against the Conservative Governments of the time and so I had some background of political thinking through my father, but it was my involvement in the trade union movement that really made me aware of the many problems in our society, particularly in relation to working class people.
When you came down you hadn't completed your plumbing apprenticeship yet. What was your first job? What was the first job that you got in Sydney?
My first job was in a metal factory at Rydalmere, on the outskirts of Sydney, and it was heavy engineering and drilling and carrying heavy ... heavy material and working with boilermakers. I was an iron worker. It was the first job - working with boilermakers.
Did you join the union?
Yeah, I joined the FAI - the Federated ... the Federated Ironworkers' Union. I was a unionist from early days.
And did you stay with them? You know, you said you had a number of jobs. Were they all in that sort of area?
No, I went from a number of different jobs. I went into ... as a sheet metal worker, making gas meters, and then I went into the engine driving - Fireman Engine Drivers' Union and then into the building industry.
Before you went into the building, why were there so many different jobs?
Well, because [of] the calling in different work involved different unions and so even though they be similar in ... in type of work depending where they were, it would depend which union you were in.
But why were you changing jobs so much?
Well because it was most of the jobs were short term jobs and they'd cut out and you'd get another job. So there wasn't ... it wasn't as though there permanency in those areas, and particularly in the building industry of course. It was [a] very volatile industry and the changes were quite numerous.
How did you come to work in the building industry? How did that happen?
Well, I was approached to [do] a job and it looked a pretty good job. It looked like it would last for a few years, and I went into that. Before that I had been an engine driver and fireman and it was about this time that I became involved in politics and, in fact, I went to a meeting about a hospital ... [the] need for a hospital in the Bankstown area and a Communist Party member had seen me there and he called around to see me - sold me my first Tribune, which is the Communist Party paper, and got me interested in socialist thinking.
Now, Jack, you were a boy in your twenties from Far North Queensland, mad about rugby league and working as a ... an iron worker or metal worker. What took you along to a meeting about the need for a hospital in the Bankstown area?
Well, I think the thing that I've omitted ... I should say that my father was a political person and as he would point out, here we had the Depression and when the war broke out, well of course the first soldiers to go overseas were the unemployed and he was a harsh critic of the capitalist system. So I had did have that background of something wasn't right, that there seemed to be a lot of differences in the way that different people lived, and the opportunities they had and so I was aware of wrong things in society. And I guess that, as I mentioned, the whole question of concern for other people has always been instilled in me. I have always been strong on that, even at school: concern for others, not just concern about yourself, and I think that having in mind that that period, the post-war period was going to be one of great hope, that we'd learned from the war and we would have a better life, and of course a very important ingredient of that is having sufficient hospitals. So ... and having in mind at that time the area was expanding rapidly. I was living in the Parramatta area which is fairly adjacent to Bankstown and so it was a perfectly normal thing to do to ... to be concerned about the need for a hospital in the area.
And you just saw that this meeting was on and took yourself along to it?
Yes, and with my brother. My brother by that time had been down here and we went along to that meeting and we attracted the attention of Jack Campbell, who later became a very good friend of mine, and he paid us a visit with ... with the Tribune, and I suppose that increased my interest in left wing politics.
At this stage you already then, perhaps, had a feeling that things could be changed and improved. There was a bit of an impulse to feel that maybe you could get involved in some kind of level improvement of things. Was that the situation?
Yes, that ... I think that my father had ... had sown the seeds of politics in me, in the sense that his ... his understanding and explanation of how so rapidly we could go from a depression to a war and then into a post-war boom, all in the course of a decade and a half, I think, made me think a lot about that something was wrong in society, and certainly for those at the bottom of the pile, of which I always considered myself - always very much a working class person and never aspiring to being anything other than that.
So you went ... You were followed home by this guy, that sold you the Tribune. What did you think of the Tribune and what he had to tell you about the Communist Party at that time? What was your first reaction?
Well, I mean, I suppose, having in mind that my introduction to trade unionism had ... had taught me that unionists ... some unionists differed greatly to others. There were the right wing unions tended to be more passive in the way they approached things that they considered wrong, whereas the left wing seemed to have more militancy that accorded to my thinking. If you're going to change things, there has to be a vigorous approach to it and I guess that the militancy, not so much of only ... I hadn't met many communists but I had met many left wing Labor people, and so I was firmly in the school of left wing ideology of thinking about the need for change coming about why people's participation, whereas the right wing tended to more ... to acquiesce to the status quo. And so I guess that I moved ... I was a natural left-leaning individual.
You wanted to see things changed?
Very much so, yes. [INTERRUPTION - PLANE]
So when you read this Tribune and you talked to the guy, did you then decide you'd like to join the party?
Not immediately. [Laughs]
What did you do? What was the next thing that you brought you in contact with ...
Well, naturally through being in the trade union movement and going to trade union meetings ...
But at this stage you weren't a member of the BLF? You were ...
No, I hadn't been a member of the BLF, but I was working in the construction area because, as I said, it overlapped. A lot of the work overlapped, so work was often similar but in different callings. And, no - at that stage I haven't gone into the building industry. And in fact I was encouraged to go into the building industry from one of the left wing friends that I had met.
What position did you play when you were playing football? Were you in defence or attack?
Mainly defence. Well actually, a five-eight or centre is the position I played, and I was stronger in defence than attack because I was ... as is my make up. I was a bit slow. No, I wasn't fast enough for city football, and my defence ... Seeing that the question is ... I guess I was a more defensive player. One might say I've been in the defence ever since.
Some would say, I suppose ... I was looking for an analogy with activism, you know, wanting to take the fight forward, but obviously in a defensive position it's hard to make that analogy.
So when you actually got involved: unionism and the communism were very much associated for you. When did you actually end up joining the Communist Party?
No, I think that militancy and ... in unions attracted me to the thinking, not only to members of Communist Party but to left wing Labor as well - who were very different to right wing Labor. So I guess it was my natural militancy and interest that there had to be activity, that there's got to be movement to bring about change, and to improve the conditions. And unionism did that - that there's enormous scope for improvements in the working conditions and the wages and so I became involved. It was a natural progression, or regression - but natural progression to move from a militant position into communist, and I joined the Communist Party because I was asked to, but I joined it because of that militancy, because I saw the most impressive people in the trade union movement were either left wing Labor or members of the Communist Party. And I didn't have a theoretical ... a deep theoretical knowledge of Marxism at that time, and so I joined ... I guess I joined the Communist Party as a militant worker, who saw those allies of left wing Labor and Communist Party being my type of people.
Why didn't you chose left wing Labor? Why didn't you join the Labor Party?
Well, I guess I was ... I was asked to join the Communist Party and I suppose it was a stronger belief that a socialist system could come about by the Communist Party. At the time I did not have a knowledge of the more sinister aspects of Stalinism and the rather sordid history of what had taken place under the name of socialism. Very few people did. And so, I suppose, I came in and my understanding of socialism and communism developed when I went to schools within in the Communist Party, and then over the years my understanding of the enormity of the evils of Stalinism, that so perverted the rather terrific ideas ... the socialist ideals, the Marxism, that I still believe in ...
So, you say that you joined this because you had become a militant worker. What had radicalised you so much? What was it, when you started to work in the building industry, that you saw really needed fixing?
The conditions were appalling. Having in mind that we're now looking at the late '50s, and the first of the really big development hadn't come about. It was still mainly ... Say the real building boom in Sydney started in the early sixties, but in 1957 ... before 1957, for large buildings in the heart of Sydney, there was a hundred and fifty feet limit on the height of buildings. In 1957 that was lifted and the sky became the limit. And so there was great changes in the building industry, and the pressure of work meant that buildings were going higher, more dangerous work practices were being introduced because of the height of the buildings, and in one year there were fourteen dogmen, who ride the load, who used to ride the load in those days, were killed, and it was because of these practices. They were working of a night time, and the conditions in suburbia was ... were even worse. There often weren't adequate amenities or proper sanitary considerations. Often washing facilities were poor or non-existent, and so there was a real need for basic improvement in the industry and so we started a campaign to cleanse the union, to improve it.
Now, when fourteen dogmen were killed in one year, weren't both the employers and the then union ready to do something about that? Weren't they anxious about that situation?
Well, by that time, that was a highlight of the early sixties when that happened. But, of course, the builders would put it down to the changed conditions, but it was an indication of just how little concern there was for ... for the workers themselves. Of course at the same time asbestosis was hardly known and yet we now find building workers, thirty and forty years on, suffering from asbestosis from that period. So there were a whole lot of work practices and a lack of concern for the health of the workers right throughout that period.
And these were things that you wanted to do something about. How did you actually get involved in the union then? What was happening in the union at that time?
The union, [coughs] excuse me ... One of the reasons that the conditions were so poor was that the Builders' Labourers' Union were led, was led by a group of people who were in collusion with the builders. They were ... worked hand in glove with them, and opposed any sort of militant action and in fact people like myself were hounded off jobs. There was a blacklist that existed and as soon as people like myself and others, who were militants, got on jobs, they would be pointed out by the organiser and there was instant dismissal. Back in those days there was only an hour's notice, so on any trumped up reason, a builder would say, 'Well, work's cutting out, got to lay off', and [they would] lay off militants.
When you say that the officials of the union at the time were in collusion with the employers, in collusion for what, to do what?
Well, they were ... they would take ... It wasn't a question, in those days the level of corruption that came out later hadn't arisen in the industry but they were ... they were people who took the soft option and went along with the ... with the employers, that the employer's god given right to hire and fire wasn't ... wasn't questioned, and the rights of workers were, in their mind, very minimal, and they wanted the soft ... they wanted an easy life. The more corrupt of them, of course, went along with the builders and could have got kickbacks.
And what was it that people like yourself started to do that resulted in you being hounded off jobs?
We formed a rank and file committee to cleanse the industry and improve the conditions to ... in other words to civilise the industry.
So this was a sort of movement that just arose that you gave your time to?
Exactly. The rank and file, the rank and file movement ... [INTERRUPTION - DOG]
Then what did you start doing, and others like you, that meant that you were in trouble both with the employers and the union?
Well, formation of a rank and file committee for the purpose of tackling the worst issues in the industries, which were indiscriminate sacking of militant workers, making sure that there was a sense of decency, that the workers had rights: a clean shed and amenities, that they had a civilised industry. We ... The slogan we worked under was we had to civilise the industry and bring a bit of decency to the rights of the workers, and they were the ingredients that led to hostility with the union leadership ...
Because what did you do? What did you actually do?
Well, those sort of actions: stopping the work, forcing the employers to improve ... to rapidly improve the conditions and of course fought for higher wages and better conditions. They were just basic union entitlements but because of the manner in which there had been this collusion between the ... the union, Crane-Cat [?] Union, leadership and the employers, they were very hostile to that, and so they resorted to all sorts of sackings and, as I said, blacklisting. And one year, for example, I had seventeen jobs in a twelve month period because no sooner would you get on a job than you would be chased off. And that happened with a lot of other workers. And of course when the building boom started in the early sixties - and that's when I talked about when the sky become the limit - well then it made it more difficult for them to blacklist workers because there are a greater concentration of workers on the one job, and so the strength of the rank and file committee was greatly increased.
So the major tactic, while you were still this rank and file group, was to stop work if you were trying to get something to happen or something to be improved. You'd stop work until it was done?
That's right: stop work and improve things, but also we were campaigning to change the leadership of the union, and finally that came about in the end of '61 when ... when the first rank and file grouping got one ... one position of power in New South Wales.
So you were sort of younger workers, who decided that the situation that prevailed wasn't good enough, and you organised yourself and persuaded people to support you and got a change at an election, did you?
Yeah, well, we realised that spontaneous action on jobs had certain limitations, that if we were going to have longer standing success, well it would mean that we would have to have a level of activity and control within the union movement itself, and that's what we worked to do.
And did that prove to be the case? What happened to the union after you did take control?
Well ... [INTERRUPTION - DOOR KNOCK]
So what did the union set about doing once you'd been elected? How did the new ...
It wasn't quite as simple as that because at the time I was secretary of the rank and file committee, which is a driving force to bring about change and because the building industry is so scattered it meant that workers made a lot of sacrifices because we'd travel great distances in, and at the time there was still a Cold War period and the Labor Party was quite hostile to ... the Labor Party right wing leadership in New South Wales was quite hostile to the left wing Labor Party linking up with people like myself in the Communist Party, and they forbid the Labor Party to stand on the same ticket as communists. They used to call Unity Tickets and in fact Labor Party people could be expelled for standing on the same ticket with communists. You know, that was the Cold War mentality of the late fifties and early sixties. And when we broke through ... [INTERRUPTION]
When the election occurred and the leadership of the union changed, what was your role initially? What job did you have?
Well, the change occurred in a partial sense because the Unity Ticket attitude was such that people like myself stood in the background and we had other people in the Labor Party, who would get in and so a young ... the youngest secretary ever in the builders' labourers, Mick MacNamara, became secretary in 1961. And then in 1962, myself and others were appointed as organisers of the union, and that was a tactic on our part to overcome the possibility of the Labor Party people being expelled for standing on Unity Tickets, and I think that gives you a glimpse of the harshness of the time because not only did you have the right wing Labor Party but you also had the more extreme right wing that had broken away from the Labor Party in Santamaria's NCC and the set-up in certain ... in many of the states, particularly in Victoria, of the Democratic Labor Party or the anti-communists, so that was a scenario that made it ... the need for careful tactics on the part of the Left so you wouldn't get the Labor Party left wingers expelled from the union ... from the Labor Party because of their union activity.
In New South Wales the split hadn't occurred in the same way as it had in other states, and especially in Victoria. What did that mean for the Labor Party here and your relations with it as a communist?
Well, it was really only a subtle difference because whereas say the ageing Mannix in Victoria had gone all the way against Labor, in New South Wales Archbishop Gilroy, being younger,did not have that sort of strategic intention and so they believed that the ... what would have otherwise been the DLP, to remain in the Labor Party, and so the right wing of the Labor Party here was much stronger than it was in Victoria. And thus you had a very different scene in New South Wales to Victoria and that called for skill in the way that unions approached ... sorry ... the way that rank and file approached union elections and the need to safeguard the unity of left Labor and members of the Communist Party, like myself.
Now, who had been elected secretary and what was he like?
Mick MacNamara was a young ... a bright young builders' labourer, who was a Labor Party member and he was elected ... lived all his life in inner city Pyrmont, then a very much working class area, more so than today. And so he became secretary and I worked very closely with him, and myself as a sort of leader. He was in the rank and file movement as well, but because of this sensitivity, shall we say, on the need to protect the Labor Party - Communist Party unity and to stop the Labor Party expelling people who had shown togetherness with us, we had to work very skilfully, and we did that. We ... we developed a very strong relationship and our strength, of course, was that the rank and file strongly supported us because conditions improved immensely, wages were better and workers had confidence in their own ability to change their lives. That was the great strength of the ... at that stage, of the Builders' Labourers' Union.
And as an organiser what did you have to do?
Well, it ... to travel around the many jobs. It's such a scattered nature the building industry. You can have literally hundreds of jobs in a metropolitan area and I was allocated an area. I mainly worked in the city proper and of course great change ... changes were occurring there, as the city skyline changed dramatically in the '60s and particularly ... In fact the longest building boom in history was really from 1960 through to the oil crisis of '74 - '75. So for fifteen years there was just ... Sydney, or the Central Business District of Sydney, was a gigantic building site really, as older people would remember.
[end of tape]