|Interviewer: Robin Hughes
Recorded: October 5, 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.
In retrospect, Jack, do you think you should have gaoled Gallagher at the time?
I think so, I think so. But other union officials ... having in mind it was the Fraser years and there were a lot ... like you're talking the late seventies. There was a lot of union bashing going on as with a lot of our history of course. Unions, any wage gain, or any action they'd take, they're always condemned. But, yeah, I think, yes, we should have done that. Yes.
Can I go back now and pick up on one aspect of your life in the union that came and went at various stages. When you first joined the union and there was an effort to take on the then leadership, you know, when you were making this rank and file movement to clean up the union, did that leadership use violence at all in that argument?
Well having in mind, of course they were violent, I mean they used the criminal elements because always around that sort of work there's a lot of knock about [people], shall we say, in there and they used criminal elements ... similar [to] criminal elements to threaten people and people - militants - were bashed up, but what really turned the clock was when the jobs ... when more and more workers came onto the big jobs, they couldn't control that then, there were so many. So the numerical strength won them over. But early in the piece there was a lot of violence in the fifties up until the time ... particularly in those years, the late fifties and early sixties until the union broke through, but after that there was limited outbreaks of violence but we had the upper hand then and we used that intelligently and of course were extremely hostile on any physical endeavours that the rump group would make against us.
What kind of violence? I mean, was anybody ever violent with you?
Oh, well, I was threatened, but I mean having in mind that I was very fit and could handle myself, to use that term, and having in mind that the rank and file was growing rapidly, it was much more difficult for them act then. So we were on the ascendancy and they knew that, so there was implied threats, but never actual physical threats to me. Of course, when we ourselves used not violence but disciplinary action, when we kept them prisoner in their branch meeting when they used to ignore the rules of the branch and walk out of meetings, when we had the majority, we barred the door and forced them to remain the building. I told you before about ...
I'd like you to tell me about that crucial meeting and to describe the meeting, how it happened?
Well it was ... It was in the January of '61. What had happened the previous year, each of the branch ... the branch meetings took place once every month, the first Tuesday of each month, and it was eight o'clock of an evening, so you can imagine the building workers coming from far flung suburbs - from Hornsby, from Liverpool, from Penrith - all the way into town for an eight o'clock meeting and having in mind that six o'clock was the closing time for pubs. The workers had to fill in two hours. And during that period, during the sixties, 1960, they did have the criminal elements. They used to pay them, give them a few quid and drinks, get them in the pubs, get them half shot and then take over, and there were many attempts to mug people and to bash them. But of course with the increasing number of the rank and file they couldn't do that, so what they did, they went to a situation where your meeting would open. We would move a motion on a subject. We would win it convincingly and then the chairman would rule that we'd lost. They would then ... we would oppose it as I say, point of order: we want a division to count. They would then close the meeting and walk out of the meeting. And so we'd bring in all these people from all over Sydney and they became terribly frustrated as the year went by. So some of them said, 'What's the good of [wasting] all that time to go in there and they'll just walk out?' So in the January of ... of '61 which was really the turning point, we held them up at the door, [when] they attempted to walk out. We had a majority six to one, or seven to one, against them, a couple of hundred workers in the hall, and when they came down to go out of the hall, we picked them up and took them back and sat them down. One of their stooges then ran out and got the 21st Division, which was the political police at the time, and they came in to the meeting. We then addressed them saying, 'Well you're unionists too. Hands off. Stand outside. We're carrying out the rules of the union. The rules say that between eight o'clock and ten o'clock the meeting takes place. They're not carrying out the rules of the union. You stand outside and they're going to stay here until ten o'clock'. And we did that. They just sat there until ten o'clock. Well, the next day we stopped all Sydney and this is the first action against the old leadership. So we stopped them and we marched from down at Circular Quay - the Opera House hadn't started then ... Circular Quay up the street to the Town Hall, and that was the turning point when we said, 'Well right, we're going to set up a rank and file meeting and we're going to defeat them in the election taking place in September'. And that was the ... that was the real impetuous that gave away the old leadership. They had to go, and we were successful then in the next election. So it was that direct action that brought about the change.
That must have had a tremendous empowering effect. [It] demonstrated in a way to the rank and file that direct action could work, that there was power there.
Oh of course. I mean, after all you can imagine the frustration of militant workers, who first of all with the bashing of the old guard [sic] ... with the black listing of anyone who even raised their voice about conditions on jobs or any other feature ... and where they had their own lackeys appointed on jobs, not ... not even elected by the workers. So they went through a very bad period. And so that example, which was highly publicised, big write ups in the paper ... that was known then. [News] spread right throughout the industry that the Builders' Labourers were on the march and we were totally successful and won overwhelmingly in the elections of that year.
During that period that they were blacklisting and preventing people like yourself from getting work on jobs and so on, how did you know that they targeted you by name?
Well first of all we had a list given to us by ... A person in the office had given us a list and also a sympathetic builder who was ... had been a unionist in his background also had a list. So they had a list from the Master Builders that they sent out to their members and of course we had so ... so [there was] many examples of a union official [who] would come to a job, a worker would be working under an assumed name - all of us worked under assumed names then, but as soon as the official saw myself or other activists next thing you'd get sacked that afternoon because the ... there was an hour's notice. They ... all they had to give you was an hour's notice so they'd use some trumped up reason that there was no work left or something else and you'd get sacked.
Wasn't there some other guy called Mundey, who was ...
Yeah, he promptly changed his name to Bundy to safeguard his future in the building industry.
I'd like to go back now and we've followed through your public life, you know, from when you were young ...
I'm gonna go and lie down.
... On the development of Jack the person.
How long you got?
I want to take you back. So we go back to Queensland ...
The Far North, not bloody Brisbane.
The Far North, Far North Queensland. We'll go back to Far North Queensland and you're a kid and when you were teenager we know you were sports mad and so on. Do you remember at what stage you got interested in girls? Do you remember that? Do you remember ...
Far North Queensland, no. Had to come to the big smoke.
So when you came down to the big smoke, when did you first start going out with girls?
Oh I haven't got a ... haven't got a ... I haven't got a diary on that but probably in my early twenties.
You were a late starter?
I was, slow learner, still ... [laughs]
And when did you meet your first wife?
Well I met her through, oh well, dances and ... and other social events with the football club and just the normal thing that people do.
How old were you when you got married?
And how did that fit in with what was going on in the rest of your life? What stage were you at in your work life, when you got married?
Well I was going through an extremely difficult period because it was just before we broke through in the union movement so it was ... I mentioned before that one year I had seventeen jobs, and at that I was married and Stephanie was pregnant with Michael, so there was enormous pressure on ... on us but she agreed with ... she had support for the idea of what I was about and went along with it. [INTERRUPTION]
Tell me who it was that you married.
Stephanie Lennon. A very nice person.
And what was her background?
Oh just ... oh very much a worker. She was ... she worked in a shop in Parramatta and we started going out and a number of years later I married her. [coughs]
What did she think of your activism? What did she think of your role in the union?
Well, she came from a working class family and ... and she was, in general, though she wasn't terribly politically aware, she was supportive of the basic rights of things I was fighting for. It was ... the big uncertainty of employment of course was a problem but I explained ... Well I explained the position to her. She knew the position, and it was ... and was supportive of it, yes.
But the financial insecurity must have been difficult to cope with, especially when there was a baby coming. How did you manage?
Well, we were living at her mother's place at the time, so that was a bit of a help. It was pretty much ... as with any casual worker, pretty much a very difficult period, let alone with the industrial activity. But we managed and I was also active by then in the Communist Party and so it was a very active life we were leading.
And she had to manage quite a lot when you were away at meetings or involved in union activities?
Well, as I said, she lived at her mother's place so at least she had her family there. Her father had died years before and she was the fifth of five girls and one boy - the last of the youngest, so it was a good working class family I married into.
And the baby ... When the baby was born ...
Yes, can you remember ... Can you describe what that meant to you at the time?
A diversion, one might say. No. It was terrific of course. Michael was a lovely little kid. Born in Crown Street, Sydney and I was a proud father.
Did you have much to do with taking care of him?
With taking care of Michael?
Oh well ...
In those days did, it wasn't usual. Did you have a lot to do with taking care of him?
Probably not as much as I should have, having been out so much and still very active in the union movement but, yeah, I was ... I wasn't ... Overall I wasn't a bad father. [PLANE] I reckon, I wasn't perfect but I wasn't bad.
Jack, can I ask you now about your involvement in politics, parallel to your life in the union and very much associated with it, was active ... an active political life. Could you tell me how that evolved for you and who within the party that you joined - the Communist Party - things developed and what your role was in that? [PHONE]
So I was asking you about your political career and about how that evolved, not just in terms of what was happening, but also what offices you held and what ... what you sought in the political life?
I joined the Communist Party because I felt that it was the most militant group of people who fought around basic things like wages and conditions, so I came in from that level. I didn't have a ... a very deep understanding of Marxism. I believed in the socialist principles. I believed in egalitarian principles and I was very much opposed to the gap between rich and poor that exists in this country. And because of my background and growing up in the Depression, as a result of the Depression and seeing then the Second World War and after the Second World War how money could be found very quickly for development, it made me realise the power of big business was immense and so [I held] a very idealistic belief that some form of system would be preferable to a greedy capitalist system, and I maintain that idea right through 'til now, despite the upheavals that occurred under the name of socialism. And I suppose that many people ... I joined the Communist Party in the fifties and as a ... as a young person and I went to many study classes and studied Marx and Engels and the other philosophers who were Marxists, and I was convinced that despite the terrible tragedies of Stalinism in the Soviet Union and particularly after the exposure of Stalinism by Khrushchev, there was great hope that socialism would have a rebirth, that a ... a form of socialism that more accords with modern society would come into being and in the sixties of course another split occurred when the Communist Party of China and the Communist Party of the Soviet Union came apart and so in the world you really had the three different varieties. You had countries like Italy and Australia, where the communist parties were taking a more independent position, and you also had the Soviet Union and China. And in all the western countries there were adherence to the different forms of socialism and it's rather interesting to note that within the building industry, of which I was involved in, you had the three main union leaders [who] were aligned to the different factions of the Communist Party. You had Clancy, who was the leader of the Carpenters and Bricklayers, the BWIU, following the Soviet Union. You had Gallagher, the federal secretary of the Builders' Labourers following the China line and then you had myself and others in the leadership in New South Wales, who believed that each country must find its own way to socialism and was critical of many aspects of the Soviet Union and China, particularly around the cult of the individual, of putting the individual up as being all knowing, and not learning from the tragic era of Stalinism. We found in China the same glorification and treat[ment of] him as an idol - treating Mao Zedong as an idol and this was counter to my understanding of what socialism and egalitarian principles were. And I take it ... Had the party continued to support the Soviet Union or China I wouldn't have remained in the party, but because of a hope that the independents would bring about a regeneration of socialist ideas, I stayed in the Communist Party. But as ... as I said before, I think the albatross was too heavy because even allowing for the amount of anti-communism of course in all the capitalist countries, the fact remains that the performance of the socialist countries was so poor, particularly around human rights and lack of democracy, that people who otherwise admired things that the Communist Party of Australia were doing, weren't prepared for vote for them, particularly in elections whether it be national, state or municipal. Though at the municipal level in various parts of Australia, communist were elected and served very well for years, and in Queensland one, Fred Patterson, was elected to the seat of Bowen. But in the main there was the union movement, [which] elected communists again and again, and the most successful union leaders were many communists, and the communists were the driving force really on left wing Labor. They were often the ... the brains, if I can say so, behind left wing Labor. You've only got to contrast the position now when there isn't a Communist Party and the Left of the Labor Party is almost leaderless, if it exists at all. So I mean I think that my evolve ... The way that my thinking evolved, came from differences in the Communist Party and the fact that the Communist Party of Australia was so much involved in those issues I've spoken about. The rights of women. For example, my wife Judy was the first president of any political party in Australia. She was president of the Communist Party of Australia, and many other women were elected to the leadership of the party. They were at the forefront of the women's struggle, and the environment movement of course, with myself and others in the Green Ban movement, anti-apartheid and pro-black, we were the first. The Communist Party of Australia was the first political party to unequivocally champion the rights of the Aboriginal people as far back as the thirties, I might add. So those things ... On an Australian based scheme, the Communist Party was truly independent. But in the minds of most Australians, it was still quote 'communist' and communist equalled, in their mind, because of ... because of anti-communist propaganda, that any communist equals Russia, equals China.
What about your own role in the party? Were you ever an office bearer?
Yes, I was president of the Communist Party for a number of years in the seventies and before that I had many positions. I was president of the Sydney district committee and of course, all the time, active in the trade union movement.
Did you ever go to Russia?
Yes, I went ... I led a delegation to the Soviet Union in 1969 and it wasn't greeted with open arms because in 1968, when the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact countries invaded Czechoslovakia, well we came out ... we were the first communist party in the world, Australia, to come out and unequivocally condemn the invasion in August of 1968, and this caused further breach. Already relationships with the Soviet Union were poor, but this caused a further breach between the Soviet Union and Australian communist parties. Of course the Communist Party of the Soviet Union considered, you know, Australia pretty irrelevant but they still wanted the various communist parties to genuflect at their altar and they thought it was rather audacious that we should be so condemning of that invasion, because the Dubcek period in Czechoslovakia gave communists in the western countries great hope that as Dubcek termed it, 'socialism with a human face', making it more democratic, making the system a plural system and being a part of a modern approach to things like environment, women's rights and other issues, and of course the very fact that the Warsaw Pact countries under the Soviet Union stifled that was really one of the last set backs for the hope of socialism or communists in the western world.
What were your impressions of the Soviet Union when you made that visit?
It was very ... It was mixed in the sense that on the one hand I think that you have to say that the education system at least allowed the people far better [opportunities] than most other third world countries. And many ways I say that because there are aspects of the Soviet Union that were sort of a third world country. And it should never be forgotten of course that even though it was '69, it was still evident that they suffered horrendously during the Second World War, where some twenty million people were killed and many more millions injured and homeless. So they suffered enormously in the Second World War in the defeat of Nazism. But against that, it was mainly the ... the ... I could see the evidence of the Stalinist repression even though in that period when Brezhnev was leader the ... the camps and other really repressive means had ... had stopped but the after effects were still there, and ... and you could see first hand that the people ... On the one hand the people had enough food and clothing, but it wasn't of the quality, particularly the clothing, of the west and they longed for many of the consumer items of the western world. So the people were clothed and reasonably well fed, but there was a lack of democracy which showed through in many instances.
Have you ever run for an elected position in an Australian Parliament or Council?
Yes, I was, well ... I was elected to the Sydney district, sorry, to the Sydney Council ... to the Sydney City Council in 1984 and I served there for three years. But yeah, on many occasions I've stood in both Federal and State elections as a Communist Party candidate, but as I pointed out before, because of the anti-communism generated by the capitalist system, and also because of the paucity of the experience of socialism in both the Soviet Union and China, the Australian voters, whilst they would elect people like myself again and again to trade union positions, they were not prepared to vote under the name communist for those other positions.
What did you get from the experience of standing for Parliament? What did you learn from it? Was it a valuable experience to you?
Well, I think everything one does you learn something from it, but I probably realised how hopeless it was at the end. But just ... An interesting sideline for the very first time, I had a job handing out how-to-votes for the Communist Party. I was twenty-four, playing football at the time and I was allocated the electorate or the town ... then the town of Leura in the Blue Mountains, which was then really a retirement village for the well to do in Sydney. And so I travelled up there and got out with my panama hat and dressed up as the footballer, handing out the how-to-vote and an old Tory, no doubt, came up and made fun of me saying, 'Oh you look pretty well dressed. How come you're a communist? What are you doing all dressed up like that?' So I had to put up with this silly old bastard for most of the day and as the afternoon wore on, there weren't too many takers of my how-to-votes but the candidate came up and said, well would I mind scrutineering. So my baptism to the handing out to how-to-vote communist went from 8 am to 8 p.m. and then I had to check the votes. And so at ten o'clock my day's work had led to not one vote - not one person voting for the Communist Party after fourteen hours of activity, so you've got to say that I was a slow learner. [Laughs] And not too many communists in Leura at the time. I think there would even be more now.
Well maybe you learnt to be motivated by discouragement. [Laughs]
Now I want to go back now to where we started before when we were so rudely interrupted by the planes. You were telling me about your first marriage and I wanted you to tell me about ... you were explaining how you were managing when life was very busy for you and you didn't have much work and you had a wife and baby. What did that mean for you economically as a little family?
Well, you had ... you haven't to be a Rhodes Scholar to work out that, have you? I mean, you just get by. But the conviction was strong about the need to win control of that union and I was prepared to make sacrifices and Stephanie, who was eight or nine years younger than myself, went along with me and of course the baby was the concern of us both. So ... and living with the mother, there was ... it was also an assistance.
And what happened ...
But anyone that struggles ... anyone that struggles like that, you know, against the system, or against wrong things in the system, always has to make those sacrifices. I understood that because you're looking at a period, it was just after the war. The Cold War was still cold and well, shall we say, because, you know, the whole question of the atom bomb, nuclear power - all those things are on the agenda. Cuba and then the threat of bombing, the Kennedy - Khrushchev stand off, all of that was, you know ... it was ... it was at a flash point really in the late fifties and early sixties, so I think anyone who was a communist in those days knew that you're going to get a lot of flak, which we did. But in my work in the trade union movement, of course, there was a strong body of opinion wanting change in that union and that was most of my work in that period you're talking about: my early married period, was fighting for the ... the right of decency within the trade union movement.
[end of tape]