Doug Cameron speech to Laurie Carmichael Memorial Event

Posted by on October 28, 2018 in General, Issue 89 Oct 2018


Doug Cameron

Laurie Carmichael was a remarkable Australian. He was a leader, a campaigner, an intellectual, and to many union activists he was a mentor and a friend. His values, his principles, his politics and his formidable intellect combined to make him one of the greatest trade unionists this country has produced. He was tough, gruff, and uncompromising when it came to the interests of working class Australians.

As a leading communist he was both feared and reviled by many of his industrial and political opponents. Liberal PM Billy McMahon described Laurie as “the most evil man in the country.” It’s a bizarre proposition that Laurie, who was fighting on behalf of working class Australians for decent wages and conditions, peace and equality, could be described as evil.

I want to concentrate on his role as the leader of the AMWU and how he inspired working class activists like myself, Julius Roe, Dave Oliver, Max Ogden, and many others to fight for industrial rights and social and political change. Laurie’s leadership and friendship was invaluable to me as a rank and file activist, an organiser and eventually leader of the AMWU.

Laurie was a visionary who ensured the AMWU was at the cutting edge of technology, that education was the glue that held our industrial and political campaigns together. The union education programs encompassed politics, the environment, the peace movement and critical analysis of the development of and weaknesses of capitalism.

I remember Laurie presenting lectures at the Clyde Cameron College on computerisation and the development of computers. Laurie would describe the contribution of the British mathematician Charles Babbage who developed the Analytical Engine, the forerunner to basic computers. He was definitely not a Luddite. He recognised the contribution of science and technology and he applied it to the day-to-day work of the AMWU.

AMWU delegates were taught the difference between strategy and tactics, how to present a case in the Commission and how to cross examine a witness. We were trained to be mindful militants, conscious of the implications of our actions on our members and the industrial development and economic prosperity of the country.

The Carmichael inspired education program made AMWU delegates formidable opponents for employers and was the basis of our industrial and political successes. Our officials and delegates were supported by a sophisticated and well-resourced research centre with access to a research library with a wide range of economic and political resources. This was obviously before the days of the internet and Google.

Laurie had an international outlook and would introduce to the AMWU the successful concepts, theories and practices of the international trade union movement, particularly from Italy and Scandinavia. He ensured that we had access to high level, independent economic advice through the employment of a dedicated union economist capable of analysing the economic and social implications of industrial and political decisions. Our economist Nixon Apple was highly respected by business, government and the rank-and-file membership, and along with Laurie they were a formidable intellectual team.

Honesty and integrity were fundamental to Laurie’s capacity to engage with the key industrial and political decision-makers. Recently, I had a brief discussion with the former head of the Australian Industry Group, Bob Herbert, who outlined the respect that Laurie was held in by the MTIA and its former leader Bert Evans. Bob indicated that a handshake from Laurie Carmichael was sufficient for the MTIA to reach agreement on issues of significant industrial and economic implications for the industry and the country.

Laurie was a tough and sophisticated negotiator. I remember on one occasion, in my early days, as part of the union’s negotiating team with the MTIA, in the days when I was not as diplomatic as I am now, I made a stupid mistake and gave Bert Evans a mouthful. Laurie pulled me aside and ripped shreds off of me. He told me if I wanted to be a successful negotiator I should never put the other side in a situation where they had no room to move. It was a good lesson from an expert negotiator.

Laurie developed and led some of the biggest industrial and political campaigns in the country including:
• Organising industrial action against the penal provisions and supporting Clarrie O’Shea when he was gaoled by Sir John Kerr for contempt of the industrial court when he refused to pay $8100 in fines. Laurie was instrumental in defeating the penal provisions.
• Breaking the Fraser government wage freeze and winning the 38 hour week,
• Developing career paths for metalworkers, winning industrial democracy rights for metalworkers, working with Bill Kelty and the ACTU to win superannuation.

These were just a few of the union’s achievements under his leadership. Laurie and the AMWU were also prominent in the moratorium campaign against the war in Vietnam.

These achievements were made even more significant when you consider that the AMWU was under constant political attack from employers, governments and the anti-Communist grouper forces external to, and within the union. We seemed to be in continuous union election campaigns against the forces who would seek to turn the AMWU into a tame cat union. Despite this Laurie was never diverted from improving conditions and increasing the living standards of his members.

Laurie was criticised by some for his support and leadership in developing the Accord process. I remember Laurie discussing the limitations of the union movement focusing solely on wages and conditions. Laurie understood the importance of the social wage which included access for the working class to decent healthcare and education, and to have influence in the political direction of the country.

Laurie understood that mindless militancy would lead inevitably to significant attacks on workers’ rights. The capacity to deliver support for the Accord within the AMWU should never be underestimated. The establishment of our education program and the capacity of the education program to deliver an understanding of the Accord process to rank-and-file activists were fundamental to support within the union. When I reflect on Laurie’s leadership, his determination to build a highly educated, militant and effective delegate structure was one of his greatest achievements.

Laurie and Bill Kelty led a movement that had defeated the penal provisions through access to industrial rights and legislation that is not available to Sally McManus and the trade union movement today. When I first came to Sydney as the assistant state secretary of the union, Laurie Carmichael could organise mass meetings at Redfern Oval and Leichardt Oval of between ten and fifteen thousand workers.

Laurie would use pattern bargaining and right of entry provisions to advance the wages and conditions of workers. There were few if any restrictions on what workers could bargain for. Laurie used the hot shops to support the weak workshops. There was little free riding by non-unionists in union workshops.

Unfortunately privatisation, marketisation, free trade agreements and so called economic and industrial reform have weakened the union movement’s capacity to deliver effectively for the workforce. Neoliberalism, vicarious employment and enterprise bargaining has resulted in a broken system. When even the OECD recognises that income inequality is rife and the IMF notes that weakening the union movement weakens wages and conditions then something has to change.

It is essential that the trade union movement defend the CFMMEU as they are subjected to unacceptable industrial legislation and political attacks by the Liberal/National government.

We must reset the industrial relations system. We cannot be subjected to industrial legislation that is unheard of in other OECD countries. We need strong laws to support the working class who are facing increased attacks through the gig economy, casualisation and lack of basic rights.

Laurie Carmichael would demand no less.

Doug Cameron is Senator for NSW and a former National Secretary of the AMWU. This is the text of his speech at the Laurie Carmichael Memorial in Melbourne on 6th September 2018

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