In Henry Lawson’s story, The Union Buries Its Dead, one of the mourners asks with pathetic humour whether we thought the dead man’s ticket would be recognised “over yonder”. .. and the general opinion was that it would be. Laurie Carmichael, for whom the AMWU held a memorial service in Melbourne on Thursday 6 September 2018 didn’t believe in over yonder but he certainly believed in a union ticket.
The person being buried in the Lawson story is a stranger to the mourners in attendance; they only know, because of the ticket in his pocket, that he’s he’s a union man. Those who spoke at Laurie’s memorial had a trove of stories to draw on in remembering the man.
His militancy was remembered. The then Prime Minister, Billy McMahon described him as the most dangerous man in Australia in the 1960’s when I was growing up. But it was muted and I was reminded of the Yeats poem Among School Children where children in momentary wonder stare upon a sixty year old smiling public man. The full force of Laurie’s personality seemed to be blurred; softened by the pictures on display of him smiling benignly. And no matter their significance, the hardest won achievements, can by the passage of time be reduced to amusing anecdotes. That’s what happens when you live to be 93 years of age.
An overwhelming impression from the day, was how times have changed. Unions no longer have the power they once had to seriously shape Australia’s economic and social framework. Laurie once asked me what my framework was. He was sitting here in his office at the ACTU. Although he wasn’t smiling. Laurie could be intimidating. I always felt I gave an inadequate answer; something to do with being a child of the Whitlam revolution. Not revolutionary enough for Laurie. Around the same time he told me when, as a young union organiser at the Gilbertson’s meatworks in Altona; he’d have been looking after the maintenance workers; he’d come home to find a Christmas ham delivered. He immediately set to returning it; not an easy thing to do via a couple of different modes of public transport on a week-end. But return it he did; he was taking nought from the boss thank you very much.
It was strange having him join the ACTU after his years being a firebrand of the Left. There were no such things as staff meetings at the ACTU (thank goodness) but he was a presence around the place. At Executive meetings he didn’t talk much but was authoritative when he did. And he was always on the platform during the stormy meetings that preceded adoption of the Accord where things got pretty heated. A great one to have onside at a stormy meeting was Laurie. He could pitch the perfect speech, starting slowly, building to a crescendo before finally delivering the coup de grace.
Along the way delivering withering put-downs of opponents. One-such I remember was defeat seeking missiles for those opposing the Accord. And he was central to the ACTU’s skills and training agenda. I always felt his major contribution was his influence on Bill; through long conversations in one another’s offices, thinking up new campaigns, working out new strategies. Always looking forward not backwards. That was a big theme throughout the speeches: Laurie’s embrace of the future. He was not one for looking back.
The first speaker was Laurie Junior who did his Dad proud. He gave us memories of ice skating (who knew Laurie loved it), model trains (many attendees had been asked to bring him back model engines from overseas), being dinked on Laurie’s bike to Victoria market – a long ride and not a comfortable one. He remembered his father’s strong support when he became a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War draft which led to his father and mother being arrested. He recalled with pride Laurie Senior’s active opposition to the Vietnam war and his role organising the Melbourne moratoriums. Nice to see the son’s pride in his father. What matter a life of public accomplishment if you leave behind private disappointment.
This booklet prepared by the union for the occasion gave a short overview of Laurie’s life; born in Coburg (1925), war service in the RAAF, qualified as a fitter, joined the union, got married (1947) then his career in the union started when he became district secretary of the Amalgamated Engineering Union in 1958.
Doug Cameron was up next to talk about Laurie’s contribution to the union. He spoke of Laurie’s key role in the many amalgamations that culminated in the formation of the powerful Amalgamated Metal Workers Union; reminding us that these were not achieved easily in an era of craft based unionism. Laurie’s campaigning skills were recalled vividly in accounts of ongoing industry wide campaigns for wage increases spreading benefits from hot shops outwards until they became the norm.
Alongside industrial campaigns and political activism were stories of his love of tea and just a touch of hypochondria. His passion for tea resulted in boiling hot water taps being installed in the kitchen at the ACTU; not without some drama as I recall. Early installations were insufficiently hot and it took a couple of goes to get the right ones.
Doug touched a little on the antagonism towards Laurie and his campaigns from right wing unions but Bill Shorten who would’ve seen it up close from his time as Secretary of the AWU didn’t. Although by his time it had largely dissipated and was not fanned by Bill himself. The Opposition Leader recalled hearing of Laurie’s exploits at his own family kitchen table; a reminder if one were needed, of how widespread Laurie’s influence was in the broader union movement. He also focussed on Laurie’s capacity, in later years, to work with Labor in government on the social wage component of the Accord and in particular the training system. It was nice to see Brian Howe, who worked closely with Laurie on welfare reforms under the Accord in attendance. Kim Carr and Brendan O’Connor were also there but I didn’t see any other current pollies.
This picture sums up the relationship between these two, arguably the most significant figures in the labour movement. I wonder whose is the disembodied hand over Laurie’s shoulder? Bill began with his first encounter with Laurie; a second hand account of how his handling of a dispute at Ford had gone off the rails. His informant was an NUW official on Bill’s first day with that union (or thereabouts – Bill can move things around for dramatic effect). The expectation, in this right wing union, was that the strike would be over shortly based on reports of an ugly, divisive meeting of union delegates, of various nationalities, chaired by Laurie. Instead the strike lasted another week or so before ending successfully. Turned out the arguments at the meeting was about the respective merits of different Italian operas. Well that’s Laurie and Bill’s story anyway!
Bill spoke of Laurie’s role in three seminal campaigns to highlight his importance to the union movement and to Australian society at large. First was the campaign against the penal powers which involved mass demonstrations and strikes protesting the gaoling of Clarrie O’Shea in 1969. Bill talked of the coincidences that saw Laurie on the scene at each of the demonstrations, and in Clarrie’s office when he was wobbling a bit about the whole enterprise. All a coincidence said Laurie; and then, Bill said, Laurie smiled. Bill gave more detail about Laurie’s leadership of the campaign for a shorter working week which was started by the AMWU in the 1970s, with the ACTU eventually coming on board and a 38 hour week applied across Australian industry during the 1980s.
Bill also reminded us, how bitterly these union campaigns were fought, workplace by workplace, industry by industry; with strikes, mass meetings, bans, pickets and arrests of union leaders including Laurie. The third great national campaign was around award restructuring. Bill spoke of meetings around Laurie’s kitchen table at which the whole strategy was worked out. He was expecting praise from Laurie for his document outlining his proposals for the campaign but had to make do with a gruff SatisfactoryThat took the better part of the 1980s and early 1990s to deliver.
Bill remembered a meeting between Laurie and Paul Keating that took place at Laurie’s request. What’s he want to meet with me about? says Paul. I don’t know, he wouldn’t say, says Bill. They go to a restaurant in Canberra; arriving at 6.30pm, Bill remembers. Laurie’s opening line: Now Paul, about Mahler … and these two, self educated men, without a smidgeon of formal musical education between them spoke non stop for four hours about the respective merits of different composers, pieces of music, approaches to music. Incredible. A privilege to be there and to hear them, said Bill.
He followed that up with another story. Just before the 2 March 1996 election Bill gave a speech at the Melbourne Town Hall; Keating was there. So were all the ACTU staff, including me. Bill got carried away and threatened wholesale industrial chaos should the Coalition under Howard win; If they want a fight, want a war, then we will have the full symphony with all the clashes, all the music, he is quoted (the Australian, 22/02/1996) as saying; as well as I am not sure it will be the 1812 Overture, but I will tell you what, Paul, it will not be Mahler either (Tony wright, the Age 23/2/13). Bill told us Laurie rang him; Bill how could you? Tchaikovsky! Didn’t I tell you he’s just a populist!! You deserve all the trouble you’re going to get! And Bill certainly did get into trouble for that speech, but not for Laurie’s reason.
Max Ogden spoke about Laurie’s role in the Communist Party which he joined, aged 16, via the Eureka Youth League. Max told of fiery meetings of the Young Engineers where Groupers and Communists battled for control. Max also highlighted Laurie’s role in the seminal document Australia Reconstructed, still influential in labour movements around the world. Its hard to read this article but its about Laurie coming to the ACTU and spruiking the benefits of Swedish style employee participation on company boards. Always up for new ideas. Those were the days; tripartite missions abroad! Max reckons it’s time for another Australia Reconstructed. Bec Muratore then led us in a rousing rendition of the Internationale; words helpfully supplied for those who couldn’t remember or never knew them.
Then it was on to Solidarity Forever; click here to see Joe’s stirring rendition and Linda’s praise of same. bQFzGwpwQv24Z192qIEEUw
That would have been a high to end proceedings. But we had a short speech from ACTU Secretary Sally McManus. She was thoughtful and considered about what lessons could be drawn from the past to guide present union leaders. She was hopeful and we can only hope with her. That she can arrest the decline of unions. More importantly than in numbers of members it matters in terms of influence over Australia’s political, economic and social fabric.
Laurie’s memorial served to remind us how important the union movement has been in reducing inequality and maintaining social cohesion in Australia. As we look around the world and see, both there and here, growing levels of inequality, increasing isolationism and xenophobia we need strong, involved unions contributing in national debates. Laurie’s life shows us that reactionary, divisive forces must, and can be, resisted.