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Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Vale John Cummins 1948-2006

I was wearing a John Cummins t-shirt in Katoomba and this woman thought it was Johnny Cash. Cummo would be laughing, Johnny Cash with the Eureka flag behind him, Dare to Struggle Dare to Win. The t-shirt is a stencil from when Cummo first went jail for unionists having the right of entry to the workplace, when the BLF was deregistered in 1986. A right to organise that Howard has now made a criminal act under his Work Choices legislation.

Vale Comrade Cummo

Comrades due to my partners ill health I can’t make it to Cummo’s funeral but I have written these words about his life.

We should not mourn Cummo’s death. No let us celebrate his life Comrades. And those of us, who knew him, make sure that our younger Comrades and future generations of Socialists and Working Class Militants know the contribution he left in fighting this vile, evil and filthy capitalist system.

I first met Cummo in April 1986, just over twenty years ago. At the start of the BLF deregistration, when the armies of police, in their blue uniforms, invaded the building sites of my home town Melbourne. He drove up to the Banana Alley picket line I was on and organised one of two crane occupations that took place that day, in front of me. He pulled a chain and padlock out of the boot of his car, for the trap door of crane drivers cab and briefed the occupation crew.

He was a working class leader who led from the front. Cummo would spend all up, at least six months in prison over the next seven years, showing his contempt for the court orders that tried to stop him and other BLF organisers visiting our members on building sites. It takes more that an act of parliament, the police and prison to knock the fight out of resolute, staunch individual like Cummo. He would not be intimidated or cowed, as none of us should be today in taking on Howard’s IR Laws.

All unionists no matter what union or industry, whether they are an official, organiser, delegate/representative/shop steward or just a rank and file member should think of these words from Cummo when he said, ”Prison is now an occupational hazard for union organisers.”

It was an ALP government that showed the Liberals/Nationals how to outlaw a union. How to attack our civil liberties. Including, the right of union entry into the workplace.

I find it as a sign of the times that on the night Cummo lost his fight with the brain tumour that he had been fighting for nearly twelve months, that unionists were showing national solidarity with the 107 construction workers, members of Cummo’s union, the Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union on the Perth-Mandurah rail link.and Dave Noonan, incoming national leader of CFMEU is now facing fines of up to $2.5 million, also from Howard’s Industrial Gestapo for the building industry.

Cummo was a gutsy Revolutionary Socialist who fought not just for his beloved builders labourers and construction workers and the working class as a whole, such as organising solidarity with three month strike/occupation of Cockatoo Island Dockyard in Sydney Harbour in 1989 that I was involved in. But he also took on racism and supported Aboriginal rights and opposed imperialism, organising solidarity with the East Timorese and Irish Nationalists and opposing Howard and Bush’s invasion of Iraq. Anyone who was a victim of injustice was supported by Cummo. I remember talking to him about Tim Anderson’s frame up for the Hilton Bombing in 1990 by then corrupt serving NSW police and the last time I spoke to him was at meeting to get jailed unionist, Craig Johnston out of prison in the John Curtain Hotel.

He was no fan of unions, in his words becoming,”...a cheer squad for the ALP.” during the Kennett era in Victoria, the union movement nationally has missed his opposition to the ALP's endeavor to sidetrack the union campaign against WorkChoices, into a completely electoral campaign for Kim Beazley for next years election.

When I think of Cummo, I’ll think of the Woody Guthrie song Tom Joad from John Steinbeck’s classic The Grapes of Wrath, Tom Joad was the character played by Henry Fonda in John Ford’s film of the book.

Think of these three verses Comrades and reflect on Cummo’s life.

Tom Joad he run where his mother lay asleep

He woke her out of her bed

He kissed goodbye to the mother that he loved

And he told her what Preacher Casey said

"Everybody might be but one big soul

It looks that way to me

Wherever you look in the day or the night

That's where I'm gonna be, Ma"

"Wherever little children go hungry and cry

Wherever people aren't free

Where working people are fighting for their rights

That's where I'm gonna be, Ma"

Woody Guthrie based that last verse on Joe Hill before he was executed for the copper bosses by a firing squad in the state of Utah, when Joe said,” Don’t mourn me organise.”

Let us do he same for Comrade Cummo,

Dare to Struggle, Dare to Win, Socialism Here We Go!

John/Togs Tognolini

Vale John Cummins 1948-2006 by Michael Bull

John Cummins, whom many consider the greatest trade union leader and industrial tactician of our time, died after a year-long battle with cancer on August 29. Cummo, as he was known, was either the most loved, or the most feared, of all union leaders.

He joined the Communist Party of Australia (Marxist-Leninist) at university in the early 1970s and soon after joined the Builders Labourers Federation (BLF). Cummo was sent to work on the Westgate Bridge, where he was surrounded by many experienced union activists and gained important experience in the Victorian building industry. Before long, BLF secretary Norm Gallagher made Cummo an organiser.

Throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, the BLF led important struggles that won victories for all building industry workers. These included the introduction of the National Building and Construction Award system, which entrenched holiday pay, sick leave, site sheds, toilets, cleaners and dozens of other entitlements into the industry. The hard-fought ``No ticket, no start’‘ for closed shop unionism was also won in this period.

Gallagher was an astute industrial tactician, renowned for his ``guerilla tactics’‘, rather than prolonged strikes, in industrial disputes. These included snap 24-hour strikes and industrial bans, the idea being to make the bosses pay as much as possible while minimising workers’ lost wages. The BLF claimed, and usually won, ``lost time’‘ or strike pay on settlement of the dispute.

In 1983, Bob Hawke’s Labor government brought in the Prices and Incomes Accord, an agreement between governments, bosses and unions that was promoted as heralding the end of industrial disputes. The accord was supposed to increase workers’ wages and conditions without the need for industrial action. Early on, the BLF could see that this was just a mechanism for the government and bosses to cut wages and conditions. Although the union signed on, it continued to take industrial action to improve building workers’ wages and conditions.

The establishment entrusted Hawke with the task of taming the union movement, but the BLF’s actions placed the accord, and therefore the Labor government, under increasing pressure. If the BLF had broken the accord, there would have been a wages break-out, possibly ending the Labor government.


In April 1986, the ALP, with the support of the bosses, deregistered the BLF. They wanted to scare the union movement into submission. Police were called to sites in Victoria, NSW and Canberra, where BLF members were ordered to join rival unions. If they refused, they were sacked on the spot and escorted off site.

BLF officials were banned from sites and if they entered anyway were charged with trespass. The courts would then issue an order banning them from the site. If the official ignored the court order, they were jailed for 28 days for contempt of court.

It was in this battle against deregistration that John Cummins came into his own. By 1986, Cummo was assistant secretary of the BLF and very much Gallagher’s right-hand man. Gallagher and Cummo called the shots on a hard-hitting guerilla campaign that lasted six years and cost the building bosses hundreds of millions of dollars.

At the end of 1986 I was a young carpenter shop steward on the Kensington Flour Mills site run by a NSW company called Barclay Brothers. This anti-union company was suing the Plumbers Union over its 36-hour week campaign.

To get the company to drop its lawsuit against the Plumbers Union, recognize the BLF and grant a $52 per week pay increase to all workers, a cohesive industrial campaign was conducted under BLF guidance. For 18 months, we had weekly 24-hour strikes and the site was crippled by industrial bans most of the time. We shut the site down for 12 weeks and eventually the company closed the site for five months. However, because BLF tactics were used, the workers lost very little money.

Other tactics used included the disruption of concrete pours, flying pickets, regular rallies and even the hijacking of cranes. Building workers were angry at having their union outlawed, at being constantly harassed by police and company goons, and being blacklisted and in some cases jailed (Cummo was jailed twice during this period) and their militancy started costing the bosses a fortune.

The campaign was tough and fought very hard, but democracy was always abided by. At Kensington Flour Mills, Cummo and BLF organiser John Setka constantly discussed with me and other union activists how to conduct the campaign. Cummo made sure that all motions were thoroughly discussed, debated and voted on by the entire workforce before any action was taken.

While Gallagher ran things with an iron fist, Cummo was always thoroughly democratic and a team builder. Cummo’s ability to build a team and to patch up Gallagher’s autocratic mistakes was a key reason why the BLF lasted so long against powerful enemies. While both men were involved in the takeover of the NSW BLF branch in the early 1970s, Cummo defied Gallagher to stop the blacklisting of those who had opposed the takeover.

By the early 1990s, the BLF was running out of steam. The sustained attacks by the state, an economic recession and the constant blacklisting of BLF militants all took their toll.

Cummo and other BLF militants suggested to Gallagher that they make a deal with the newly created Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU). Gallagher, scared of losing what little was left of his empire, opposed the proposal. This led to a bitter split between the two men.

Both organised their supporters for a final showdown at a BLF branch meeting, the highest decision-making body of the union.

Cummo easily won the vote and took over running the union. Gallagher later tried to use the police against the Cummins camp, a disgrace he never recovered from.

The media came to that branch meeting in droves, hoping that Cummo would dump on Gallagher. Asked ``what do you think of Norm now?’‘, Cummo simply relied, ``Well, you never judge someone by their last game of footy do you’‘.

In 1993 the BLF joined the CFMEU. The CFMEU was in bad shape after years of appalling leadership and its battle with the BLF. Cummo and the BLF militants threw their weight behind a new leadership of Martin Kingham and Bill Oliver.

The new CFMEU leadership agreed to employ Cummo and three other BLF organisers, and to stop all blacklisting against BLF members, as long as the BLF camp agreed not to destabilise the union or set up a counter leadership. There were a few difficult times over the years, but the amalgamation was remarkably smooth, mostly due to Cummo’s approach. He constantly explained that the past was over and that now, for the good of all construction workers, a united CFMEU had to look forward and rebuild militancy in the industry.

Cummo knew that there were two keys to achieving this. First, the union had to be democratic. As CFMEU president, Cummo chaired all official members’ meetings, and all members had their say on any issue they chose. The new leadership made sure that this degree of democracy was also maintained at site level.

Secondly, Cummo always promoted activism. He believed that if shop stewards and activists became inactive, that would be the end of the union.

Cummo and the rest of the CFMEU leadership realised that to build a new militancy in the union, the members had to be mobilised. Therefore, from the mid-1990s, at least one major campaign was conducted each year.

In 1996, it was the campaign against the tax on travel allowances; in 1997 the enterprise bargaining and Work Cover campaigns; in 1998 the wharfies’ dispute with Patrick Stevedores; in 1999 the campaign for East Timor; in 2000 the 36 hour-week campaign; in 2001 the long-service leave campaign; in 2002 the campaign against the building industry royal commission; then two more enterprise bargaining campaigns in 2003 and 2005. All of these campaigns involved members in activities on site and in public rallies, ensuring that old activists were kept active and new members were being brought into activism.

Cummo was the greatest industrial tactician I have ever known. He was always very vocal about the need for solidarity amongst unions. The CFMEU led by Kingham, Oliver and Cummins always offered as much assistance as possible to other workers in dispute, whether blue-collar or white-collar. Very often, the CFMEU was instrumental in winning a dispute for another union and group of workers.

The 1998 wharfies’ dispute picket line in Melbourne is probably the most famous case. It was fascinating to see Cummo at work during that dispute, especially on the night the picket repelled the massive police onslaught. As the police moved in, maritime union officials still had control of the loud speaker system but were at ground level and no-one could see what was going on between our lines and the police lines. So Cummo simply perched himself on the roof of an empty police van on our side of the picket and, armed with a loud hailer, called the shots for the entire night.

When the police later breached a gate leading into the port, Cummo immediately headed to the area, located near Footscray Road, a major arterial. Within a couple of hours, a number of semi-trailers had rolled up, driven by Cummo’s mates, and totally blocked off Footscray Road. The peak-hour traffic banked, forcing the police to divide their forces to try to fix the traffic problem. At that moment, Cummo led a group of storemen and packers who simply pushed the remaining cops aside while another truck, waiting around the corner, tipped its load of telephone poles in front of the gate and the picket was ours again.

When the MUA told its members to return to work before a deal was struck Cummo was furious; Patrick Stevedores was on its knees and now was not the time to back off. The MUA realised that most of the workers were now looking to the CFMEU for leadership and ordered the CFMEU off the picket line. As Cummo said, ``A defeat was snatched from the jaws of victory’‘.

Another campaign in which he was instrumental was the liberation of East Timor in September 1999. Cummo had visited East Timor on an ACTU-led exposure tour in July that year and had pledged his solidarity to the Timorese. When the Indonesian military and the militias went on the rampage killing and forcibly displacing large numbers of Timorese, Cummo mobilised construction workers at Melbourne Airport and closed down the check-in desk at Garuda Airlines. A deal was then negotiated with Qantas to pick up the stranded passengers.

Even though the action was largely symbolic, it created a furore and received widespread media coverage around the world. The Indonesian foreign minister voiced strong protest about the Australian government’s inaction in allowing Garuda to be closed down.

Again the establishment was in a quandary if they had broken up the picket using force, it would have sent a message to the Australian public that they supported Indonesia’s violent actions in East Timor. So they did nothing. The tactics were perfect and the picket continued until the Australian government agreed to send in troops to stop the killings in East Timor.

Cummo believed international solidarity was important and this led to him and Michele O’Neil from the textile workers union becoming the figureheads of Workers Against War, an organisation formed to oppose the Iraq war in 2003.

Cummo also had a very quick wit. I remember sometime back he was on the phone to a union activist who was totally out of control and the conversation went like this:

``When are you going to get me a job’‘

Cummo: ``Not until you pull your head in.’‘

``Well I’ll send you $10 in the mail, go to Victoria Market and buy yourself a heart, you weak bastard.’‘

To which Cummo replied, ``Do yourself a favour, keep 5, jump in the next queue and get yourself some brains’‘.

Cummo’s other great attribute was that he was always there for all union members, no matter how big or small the problem was. He always patiently listened and in turn, patiently explained. He returned each and every phone call.

He lived by the rule that the union was for the members, not a tool of the ALP. His other rules were that, no member was a dog, but most bosses were, and that union issues were simple; it’s the state and its lackeys that deliberately muddy the waters.

Cummo is already being sadly missed by all his comrades and even though the Howard government, their lackeys and many bosses will be celebrating his passing, Cummo’s militancy, his ideas and his teachings will continue to live on through the hundreds and hundreds of people he has influenced and trained in the decades of struggle.

In memory of Comrade John Cummins

John CumminsComrade John Cummins made a big difference in working class politics in Australia. While many thousands from his generation were radicalised around a socialist vision for the working class movement, few persisted with the struggle as Comrade Cummins did, and even fewer persisted with such effectiveness.

Our movement will be poorer because of his early demise. We are confident that his life will inspire others to follow his path.

Peter Boyle
National Secretary Democratic Socialist Perspective, a proud affiliate of the Socialist Alliance
Sue Bolton
Assistant National Secretary Democratic Socialist Perspective, a proud affiliate of the Socialist Alliance

3000 march in memory of John Cummins

17 November 1993

Mick Bull, Melbourne

On September 4, the trade union movement held a memorial service for the workers’ hero John Cummins — “Cummo”, as he was known. Three thousand people from all around the country and all walks of life packed the Regent Theatre, a building saved by the Builders Labourers Federation’s (BLF) green bans in the 1970s, and heard many heartfelt reflections from speakers.

Cummins, who was the final BLF secretary and the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) Victorian president, died on August 29 after a long battle against cancer.

The Regent Theatre’s stage was decked out with a massive Eureka flag and the coffin was decorated with symbols of Cummo’s life — a football and football jumpers, a Sorrento beach shell, a hard hat, a denim jacket and a eureka flag.

Moving photos of Cummo’s life in struggle, and with family and friends, were projected above the stage. Everyone present received a red booklet titled Quotations from Chairman Cummo, which compiled many of Cummo’s favourite sayings, including: On searching for enlightenment, “When you find an easy way don’t keep it a secret”. On dialectical materialism, “Let’s deal with the facts, not fiction”. On matters of strategy, “As effective as throwing snow balls at Ayers Rock”. On supporting East Timorese independence, “Fuck this, we’ll go and stand in front of the plane”.

Father Peter Norden, who crossed paths with Cummo in jail, described Cummo as “a man of principle”. He said, “John Cummins was a man who hungered and thirsted for what is right. He was a man with a big heart who at times himself was persecuted in the cause of right.”

Norden related how he had talked to Cummo’s two sons, Mick and Shane, when their father was in jail. Norden told them, “Your father is in prison because of his honesty”. Cummo was jailed twice for contempt of court after visiting work sites against court orders during the campaign against the deregistration of the BLF.

Mick Cummins read from a letter his father had written to him from prison: “I don’t tell the judge how to do his job so I don’t see why he should tell me how to do mine.” Mick was only 10 years old at the time. Mick went on to say that no matter where they went in Australia, people would always come up and say, “Hey Cummo, have you got a minute?” Cummo would always listen and give advice before moving on.

Acting CFMEU state president Ralph Edwards, a long-time friend and confidante of Cummo’s, revealed that the Australian Building and Construction Commission had continued investigating Cummo over an industrial dispute, even as he was dying in hospital. The ABCC withdrew the case only the day after Cummo died.

Edwards said the ABCC “wanted the family and the union to make a declaration he was not going to fight. But like John, the CFMEU is going to fight.”

Edwards continued, “John Cummins, you have taught us lots of things. Most of all you taught us the willingness, the ability to fight. Make no mistake, we’ll fight.”

After the ceremony, the crowd marched through Melbourne’s streets behind Cummo’s coffin, silent but with fists defiantly in the air and carrying the old BLF flags. The march stopped traffic, as Cummins-led rallies had done throughout his life.

When the march reached the CFMEU office, and again outside Trades Hall, the march stopped and broke into the old BLF chant “Dare to struggle, dare to win. If you don’t fight, you lose”, and “Long live John Cummins”. Many of the younger CFMEU members marched side by side with older BLF militants, other unionists, community activists, and friends and family.

At the wake in Trades Hall, former BLF lawyer Lenny Hartnet recounted: “When hauled in front of the building industry royal commission, Cummo said to Commissioner Cole, 'I’d like to know what gives you the right to question workers’ wages when you yourself are paid such an obscene amount of money?’ Cole, not being used to people confronting him, was stunned at the question.”

Not surprisingly, the establishment media reports on Cummo’s memorial were brief. However, the Australian newspaper acknowledged, “Notices marking Cummins’s death have dominated local newspaper classifieds for the past week, outstripping those for Democrats founder Don Chipp”. The newspaper failed to mention that in the news sections Chipp was given pages of type while Cummo was allocated only small articles in hidden parts of the newspapers.

Despite the newspaper editors’ desire to marginalise the memorial for Cummins, the Herald Sun published up to three pages of obituaries. The sentiment of these can by summed up by a few excerpts:

“You were the most significant and respected trade unionist in the country. A mentor to thousands. You taught me so much and helped me and my family through times of adversity. Your memory will live on forever.” — Craig Johnston and family.

“To a great leader who will be sadly missed. May your legacy and hunger for the rights of workers live on.” — All the workers at L.U Simons Project 501.

Even bosses wrote in: “John, I can never recall winning a dispute with you, but many fond memories of you being straight forward with me will never be forgotten.”

— John Kettyle, KGM.

Chipp got a state funeral. Cummo was sent off in the way he would have wanted — no state funeral but surrounded by thousands who loved and admired him, and who all, even though teary, partied long into the night in his memory.

Ode to John Cummins

17 November 1993

The people’s champion is laid to rest,

by the rank and file your soul is blessed,

your casket draped with the flag of stars,

for you did not break behind those bars,

and behind those bars you served your time,

for the workingman’s gain is another man’s crime,

but now you front the people’s court,

and the people have declared your crime was nought,

for the workers here both young and old,

have witnessed your strength so brave and bold,

for your modest pride and graceful heart,

is worn on your sleeve as a union trade mark,

from coast to coast and site to site,

the message was clear “unite and fight”,

so, wherever we travelled throughout this land,

we will take your legacy and make a stand.

Gary McCarthy
September 6, 2006

From: Australian News, Green Left Weekly issue #683 13 September 2006.

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