This is from my book Singing Johnny Cash In The Cardiac Ward A personal story of heart disease and music.
"It was the week before the 2011 AFL Grand Final between Geelong and Collingwood. It was the first time I’d been in Melbourne at grannie time since 1980 and it hit me that grand final was the week leading up to, as well as the big game on Saturday. As I watched the game in Cobourg’s Post Office Hotel, which was packed to the rafters with Collingwood and Geelong supporters, I realised the sprit of contest wasn’t just confined to the Melbourne Cricket Ground.
The Tuesday after I caught up with my good friend Neville “Killer” Kane and his wife Margaret at their home in Longwarry in Mid Gippsland. Killer had been fighting leukaemia for a while. He lost that battle in March 2012. I played my guitar to them and sang some Johnny Cash songs plus my version of Roaring Jack’s Lads of the BLF, which was also played at Killer’s funeral. Alistair Hulett, who wrote Lads of the BLF, died from liver cancer in late January 2010 in his native Glasgow. He was 58. We used to share a house in the Sydney suburb of Glebe when Roaring Jack, the fantastic folk/punk band he was part of, were the resident performers at Newtown’s Sandringham Hotel.
It was around that time, while I was waiting for the operation, that I became more reflective about friends who had passed away over the years. While I was at Killer and Margret’s home, they showed me the BLF flag, a Eureka Flag from one of the crane occupations of 1986. It had the names of some very close friends on it: Yuri Lasic, John Loh, Kyran Nicholls, Tony Maseria and Johnny “Rotten” Arnett. All up, there’s thirty four names on that flag. The only woman listed on it is Gaylene Smeaton.
I remembered the first time I met Killer. It was in late April 1986, about 7.30am on a cold Melbourne morning. A group of a dozen builders labourers were picketing a building site where they’d been sacked for refusing to resign from their union, the Builders Labourers Federation. The BLF had recently been “deregistered”, a nice term for outlawed, under Bob Hawke’s Australian Labor Party (ALP) federal government.
The ALP premiers of New South Wales and Victoria, Neville Wran and John Cain, joined Hawke’s drive to outlaw the BLF. An army of police was deployed to building sites in Melbourne, Geelong, Canberra, Sydney, Wollongong, Central Coast and Newcastle to attack the right of workers to be in the union of their choice, not that chosen by the bosses or the state.
BLF organiser John “Cummo” Cummins drove to the picket. I noticed as he opened the boot of his car that he had a large steel chain. He showed it to Neville “Killer” Kane, Jimmy “The Black Rat” Wilson and a third builders labourer. Within ten minutes, the three sacked BLF men had occupied a crane on a nearby building site. They used the chain to lock the trap door of the crane to prevent police from removing them. They had no food or water and occupied the crane for more than 72 hours. They left on their own terms after making a defiant protest and shutting the site down. They also endured three bitterly cold nights.
Killer later said about the protest: “It happened really fast. I was on the Market Street site and they [the cops] came down on the job… I was sacked because I refused to join the BWIU [Building Workers Industrial Union, now the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU)]. I could have been the shop steward on site for the BWIU, all I had to do was change over.
“But I decided to stick with the BLs. Other workers were locked on the jobs, surrounded by rows and rows of police and threatened with the sack, threatened that they couldn’t leave the site till they’d signed over to another building union.”
So it’s not surprising that a few days after Killer lost his fight with leukaemia, 175 construction workers on a Melbourne CBD building site gave him a minute’s silence. Nor is it surprising that the red flag flying over Melbourne Trades Hall was at half-mast for him. The flag was later given to Margaret. More than 400 people attended Killer’s funeral on April 2. The Sinn Fein’s Gerry Adams sent a message to the funeral.
In many ways, Killer embodied the staunch, militant working-class traditions of the BLF. The union was a rank-and-file, membership-controlled organisation. It’s no wonder that Hawke and the ALP outlawed the BLF.
Hawke did his best to criminalise militant unionism. His policies in office led to one of the greatest redistributions of wealth in Australian history, which helped create today’s huge gap between the billionaires and the working poor.
Killer, and other men and women like him, opposed that in the 1980s. As a member of the BLF, he and another 500 of us suffered for our militant dissent by being blacklisted and starved out of work.
Margaret, his lifelong wife and partner, was actively involved in organising the partners and wives of BLF members during the outlawing of the union. She once appeared on Ray Martin’s Midday Show. Martin basically surrendered his show to her elegant defence of the BLF. The interview appears in my film, The Deregistration of the Builders Labourers Federation − The Victorian Story 1986-1992.
Amongst the names on that Eureka Flag is John “Cummo” Cummins. He died of a brain tumour in 2006, when he was only 58 years old. He had more than 3000 people at his funeral in Melbourne, the same day that the “Crocodile Man”, Steve Irwin, was killed by a sting ray.
The Victorian CFMEU’s website says this about Cummo:
“John Cummins was an inspirational leader who touched thousands of people in the construction industry and beyond.
• 1979-1994 Builders Labourers Federation Official
• 1994-1996 CFMEU Official
• 1996-2006 President, Victorian Branch CFMEU
“John dedicated his life to working people, in particular to construction workers for the improvement of their health and wellbeing and to advance their status. He played a leading role in the former Builders Labourers Federation and was pivotal to the amalgamation with the CFMEU. John was the President of the Victorian Branch of the CFMEU from 1996.
“A social and political activist, John participated in and led many struggles, ranging from student campaigns to trade union struggles, the independence of East Timor and many community causes. He demonstrated an unswerving commitment to the right to organise. John was devoted to supporting local young people; he was the president of North Heidelberg Junior Football Club for a number of years.”
The John Cummins Memorial Fund was established with the Melbourne Community Foundation to honour his memory and legacy. The fund is the initiative of his family, friends, colleagues and comrades. Its purpose is to honour and continue in some small way his work. It raises funds for two purposes:
1) Since the fund’s inception it has donated generously to Austin Health (Melbourne’s Austin Hospital). In August 2009, Austin Health matched the funds donated by the Memorial Fund, ensuring the ongoing employment of a Brain Tumour Support Officer. This position provides support for patients diagnosed with a brain tumour, as well as their families and carers.
2) A scholarship fund to support young students or trade union members from disadvantaged backgrounds to complete their tertiary education or access higher education. The role of the scholarship is to support young people when they need it. Up to $1000 is awarded to students who display determination, commitment and passion. In 2010, scholarships were provided to fifteen students. The funds are used for maths tutoring, musical instruments, fees for specialist programs in performing arts, uniforms for hospitality courses, tools for VET courses and more.
The John Cummins Annual Dinner is held on the last Friday in August each year in the Moonee Valley Racecourse's Celebrity Room, with a usual attendance of more than 850 people. A guest speaker is invited to address the theme of “Dare to Struggle, Dare to Win”. Two of the past speakers have been Gabi Hollows, Founding Director of the Fred Hollows Foundation, and Kevin Sheedy, head coach of Greater Western Sydney and four time premiership winning coach for his former club Essendon who he served for twenty seven years. Some of Australia’s best musicians have played on the night, including Chris Wilson, Mark Seymour and James Reyne.
In early 2007, Tim Gooden, the secretary of the Geelong Trades Hall, gave me a John Cummins T-shirt. I was wearing it in Katoomba one day when this woman came up to me who thought it was a picture of Johnny Cash. I cracked up laughing. The image on the T-shirt is from a stencil of Cummo when he first went to jail over the issue of union organisers having the right of entry to the workplace, when the BLF was deregistered in 1986. The image is of John Cummins with the Eureka flag behind him, Dare to Struggle Dare to Win. I said to the woman, “I’m sorry, it isn’t Johnny Cash”. I was still laughing and thinking that Johnny Cash and Cummo would’ve been laughing their heads off too."
These quotes from John "Cummo" Cummins are from The John Cummins Foundation
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About the photo on the front cover