Issy Wyner: Labour movement fighter and pioneer of local government democracy

August 25, 2020
Issy Wyner in 1990. Photo: The Glebe

Unionist, labour organiser and local government representative Issy Wyner was shaped by the difficult economic times he and his parents lived through.

Issy was born in Marrickville, in 1916. His parents Sam and Rachel, who escaped Jewish pogroms in Latvia and Estonia, arriving in Sydney in 1914. They exemplified the conflict at the heart of pre-Holocaust European Jewry: Rachel was religious and observant, while Sam was atheist and revolutionary: he was a founding member of the Communist Party of Australia in 1921.

Issy, the eldest of five children, was introduced to the writings of Karl Marx by his father. From the age of 12, he would join his father on the front lines of the Depression’s battles against evictions and to support the unemployed workers union.

Issy was accepted into Fort Street Boys High, but his political leanings made him feel out of place; most of his classmates were sons of industry captains, government bureaucrats and judges.

He told the masters at Fort Street where they could go and started work at the Unemployment Office of the Bureau of Labor — the dole office — where his job was to stamp dole forms.

You couldn’t collect your dole payment until it was stamped and, of course, demand was great and the office was underfunded, meaning that there were long queues to get papers stamped.

Against the rules, Issy took the form stamp home on the weekends and had folks come over to get theirs stamped. Eventually he was found out and the stamp was locked away.

Painters and dockers

Issy’s job put him in a strategic position for the unemployed. He was noticed by Jack Sylvester, a member of the Federated Ship Painters and Dockers Union (FSPDU) and a founding member of the Australian Trotskyist Workers Party.

At the time, the Inner-West waterfront suburbs and societies were alive with leftists organising with the powerful and dynamic waterfront unions.

Sylvester, an English immigrant and a kind of romantic revolutionary, became Issy’s next political mentor and Issy took a job as a painter and docker on Cockatoo Island in 1939.

During WWII, the FSPDU was focused on contributing to the effort to defeat fascism in Europe and Japanese imperialism in the Pacific. While the struggle to improve working conditions on the dock was largely put on hold, as soon as the war ended, it restarted.

As far as I can tell, in 1946 Issy was sacked as many as three times for protesting dangerous working conditions. Each time, he was reinstated at insistence of the FSPDU.

Around 1942, Issy met his future partner Ruby, a seamstress in a Balmain factory. She had taken part in strike action for better pay and conditions for the women who worked there, and the FSPDU had joined their fight.

In 1946, Issy joined the Labor Party which, back then, was still a party of labour: its left wing was a part of the electoral branch of a powerful cohort of waterside unions. Then, the Balmain branch was one of the most important in terms of getting working people’ struggles onto the national Labor agenda.

In 1953, Issy ran for secretary of the NSW FSPDU and, with ALP backing, secured the position. He held the position until he retired after Prime Minister Bob Hawke disbanded the union. Issy remarked at the time that he was a “life member of a dead union”.

Through the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, the painters and dockers were involved in many workplace struggles, and not just their own. The Union Right or Wrong, one of Issy’s books, covers the period around the struggle against the corporatisation and eventual gutting of Australia’s ship-building industry.

Accord betrayal

Issy spoke bitterly about Hawke and the Prices and Incomes Accord, which he saw as a total repudiation of Labor’s supposed commitment to workers.

He was drawn into the fight against the Labor government’s vicious anti-union campaign. The Royal Commission on the Activities of the Federated Ship Painters and Dockers Union was set up in 1980 to look into the supposed misdeeds of the Victorian and NSW branches. Issy testified before it.

The destruction of the ship-building industry brought Issy into major conflict with Labor.

The waterfront in the Inner West, which had been home to hundreds of waterfront manufacturing operations, large and small, were being sold off to local developers and global capitalists.

These battles changed the character of the local area.

The first centered around White Bay, where a container terminal is now located. The area was being reclaimed, at great expense to the public, to then lease it to the oil giant Esso as a petroleum tank farm. That initiative had the full support of the federal and state Labor parties and the Labor-controlled Leichhardt Council.

There was enormous community resentment, but the council forced through an approval during the final sitting hours of 1967. For many years, Issy and his comrade Nick Origlass had been pushing a plan for a mix of community housing and park lands to be constructed on the site — the official policy of the Balmain branch of the Labor Party

In the early months of 1968, they mobilised community opposition against the tank farm. At one point, more than 350 people attended a council meeting in Balmain Town Hall to disrupt proceedings.

The protests became pretty heated and the Labor right mobilised its goons to intimidate the residents. Issy was arrested and ordered by the Supreme Court to cease disrupting council proceedings.

As Issy and Origlass had organised the opposition campaign under the banner of the Balmain Labor, they were expelled in 1968. In 1971, the council relented and withdrew its permission for the tank farm.

Mort’s Dock

The second big fight involved Mort’s Dock which, since 1855, had been a ship repair and maintenance yard. In 1959, it was closed and leased to private interests in 1960. Global freight operators turned it into a container terminal, which meant huge container trucks routing through the tiny streets of Balmain, day and night.  

Issy started to create community blockades to stop the trucks. But, despite the protests, the trucks continued.

It wasn’t until a container truck ploughed through the front wall of a house, killing a young nurse on her way home from work, that the NSW government decided to suspend operations at the terminal in 1974. Mort’s Dock is now a mix of open space and private and public housing.

As waterfront labour was removed from Balmain, property developers came into conflict with educated professional and semi-professional people, as well as Bohemian types who had moved into the area.

Issy realised that these people also wanted to defend their suburb from being divided up by capitalists and property developers and, in 1971, he joined Origlass on the Leichardt Council as community independents.

Community independents

Throughout the 1970s and ’80 the battles were constant: the labour-right controlled council was always willing to approve the gentrification and over-development of the Balmain peninsula.

Issy and Origlass were constantly pushing plans for more open space and public housing on the former industrial sites. As always, they were able to call on community support to block over-development.

Some of their other victories included: securing funding to men’s veteran homes on the Glebe Peninsula; preventing the sell-off of Callan Park at Rozelle; the creation of Bicentennial Park at Glebe Point; and the preservation of many historic homes and buildings in Balmain.

They joined veteran union leader Jack Mundey to help mobilise the Green Ban campaigns of the 1970s and ’80s.

Eventually, in 1987, Issy and Origlass had the numbers to implement a new form of community governance on council, which they called “Open Council”.

Open Council

Prior to this, the residents’ ability to address matters on council was highly repressed. They were not allowed to speak to council directly — only in writing. Time for public speeches was only given over to property and business interests, which would be given the floor to take softball questions from Labor councilors about proposed development projects.

The council had become a rubber stamp to approve development deals that had already been greenlighted by the state government.

Open Council aimed to allow ordinary people to have a say in matters affecting their lives. 

The new rules included council meetings being opened up to anyone to present, or speak, on any issue and to seek a council resolution. It could be a local planning matter, or a broader state issue. Council was forced to hear the matter and, if possible, pass a resolution. and business interests, as well as the state government higher-ups, did not respond well to this application of democracy. The NSW government tried to take over the running of the council during Issy’s tenure as Mayor in 1989 and 1990.

Many of the corrupt government planning bodies that override local council decisions these days were set up and legislated in response to the Open Council era in Leichhardt.

Issy produced Open Council, published by the Balmain Association, which presents an overview of the philosophy and some of the tactics they used to bring it into being.

[James Wyner is the grandson of Issy Wyner. Issy wrote With Banner Unfurled, published by Hale & Ironmonger, The union, right or wrong, a NSW State Library Publication, Basket Weavers and True Believers by Tony Harris and Red Hot, the life and times of Nick Origlass by Hall Greenland. This article is based on a talk James presented to a Socialist Alliance meeting in Sydney.]

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