John Cummins, whom many consider the greatest trade union leader 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 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 corporate 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 could 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.
It was in this battle against deregistration that John Cummins came into his own. By 1986, Cummo was assistant secretary of the BLF and Gallagher's right-hand man. Gallagher and Cummo ran a 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, 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 hard, but democracy was always abided by. At Kensington Flour Mills, Cummo and BLF organiser John Setka constantly discussed the campaign with me and other union activists. Cummo made sure that all motions were thoroughly 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 in order 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.
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 into getting a new leadership of Martin Kingham and Bill Oliver elected.
The new 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 of constantly explaining 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. This democracy was also practiced at site level.
Secondly, Cummo always promoted activism. He believed that if shop stewards and other unionists became inactive, that would be the end of the union.
The new CFMEU leadership realised that to rebuild militancy in the union, the members had to be mobilised. Therefore, from the mid-1990s, at least one major campaign was conducted each year. They included: the campaign against the tax on travel allowances (1996); around enterprise bargaining and Work Cover (1997); in solidarity with the Maritime Union of Australia's (MUA) dispute with Patrick Stevedores (1998); for East Timor's liberation (1999); for the 36 hour-week (2000); around long-service leave (2001); against the building industry royal commission (2002); and then two more enterprise bargaining campaigns (2003 and 2005). All involved both long-term and new members in activities on site and in public rallies.
Cummo was very vocal about the need for solidarity amongst unions and the CFMEU always offered as much assistance as possible to other workers' struggles. Very often, the CFMEU was instrumental in winning disputes for other groups of workers, both white-collar and blue-collar.
The 1998 MUA dispute is probably the most famous case, and Cummo's role on the Melbourne picket line revealed his brilliance as an industrial tactician, especially on the night the picket repelled the massive police onslaught.
As the police moved in, 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 loudhailer, called the shots for the entire night.
When the police later breached a gate leading into the port, Cummo 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 blocked off Footscray Road. The peak-hour traffic banked up, 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 officials 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".
Cummo believed strongly in international solidarity. He played an instrumental role in the East Timor solidarity campaign and, along with Michele O'Neil from the textile workers' union, become a figurehead of Workers Against War, formed to oppose the war on Iraq in 2003.
Cummo was always there for all union members, no matter how big or small their problem. He patiently listened and 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 is a dog, but most bosses are, and that union issues are simple — it's the state and their lackeys who deliberately muddy the waters.
Cummo is already sadly missed by all his comrades, but even though the Howard government, its lackeys and many bosses will be celebrating his passing, Cummo's militancy, ideas and teachings will live on through the thousands of people he influenced during his decades of struggle.