Harold John (Hal) Alexander passed away on December 19 in Sydney. He was born on April 9, 1924 and was for many years an electrician, mostly in heavy industry. He joined the then-illegal Communist Party in 1941, at the age of 17, and was a member until its dissolution in 1991. He was an organiser from 1954 to 1967 in Sydney, then Adelaide.
He suffered many arrests for his political activities and served three jail terms, two involving hunger strikes. He worked and lived with the Arrente people of Central Australia on and off from 1985.
Some of his political work is covered in Rough Reds: Australian stories of rank and file organising and More from the neglected works of Oscar Zeet, which featured a laughing Karl Marx on its cover.
I worked with Hal in East Timor Solidarity during the murderous Indonesian occupation in the early 1990s and when Tim Anderson was framed for the Hilton Bombing.
He was a strong, working class political activist. His political insight is reflected in these paragraphs from Rough Reds.
“About three years ago I participated on a committee, sponsored by Marrickville Council, to plan a mural on the footpath outside the former Newtown Town Hall to depict the history of the area. This led to me thinking more about the Party's industrial base in the forties and fifties and hence this story.
“South and south east of the Sydney GPO, in an ever-expanding corridor down to the Kurnell peninsula, hundreds of thousands of workers and their families were born, lived and died serving the interests of those living easy elsewhere.
“Just as those living vampire-like on the labour of others (thank you Karl) the workers also depended on the existence of the industries in this area for the wages to buy the food, clothing and shelter necessary to sustain and reproduce ongoing generations of wage labourers.
“Railway workshops, tram/bus depots, power generation, textiles/clothing, manufacturing, breweries, oil refineries, hospitals, construction, brickyards, glassworks, foundries, the airport, and more: these enterprises were often at the centre of working class struggle for higher wages, shorter hours and to improve working conditions, none of which were won without the bitterest of sacrifices.
“On the other hand they were synonymous with lockouts, victimisation of militants, communists and wholesale sackings once the ruling class had sucked the maximum of profitability from the labour of its employees.
“If, in pursuit of higher living standards or in defence of the existing, workers in one industry or factory took direct action, it was to all the others that they looked for support. In the 1940s and 1950s, some very bitter strikes took place, which won certain concessions because of the determination of the participants, on the one hand, and the period of expanding capitalism on the other, in which the bourgeoisie were forced into concessions driven by labour shortages and competition.
“So for a period it was possible to win higher wage rates, shorter hours and less onerous and dangerous working conditions. How odd that it all is being lost? How correct were those that warned that the honeymoon was fleeting, that the real gains lay in the expanding unity of the workers and that the future demanded the abolition of the wages system itself.”
Hal’s death was a sad loss and his legacy of political work lives on in these two books.