Vale John Rainford — communist, unionist, writer and filmmaker

January 20, 2021
John Rainford and Sharon Pusell. Photo: Ella Pusell

Socialist revolutionary John Rainford died on January 14 at Port Kembla Hospital.

John lived an extraordinary life and made major contributions to communist, labour, and social movements as a unionist, Communist Party of Australia and Socialist Alliance member, writer and filmmaker. He was a father to Steven and grandfather to Ella.

Born in Liverpool, England, on June 1, 1949, John joined the Merchant Navy in 1966. Arriving in Fremantle in 1969, he jumped ship and began a new life in Australia.

The following year, he joined the New South Wales branch of the Federated Ship Painters and Dockers Union. His father, too, had been a Liverpool docker and John grew up in an atmosphere of working-class militancy and socialism.

He became the convener of shop stewards at the Garden Island Dockyards and was president of the NSW branch during the 11-week Garden Island strike when the union successfully defended its control of the roster system from the employers.

In the 1980s, John joined the research office of the Amalgamated Metal Workers’ Union (later the Metal and Engineering Workers Union). There he co-authored his first book, Politics and the Accord with Meg Smith, Peter Ewer, Ian Hampson, Chris Lloyd and Stephen Rix.

The book was a critique of Australian Council of Trade Unions and labour movement policies during the Accord period and the left’s failure to create a progressive strategy for economic and social change.

Later John was national industrial officer for the Communications, Electrical and Plumbing Union.

Working as a national research and industrial officer took John to all the state capitals and to many regional and rural centres. He considered it a privilege to be able to be employed negotiating better working conditions and increased wages for members across a number of industries — ranging from metal and engineering workshops in Queensland to pulp and paper production plants in Tasmania.

John relocated from Sydney to Wollongong in the early 1990s, where he took up residence in the former coal mining community of Scarborough.

There he forged strong friendships with local union stalwarts and became involved in campaigns to save the Coledale Hospital and to improve flood mitigation for the area.

In the late 1990s, as the Patrick’s waterfront dispute was unfolding, Eric Wicker, an ex-official of the Federated Ship Painters and Dockers Union was charged with extortion for his part in an industrial campaign in Port Kembla several years earlier over secure jobs.

As an ex-official of the union, John had the documentary evidence to prove Eric’s innocence. But this was a political prosecution, primarily aimed at discrediting the Maritime Union of Australia, so it had to be fought both in, and outside, the courts.

With the aid of local comrades, John launched the Free Eric Wicker campaign. John’s dear friend, Peter Ewer, made a film supporting the campaign —Touch One, Touch All — which was screened in Wollongong, Sydney and elsewhere, to spread the word and increase support.

When the case came to trial there was a huge crowd of supporters both inside and outside Wollongong Court House. John was unable to sit in the courtroom as the case proceeded because he was the one (and only) witness for the defence. However, he knew it was all over when a huge cheer broke out. It took little more than an hour for the prosecution case to be thrown out and Wicker, who was facing a lengthy prison sentence if convicted, left the court a free man.

John retired as a union organiser at the age of 55 to pursue a second career as a writer and filmmaker. During a five-year stint in Perth, he completed his book Consuming Pleasures: Australia and the International Drug Business, which provides a political economy of the legal and illegal trade.

In 2009, John’s deep concerns about the environmental, climate and extinction crises led him to take up the position of Green Jobs Illawarra Project Officer with the South Coat Labour Council, where he helped produce Power to the People: Building Sustainable Jobs in the Illawarra.

He next turned his attention to the history of local labour and social movements in the film Radical Wollongong.

In the film, John argued that the locus of local struggles had shifted from industrial unionism to broader community-based social movements. The film also reflected his involvement in the successful local campaign against coal seam gas mining on the Illawarra escarpment, which he saw as a prime example of a new kind of ecological social movement.

Radical Wollongong premiered in front of a large crowd at the Gala Cinemas in Warrawong. It was shown around the country and overseas and won the Filmmaker World Festival Platinum Award in Indonesia and the Canadian Labour International Film Festival award for Best in Festival, as well as the other festival prize named in honour of labour activist Miguel Cifuentes.

In 2015, John reflected on the rise and subsequent decline of the social democratic movement, with its base in industrial unionism and political labourism in his book A Short History of Social Democracy: From Socialist Origins to Neoliberal Theocracy. While grappling honestly with social democracy’s historic defeats, John maintained that it was essential we continue to struggle for an ecosocialist future.

He was a member of the Socialist Alliance from 2013 until 2016 and was a regular correspondent for Green Left on Australian politics and to the party’s theoretical journal Links: International Journal of Socialist Renewal.

He was also part of the original producers’ group for the film Women of Steel (2020), helping to write early drafts of the script and researching the film’s background.

In recent years, John was active in the Wollongong-based Love Collective, an attempt to reconceive politics as a love-based social movement. He helped to organise two festivals under the banner of Love: Art, Ideas, Music, Politics and to publish a book with the same name.

The book included John’s piece “Reflections On Love and Struggle”, in which he explained that “It is the love of living humanity that will be decisive in the struggles ahead”.

True to his word, John beautifully displayed this understanding during his final struggles, as he continued to respect, support and inspire those around him.

The legacies of John’s life and love remain with us, in many people’s hearts and in the “great heart of the class”.

John Rainford — Presente!

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