In the early 1990s, Simon Millar helped organise a float in the annual Melbourne Moomba Parade. Simon was part of the campaign Save Our Services, which was fighting against the privatisation of electricity, water and gas.
Simon and some other activists and artists designed a float with a giant puppet of Liberal Premier Jeff Kennett with long arms, sweeping up water, electricity and gas. As the float tried to enter the parade, the police blocked the float from joining.
This action revealed how Simon often linked art with political activism. In the 1990s and 2000s, Simon was usually the one who organised bands to do benefits or concerts at picket lines.
Simon’s unexpected death, at the age of 51, is a big loss for friends, family and the socialist and workers’ movements.
Simon’s history of activism began as a high school student in Melbourne, when he got involved in Young People for Nuclear Disarmament. In the 1980s there was a huge anti-nuclear movement in Australia, with People for Nuclear Disarmament having suburban branches in Melbourne.
This led Simon to make contact with the socialist movement and join the socialist youth organisation Resistance and the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP).
In the SWP, Simon became convinced that Marxist theory provided activists with the best tool for understanding capitalist society and how to change it and build the struggle for socialism.
This led to a lifetime of activism as a socialist and a unionist, as well as a supporter of many other struggles.
One of the epic struggles that Simon was involved in was the campaign to save Richmond Secondary College from closure in 1993–94. The school council decided to occupy the school and keep it running, despite the Kennett government’s decision to close it and more than 200 other schools.
It isn’t easy to maintain interest in a year-long occupation. Simon played a vital role as a leader of the campaign, organising many rallies, gigs and the picket line. The fact that it is still a public school is a result of the contribution of people like Simon.
After the campaign was over, Simon helped organise the campaign in support of the Richmond 8 and the Friends of Richmond for a number of years. The campaign fought for and won recognition of police violence on the picket line and won compensation. It also fought to have the charges for the eight activists arrested on the Richmond Secondary College picket line dropped.
Despite never having been to university, Simon threw himself into the 1990s campaign for the rights of university students to have student-run student unions and student control over student affairs. He was very involved in the La Trobe University student occupation and the Student Unionism Network.
In the 1990s, Simon got a job on the Holden production line at Fishermans Bend. That led to him linking up with activists in the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU) and getting jobs on construction sites as a trade assistant.
He was one of the early members of Workers First, a militant group within the AMWU. Workers First then won the leadership of the AMWU on a platform of giving the union back to its members, and pursuing a more militant approach in defence of workers.
Simon played a key role in Workers First and the militant campaigns in support of workers’ rights it carried out. As part of Workers First and the AMWU, Simon was involved in the pioneering Campaign 2000.
Campaign 2000 was significant because it introduced the idea of unions building solidarity among workers by pattern bargaining. Labor and the bosses used every trick in the book to try to destroy Workers First and the union.
In the early 2000s Simon also played an important role in the Latrobe Valley where there was a big dispute at the Yallourn power station. He worked for the union and stayed in the Valley for months doing outreach work and helping the union run the dispute. To this day he is still fondly remembered by many of those power workers.
Around 2004, Simon began an electrical apprenticeship and switched unions to the Electrical Trades Union. While an apprentice, Simon was part of a successful campaign in 2009 to save apprentices’ jobs.
Simon participated in countless picket lines and wrote about these campaigns. But his role was more than that on a picket line. He wanted to know every little detail about how the workplace and the company worked. He wanted to understand the workers’ lives and problems on the job. Simon had an immense respect and admiration for working-class people.
But he was also committed to understanding and analysing the tactics necessary to win an industrial dispute. Simon had an intellectual honesty, being totally supportive of unions but not blindly supporting all the tactics and actions carried out by the unions.
While talking with workers on picket lines, Simon encouraged people to analyse how a dispute was going and how it could be won. Simon was never a blind follower. If he felt that a union was taking the wrong course of action, he had the courage of his convictions to raise those points in a union meeting.
The most recent industrial dispute that Simon was involved in was the Esso-UGLy dispute at Longford in East Gippsland. Simon spent several days at the picket line during Christmas last year.
As well as being a lifelong unionist, Simon was also a lifelong socialist. He was a member of a number of socialist organisations at different times and was always committed to promoting left unity. At different points, Simon was involved in the SWP (later the Democratic Socialist Party) and the Socialist Party (formerly Militant).
However, in between, Simon was also involved in some left unity initiatives. He was involved in the Progressive Labour Party in the 1990s, and later he was one of the founding members of the Socialist Alliance. Simon was not a member of the parties that formed the Socialist Alliance so he worked with other independents in the Socialist Alliance to develop the Socialist Alliance into a proper party.
Simon had left the Socialist Alliance and rejoined the Socialist Party before he died. But regardless of which socialist organisation Simon was in, he was always collaborative, seeing the need to build the broad socialist movement.
Simon committed his life to getting rid of the capitalist system and replacing it with socialism. He was also committed to the role of working-class people in carrying out that change.
He believed that working-class people can do anything. Simon was a true working-class intellectual. He provoked people to think deeply about how the system worked and tactics in the various struggles.
This meant that Simon had an intense interest in all aspects of human endeavour. As well as being knowledgeable about socialist theory, international struggles, and the history of struggle in Australia, he had an insatiable appetite for art and music.
Simon taught himself to play the guitar and compose music. He had a belief that all human beings are capable of learning anything, if they have the opportunity. This belief in people, especially working-class people, gave him the confidence to believe we can get rid of capitalism and build a socialist society.
Simon was staunch and loyal. As well as supporting the struggle, he opened his house to anyone in hardship, even if they weren’t personal friends.
Simon had a special talent for explaining political ideas in a way that was practical and easy to understand. He was knowledgeable but not arrogant. He had a democratic approach to knowledge — it was to be shared around so that we can all be better armed to engage in the struggle for socialism.
Simon was active right up until his untimely death. The last protest that Simon attended was a protest against the state government’s plan to bulldoze public housing estates and hand them over to private developers. I am glad that I had an opportunity to catch up with Simon there.
Simon, you will be missed.
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