John Loh: A principled unionist

Wednesday, December 3, 2003 - 11:00

BY MICK BULL

Former Builders Labourers Federation (BLF) activist and Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) organiser Johnny Loh has died after a long battle with illness.

Born in 1953, "Lohie", as he became known, grew up in the coal-mining town of Wonthaggi, south-east of Melbourne, where he said "one quarter of the population was in the Communist Party and State and Revolution was compulsory reading".

In the early 1970s, Loh involved himself in the anti-Vietnam War movement and began working in the building industry in Melbourne. His first key job was the building of city retail and office complex Collins Place. There, he became an activist with the BLF. The Collins Place project was influential in introducing the "no ticket, no start" closed-shop campaign, which cemented the union's ability to organise in town.

Soon after this period, an internal leadership struggle developed inside the BLF. Victorian BLF secretary Norm Gallagher launched an attack against the NSW BLF and its leader Jack Mundey. Whilst Gallagher was recruiting many Victorian building workers to assist in these attacks, Lohie was organising others against them.

Lohie and his mates headed up to Sydney and fought shoulder to shoulder with Sydney comrades in support of the "green bans" and against the Gallagher takeover. Once Gallagher won this battle, Lohie placed himself in "self-imposed exile" and followed the building work up to Darwin after the devastation created by Cyclone Tracy.

Upon his return to Melbourne, he played a key role in defending Gallagher and the Victorian branch of the BLF, which had come under enormous attack from governments, employers and the forerunner of the CFMEU, the Building Workers' Industrial Union (BWIU).

Throughout the deregistration of the BLF, Lohie worked tirelessly, building solidarity with the union. He was able to persuade many people, who were still fuming over the Gallagher attacks against Mundey, to defend the branch. His argument was simple. "It's the same principle, if you fought for the NSW branch's right to organise without outside intervention at that time, then you must fight for the Victorian branch to have the same rights now."

Lohie became a founding member and the chief propagandist for the BWIU Reform Group, a group that attacked the BWIU from the inside whilst the BLF operated as a de-registered union outside.

Over the course of this long and bitter dispute, Lohie always had a joke to tell. During one of the many court cases of the day, Lohie was up on charges of assaulting police. Asked by the magistrate to give his side of the story, he replied: "Your Honour, a fight broke out, I got pushed aside and fell on a pile of sand."

The magistrate sarcastically replied, "Mr Loh, are you sure that you didn't 'fall' on the police officer in question?". Lohie then stared at the police officer for a few moments, rubbing his chin and finally said, "Nope, it was definitely a pile of sand."

Needless to say, Lohie got the largest fine of the lot.

During the 1990s, Lohie was instrumental in uniting the BLF and the CFMEU. Many years of bitter battle had left all the building unions in tatters. Even building unions that weren't directly involved in the de-registration of the BLF were breaking down.

Nobody understood the need for unity more than Lohie. Working as a CFMEU organiser for 10 years, he turned all his skills to the task of building a strong, militant, unified CFMEU. He was an integral part of achieving this task, one that many thought was impossible.

A valued part of the CFMEU, Lohie became a member of the national council and the state management committee. His propagandist skills were recognised when he became the publications officer for the union. But he didn't use these skills purely to fight for better wages and conditions. Through his work, CFMEU members became aware and actively involved in solidarity with East Timor and campaigning against the war in Iraq.

His loss will be felt throughout the union movement and the left-wing movement for many years to come.

From Green Left Weekly, December 3, 2003.

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From GLW issue 564