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The Cold War in the Unions

30 August 2021 82 views No Comment

Memoirs of a Cold War Warrior

by Keith Harvey

Connor Court, 2021, 258 pages, $34.95


This is an important book, particularly for those of us interested in Australian history and politics.

Ever since 1970, when he was a student at my alma mater, Monash University, Keith Harvey has consistently fought for the well-being of workers and for decades staunchly opposed communists and those pro-communists who supported them.

Harvey’s first-hand account of his long-time, courageous involvement in the anti-communist movement, especially in our trade unions, has national implications for the Australian labour movement and the Australian Labor Party (ALP).

In part, this is because Memoirs of a Cold War Warrior covers ALP Prime Minister Bob Hawke’s ultimately successful attempt to bring four major anti-communist trade unions back into the Labor Party. This story has not been told in detail before.

Harvey initially joined the ALP in late 1974. But after the Socialist Left faction in 1978 engineering his dismissal from a position at Trades Hall in Melbourne, Harvey allowed his ALP membership to lapse in the late 1970s. In February 1984, when he was employed as a research officer in the national office of the Federated Clerks Union of Australia [FCUA], Harvey re-joined the ALP.

In 1984, despite leftist opposition, the Victorian Branch of the FCUA, along with the Victorian branches of three other unions, applied to affiliate with the ALP. At the same time, several of their officials and other individuals successfully applied for party membership. This event was immensely significant in the history of the Australian labour movement. As Harvey explains, the four Victorian unions – the FCUA; the Shop Assistants Union [known as the SDA]; the Federated Ironworkers Association [FIA], and the Amalgamated Society of Carpenters and Joiners [the ASC&J] had left the ALP in the Great Split that occurred in Labor ranks in the mid-1950s.

This bitter Labor Split, which was especially acrimonious and damaging in Victoria and Queensland, was a prime manifestation of Cold War politics in Australia. It resulted, for example, in some unions, their members and officials who had belonged to the anti-communist Industrial Groups and supported the ALP, joining the Democratic Labor Party (DLP) and becoming involved with the staunchly anti-communist National Civic Council (NCC). The ALP Industrial Groups had been associated in the public mind with well-known Roman Catholic activist B.A. (“Bob”) Santamaria. The Split of the mid 1950s resulted in federal Labor being out of power until December 1972, when Gough Whitlam became Prime Minister.

The primary focus of Memoirs of a Cold War Warrior is on Victorian politics. Up to now, much of the material on Bob Santamaria and the anti-communist movement in the trade unions has been written by left-wing historians or by individuals who fell out with Santamaria.

Harvey is not a barracker for Santamaria, but nor is he alienated from him. So in this book he is very even-handed. These days, as Harvey claims, it is fashionable in Labor circles “to decry and deplore” both the work of the anti-communist Industrial “Groupers” and of Santamaria’s Movement, which morphed into the National Civic Council. But even though Harvey has not been an NCC supporter for nearly forty years, he is not one of those critics. In fact, he argues that anti-communist activities in the union movement and the ALP were “carried out, in the main, by people with the best of motives and with integrity, courage and faith.”

Harvey’s memoir is in part a response to what he considers to be unfair and unjustified criticism of the important work of the NCC and the ALP Industrial Groups. He does, however, concede that, as the struggle progressed, a number of anti-communist activists fell by the wayside – worn out, disillusioned and treated badly, sometimes by Santamaria himself.

In a fascinating chapter, “The Monash ‘Soviet’’’, Harvey – who stresses that then he was not a Catholic or even a believer – explains that the genesis of his anti-communism occurred at Monash University. Student politics there, he says, was polarised between the extreme left, led by Albert Langer and Jim Bacon (later ALP premier of Tasmania), “and just about everyone else.”

A member of the Monash DLP Club (which was mainly composed of non-Catholics) and a strong supporter of free and unfettered speech on campus and elsewhere, Harvey endorsed the position of French philosopher, Raymond Aron who, inverting Karl Marx’s claim that “religion was the opium of the people”, had famously argued that “Marxism was the opium of the intellectuals.” Harvey quotes with approval the following from Aron: “Every action, in the middle of the twentieth century, presupposes and involves the adoption of an attitude with regard to the Soviet enterprise”.

After leaving Monash, where he had attended a number of anti-communist meetings run by the NCC, Harvey’s first job was with the Rope and Cordage Union, of which he was the sole paid employee. The name of this small industrial union reminds one of a line sometimes attributed to Vladimir Lenin or Joseph Stalin, “The capitalists will sell us the rope with which we hang them.”

The same month that a federal ALP government was elected after twenty-three years in the federal parliamentary wilderness, in December 1972, Harvey started working for the Rope and Cordage Union. While there he worked secretly with the NCC, of which he was not formally a member.

He later started writing for the official publication of the NCC, News Weekly, becoming part of its editorial board.

Harvey reveals that he was received into the Catholic Church in 1975, which was the same year that he became part of the executive of the Victorian Trades Hall Council (VTHC). At that time, there was much disputation between political extremes. As Harvey puts it, “The Cold War was still in full flight and the left was still very willing to support the policy positions of the Soviet Union and its allies against those of the Western Alliance.”

After more than five years at the Rope and Cordage Union, in May 1978, Harvey was appointed to a vacant research officer position with the VTHC by its Secretary, Ken Stone. This was after a “shit sheet”, headed DON’T VOTE FOR SANTAMARIA’S AGENT, had previously been circulated in Victorian Labor circles. It claimed that Harvey was an agent of the “Santamaria/DLP forces” trying to infiltrate the trade union movement and specifically the VTHC. Even though it didn’t deter Stone from appointing him, as Harvey writes, “My days of ‘flying under the radar’ ended with this leaflet.”

Nevertheless, after concerted pressure from the Socialist Left and other radical factions, Stone was forced to sack Harvey, who had to leave his Trades Hall office at once. Stone’s parting words were: “I’ll see you on the TV.”

As it happens, Melbourne’s newspapers were first out of the blocks. That afternoon, Monday June 12th, 1978, Harvey was front-page news. “THC Boss Sacks Aid” ran the banner headline at the top of page one of the Herald. The second headline, accompanied by his photo and quoting Harvey’s press release, read “Left Has Conspired To Drive Me from Office.”

The next day, the Herald’s cartoonist, “Weg” ( W. E. Green), made Harvey the subject of his “Weg’s Day” cartoon, drawing a heavily-bearded Harvey, looking rather like Rasputin, facing a bricked-up door to his office at the Trades Hall. A “Ken Stone” figure next to him says “I thought you’d got the message?” A coloured version of Weg’s powerful cartoon graces the front cover of Memoirs of a Cold War Warrior.

When Harvey started work at the FCUA in 1979, he not only joined the union as a member, but for the first time became a member of an Industrial Group. From the beginning of his time at the Clerks Union, Harvey came under the influence of ex-ALP member John Maynes, who had been part of the union’s 1946 Industrial Group and was still the key figure in the Victorian branch of the FCUA and the Clerical Workers Industrial Group. As Harvey reveals in a key chapter, “Working For The Man”, despite Maynes’ difficult personality, for many years he admired him and was “very pleased to be a participant in the long-running fight against Communism which was still in full swing in 1979.”

In 1982, as well as being a member of its executive, Harvey at age twenty-became Vice-President of the Victorian branch of the FCUA. While there he worked secretly with the NCC, of. At the same time, his NCC friend and mentor, Michael O’Sullivan, became Deputy Branch President of the union.

However, later that year, Santamaria, who was National President of the NCC, sacked five NCC officials associated with Maynes. Santamaria then occupied the Victorian State NCC office in Queensberry Street, Carlton. He changed its locks, placed security guards inside and kept control of all files and belongings. As Harvey relates, Santamaria’s dramatic action led to a final split in the organisation. This was essentially a split between Santamaria in his position as the NCC’s national president based in Queen Street, Melbourne and John Maynes, Gerald Mercer and Michael O’Sullivan who, since the division commenced in 1978, had worked in the Queensberry Street office.

Harvey writes that the reason for the internal factional conflict “was obscure” at the time. It still is. Harvey agrees with the accounts of Patrick Morgan (in his book B.A. Santamaria: Running the Show (MUP, 2008) and Gerard Henderson (in his book Santamaria: A Most Unusual Man, MUP, 2015) that there was no convincing reason for this division, which was driven by Santamaria himself. The NCC split was never resolved.

In his final chapter, “Winning The Cold War And Losing the Clerks Union”, Harvey recounts how, in the winter of 1987, he and his wife and three children went to the United States to study at Harvard University. Previously, the Harvard Trade Union Program had been accused of running a US government or CIA line. But Harvey is adamant that this was not true while he was there.

In 1987, Harvey also became aware that, as he writes, “political disaster had struck the Victorian Branch of the Clerks Union.” By that, he means that Lindsay Tanner, then a member of the Socialist Left faction of the ALP, had won a one-off election for the position of assistant branch secretary. This result was, Harvey claims, unexpected even by Tanner. But this leftist victory was followed by a fully-fledged union election in 1988 in which Harvey and his team lost convincingly to Tanner and his cohorts. Appropriately, this final chapter begins with a quote from W.B. Yeats, “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.”

Sometimes Harvey’s more recent political utterances about communism and capitalism are reminiscent of the pronouncements of Santamaria before he died on February 25, 1998.

Shortly after he retired in June 2011 from his position as National Industrial Officer with the Australian Services Union – which incorporated the FCUA – Harvey argued, rightly in my opinion, that the disastrous Communist experiment “seriously damaged attempts to discover and implement alternatives to capitalism and to find and implement more co-operative modes of work.”

After reading this book, it is clear to me that Harvey’s industrial and political activism was important and well worth doing. This is not least because the collapse

of communism in Eastern Europe and Russia had revealed, as he puts it, “the full terror and toll of human misery that was totalitarian communism.”

Memoirs of a Cold War Warrior is a fascinating exegesis. It will be of particular interest to readers of Quadrant,  especially those who wish to be informed or reminded about the pivotal role played by trade unionists and members of the Labor Party in opposing communists and pro-communist sympathisers during the Cold War in Australia.

Emeritus Professor of History & Politics at Griffith University, Ross Fitzgerald AM is the author of forty-two books, most recently a seventh Grafton Everest adventure, The Dizzying Heights, co-authored with Ian McFadyen, and a memoir Fifty Years Sober: An Alcoholic’s Journey, both published by Hybrid Publishers in Melbourne.

Quadrant, September 2021, pp 76-79.

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