The following is an edited version of a tribute delivered by Senator the Honourable Doug Cameron at the Melbourne memorial for Laurie Carmichael held on Thursday 6 September 2018.
Laurie Carmichael was a remarkable Australian, a leader, a campaigner, an intellectual and, to many union activists, a mentor and a friend.
His values, his principles, his politics and above all his formidable intellect combined to make him one of the greatest trade unionists this country has produced. He was tough, gruff, and uncompromising when it came to the interests of working-class Australians.
As a leading communist he was both feared and reviled by many of his industrial and political opponents. Liberal PM Billy McMahon described Laurie as “the most evil man in the country”. It’s a bizarre proposition that Laurie, fighting for decent wages and conditions, peace and equality for working-class Australians, could be described as evil.
As leader of the AMWU, he inspired working-class activists like myself, Julius Roe, Dave Oliver, Max Ogden, and many others to fight for industrial rights and social and political change.
Laurie’s leadership and friendship were invaluable to me as a rank-and-file activist, an organiser and eventually leader of the AMWU and his values and principles continue to guide me as an ALP Senator. He was an inspiration.
Laurie was a visionary who ensured the AMWU was at the cutting edge of technology and that education was the glue that held our industrial and political campaigns together.
The union education programs he put in place encompassed politics, the environment, the peace movement and critical analysis of the development of, and weaknesses of, capitalism. AMWU delegates were taught the difference between strategy and tactics, how to present a case in the Commission and how to cross examine a witness. We were trained to be mindful militants, conscious of the implications of our actions on our members and the industrial development and economic prosperity of the country, making us formidable opponents for employers. This was the basis of our industrial and political successes.
AMWU officials and delegates were supported by a sophisticated and well-resourced research centre and library with a wide range of economic and political resources. Laurie ensured we had access to high level, independent economic advice from a broadly respected dedicated union economist capable of analysing the economic and social implications of industrial and political decisions.
Laurie recognised the contribution of science and technology and made sure that it was applied to the day-to-day work of the AMWU. I remember him presenting lectures at Clyde Cameron College on computerisation and the development of computers, describing the contribution of the British mathematician Charles Babbage who developed the Analytical Engine, the forerunner to basic computers.
Although Laurie was the Assistant National Secretary of the union, no one doubted his leadership was fundamental to the growth of the union, the wages and conditions of our members, and the success of the union’s campaigns. He had an international outlook and introduced the AMWU to the successful concepts, theories and practices of the international trade union movement, particularly from Italy and Scandinavia.
Honesty and integrity were fundamental to Laurie’s capacity to engage with the key industrial and political decision-makers. The former head of the Australian Industry Group, Bob Herbert, recently emphasised the respect the Metal Trades Industry Association (MTIA) and its former leader, the late Bert Evans, had for Laurie. Bob indicated that a handshake from Laurie was sufficient for the MTIA to reach agreement on issues with significant industrial and economic implications for the industry and the country.
Laurie was a tough and sophisticated negotiator. I remember an occasion, in my early days when I was not as diplomatic as I am now, when as part of the union’s negotiating team with the MTIA I made a stupid mistake and gave Bert Evans a mouthful. Laurie pulled me aside and ripped shreds off me. He told me if I wanted to be a successful negotiator, I should never put the other side in a situation where they had no room to move. It was a good lesson from an expert negotiator.
Laurie developed and led some of the biggest industrial and political campaigns in the country including:
• Organising industrial action against the penal provisions and supporting Clarrie O’Shea when he was gaoled by Sir John Kerr for contempt of the industrial court for refusing to pay $8100 in fines. Laurie was instrumental in defeating the penal provisions.
• Breaking the Fraser government wage freeze, winning the 38-hour week, developing career paths for metalworkers, winning industrial democracy rights for metalworkers, working with Bill Kelty and the ACTU to win superannuation.
Laurie and the AMWU were also prominent in the moratorium campaign against the war in Vietnam.
These achievements were even more significant when you consider that the AMWU was under constant political attack from employers, governments and the anti-Communist grouper forces external to and within the union. We seemed to be in continuous union election campaigns against the forces who would seek to turn the AMWU into a tame cat union. Despite this Laurie was never diverted from improving conditions and increasing the living standards of his members.
Laurie was criticised by some for his support of and leadership in developing the Accord process. He recognised the limitations of the union movement, focusing solely on wages and conditions and understood the importance of a social wage that gave the working class decent healthcare and education, as well as influence in the political direction of the country.
He understood that mindless militancy would lead inevitably to significant attacks on workers’ rights. The establishment of the AMWU education program and the capacity of that program to deliver an understanding of the Accord process to rank-and-file activists were fundamental to support for the Accord within the union.
Laurie’s determination to build a highly educated, militant and effective delegate structure was one of his greatest achievements.
The great union achievements of the 1980s – shorter hours, superannuation, increased living standards, universal health care, improved access to university and access to skills training at TAFE – could not be achieved under the current political and industrial legislation.
Laurie and Bill Kelty led a movement that defeated the penal provisions through access to industrial rights and legislation not available to Sally McManus and the trade union movement today.
When I first came to Sydney as Assistant State Secretary of the union, Laurie Carmichael could draw ten to fifteen thousand workers to mass meetings at Redfern and Leichardt ovals.
Laurie would use pattern bargaining and right-of-entry provisions to advance the wages and conditions of workers. There were few if any restrictions on what workers could bargain for. Laurie used the “hot” shops to support the weak workshops and there was little free riding by non-unionists in union workshops.
Unfortunately, privatisation, marketisation, free trade agreements and so-called economic and industrial reform have now weakened the union movement’s capacity to deliver effectively for the workforce.
Neoliberalism, vicarious employment and enterprise bargaining have resulted in a broken system. When even the OECD recognises that income inequality is rife and the IMF notes that weakening the union movement weakens wages and conditions, then something has to change.
It is essential that the trade union movement defend the CFMMEU as they are subjected to unacceptable industrial legislation and political attacks by the Liberal/National government.
We must reset the industrial relations system. We cannot be subjected to industrial legislation unheard of in other OECD countries. We need strong laws to support the working class who face increased attacks through the gig economy, casualisation and lack of basic rights.
Laurie Carmichael would demand no less.