The story of a Militant – Jack Barlow

Mona Frame

This is the story of a member of the Australian working class, his development as a militant unionist, a former member of the Australian Labor Party, and his eventual transition as a Communist, versed in the theoretical teaching of Marx and Lenin.

Jack Barlow was born in 1911 at Millers Point, Sydney “within the sights and sounds of the big ocean going ships”. Motherless, he and his younger brother were boarded with friends of his father – a family living “(out in the scrub at Hurstville”, the husband was a carpenter mate of Mr. Barlow – both staunch unionists. Jack remembers the two men were actively opposed to conscription during World War I – in support of their union’s policy. What was to be a vivid and significant memory for six year old Jack, was the spectacle of his usually taciturn guardian, becoming wildly jubilant at the news that “the workers in Russia had taken over the Government in 1917”. Jack believes this event had a lasting effect on his attitude to the Soviet Union.

At the end of World War I, Jack’s father returned to Sydney to make a home for the two boys. As a schoolboy, Jack augmented the family income from his earnings as a paper boy, and shortly after leaving school at 15, he took a job working for an apiarist in the town of Woodburn, on the north coast of NSW. In Woodburn he joined the local A grade football team. His friendship with cane-cutter members of the team led to an offer of a “cut” with a gang on the cane fields on the Clarence River. This was the start of a career which lasted 14 years, during which time he married, had a family, became involved in the Weil’s Disease dispute on the cane fields of Queensland in 1935, returning to Sydney in 1941; rejected for the Air Forces, and until his retirement in 1972 worked as a tram and bus driver, and developed as an active militant.

On the Cane fields

Cane cutting is seasonal work. It commences about June and lasts five, possibly six months – in a good season. In the depression years between 1929 and the mid-30s cane cutters would, like Kylie Tennant’s Battlers, roam the country in between seasons looking for jobs. Possibly because of his prowess as a footballer, Jack was more fortunate than other cutters, – he lived with the family of one of his football mates – on the property of a struggling dairy farmer where he was treated “like one of the family”. In return for odd-jobbing around the farm, he was given board and lodging, and 2/- a week – their fare into the pictures.

It could be argued that battling for survival was as natural to Jack Barlow as breathing. He quickly became skilled “on the knife” and a member of a gun-gang. At 18 years of age, he may have been the youngest person ever to be elected as President of the Richmond River Area Branch of the Australian Workers’ Union (AWU). Although, as Jack observed his first introduction to the Union was unpromising. “We were supposed to work an eight hour day, and THERE WAS THE UNION ORGANISER – standing on the side of the road while we were working until it was dark! A twelve hour day was the norm during 1929-30. It wasn’t until much later that we got a real eight hour day”. His first pay was £10.00 for a fortnight’s work, and he was taxed 3d in the pound. This was considered good money.

His first experience as a union official was marked by some successful militant activity. The tents, in which they lived under pretty primitive conditions on land set aside by the sugar cane farmers – the “Cockies” – were replaced by properly constructed barracks. They received a 1/- a ton extra for cane.

The men worked in teams, and were paid on contract. Prior to the rise of 1/- a ton, they had been receiving 5/6d. They hired their own cook who was paid at the same rate. Although his work may not have been as strenuous as the cutters, Jack argued that in some ways the cook’s job was less enviable. This view is supported by Jean Devanny in her book Sugar Heaven. The cook started work at 4 a.m. and finished at 8 p.m., seven days a week, supplying the men with five full meals each day.

In January 1931, the Commonwealth Arbitration Court reduced nominal wages by ten percent as part of the Labor Government’s economic strategy in a period of economic depression, and in response to pressure from the Bank of England in the person of Sir Otto Niemeyer. The AWU organiser appeared on the job to “ask them” to accept a ten percent reduction in wages. The workers were very dissatisfied with the forced reduction in their wages, and in addition it had not been a good year for the Richmond River. Jack accepted a cut with a gun gang in the Tweed, and remained there for three years, during which time he married. The battle for survival was less severe for Jack. His father-in-law gave him work as a timber hauler during the off season – a vast improvoment on life on the dairy farm.

Jack had no recollection of New Guard activity in The country, although it was making its presence felt in the Industrial centres of the cities. Nor was the Movement Against War and Fascism visible there. Nevertheless, the country workers were quite politically aware. Jack recalls they seemed sympathetic to the Soviet experiment, and the anti-fascist struggle in Spain. Several men left to join the International Brigade which supported the democratically elected Government in Spain.

The Weil’s Disease Dispute

In 1935 Jack Barlow was asked to take a gang to Ingham in Queensland. It soon became apparent that they were brought there to act as strike breakers should a simmering dispute over safety measures aimed at preventing the spread of this dreadful disease, fail to be resolved.

Cane cutters suffered many disabilities in the course of their work. The buds and hairs on cane were not easy to put up with – they caused scratches and festers, and then there were death adders and other menaces to contend with. But Weil’s disease was greatly feared. It was caused by the urine from rats infecting the fields, and was particularly virulent in the far north of Queensland where excessive moisture was a contributing factor in the spread of the disease. Post mortems on victims revealed haemorrhages of the kidneys, lungs and bowel wall and the spleens disintegrated on examination. In August 1934, eighty cases had been reported in ten days, and a further six during September. All the patients had been healthy adult males and all worked in the sugar cane.

Jack recalls that 22 men had died in the Ingham district. The men wanted the cane burned before cutting to minimise the risk of infection. But this, sai Jack, was opposed by the “Cockies”, who argued that cane should be cut on the leaf, because it was believed to produce a higher sugar content. Cutting cane on the leaf was a dirty, difficult job. The men were paid a 1/- a ton more for cutting the cane when green, but this was hardly sufficient inducement to work under the high risk conditions operating at that time). (It seems a reasonable assumption to this writer, that it would not compensate for the predictably slower output, either).

An order to burn the cane, made in 1934 by the Industrial magistrate – and supported by the AWU Was rescinded in 1935 on an appeal by the Colonial Sugar Refining Co., the Australian Sugar Producers Association, the Queensland Canegrowers, and- supported this time by the AWU. Subsequently, the growers found that burning the cane made no appreciable difference, and they were quite willing, said Jack, to burn the cane.

But as Diame Menghetti argues, other factors had entered into the dispute. It had become a power struggle between the AWU, supported by the Labor Government and the Cane Growers – against the Communist Party- who were gaining strong support among the workers on the canefields.

Jack recalls that. the Queensland Labor Government labeled the struggle “as a fight against Communism”; this was to become the favourite propaganda tool to be used against strikers for years to come. By this-time he had become thoroughly disillusioned with the Labor Party, and had acquired a great respect for the Communist Party Leaders, such as Jack Henry and Mick Ryan. He resigned in disgust from the Labor Party, but was not admitted into the Communist Party for some years to come. Jack recalls marching. down the streets of Tully after attending a meeting addressed by Jack Henry. They carried red flags, and were watched by police armed with machine guns, on trucks by-the-side of the road. It was a volatile time, tempers were high. Jack remembers “slogging it out” with an erstwhile mate in his gang. A scab was located on a train and the men dissuaded from throwing him off the moving train by the guard who warned them that the man would be killed. “Although”, recalled Jack,”it didn’t seem to concern us very much at that particular time”.

“We stayed out nine weeks, and although it appeared we returned to work on the bosses’ terms – in the long term we were vindicated.” In the final analysis it was a victory for the strikers – a victory which should have been won much earlier, as Menghettti argues, but for the fact that it had become a-political battle. On 21 July, 1936, a general, order for, the, burning of the cane before harvesting was, handed down by the industrial court, but for the support given the CSR by the AWU and the Labor Government, the order could have been made year earlier. All available medical evidence justified the move.

Jack Barlow’s development as a militant was strengthened by the events of 1935 but it was, not until early 1941, when the Communist Party was still illegal that he was finally admitted to the ranks of the Communist Party of Australia.

He and his family moved to Sydney, and he appliied to join the Australian Airforce. Despite his excellent physical condition, he was rejected.

Trade Union Activity from 1941-1976 (and on)

Jack Barlow became a tram driver, and an active member of the Australian Tram and Motor Omnibus Employees Association. He organised a branch of the Conmunist Party at the Waverly tram depot. At this time, Jack recalls, the Party enjoyed considerable prestige among members of the Union.

After Curtin was elected in October 1941, the Party’s legality was restored. He served for a time on the first District Committee of the Party, but it was in the Union where he was primarily influential. He became an Australian Councillor, and Vice President of the NSW Branch of the ATMOEA.

It could be argued that his studies of Marxism Lenism at numerous Party schools, may have contributed to his understanding of the role of women in the working class movement. His earlier account of the Weil’s Disease Strike showed no evidence of his acknowledgment of the role women played in that strike – which was the subject of Jean Devanny’s book, Sugar Heaven. It became evident that during the course of his trade union and Party activities in Sydney, he had become fully aware of the need for women to be allowed to share equally in economic opportunities available to the male workforce. A view not shared by the rank and file of his union, or members of the Labor Party. The Curtin Government faced with all the war-time problems of labour shortages, called for women to take their place in the workforce alongside the men. Equal opportunity for the sexes was the policy of the Communist Party but was vehemently opposed by the rank and file of Jack’s union. Their hostility was so great, that the Party members suffered considerable defeat in the ensuing union elections of the ATMOEA. Pat Ryan, ALP member and union secretary, announced “that he’d die before women would take their jobs”.

“There were”, observed Jack, “a lot of women who were opposed to the idea of women being taken out of the homes”. Government policy prevailed, and women were employed on an equal footing with men. They initially enjoyed the support of the more militant members of the Union, but were to be eventually accepted by everyone. ~he women were to prove good, solid unionists during the period of the Atlantean Bus dispute which occurred in November-December 1971. This was an attempt by the Government to introduce double decker one-man buses. A move strongly opposed by the Union as a safety issue, but it could be argued that it was an attempt to protect the jobs of its members.

Jack Barlow was the Secretary of the Strike Committee, and was the first one to be sacked at the strike’s conclusion. He and the other sacked strikers were later to be reinstated. Jack proudly recalls the part the women played in the dispute, and the speed with which they developed as competent and articulate supporters of the union’s strike action. The Atlantean buses were not introduced as a regular service, but one man buses were. There were some improvements in working conditions, but manpower was eventually considerably reduced.

As this account of Jack Barlow shows, not all strikes are for higher wages – they can be genuine safety campaigns, or for the protection of the right to work. In both cases they were labelled as deplorable attempts at Communist sabotage.

Jack Barlow played a prominent part in helping to politicise his union. The Waverley Depot (after some debate), passed a unanimous resolution calling for the opening of a second front in Europe. At a Federal meeting in Hobart, he moved a resolution calling for the banning of the atom bomb, and in March 1946, he was instrumental in his union adopting the policy of “Peace is Union Business”.

Post War Policy for Improved Conditions

Clarrie O’Shea, communist secretary of the Victorian Branch of the ATMOEA, led a nine week strike in Melbourne in support of the 40 hour week. Unions generally argued that with the war over, they were entitled to enter into campaigns for improved wages and conditions and call an end to the austerity of the previous four years. Jack’s union successfully campaigned for improved wages and conditions which included long service leave and a superannuation of three weeks’ wages for each year of service.

A year after his retirement, Jack was operated on for stomach cancer and given a fifty-fifty chance of survival. Ten years on, he works as a casual gatekeeper at Randwick Racecourse, is a member of the Australian Amusement Theatrical Employees’ Union, and in 1984 was elected to the Executive of that Union. It could be argued that it is less to the leaders of the Labour Movement, but rather to the thousands of examples of living history like Jack Barlow, that historians should be turning for an account of the real history of the Australian working class in the Twentieth Century.