Radio presenter, public housing advocate, workplace militant, author and labour historian, the union and socialist movements lost a tireless fighter in 2014, when Dr Douglas Jordon lost his long battle with cancer at the age of 63.
Doug worked as a tram conductor in Melbourne for many years and was a rank and file activist in the Tramways Union; he was arrested in 1990 during a battle against the state government’s attacks on jobs in the sector. Refusing to re-train as a ticket inspector when the conductors were eventually replaced with machines, Doug turned to higher education, gaining his PhD at Victoria University, under the supervision of Professor Phil Deery. Out of this PhD came a wonderful book entitled Conflict in the Unions: The Communist Party of Australia, Politics and the Trade Union Movement, 1945-60, which looks at the work of CPA leaders and activists in the Australian trade union movement during a fascinating period for political and industrial campaigns. It is a book about peace, war, racism, immigration and the battle against conservatism – with as much to say about today as yesterday.
Avoiding the hagiography that can sometimes characterise political biographies, Doug took an honest look at the triumphs and weaknesses of Communist Party campaigns as he saw them, urging trade union activists today to learn from the lessons of the past. When we feel despondent about struggles to defend refugees and the environment, union rights and affordable education, it is important to remember what activists faced during world wars, economic recession and nuclear stand-offs.
Conflict in the Unions covers a period in which the CPA enjoyed enormous popularity, followed by a subsequent decline that essentially forms a history of opportunities both seized and squandered, as leaders and activists struggled to respond to legal threats and challenging political developments, both here and overseas. Attempting to adapt to the twists and turns of Soviet policy under Stalin, the CPA leadership discouraged debate and fudged the increasing conservatism of its purportedly revolutionary agenda with increasingly untenable twists and turns in its political strategies. It refused to acknowledge that the Russian Revolution had been defeated and that their exalted leader was building a society entirely antithetical to the ideals of socialism from below.
Following instead a policy of ‘union leadership from above’, CPA strategy not to work with ALP members effectively divided opposition to the conservatives and isolated the party from labour movement activists who might otherwise have given party leaders a hearing.
Acknowledging obvious problems, Jordan also describes the inspirational work of rank and file members who set up branches in workplaces and communities to collect signatures on petitions, organise strike support, sell newspapers and build left organisation. For these members, especially for women, the work was educational, challenging, offered leadership roles not ordinarily available to them, and opened up a world far beyond local concerns.
My favourite chapter is one that chronicles the story of CPA and union involvement in campaigns for justice for Aboriginal people over what had been stolen from them – stolen children, stolen wages, stolen land and stolen way of life. Strong links were formed between party and indigenous activists all around the country and many indigenous people joined the party. Jordan describes a litany of strikes beyond the most well-known in the Pilbara and Wave Hill, that showed the strength of shared knowledge when union struggles and Aboriginal land rights battles melded together. Don McLeod, a white communist activist, who worked with the Pilbara strikers, saw the importance of working with other activists, not issuing commands from above. It was a crucial antidote to the notion that indigenous oppression was purely a welfare issue, that Aboriginal workers could fight for their own emancipation.
At the Sydney launch of Conflict in the Unions, Doug performed an act of incredible political bravery. Rising from his wheelchair, he stood at the lectern and, in a raspy voice, spoke to the audience about what he had learned over a life of struggle – of the importance of fighting back, speaking truth to power, and building solidarity. He spoke for about half an hour and you could have heard a pin drop. A few days later, he passed away. Doug was rightly proud of Conflict in the Unions. It is a great contribution to labour history scholarship.