Charles D’Aprano: Italo-Australian Left Activist

Interviewed by Caroline Moore

Born near Castelforte. Italy, in 1923. Charles D’Aprano migratl!d to Australia with his father in 1937. Settling in Melbourne he joined the army during World War II and became active in hoth the Communist Party and the Italo-Australian anti-fascist movement. He continued his political activism throughout the years of the Cold
War, taking part in the campaign against the Menzies’ govemment’s attempt to ban the Communist Party, attending the World Peace Congress in Vienna in 1952, and battling against the Industrial Groupers in the unions. He worked at a variety of industrial jobs from leather worker to painter – before becoming a histOry teacher and finally a senior lecturer in Italian at Swinburn Institute of Technology.

Carolyn Moore, a student in Government at Sydney University, interviewed Charles recently about his life and times as a migrant worker and activist during the 1940 and 1950s. Carolyn has kindly allowed Hummer to reproduce the following edited selections from her interview with Charles.

I went to school in Italy until I was 14, until I came to Australia in 1937 ..I became politically aware when I was 20 when I had been in the Army for about a year. I became influenced by the anti-fascists, the Italian anti-fascists first, and particularly the communists soon
after. [B]y the time I was 20, I [had] joined the Communist Party
anu I’ve been of the left ever since My father was very
conservative… extremely conservative. In fact he was a supporter of the fascist regime. He was terribly chauvinistic, so that my family background certainly did not develop, except in a negative way. I wanted to be different to my father, as an act of opposition to my father…

The Italia Libera
It was an anti-fascist movement and it was called Italia Libera, and Italia Libera means to “Free Italy”. I joined in about 1943 when I was
20 years old and I was active in it for four years until 1947 when I became the State Secretary, and a member of the national committee. Oh yes, I was very active in all migrant organisations in the Communist Party and in the Italia Libera. I don’t think I had one night at home – well, if I had one, then I certainly didn’t have two consecutive nights, anyway.

The Labor Party in 1943 gave us a permit to publish Il Risveglio, a lovely little paper. Actually, it was a well run; a well read little paper. It was a first weekly, then a bi-weekly, and then a monthly. We went through all the problems that publishing a paper like that entails, and we were obliged to publish one-third of all our material in English; but it was [assisted] through the good offices of the marvellous contact that Dr Schiassi, the National President of the Italia Libera, had with some elements of the Labor Party, like Don Cameron, for instance. They were very, very good mates. Don Cameron was an old socialist… When Menzies carne to power in 1949, of course, things got much, much tougher, and the Italian government didn’t help, especially after 1949, when the Christian Democrats were voted into power. The consular representatives here were always very antagonistic.

I was the state secretary of the Italia Libera, and later, when it became the Italo-Australian League, I was the secretary of that. I was a member of the Australian Communist Party. I held no official
position in the Australian Communist Party, but in the Italia Libera I
was the state secretary and a member of the national committee, and I was the representative of the Il Risveglio in Victoria. The work
involved running meetings for the benefit of the members. The Italians who were arriving at the time had been told, in fact, that there was no Communist Party in Australia; that the Communist Party was illegal; that even the trade unions were illegal. There were people on
the ships coming out with these immigrants giving them wrong information. It was, it was really shocking to hear some of the stories, because of the agreement between the two countries – Italy and Australia – to keep the immigrants misinformed and to keep them
quiet. However, we, of course, had other ideas so we did our best to educate these new arrivals towards an acceptance of the great, the best traditions of Australian trade unionism and Au~tralian democratic thought. That’s all we wanted to do; we didn’t necessarily want them to join the Communist Party, but we did want them to be active in the trade unions.

The Italian immigrants had been put in this camp [Bonegilla] with promises ofwOfk, but after six to ten months there was [still] no work available so the men resorted to a protest. Italians do not grumble behind closed doors; Italians do things openly. If you watch them especially, they celebrate a wedding, a christening, a birth, a death openly. In the open they show their emotions and, of course, they gathered in huge numbers at Bonegilla and put on a marvellous exhibition of unity and strengt~. The government, of course, didn’t know how to handle it and surrounded the camp with Bren-Gun
carriers and tanks which was, of course, like sending a 12-inch gun to hunt for a little mouse. The Italians were certainly not a dangerous lot – not militarily dangerous – but the authorities didn’t know that and all they were doing was showing their opposition to the continuous unemployment.

The World Peace Congress, Vienna, 1952
The Italians were starting to arrive here in great Tlumbers at the time. We know that Italy and the Italian people were involved, heavily involved in the struggle for peace. So I was chosen by the Italo-Australian League to represent the Italians in Australia at Vienna, at the V ienna Congress of Peoples for Peace. I wanted to go because I wanted to, first of all, represent the Australian people. I mean that was the basic reason for my going, to represent Australia at the Congress and perhaps to a certain extent to represent the wishes of the Italian people in Australia at the Congress. To make the world rulers see that the people of the world did not want war….

It was one of the most important events of 1952. Some 2-3000 delegates gathered at the Congress from all over the world and there were people from countries like Iraq, Iran, some of the Middle Eastern countries, some of the South American countries, the United States themselves, who had used a whole number of ruses to come to the Congress. Even the Italian delegates had invented honeymoons and business trips etc. to come to the Congress. I mean they bought tickets, airway tickets, to Dusseldorf, London or Paris and then … caught another plane or a train to Vienna. But the Middle Eastern countries’ delegates, for instance, faced gaol and probably execution on their return home. The American delegates had braved tremendous criticism and possible arrest on their return, or confiscation of their passports. To me it was a tremendously important meeting of people in order to tell the governments of the world – all governments of the world – that war was to be no more … In 1953, when we came back, we began the first collection of signatures on the petition to stop the testing of atom bombs. Of course we were ridiculed. We had no access to any of the media. We had to have our meetings in little church halls or private homes. Now, of course, it has became a national demand that Atom bomb testing be stopped.

When I was in Florence on our way to Vienna, the Florentine people asked me to say something about the lives ofthe Italian immigrants in Australia and, of course, I told them about Bonegilla. And after the meeting was over the police came and told me I shouldn’t go around the world telling horrible tales about misery and unemployment and suicide .,. incidentally, four men had hanged themselves at BonegiHa because of the situation there. And the police told me to stop telling lies, but anyway they let me go and we went to Modena that night and two days later, in Modena, the police came and took us to the police station, the questura, for interrogation. and I was abused, told I was a traitor to my country and I was a well know international communist agitator, which tickled my fancy a little bit. Little me, the secretary of the Italian Libera Movement – the Italo-Australian League – a well known communist agitator! It seemed so ridiculous but it had its funny side anyway and they arrested us for spreading these horrible tales. It seemed that there was a pact of silence that nothing would be said about the situation – about the economic situation in Australia at the time. I mean these people had been brought out here, the Australian economy was on the decline and they couldn’t find work. The government couldn’t find work for them so that they were fed and housed but that’s about all. But the men hadn’t come here for that. So that was the reason for our arrest.

But we were freed the next day because the secretary of the General Confederation of Labour in Modena, a man called Sergio Rossi, who
had been leader in the Partisans’ war, went to the Police Chief and
demanded our release. The exchange of words as reported to me later were that the Chief of Police tried to bluff it out by saying, “These people are my guests; I shall do with them what I please!”. Sergio Rossi said, “Questore they are your prisoners; they are our guests, not yours. So I will give you an hour to let them out; if not, you will not get a glass of water, nor a cup of coffee, nor a meal. We will stop everything.” He had the power to do it, so within two hours, actually,
we were back at the offices of the Italian Partisans of Peace, and we were deported. We were escorted out of Italy under guard; it was still the old fascist cdministration of the fascist period.

I and the Australian delegation, coming back from Vienna, came through the Soviet Union, the then Soviet Union and China. On the Trans-Siberian train there was a Japanese Delegation and amongst the delegation were two woman from Nagasaki or Hiroshima, I’ve forgotten which now. But they never showed more than their eyes. More than that would have horrified people because their skin had peeled off their bodies after the explosion at one of the cities so that they wore these most gorgeous shawls I remember the patterns; but
more than the patterns, I remember their eyes, these eyes full of pain ‘” . [A]t the beginning of the trip across Siberia I found it difficult to
speak to the Japanese delegation because I was still affected by the
tremendous propaganda that I had suffered, that I had been a victim of during the war. I mean, you know, Changi and the Burma railway construction and the death of so many Australian POWs and the emaciated POWs who returned home and all that. I found it very difficult to come to terms with the fact that these people were on the same train as we were until I saw the two women and then I realised that the barbarism of the war makes beasts of human beings regardless of their ethnic background and I remember I went back to
my carriage and cried because I felt so ashamed of my attitude, and I felt so sorry for the women who would, I realised, remain covered in
some sort of cloth covering for the rest of their lives because the skin had just been stripped from their face/bones. That was a marvellous
lesson in humility and humanity going across Siberia on that very
long but rather enjoyable trip.

Factory Worker
I was in the army for four years – from ’42 to ’46. I went to work in a factory in ’47. But in the ’50s there was no greater method of
controlling a worker than through the threat of the sack. So the other way – not to suppress … but to control the workers – was to offer bonuses for over-production. … [For] everything that you over produced you were offered a bonus. Now this is a very astute way to
control production, because if you don’t produce over your quota, even your workmates will laugh at you so that you feel ashamed to be less capable then your workmates; so you would do your best. But outright suppression in the workplace, I suppose, was used in many ways: the threat of the sack; … giving you dirty jobs; always treating you with less respect than other chosen members of your working group. All these methods were used. I think that one of the methods used by all employers is to divide workers, so it is not seen as an outright suppression. It’s merely seen as giving payment or respect due to those who earn it; but you see it’s a marvellous way to control the workers, to bring them all up to the desired production level that the boss wants.

Working conditions in the leather goods factories which I worked in before I became a building worker… weIl, look, working conditions are working conditions, factory jobs are dirty. You work in overcrowded conditions, you work solidly the whole day, even if you go to the toilet to have a quick smoke you can’t be away from your bench or your machine for too long because the foreman w!ll soon come after you and say, “Well, what the bloody heIl are you doing in there?”. So that’s it. Not easy to get away with loafing, or ‘swinging
the lead’, as they used to term it. But working conditions – look, in the leather goods factories where I worked, conditions were fair, not terribly bad, but certainly not terribly good. We eventually won the right from our employer to build a little lunch room, that was seen as a big victory in those days.

Fighting the Communist Party Dissolution Bill
During the [1951] referendum campaign I was addressing a meeting outside Ruwolts in Richmond and we weren’t allowed to stop, to stop on the footpath. I wasn’t allowed to have a meeting inside, of course, so we held a meeting on the footpath. But we weren’t aIlowed to have a meeting on the footpath because we would have blocked traffic, so the men and I walked up and down – these were all Italian workers walked up and down with me talking to them, walking backwards while they listened to me; and the police, of course, were right there watching me. When we finished they came up to me and told me how
stupid I was, you know, that I was still a young man; that I should
look out for my own future and, ifI didn’t, things might go really bad for me and I didn’t want that to happen, did I? I had a child, and, after all, the law was the law and I wasn’t allowed to break the law. And when I protested that I wasn’t breaking any law they said, “Well,
that’s a matter of opinion”. So then they offered me a lift into town,
which, of course, I refuse… I went straight to the Communist Party office and told them what had happened and they put it down; there
was a lawyer there in the office at the time and he said, “Oh, it’s just a bluff.”

[I recall] giving out cards – giving out how-to-vote cards for the referendum for the Communist Party Dissolution Bill, side by side with the groupers. They were giving out anti-BiIl how-to vote-‘cards, they were against the dissolution of the Communist Party, because this was the policy of the Labor Party. The Labor Party was against it, so they were giving out cards against Menzies, but they wouldn’t talk to us. Instead of keeping quiet, we often imitated and antagonised them by saying that they were really serving the masters, they were really serving the Menzies Government by being so bitterly anticommunist and that they were no different… We and the groupers were both dogmatic, fanatical, I suppose. It was the atmosphere of the times; there was a lot of bitterness about.

I don’t think I slept for 2-3 week; I have forgotten now. But I certainly remember taking time off from work and joining the army of
public speakers. We went to factory gate meetings, we address groups of workers before they started work in the morning, when they came out at night, during which hours we were very busy people indeed. The party made up our wages. It was very good that my employer at the time gave me time off. I was working in a leather factory, I think, and he gave me time off. He knew what I was doing, he knew of my political activities, but he was Jewish and he had been in the army with me and he probably understood the potential dangers of a move such as banning the Communist Party and therefore he just said nothing. He gave me two weeks off, and I was allowed to do my little bit to organise public feeling against the … ban … We, as is well known, succeeded in winning the referendum and I think it was a great victory for democracy…

Building Worker and Anti-Grouper
It wasn’t hard to get work. Melbourne, at the time, was going through a relative building boom so that jobs were fairly easy to get: also remember the Olympic Games were to be held there in 1956, so that
then.; was plenty of work, especially after ’52. After ’52 the
situation eased quite considerably and there was work available. I belonged to the Painters’ union; I was a house-painter. The union was run by left wing people – Communists and Socialists, ALP people. By this time the DLP had come into prominence. I was not involved in any industrial disputes because the main people I worked fix were big firms and they usually had agreements with the unions to respect labour laws and when I wasn’t working for big construction companies I was working for myself or in partnership with a friend of mine, so that I was never involved in the industrial disputes of the period.

Well, the groupers were very active in the building unions. in the transport and in some of the other industries. Transport and the building unions were very much part of the atmosphere of these days. The groupers, the [National] Civic Council, Santamaria’s Movement .. whatever you like to call them – made life very very difficult for the left-wingers in the unions, not because they challenged everything
but because they kept up the cry, “Go back to Moscow!” And
when we pointed out that we were not Russians and [that) what we were fighting for were the simple working conditions for all workers, they always saw a hidden agenda behind our statement, behind our programmes. I must say, too, that some of our own people did make things easy [for them] by being super aggressive towards the groupers. We didn’t try to win them;… we just tried to bash them. And I remember demonstrations where fists and lumps of wood were used by both sides. It was terrible It wasn’t easy, it wasn’t an easy

They affected my life at work because, by this time, I was in the building trade unions, and the groupers … made it very difficult for us to work effectively. They were so dogmatic about keeping anyone who was progressive at all out of union positions. Once they captured a union they held onto it for dear life. They held onto every single position without giving any ground at all, not only to me, but even to Labor people without any communist contacts at all.

The conflicts that occurred were very wide. For a while I was working as a painter at the Health Department and all the employees there were in the Hospital Employees’ union and there was plenty of conflict there. It was there that the groupers controlled every single aspect of the union. If anyone outside their ranks stood for a position he/she would not be accepted … We of the left in the Hospital Employees’ Federation were in the minority and the leaders were really groupers, leading groupers, many of them, so that there was a tremendous conflict, an ongoing conflict, on the job and at union meetings.

As you can imagine, it was very difficult for me to become involved in left-wing politics. It was first of all out of favour or out of flavour, if you like, from the mainstream political options of the time. Plus I was a migrant, and the migrants are usually rather conservative because the main purpose for emigrating is to solve the immediate economic problems and therefore my family – my father, my uncle, my relatives, all our ftiends – thought me rather odd, queer, stupid, even, to become involved in politics. So I had a rather difficult road to travel, because I had to overcome all these factors, all this opposition, … all these negative attitudes that I had around me. But when one sees problems one can’t close one’s eyes to them and, therefore, I opted for participation in … the political life of the Australian people, even though it was the struggle of a minority.