Norm Gallagher – A Tribute

Steve Black

Norm Gallagher helped to build up a powerful, national trade union organisation – the Builders Labourers Federation (BLF). He was General (National) Secretary for 31 years (1961-92). He was head of a downtrodden group in the working class – the labourers of the building industry

He was a tremendous organiser. The greatest working class organiser of them all. He became delegate/shop steward at 16 years of age and Victorian Branch organiser at 18 years. He became General Secretary at 30 years.

He did what was necessary. He had the will and determination where others failed. Norm gave everything. He gave his whole life. He devoted himself to builders’ labourers and the working class as a whole.

Norm’s history is not only one of the BLF but also of the Communist Party. He was a member for over 50 years and was Vice Chairman under Ted Hill for many of those years. Right up to the time of his death he was still struggling to get the Communist Party reorganised. He was involved in every twist and turn in the communist movement in those 50 years.

In 1941, Paddy Malone became Victorian Secretary of the Builders Labourers Federation. Norm often talked about the struggles with the anti-Communist Groupers, Bob Santamaria and the National Civic Council, (right-wing industrial groups in the Labor Party). He told of the court-controlled (state-controlled) union election ballots in the Victorian BLF. In 1950, the Clerks Union and the Ironworkers Union fell to the Groupers. The BLF was in the balance. Paddy Malone, Norm Gallagher and others fought for builders labourers and workers in general to have a militant union and the right to determine who should lead their union – the very thing we have to fight for today. And, of course, the Groupers went on to cause the great split in the Labor Party in 1955.

By the 1970s and 1980s the BLF became very powerful. It won many advances in wages, conditions and safety in the building industry. An industry, nationally, that had been poorly paid, poorly organised trade union-wise, with appalling conditions and numerous deaths and injuries. It used strike action and guerrilla tactics (bans, limitations, like walking off half-completed concrete pours, etc), to great effect. It united with other like-minded unions in the building industry like the Plumbers Union, BWIU etc, in an attempt to civilise the previously anarchic and uncivilised.

It opposed the Accord. In 1983, a Summit was held between the Hawke Government, the ACTU and big business to legitimise an “Accord”, a “consensus”, a “class peace”. In truth, this was class collaboration. Norm was out of gaol one day and attending the Summit the next. He had been gaoled for three months for contempt for daring to criticise an Arbitration Judge’s decision on disallowing 1.9% wage rise to builders labourers. Norm had stated that the judge’s decision must have been written by the Master Builders Association. TV, Radio had wanted his views; he gave it and that was Norm, always available. And where were those great bastions of free speech when Norm was gaoled for speaking these views? The media barons supported his gaoling.

High Court Judge Lionel Murphy could see the danger to free speech. In a dissenting, minority High Court decision, Justice Murphy said that at stake were the fundamental rights of Australians to free speech, for a person in the street who commented on a bad Arbitration Court decision, or any court decision for that matter, could be gaoled. He could see the wide ramifications for criticising those allegedly three “great” pillars of the Westminster system – Parliament, Executive and Judiciary. Could the people not criticise a government decision? Or a decision of the judiciary? But, to the ruling class, because it was Norm Gallagher, because it was an official of the BLF, because it was a “dangerous” militant union setting “bad” precedents, because it was teaching workers to rebel and how to struggle for their rights, because it was causing the capitalists to lose some of their fabulous profits, because it was “public enemy Number One”, the end justified the means.

The day after getting out of gaol, Norm was on the plane to Canberra for the Summit, as the ACTU Executive member for the building industry. He handed out a statement opposing the Accord.

The bosses organised and orchestrated a political conspiracy of huge proportions to nail Norm and the BLF – they utilised secret police, state police, politicians, government resources, lawyers, other unions, the ACTU, the media. They mobilised and organised the judiciary through Royal Commissions, the Arbitration Court and the criminal courts to “try” the BLF.

You see, Norm and the BLF stood in the way of the “Accord” – the mechanism of the bosses for wage cuts and the trade-off of conditions for the following thirteen years (1983-1996).

In 1985, in a great miscarriage of justice, with the jury locked up for ten days, Norm was gaoled on trumped-up charges for so-called “secret commissions”. The judge who gaoled him was Judge Waldron. He happened to be the then Victorian State Premier, John Cain’s, “Best Man” at his wedding thirty years earlier. Cain was the man overseeing the job of getting Norm and the BLF in Victoria. Such blatant and obvious manipulation of the judiciary was even too hot for the ruling class to handle. On appeal, the trial and verdict were declared “unsafe” and a retrial was ordered. Norm was freed after four months in gaol. A “safer” judge was found and a “safer” jury from a public that had been daily inculcated by the media with the hysterical ravings of bosses, politicians, commentators, etc. In such an environment, a fair retrial and justice were impossible. It all accorded with Lewis Carroll’s, Queen of Hearts, from “Alice in Wonderland” — “First the sentence, then the verdict”. Norm was gaoled again in 1986.

Norm was out of Pentridge Gaol one day in Melbourne and next day was in Sydney to visit myself and Ron Owens, the SA BLF Secretary, in Long Bay Gaol. In another miscarriage of justice, trumped up charges and political conspiracy, we had been sentenced to six months gaol for trespass, for going onto building sites to service our members. Even though Norm had spent another four months in Pentridge Gaol, his first duty was to his fellow comrades. And that, too, was typical of Norm.

Henry Lawson wrote a poem about an old unionist who was “Too Old to Rat”. Well, Norm was union, 50 years and he never ratted. He bore the attacks of the capitalist class as a matter of course. Do a job for the workers and of course the bosses will attack you -– the better the job you do, the greater the attack. He gave as good as he got. He always said that the capitalists were good teachers – they taught you how to be tough.

Norm was a character, he had his foibles. Don’t we all. The bitter hatred of the ruling class with their spewing out bile in the media, the attempted frame-ups and attempted intimidation, etc, etc, are a matter of course. However, some people in our own ranks were desperate (and still are) to put him down and, of course, put themselves up. They seized on any little thing. But it was nonsense and it will not hide the truth.

This man was the greatest organiser of the workers in Australian history, so far. If the workers had a Hall of Fame he would be the first inducted into it. He made the workers feel proud. He made the workers feel they had dignity. He showed the way to struggle. And he fought all his life to overthrow the exploiters and oppressors and establish a better social system, where the workers were in control – firstly an independent, democratic Australia, and, secondly, a truly egalitarian and compassionate society, a socialist Australia.