By any measure 1968 was a big news year. Beginning with the Vietnamese National Liberation Front’s Tet Offensive in January, it included Alexander Dubcek’s Prague Spring, the May student uprisings in Paris, Black Power salutes at the Mexico Olympics, and the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Dr Martin Luther King. For me it was a big year too in that it was the year I first went to work for Ray Gietzelt.
I quickly noted that Ray was an unusual trade union official who recognised the movement’s need for talent and fostered it. (In an atmosphere hostile to ‘academics’ I was the only graduate then employed in the Sydney Trades Hall). Ray’s friendships and professional associations with Labor luminaries such as Lionel Murphy, Neville Wran and Bob Hawke are widely known (and exhaustively referred to in Worth Fighting For) and he certainly fostered capable people. In the book, many speak positively of Ray’s assistance – some might even write glowing reviews of his autobiography. But most of them never actually worked in his office.
Ray emphasised leadership (his) above all else and demanded absolute loyalty from the Union’s officers and staff. In Chapter 3 ‘Consolidation’ he devotes seven pages (almost half the Chapter) to the sub-heading ‘Discipline Involving Individuals’. Ray outlines several of the many State Branch issues in which he intervened. We read of the removal and/or resignation of Officials and sometimes whole Branch Executives in the NSW, Queensland, Tasmanian, South Australian and Victorian Branches.
Anyone who has worked in the pressure-cooker world of a federal union knows there are inherent tensions between the Federal office and its Branches as well as within Branches – often based on the ambitions and egos of the (mostly male) leadership. Usually they are hosed down or accommodated with compromise seen as in the best interests of both the organisation and those in it. This was not the Missos’ way. The turbulence of this period is in stark contrast to the relative harmony and organic growth this union has enjoyed in the last twenty years – a period which includes the Missos’ largest-ever amalgamation – with the Liquor Trades Union in 1992.
Worth Fighting For correctly refers to the importance of the political work carried out on behalf of the Left by Ray and his elder brother Arthur, who was effectively the secretary of the Left Steering Committee in the 1960s and 70s. In April 1968 Gough Whitlam resigned as Leader of the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party and Dr Jim Cairns contested a ballot with him. Cairns only lost by 32 votes to 38. Much of the NSW-based organising for Cairns was co-ordinated out of the Missos’ office. The following year saw the election of Bob Hawke as ACTU President. Ray devotes considerable space to outlining the closeness of his relationship with Hawke, commenting that when they first met in 1958 he “…was very quickly impressed by the energy and passion of the young advocate” and indicating that later “…Bob would often insist that I stay at his home in Sandringham in Melbourne” (p173). In 1969 Ray worked hard to garner support for Hawke’s 399 to 350 vote victory over his dour Right-supported opponent Harold Souter. It is impossible to overestimate Ray’s contribution to Hawke’s victory as Hawke himself attests in his warmly approving Foreword.
So there is no doubt that Ray is absolutely correct in stating that the FMWU “was of critical importance in the balance of power in the ALP and the labour movement” (p115). And this is why the Right could not have believed their luck when presented with an opportunity to win control of the NSW Branch in the 1971 elections.
Back in 1967 the widely respected NSW Secretary Doug Howitt was moved to the lesser position of Branch Research Officer. Howitt mentored many in the Missos and the downgrading of his seminal role in the Union’s history following the defeat of the corrupt Right officials in 1955 is regrettable. He was Tasmanian Secretary in 1953-55 before becoming Secretary of the largest Branch between 1955 and 1967. (Howitt was also a competent photographer and his sensitive portraits are reproduced and acknowledged in Margo Beasley’s The Missos (1996). About a dozen of these photos are reprinted in Worth Fighting For – without attribution). Ray selected then President Keith Blackwell to run for NSW Secretary. Blackwell used to refer to Ray as ‘the Gaffer’ and sometimes (embarrassingly) as ‘a genius’. Numerous State and Federal Officers with different backgrounds objected to Blackwell. Their loyalty was immediately questioned and one was quickly dismissed while some others were isolated and later left the Union. A small embittered minority stayed on and secretly planned to contest the next elections in 1971. By the time of this contest, and the much larger one in 1974, this rump undoubtedly had moved to the Right and accepted considerable assistance from the Right. Ray quotes numerous publications in Chapter 7, making a compelling case about the involvement of outside forces including the NCC.
Ray may well have made a small but perhaps significant error at page 117 when he recalls learning from South Coast Secretary Merv Nixon of a “planning meeting” of his opponents said to have taken place on 3 November 1970, listing several ‘key figures in the NSW Branch’ alleged to have been present. Among these is Bob Manser who had never been a NSW Branch Official but preceded me as Federal Research Officer. Manser had left the Union in 1969. He, Howitt and others named certainly voiced criticism of the Blackwell appointment in 1967 but could not have been together in the alleged 1970 meeting so perhaps the report was about a meeting held three years earlier. Merv Nixon, who jokingly referred to Ray as ‘God’ became a close personal friend of mine and I visited his Thirroul home many times when he became South Coast Labor Council Secretary and later a TUTA trainer. When we met we would often reminisce and laugh about ‘the attempted coup of 1967’ Merv was one of more than twenty past and present officials whose friendship I shared. In many ways the Missoes is like a large extended family.
It is a pity that more has not been written about so remarkable a union as the FMWU. Margo Beasley’s The Missos (1996) appears to be the only major published work before Worth Fighting For. Chris Sheil’s aptly titled 1988 PhD thesis The Invisible Giant, has unfortunately not been published, although he was given considerable Union assistance.
Ray Gietzelt’s life has by any standards been remarkable. I learnt a great deal in my two years working for him. Worth Fighting For reveals, however, that he is still not reconciled with some of the events of his past – particularly the 1967 ‘attempted coup’ and its aftermath.