A Different View of History: Reflections on Ray Gietzelt’s Worth Fighting For (Part 1)

Bob Manser

This is the first installment of a detailed two-part response by Bob Manser to Arthur Gietzelt’s recollection of events and personalities in the Federated Miscellaneous Workers Union during 1967 and afterwards. Part 1 focuses on developments within the union during 1967. Part 2 of Bob’s account, dealing with developments subsequent to 1967, will appear in the next (Summer 2005-6) issue of The Hummer.

Unlike Warwick McDonald, who reviewed Ray Gietzelt’s Memoirs, Worth Fighting For (The Hummer, vol.4 no.3), I think that Gietzelt’s treatment of events which took place in 1967 in the Federated Miscellaneous Workers Union (FMWU), is not a mere failure to be reconciled with those events. Gietzelt’s treatment raises serious questions about his ability to deal fairly with history and his colleagues in the Union, then and subsequently.

I was recruited by Arthur Gietzelt, Ray Gietzelt’s brother and a former ALP Senator, who knew me from my leftwing activities in the ALP in the Sutherland Shire. I was introduced to Ray; offered the job; became a member of the Union by working in the cleaning industry and commenced my employment with the FMWU in 1964 as the first Federal Research Officer. Arthur Gietzelt’s original plan (he always seemed to have an abundance of them) was for me to assume some of Ray Gietzelt’s responsibilities in the Union so that he could become more active in the ACTU. It didn’t take me long to realise that Arthur’s plan would be blessed with only partial success because Ray’s energies were focussed on the Union.

When I commenced in the Union the Executive Officers were Keith Blackwell (President); Doug Howitt (Secretary) and George Ford (Assistant Secretary). Ford was an MLC and was the only openly rightwing member of the leadership team. He appeared to have little time for Gietzelt and didn’t regard him with awe. Ford died in July 1966 and Jack Dwyer was appointed in his stead. Jack had originally been elected as an Organiser.

Apart from Ford, I was never able to identify any ideological characteristics in any of the Organisers. They seemed a politically homogeneous bunch of blokes.

From the time I joined the Union, I enjoyed a close working relationship with Doug Howitt. Doug’s duties included both administrative responsibilities and research and advocacy in connection with the many awards and industrial agreements to which the Union was a party. Doug was not only a gifted researcher with a near encyclopaedic memory for industrial relations events, he created systems for recording decisions of courts and tribunals and “noting up” that made the task of research for himself and others so much easier. Doug also compiled an index which linked his research material to decisions, authorities, awards etc. It was a prodigious work which he kept under lock and key. We would joke that he guarded it so carefully to prevent it from falling into my hands.

Doug had details of nearly every library in the industrial relations field. He kept records of surplus and missing volumes in practitioners’ sets and would move volumes between practitioners to make good gaps in their collections of the various series. In this work Doug was aided and abetted by the man from Keens Bookbinders, who collected details from his various clients which he passed on to Doug.

Doug Howitt was a gift from heaven and the best possible mentor for an aspiring young industrial advocate. But Doug’s greatest quality was that he had an independent mind and, although intensely loyal to the Union, he was nobody’s stooge.

Prior to 1967 I knew, from conversations I had with Howitt, that he was not feeling well and wished to give up the administrative duties. As I recall it, the issue of Doug’s future took place in the context of the preparation of the “Officers’ ticket” for the forthcoming State Branch elections. Doug didn’t wish to be Secretary when the election came about. He was prepared to stay on doing the research duties but if that wasn’t possible then he would have resigned. There is no doubt that the Howitts, both Doug and Yvonne (his wife), spoke to Gietzelt about this and it is not surprising that their version of the discussions varies from Gietzelt’s in the emphasis to be put on statements made. For example, Yvonne denies she pleaded with Gietzelt to accept Doug’s resignation;1 after all how could he refuse to accept it? She says that she delivered an ultimatum: “either Doug has a change of job or he leaves.”

Gietzelt claims that the rules of the NSW Branch were amended in 1964 to make the Organisers of the Branch, appointees. However, it is my recollection that the amendment took place in 1967, after and as a consequence of what happened that year. In her history of the union – The Missos – Margo Beasley confirms my recollection as to the date of the amendment, but not as to the reasons for them, when she says:

At the end of 1967 the NSW Branch Rule was changed and brought into conformity with the federal Rules. The formerly elected NSW Branch organisers were then appointed to their positions.2

Beasley accepts the official line that the amendment was necessary to bring the State rules into line with the rules of the other Branches, and to prevent Organisers using their position to resist the proper disciplinary functions of the Secretary.

It is not correct to say, as Beasley does, that the “rebel group” collapsed in early 1968.3 This suggests that the dispute went on for months. It didn’t. It was over in a matter of a couple of weeks, at the most. Certainly it was over in plenty of time for the rule amendments to be applied for and granted within 1967. The application was probably one of the first things Gietzelt did.

If my recollection is correct, then the paid officers would have been elected to their positions in the previous election in 1965. If there was no talk of amendments to the rules beforehand – and I never heard any – then the Organisers would reasonably have expected to have been on the “ticket”.

Even if my recollection is incorrect, the paid officers of the Branch would have had an interest in who might occupy the principal executive position in the Branch, namely the Secretary’s position. They were, on the face of it, part of the leadership team of the NSW Branch and their conduct and the interaction between them and the executive officers of the Branch was consistent with that status. In other words, they acted and were treated as if they were part of the team and not mere employees.

The Organisers had no executive power, as the elected organisers had prior to 1955, when the “Protest Committee” (the Gietzelt team) gained power, but they were able to address the State Council of the Branch, if permitted, so that their voices were not, necessarily, silent on the issue of who was to occupy the Secretary’s position.

Gietzelt states that he offered Howitt the position of Research Officer, “which he accepted” and then he coerced Keith Blackwell into leaving his job at Major Bros Paints to accept “the post of Branch Secretary”.4 This is rather curious because I believed that he had been in a full-time office because he always seemed to be around. A check of the NSW Branch Secretary’s Reports for the years 1965 and 1966 reveals that Blackwell seems to have been in full time organising duties in Area 6. He was paid the same wage as the Assistant Secretary. He is also shown to have had allocated to him a Simca motor vehicle, which he had had since May 1962. This suggests that Gietzelt’s coercion had been applied to Blackwell earlier than 1967 and not to accept “the post of Branch Secretary”.

In any event, nowhere does he say that either of these appointments had the prior approval of the Branch State Council, which met every couple of weeks, even though one of the appointments was to a position which had not previously existed, that is, the Research Officer’s position. This would have resulted in a substantial increase in the Union’s wages bill. If one accepts what he has written, Gietzelt’s “appointments” were all his own work.

But the State Council was not the only apparent omission. Gietzelt had not consulted the paid officers of the Branch. The reaction was one of outrage. The paid officers of the NSW Branch neither approved of nor wanted Keith Blackwell to be Secretary. This included Jack Dwyer, Organisers George Chaloner and Bede Croke, and the South Coast Sub–Branch Secretary, Merv Nixon. All of these were, as far as I know, supporters of Gietzelt and had either been part of the original Protest Committee or had become identified with Gietzelt subsequently. The group also included Organisers Frank Shanahan, Lloyd Grove, and Peter Moxon. There were a couple of others including Danny Cooper (who is described as the “Vigilance Officer”, a term common to the waterfront) but I don’t have a clear recollection of their involvement nor of any conversations with them.

Some time earlier Don Hancock had joined me in the Federal Office as the Federal Organiser. Hancock was another introduced to Ray Gietzelt by his brother, Arthur. I found Don to be a fascinating person who seemed to be saturated with leftwing folklore and to know something about everybody whom I regarded as important in labour politics. For instance, he told me that Ray Gietzelt had joined the Communist Party (CPA) on the day he joined the army but that he was no longer a member. Hancock refused to say when Gietzelt had ceased to be a member of the CPA. I tried a couple of times to get this information but without success. Because I didn’t care, I gave up.

I was surprised to see that Gietzelt says that he had conceded the fact of his membership of the CPA, in cross-examination by John Kerr QC in the 1955 court case, but that his membership had ceased 4 or 5 years before.5 I was surprised because Gietzelt had never spoken of his membership of the CPA in the time I worked for him. But if Hancock was correct, then it would suggest a period of membership from 1941, when Gietzelt says he joined the army, until about 1950.

Although Hancock never admitted his membership of the CPA to me, his disclosure of other persons’ memberships, and his subsequent revelations about his contacts with high officials of the CPA, indicated a very close relationship indeed.

The first indication that I had that there was trouble in the NSW Branch over the appointment of Blackwell was when Hancock was approached by some of the paid officers about his willingness to be proposed as an alternative to Blackwell. Because I was present I was asked whether I would be willing to do the job if Don declined or was not acceptable, but I was very much a second choice. I don’t remember who made this first approach nor where it took place but there was no doubting the strength of feeling against Blackwell. He was described as a pompous, arrogant and aggressive person, who had little regard for the opinions of others except, of course, Gietzelt.

Over the ensuing days Hancock and I were able to establish, through conversations with others that the hostility was not confined to the few who had made the initial approach but was the view of them all, to a man. Jack Dwyer, an avuncular type, was not vociferous but was positive in his condemnation of Blackwell. So was Chaloner. Croke, on the other hand, was quite definite in his views. I remember that Bede became flushed and agitated when he described Blackwell.

Merv Nixon, from Wollongong, is the most difficult to recall. This is because he played his cards close to his chest. But I remember that he was all for Hancock being Secretary and observed that Blackwell only respected the opinions of Gietzelt, whom he always referred to as “God”. Merv is described by Gietzelt as a former first-grade rugby league footballer, but he was also, apparently, an honorary American because he played for the touring “American All Stars” rugby league team. I wonder if they knew he was a Communist?

Later Don informed me that he had talked to somebody in the Communist Party, who was said to be Laurie Aarons, the General Secretary, about what was going on. At that stage the CPA was not, apparently, against Don becoming Secretary because Don continued to give encouragement to the paid officers that he would do the job if he was acceptable, presumably to Gietzelt and the State Council.

At no time was there any suggestion made by any of the NSW officers, including Shanahan, Grove or Moxon, that any other position was an issue or that there was any challenge to the leadership or policies of the Union. There certainly was no mention of a challenge to Gietzelt, who then held the relatively minor position of State Vice President. If there had been the slightest suggestion of a general “tilt” at the leadership of the Union, particularly Gietzelt, neither Hancock nor I would have been a party to it. He was, after all, our boss.

It was purely an objection to Blackwell, and if it is true that Shanahan, Grove and Moxon represented the rightwing forces in the Union at that time, then the objection to Blackwell was certainly cross-factional, and that made the complaints legitimate.

There were a number of discussions between Hancock and the NSW officers at which I was present. None of these discussions was in any way secret. Most of the discussions, usually involving one or two of the officers at a time, took place in the NSW Branch office, in the Star Hotel or, in the case of Merv Nixon, walking around the street at lunch time.

Merv seemed to be spending an inordinate amount of time in Sydney during this period. Merv told me that he was discussing what was happening with Joe Palmada at the CPA. I don’t now recall what Palmada’s position was at the CPA, but I think he might have been the NSW State Secretary.

There never was any sort of formal structure and the first I heard about a “planning committee” was when I read about it in Gietzelt’s book. The paid officers might well have had their own discussions independently of Hancock and me. It would hardly be surprising if they did, otherwise how would they come to any sort of consensus about what to do or what they wanted?

Clearly the dissatisfaction of the NSW officers was conveyed to Gietzelt because there was a procession of them to his office. It seems equally clear that Don’s and my name had been advanced as possible alternatives because I was called in early in the piece and Gietzelt demanded that I declare my “absolute loyalty” to him. I told him that my loyalty was to the Union, its members and the members of the leadership team. He then demanded that I give an “undertaking” that I would not run for Secretary. I refused and said that I would do so if the NSW officers wanted me to. It took me some time that day to get over my anger and disappointment at the behaviour of a man whom I admired for the great job he was doing for the left. I didn’t think that a person who espoused trade union democracy was entitled to demand “absolute loyalty” to him and an “undertaking” not to run for a position in the Union.

Gietzelt’s reaction to the disputing of his actions was, in the circumstances, extraordinary. From the time he became aware of the dispute, he wound himself up into a frenzy of activity. Gietzelt’s office resembled a War Cabinet bunker. There were frequent meetings in his office behind closed doors. The glass louvres between our offices would be slammed shut so that I couldn’t hear what was going on. Staff members of the Federal Office and the NSW Branch became spies. It became common for me to be pursued around the corridors of the Trades Hall by Norma Disher, Gietzelt’s secretary, who was a member of the CPA. Doug Howitt and I played a game in which we would huddle together within sight of Disher and say “whisper, whisper etc”.

Beasley is in error when she says that this event is “sometimes mockingly referred to as the ‘attempted coup’”6 . It was always so described because everybody knew that it was nothing of the sort. I think Merv Nixon coined the term. Beasley has accepted the official line that any challenge in the largest branch of the Union was potentially destabilising.7 That could well have been possible if there had been a more even balance of political forces within the leadership of the NSW Branch, but there wasn’t. The leadership, even if one includes the paid officers of the Branch, was overwhelmingly leftwing. Blackwell’s replacement, if Hancock or I had been acceptable to Gietzelt and the State Council, would have been a leftwinger. How could this have destabilised the Union unless you accept the proposition that any disagreement with Gietzelt was ipso facto destabilising for the Union?

Obviously neither Don Hancock nor I had any power base in the Union and we were totally dependent on the NSW paid officers remaining united in their opposition to Blackwell and persuading Gietzelt and/or the State Council to not approve Blackwell acting in the position pending the forthcoming elections. If there was no contest in the election, Blackwell, if appointed, would have been elected unopposed. This, of course, the officers had to prevent.

In any event, the officers did not remain united. Dwyer, Chaloner and Croke quickly crumbled when Gietzelt applied the pressure to them and the dispute fizzled out in a very short time. Before the dispute collapsed, however, two very interesting things happened.

Firstly, Don Hancock came back from one of his visits to the CPA to announce that he had been told that the CPA “is going to support Ray” and I am sure he said that this was to be with stationery and postage. Further, he said that he had been told that he was to withdraw his name as a possible candidate for Secretary.

It never occurred to me to ask Hancock whether and, if so, why, the CPA had had a change of heart. I assumed that the CPA had seen an advantage in securing Hancock’s appointment as Secretary of a branch of an influential leftwing union but that the perceived advantage had been overborne by other considerations. No doubt Norma Disher would have been reporting back to CPA headquarters from the “Bunker”, as were Hancock and Nixon. Nixon, of course, would have been privy to any discussions that the NSW officers were having independently of those they were having with Hancock and me.

Secondly, Merv Nixon told me that he had been told by the CPA to “keep out of it”. I was surprised to read in Beasley’s book that Shanahan, Grove and Moxon had been “isolated and loathed by others” after the collapse of the dispute.8 I must say that I neither witnessed nor heard Dwyer, Chaloner or Croke treating Shanahan and company in this way. Perhaps the explanation was that I didn’t have enough opportunities to witness it. Because it was a surprise to me, I asked Doug Howitt whether he had seen or heard anything of the sort.

Yvonne Howitt told me this story. At a Union Picnic Day between 1967 and 1974 (when Doug retired), she had been talking to Shanahan’s wife, when she was approached by George Chaloner who said, “You shouldn’t be talking to her.” This was the first indication Doug had that some policy of isolation had been implemented. Doug said that he later became aware that he too was the subject of such a policy. He says that he was “sent to Coventry” and spent his remaining years at the Union in virtual isolation when visits by other officers ceased. He says that he raised the issue with both Gietzelt and Blackwell, asking “What is going on?” He was told to “mind his own business” and words to the effect that they had the issue in hand.

But then both Yvonne and Doug told me a most remarkable story. After Doug’s retirement in 1974 they lived at Wooli in northern NSW before moving to their current residence in 1979. Late one afternoon they were surprised to receive a visit from George Chaloner, Jack Dwyer and Don Hancock. Tea was provided and a general conversation took place. Before departing Doug was asked if he would call on them the following morning at the motel where they were staying. He agreed.

Doug continues the story: At the appointed time he came to the motel and asked, “What is this all about?” Chaloner said, “I am going to die soon but I couldn’t die without apologising to you for the treatment we gave you over the years. Gietzelt made us do it.” The remainder of the conversation was taken up with the other two confirming Gietzelt’s instructions, confessing their participation in the process and apologising for their actions.

Now, according to both Beasley and Gietzelt, Hancock resigned in 1973. Howitt actually resigned in February, 1974. Why would Hancock attend on the Howitts after he had left the Union, and in the company of Chaloner and Dwyer? Hancock did not become tainted as both a spy for the right and a conspirator with Shanahan in the 1971 and 1974 challenges until 1975, when Shanahan spilt the beans to Gietzelt. Whatever the explanation for Hancock’s attendance, none was given to Howitt. As I remember it, Lionel Murphy drew up new rules providing for the appointment of NSW Branch Organisers.

Later in 1967 Gietzelt attacked Peter Moxon, the most vulnerable of the dissenters. I had no particular affection for Shanahan or Grove but I felt some sympathy for Moxon. As I remember it, he had a difficult area to work in the newly-established industrial areas of Sydney’s North Shore, particularly up towards Hornsby. He never seemed to do well in recruiting new members and I would hear of arrangements made to give him assistance with senior organisers from time to time. Moxon always conveyed the impression that the job was overwhelming. There may have good reason to discipline Moxon for his failings, but the timing marked this as a reprisal.

I can well imagine that Gietzelt would have been armed with a dossier of Moxon’s failings when it came time to attack him. The office manager of the NSW Branch, Alda Brown, had been one of those who had made trips to the “Bunker” in the early days of the dispute. Knowing Gietzelt, as I do, it would hardly be surprising to find that Brown had been accumulating evidence for him from the beginning. If there had been a genuine attempted coup, one can readily concede that the accumulation of such evidence would have been useful, if not valuable. But the fact was that when Dwyer, Chaloner, Croke and Nixon dropped out, and Hancock withdrew his name, the challenge to the appointment of Blackwell was over.

There never was a need for reprisals. The NSW Branch officers had been humbled. Gietzelt’s errant supporters had been brought back into line. The objections to Blackwell’s appointment had been overcome and the officers just had to cop it. The dispute had never been ideologically based, so there was no need for triumphalism on the part of the left.

I regarded the abolition of the election of organisers as a retrograde step because it deprived members of their right to elect their own representatives to deal with employers on the job, for example. It also deprived the Organisers of a measure of security against the capricious use of power by the Secretary. The principle of membership control and democracy outweigh the management arguments used by Gietzelt. Those arguments later proved to be illusory both in NSW and Victoria.

Gietzelt refers to the deterioration in the relationship between Howitt and Blackwell. This was hardly surprising. After Howitt ceased to be Secretary he was employed by the union as Research Officer. After the dispute was over, the Organisers became employees also. Blackwell, who had been, in a sense, the first among equals, was now the boss.

From the observations that I was able to make of Blackwell in his dealings with the officers of the NSW Branch, their misgivings about him were justified. He was consistently rude to them and overbearing. He appeared to know everything and there was no need for him to be burdened with the opinions or suggestions of his subordinates. Having said that, I must also note that my relationship with Blackwell was always friendly and courteous throughout the time I knew him as Secretary.

However, my most enduring memory of Blackwell is that he was a dedicated sycophant. In addition to the references which Warwick McDonald has made, Blackwell would often describe Gietzelt as a “tyrant”, which he would define, by quoting some “original” meaning, as a “benevolent dictator”. This was done in all sorts of union company and accompanied by a good natured chuckle. Blackwell no doubt intended it to be a compliment to Gietzelt, to which all those in his audience would agree, but the irony was not lost on other leftwing union officials who would often referred to the “cult of the personality” surrounding Gietzelt.


  1. Gietzelt, R. (2004), Worth Fighting For. The Memoirs of Ray Gietzelt, Federation Press, Sydney, p.83.
  2. Beasley, M. (1996), The Missos. A History of the Federated Miscellaneous Workers Union, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, p.162.
  3. Beasley, The Missos, p.162.
  4. Gietzelt, Worth Fighting For, p.83
  5. Ibid., p.33.
  6. Beasley, The Missos, p.162.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid.