Joe Ferguson, former president of the Builders Labourers Federation, and one of the most pivotal figures in the turbulent NSW building industry over the last 50 years, died in mid-November (1997) following a stroke.
A Depression-era kid, Ferguson joined the Communist Party early in life. On the suggestion of the Party, Ferguson and the other two Communist builders labourers – all there were in NSW at the time – formed a Rank and File group in the builders labourers union. At this stage -1951 – the BLF in NSW was an obscure right-wing union run by gangsters.
Over the course of the next decade, Ferguson and the others painstakingly built the Rank and File group against a backdrop of constant vilification, blacklisting and violence by the union leadership. Without doubt, the key figure throughout this struggle was Joe Ferguson.
As fellow Rank and Filer Don McHugh put it, “The bloke that did the most work out of the whole lot was Joe Ferguson. He worked night and day. From Liverpool, he used to sleep at people’s places, at railway stations and everything, putting out papers and that …”
By 1961, after ten years of organising, the Rank and File had finally won control of the union. Yet the tragedy was, that even on the eve of their triumph, the seeds of division that were to rip them apart a further decade down the track, were already starting to germinate.
As the 1960s went on, the BLF split into different factions (at root a reflection of the divisions in the international Communist world).
Ferguson sided with federal BLF secretary Norm Gallagher, who was increasingly at odds with the NSW branch. By the 1970s the division had become overtly hostile and culminated in the ‘federal intervention’ into NSW in 1975, signalling the end of the green bans, internal warfare in the branch, and leaving a legacy of bitterness that lasts to this day.
It was during this period that Ferguson mentored the young Steve Black, who became BLF secretary up to the union’s deregistration in 1986. Ferguson became an organiser for a period, then union president, and was one of the key strategists of the BLF during these years.
Following the demise of the BLF, Ferguson was a leading figure in the Friends of Prince Henry, a group formed to prevent the closure of Prince Henry hospital and to fight for the preservation of a public health system generally. In his final years he also devoted considerable time to looking after his old comrade Kevin Gledhill, a fellow veteran from the 1950s Rank and File who’s been seriously ill.
Whilst we clearly disagreed on a number of things, I found Joe to be a friendly, intelligent and unassuming man, who despite his decades of experience, never condescended to younger activists. And unlike many who’ve called themselves “communists” over the years, he lived humbly to the end of his days.
Vale Joe Ferguson
By Paul True
Originally published in the February 1998 edition of The Militant, the predecessor of The Socialist.