The recent death of John Cummins (Cummo) has been a huge blow to the working class movement in Australia. Cummo was the President of the Victorian branch of the CFMEU (construction union), probably the strongest union in the nation.
In the 1970s and 1980s he was a key leader of the Victorian BLF. In 1986 the BLF was deregistered in by the ALP Federal and State governments. They used both the police and the courts to smash the union. A few years later Cummo led the bulk of the remnants of this union into the construction division of the CFMEU.
Cummo was a giant in the labour movement who left a deep mark on the working class and on thousands of individual workers.
When John Cummins was running a dispute you felt safe. He exuded calmness and confidence. This came from years of experience in numerous struggles and from a great tactical brain. It also came from his inner confidence in the power of workers to beat any boss. This in turn came from his class politics that he learnt as a communist. Cummo was never a member of ALP.
He was a communist from his early political years on campus and later as an organiser and leader in the BLF. The understanding he got from his politics was the basis of his brilliant career as Victoria’s most popular workers’ leader.
Cummo knew how to talk to workers. He had a wonderful turn of phrase and an endless stream of Australianisms to better illuminate whatever point he was making. He never talked down to workers or dumbed down his message. He spoke quietly without false bravado and without swearing. He lifted workers’ spirits, and thereby their confidence to face any odds.
Inside the CFMEU in Victoria he played a balancing role between those forces behind Billy Oliver and those from the BLF and others such as SP members who wanted a militant union not under ALP control. Since he got sick about a year ago, a big hole has been left in the leadership of the union. In the year since he has been away the difference in the union can be seen by active members.
He was the friend and mentor of many trade unionists. He was like a father to many protecting them from blacklisting, educating them, hearing them out, and offering advice. His office had a steady stream, sometimes a long queue, of members seeking a few minutes to put a case, hear a complaint, or get advice. It was like the queue outside a confessional box. No other CFMEU leader had such demands on him yet he never made you feel a nuisance or unwelcome.
The current line of the ACTU, backed by the vast majority of trade union leaders, is to ‘box cleverly’ or ‘keep your head down’ and wait for an ALP victory in the next federal election. What then? Another Accord, more union deregistrations, more cuts with a velvet glove? Cummo would not have felt comfortable with the steady erosion of the militancy of the union in the name of getting the ALP over the line. Gains won through struggle in the past should not be let go easily.
The type of class politics, union militancy and honest appraisal of events that Cummo stood for is what’s needed today. A study of Cummo’s life and legacy would be a useful education for every young trade unionist and young socialist.
The Socialist Party sends its condolences to all of Cummo’s family and comrades. We urge all trade unionists to attend Cummo’s memorial event at 3pm on Monday the 4th September at the Regents Theatre. A historic building that was saved by a green ban introduced by the BLF.
By Socialist Party reporters