Socialist Party stalwart Simon Millar died unexpectedly in late January at the age of 51. Having been active in the socialist and trade union movement for 35 years his death is a huge blow.
No single article could possibly do justice to Simon’s huge contribution, but below are at least a few words outlining his political life as I knew him. To me he was a comrade and a friend and, up until now, one of my longest standing and closest political collaborators.
While best known as a militant trade unionist, Simon was primarily a life-long revolutionary. He put the struggle for socialist change at the centre of everything he did. He had a deep sense of injustice and he dedicated his life to changing the capitalist system, which he understood was the source of all forms of exploitation and oppression.
With this in mind he involved himself in countless struggles, and during the course of his life he had an influence on thousands of people. He was the sort of person that people remembered because he was insightful, and he challenged people to think in a more radical way.
Simon was convinced of socialist ideas at the age of 16, for a time joining the Socialist Workers Party. It was here that he was first introduced to Marxism, a worldview that he maintained until the end. He saw the working class as the key agents of social change and he was convinced that if they could be organised around the right ideas they could win anything, including a better world.
Simon had a unique way of going about things. He was an expert at explaining political ideas in a practical and easy to understand way. He was a master of patient explanation who always saw the best in people. Because of these qualities he drew many people into the labour movement and into political activity. He was an inspiration to many young activists including myself.
Simon was in his mid-twenties when he got involved in the campaign to save Richmond Secondary College. This was the early 1990s when Jeff Kennett was closing schools and hospitals and sacking thousands of public servants. Simon quickly became one of the leaders of the Richmond dispute, helping to organise the year long occupation, as well as numerous rallies, gigs and picket lines.
He used his connections amongst the trade unions to draw the Richmond campaign closer to the labour movement and to the wider anti-Kennett struggle. Today there is still a public school on that site in Richmond because of the contribution that people like Simon made to that struggle.
Simon leant heavily on the experiences he gained at Richmond, and he carried them through to other campaigns. It was around the time of the Richmond dispute that Simon joined Militant, the forerunner of the Socialist Party. He was a regular contributor to The Militant newspaper, writing dozens of articles during the 1990s. Many of these were about industrial disputes and developments in the labour movement.
In the late 1990s Simon was one of the early members of Workers First, a rank and file group in the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU). He was involved in the pioneering campaigns that saw a militant leadership elected to that union in Victoria.
Subsequently he was also involved in ‘Campaign 2000’, which was significant for the pay rises it delivered through the use of industrial action and pattern bargaining. Simon also participated in other prominent campaigns like those for the ‘Skilled 6’ and the defence of Craig Johnston. Simon always made positive contributions and he always raised the political level.
I first met Simon in the year 2000. I was working as a fitter and turner and he was a metal trades assistant. We were both members of the AMWU. I had started to become politically active and was involved with a rank and file trade union show on radio station 3CR called ‘On The Picket Line’. Simon worked on the show, as did people like Robbie Cecala and Joan Doyle. These people gave me some of my initial training about how to be a militant unionist. Simon brought me into Workers First, and I joined the Socialist Party around the same time.
At this point Simon was not a member of the Socialist Party, having left over disagreements about how to take the socialist movement forward. For a time in the early 2000s he was a member of the Socialist Alliance. While we had some political disagreements in those years we worked very closely together in Workers First, at 3CR, and on other trade union issues.
In the early 2000s Simon also played an important role in the Latrobe Valley where there was a big dispute at the Yallourn power station. He worked for the union and stayed in the Valley for months doing outreach work and helping the union run the dispute. To this day he is still fondly remembered by many of those power workers.
He was always at home on picket lines. He knew that life was a class struggle and while the trials and tribulations sometimes got to him he kept on pressing ahead never losing faith in the working class or in the socialist cause. Simon was committed in both words and deeds, regularly giving significant amounts of money to the struggles he participated in.
Around 2004 Simon decided to make a change, leaving the metals industry to embark on an apprenticeship as an electrician. His daughter Alice had just been born and he wanted to put himself in a better position to provide for her. He shifted his trade union activity from the AMWU to the Electrical Trades Union where he was no less committed. In fact, while an apprentice in 2009 he helped lead a successful campaign to save apprentice jobs.
In 2010 Simon re-joined the Socialist Party. He wrote us a long application letter explaining his reasons. He said that his thinking had evolved on a number of issues and that he considered the Socialist Party to be his political home. For me, being able to work with Simon more closely in the party was a huge boost.
Simon was working in Wonthaggi on the big desalination plant project at the time. An industrial dispute erupted there around 2011 and as always Simon was in the thick of it. He wrote articles about it for The Socialist, but he also wrote an epic account of the struggle which we only properly published after the dispute and all the legal proceedings were over.
While his account wasn’t online, he had printed out a few dozen copies and it was passed around the job hand to hand, being read by hundreds of workers. In my view it played a role in giving the dispute some political context and opening up a debate about the strategy needed to win.
Pointing a way forward for struggles was the focus of all his writing. Simon was not an academic, in fact he was self-educated and had never been to university. That said, he had read more books than most professors and he could hold an academic argument with anyone. While he was extremely intelligent he was never arrogant. He never spoke down to people.
He was especially good at educating young people. In the weeks before he died we were working together on preparations for a trade union day school where he was going to speak to young people about organising their workplaces. It was this sort of work that Simon got the most excited about, bringing new people around and training them up to be militants and revolutionaries. Everyone in the Socialist Party really appreciated the time he spent sharing his knowledge and ideas.
In 2017 we spent months campaigning for equal marriage rights and although he was working long hours he made time to help with the campaign. There was one street stall where he came along with his daughter Alice. She was not there to be a bystander, she was working hard, probably getting a couple of hundred ‘yes’ votes herself that day.
At one point she was accosted by an opponent of equal marriage rights. This middle-aged man was trying to tell her that she was wrong and that same-sex marriage was immoral. Cool, calm and collected the 14-year-old Alice patiently tore his arguments to shreds in about 30 seconds. He was forced to retreat with his tail between his legs, a broken man.
I asked Simon if he had seen what happened and he responded, “that’s just how she is mate”. He was brimming with pride. In addition to his political contributions it is clear that, along with Lucy, he has done a terrific job raising Alice who is growing up to be a very impressive young woman.
Simon was active right up until his untimely death. He spent Christmas day 2017 on the picket line with the UGL workers at Longford. This was another dispute that Simon was passionate about, visiting the picket and writing several articles in The Socialist. In one of the last discussions I had with him he was telling me about the inspiring political discussions he was having with the shop stewards there.
He was actually really boosted and optimistic about the new period that that we are entering. He said that in the past it was him that brought up socialism on picket lines. But in this era of crisis ridden capitalism, and with the presence of people like Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn, people are already talking about socialism and thinking about how it could be achieved.
Simon knew that building a revolutionary party and changing the world was hard, but he was confident that the road ahead would be easier. He helped us lay the foundations for that road. What a tragedy that he won’t get to see some of the fruits of his labour as we build upon his work and push ahead to grow the socialist movement in this country and beyond.
Along with all of the members of the Socialist Party I will miss Simon dearly. We send condolences to his family, especially Alice, Lucy and Chloe, to his friends, and to all those who he inspired over the years. Rest in power comrade.
By Anthony Main