Vale John Cummins 1948-2006 -- Michael Bull (unabridged)

Michael Bull

John Cummins, whom many consider the greatest trade union leader and industrial tactician of our time, died after a year-long battle with cancer on August 29. Cummo, as he was known, was either the most loved, or the most feared, of all union leaders.

He joined the Communist Party of Australia (Marxist-Leninist) at university in the early 1970s and soon after joined the Builders Labourers Federation (BLF). Cummo was sent to work on the Westgate Bridge, where he was surrounded by many experienced union activists and gained important experience in the Victorian building industry. Before long, BLF secretary Norm Gallagher made Cummo an organiser.

Throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, the BLF led important struggles that won victories for all building industry workers. These included the introduction of the National Building and Construction Award system, which entrenched holiday pay, sick leave, site sheds, toilets, cleaners and dozens of other entitlements into the industry. The hard-fought ``No ticket, no start’‘ for closed shop unionism was also won in this period.

Gallagher was an astute industrial tactician, renowned for his ``guerilla tactics’‘, rather than prolonged strikes, in industrial disputes. These included snap 24-hour strikes and industrial bans, the idea being to make the bosses pay as much as possible while minimising workers’ lost wages. The BLF claimed, and usually won, ``lost time’‘ or strike pay on settlement of the dispute.

In 1983, Bob Hawke’s Labor government brought in the Prices and Incomes Accord, an agreement between governments, bosses and unions that was promoted as heralding the end of industrial disputes. The accord was supposed to increase workers’ wages and conditions without the need for industrial action. Early on, the BLF could see that this was just a mechanism for the government and bosses to cut wages and conditions. Although the union signed on, it continued to take industrial action to improve building workers’ wages and conditions.

The establishment entrusted Hawke with the task of taming the union movement, but the BLF’s actions placed the accord, and therefore the Labor government, under increasing pressure. If the BLF had broken the accord, there would have been a wages break-out, possibly ending the Labor government.


In April 1986, the ALP, with the support of the bosses, deregistered the BLF. They wanted to scare the union movement into submission. Police were called to sites in Victoria, NSW and Canberra, where BLF members were ordered to join rival unions. If they refused, they were sacked on the spot and escorted off site.

BLF officials were banned from sites and if they entered anyway were charged with trespass. The courts would then issue an order banning them from the site. If the official ignored the court order, they were jailed for 28 days for contempt of court.

It was in this battle against deregistration that John Cummins came into his own. By 1986, Cummo was assistant secretary of the BLF and very much Gallagher’s right-hand man. Gallagher and Cummo called the shots on a hard-hitting guerilla campaign that lasted six years and cost the building bosses hundreds of millions of dollars.

At the end of 1986 I was a young carpenter shop steward on the Kensington Flour Mills site run by a NSW company called Barclay Brothers. This anti-union company was suing the Plumbers Union over its 36-hour week campaign.

To get the company to drop its lawsuit against the Plumbers Union, recognize the BLF and grant a $52 per week pay increase to all workers, a cohesive industrial campaign was conducted under BLF guidance. For 18 months, we had weekly 24-hour strikes and the site was crippled by industrial bans most of the time. We shut the site down for 12 weeks and eventually the company closed the site for five months. However, because BLF tactics were used, the workers lost very little money.

Other tactics used included the disruption of concrete pours, flying pickets, regular rallies and even the hijacking of cranes. Building workers were angry at having their union outlawed, at being constantly harassed by police and company goons, and being blacklisted and in some cases jailed (Cummo was jailed twice during this period) and their militancy started costing the bosses a fortune.

The campaign was tough and fought very hard, but democracy was always abided by. At Kensington Flour Mills, Cummo and BLF organiser John Setka constantly discussed with me and other union activists how to conduct the campaign. Cummo made sure that all motions were thoroughly discussed, debated and voted on by the entire workforce before any action was taken.

While Gallagher ran things with an iron fist, Cummo was always thoroughly democratic and a team builder. Cummo’s ability to build a team and to patch up Gallagher’s autocratic mistakes was a key reason why the BLF lasted so long against powerful enemies. While both men were involved in the takeover of the NSW BLF branch in the early 1970s, Cummo defied Gallagher to stop the blacklisting of those who had opposed the takeover.

By the early 1990s, the BLF was running out of steam. The sustained attacks by the state, an economic recession and the constant blacklisting of BLF militants all took their toll.

Cummo and other BLF militants suggested to Gallagher that they make a deal with the newly created Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU). Gallagher, scared of losing what little was left of his empire, opposed the proposal. This led to a bitter split between the two men.

Both organised their supporters for a final showdown at a BLF branch meeting, the highest decision-making body of the union.

Cummo easily won the vote and took over running the union. Gallagher later tried to use the police against the Cummins camp, a disgrace he never recovered from.

The media came to that branch meeting in droves, hoping that Cummo would dump on Gallagher. Asked ``what do you think of Norm now?’‘, Cummo simply relied, ``Well, you never judge someone by their last game of footy do you’‘.

In 1993 the BLF joined the CFMEU. The CFMEU was in bad shape after years of appalling leadership and its battle with the BLF. Cummo and the BLF militants threw their weight behind a new leadership of Martin Kingham and Bill Oliver.

The new CFMEU leadership agreed to employ Cummo and three other BLF organisers, and to stop all blacklisting against BLF members, as long as the BLF camp agreed not to destabilise the union or set up a counter leadership. There were a few difficult times over the years, but the amalgamation was remarkably smooth, mostly due to Cummo’s approach. He constantly explained that the past was over and that now, for the good of all construction workers, a united CFMEU had to look forward and rebuild militancy in the industry.

Cummo knew that there were two keys to achieving this. First, the union had to be democratic. As CFMEU president, Cummo chaired all official members’ meetings, and all members had their say on any issue they chose. The new leadership made sure that this degree of democracy was also maintained at site level.

Secondly, Cummo always promoted activism. He believed that if shop stewards and activists became inactive, that would be the end of the union.

Cummo and the rest of the CFMEU leadership realised that to build a new militancy in the union, the members had to be mobilised. Therefore, from the mid-1990s, at least one major campaign was conducted each year.

In 1996, it was the campaign against the tax on travel allowances; in 1997 the enterprise bargaining and Work Cover campaigns; in 1998 the wharfies’ dispute with Patrick Stevedores; in 1999 the campaign for East Timor; in 2000 the 36 hour-week campaign; in 2001 the long-service leave campaign; in 2002 the campaign against the building industry royal commission; then two more enterprise bargaining campaigns in 2003 and 2005. All of these campaigns involved members in activities on site and in public rallies, ensuring that old activists were kept active and new members were being brought into activism.

Cummo was the greatest industrial tactician I have ever known. He was always very vocal about the need for solidarity amongst unions. The CFMEU led by Kingham, Oliver and Cummins always offered as much assistance as possible to other workers in dispute, whether blue-collar or white-collar. Very often, the CFMEU was instrumental in winning a dispute for another union and group of workers.

The 1998 wharfies’ dispute picket line in Melbourne is probably the most famous case. It was fascinating to see Cummo at work during that dispute, especially on the night the picket repelled the massive police onslaught. As the police moved in, maritime union officials still had control of the loud speaker system but were at ground level and no-one could see what was going on between our lines and the police lines. So Cummo simply perched himself on the roof of an empty police van on our side of the picket and, armed with a loud hailer, called the shots for the entire night.

When the police later breached a gate leading into the port, Cummo immediately headed to the area, located near Footscray Road, a major arterial. Within a couple of hours, a number of semi-trailers had rolled up, driven by Cummo’s mates, and totally blocked off Footscray Road. The peak-hour traffic banked, forcing the police to divide their forces to try to fix the traffic problem. At that moment, Cummo led a group of storemen and packers who simply pushed the remaining cops aside while another truck, waiting around the corner, tipped its load of telephone poles in front of the gate and the picket was ours again.

When the MUA told its members to return to work before a deal was struck Cummo was furious; Patrick Stevedores was on its knees and now was not the time to back off. The MUA realised that most of the workers were now looking to the CFMEU for leadership and ordered the CFMEU off the picket line. As Cummo said, ``A defeat was snatched from the jaws of victory’‘.

Another campaign in which he was instrumental was the liberation of East Timor in September 1999. Cummo had visited East Timor on an ACTU-led exposure tour in July that year and had pledged his solidarity to the Timorese. When the Indonesian military and the militias went on the rampage killing and forcibly displacing large numbers of Timorese, Cummo mobilised construction workers at Melbourne Airport and closed down the check-in desk at Garuda Airlines. A deal was then negotiated with Qantas to pick up the stranded passengers.

Even though the action was largely symbolic, it created a furore and received widespread media coverage around the world. The Indonesian foreign minister voiced strong protest about the Australian government’s inaction in allowing Garuda to be closed down.

Again the establishment was in a quandary if they had broken up the picket using force, it would have sent a message to the Australian public that they supported Indonesia’s violent actions in East Timor. So they did nothing. The tactics were perfect and the picket continued until the Australian government agreed to send in troops to stop the killings in East Timor.

Cummo believed international solidarity was important and this led to him and Michele O’Neil from the textile workers union becoming the figureheads of Workers Against War, an organisation formed to oppose the Iraq war in 2003.

Cummo also had a very quick wit. I remember sometime back he was on the phone to a union activist who was totally out of control and the conversation went like this:

``When are you going to get me a job’‘

Cummo: ``Not until you pull your head in.’‘

``Well I’ll send you $10 in the mail, go to Victoria Market and buy yourself a heart, you weak bastard.’‘

To which Cummo replied, ``Do yourself a favour, keep 5, jump in the next queue and get yourself some brains’‘.

Cummo’s other great attribute was that he was always there for all union members, no matter how big or small the problem was. He always patiently listened and in turn, patiently explained. He returned each and every phone call.

He lived by the rule that the union was for the members, not a tool of the ALP. His other rules were that, no member was a dog, but most bosses were, and that union issues were simple; it’s the state and its lackeys that deliberately muddy the waters.

Cummo is already being sadly missed by all his comrades and even though the Howard government, their lackeys and many bosses will be celebrating his passing, Cummo’s militancy, his ideas and his teachings will continue to live on through the hundreds and hundreds of people he has influenced and trained in the decades of struggle.

(A shorter version of this obituary can be read in the latest GLW)

Messages can be sent by post or email to the CFMEU office, marked attention to Ralph Edwards, at 500 Swanston Street, Carlton 3053 or