Articles on the Balmain ironworkers' strike of 1945

Ozleft ozleft at
Tue Aug 12 07:56:13 MDT 2003

New on Ozleft:

The Balmain ironworkers' strike of 1945 by Daphne
Gollan (1972) and

The memoirs of Cleopatra Sweatfigure, by Daphne Gollan (1980)

Bob Gould's introduction

Daphne Gollan, Nick Origlass and the history of the ironworkers' union
By Bob Gould

These two articles on the Balmain ironworkers' struggle were
published in Labour History in May and November 1972. The Memoirs of
Cleopatra Sweatfigure, written in 1980, is a mature autobiographical
piece that had great influence, particularly among feminists, in the
1980s. Daphne Gollan, who died a few years ago, was the former wife
of Robin Gollan (the labour historian), lover of the late Nick
Origlass (the long-lived and stubborn pioneer Australian Trotskyist)
and herself a very capable labour historian.

The battles in the Balmain branch of the ironworkers' union, and in
the ironworkers' union in general, have been recounted very
thoroughly in Hall Greenland's biography of Nick Origlass, Red Hot,
Susanna Short's biography of her father, Laurie Short: A political
life, and Bob Murray and Kate White's The Ironworkers: A History of
the Federated Ironworkers' Association of Australia (Sydney, Hale and
Iremonger, 1982).

Amy McGrath, the wife of Frank McGrath, one of the key figures in the
oppostion in the Balmain branch of the ironworkers' union, who later
became a judge, has written an account, called The Frauding of Votes,
of the Balmain branch battle from the angle of her husband and the
law firm that represented him. Tom Brislan, the key figure in the
Communist Party faction in the Balmain branch, wrote an unpublished
autobiographical account of the struggle from his point of view.

In these articles, Daphne Gollan makes bald assertions suggesting
direct knowledge of Communist Party ballot rigging in several
ironworkers' union ballots. Her assertions have considerable weight,
as she worked in the union's office during the Balmain ironworkers'

At an October 1, 1994, conference on the great Labor split in NSW,
the following three-way exchange, which speaks for itself, took place
between Jim McClelland, Jack McPhillips and myself. The transcript
was published in The Great Labour Movement Split: Inside Stories,
published by the Australian Society for Labour History.

The first session prompted many comments and exchanges, some of
which - with the permission of the speakers - we print below.
In the
following exchange between Jim McClelland, who was on Laurie Short's
legal team from late 1951, Jack McPhillips and Bob Gould, the
question of ballot-rigging raised its head again.

Jim McClelland: Like Clyde Cameron I have never overestimated the
role of ethics in political life. But I think that to go from there
to a proposition that any means are justified by ends takes the
matter into the realm of totalitarian politics, which I think
everybody here is opposed to. Now Mr McPhihips admitted that
everybody had made some errors, so I expect that he includes among
those who made errors the Communist Party, to which he belonged, and
perhaps even himself. Now I wonder if he will admit that one of their
greatest errors was in cooking the 1949 Ironworkers ballot. Now in
case there is any doubt that it was cooked, I'd like to relate a
little incident that happened to me in my later life. Mr McPhillips,
I suppose you would remember a man named Roderick Shaw. Do you, Mr

Jack McPhillips: Yes.

McClelland: Well, Roderick Shaw was a man who had been a member of
the Communist Party and whom I met late in his life as I've met a lot
of other ex-Communists, because ex-Communists are very thick on the
ground these days. And Rod was a very personable man; he was a good
painter among other things. But he was a partner in a firm of
printers called Edwards and Shaw. Now it was alleged in the
Ironworkers Ballot Case that the union officials, of whom Mr
McPhillips was a prominent one, had up their sleeve an extra 2000
ballot papers, which they were able to ring in, voting for
themselves, and so defeat the expressed opinion of their members in
the ballot. I don't know that Mr McPhillips has ever admitted that he
was a party to that.

McPhillips: He doesn't admit it now either. (Laughter.)

McClelland: No, well, Mr Roderick Shaw, who was a printer whose firm
printed the ballot papers for that election, and who unlike Mr
McPhillips, ultimately recovered from his adherence to Communism,
admitted in his closing years that his firm printed an extra 2000
ballot papers and didn't hand them to the Returning Officer but had
handed them personally to Mr McPhillips.

McPhillips: He's a liar and so are you. (Laughter.)

McClelland: Well, I chose to believe him and I don't bring that story
forward in order to traduce Mr McPhillips because I believe that, no
matter how wrong he may have been, he acted according to a false view
of what was good for his fellow human beings. He acted fanatically
and he would have believed, I think, that the end (that is, what he
would have called progressive candidates, meaning members of the
Communist Party remaining in office in the Ironworkers Union)
justified the use of fraudulent ballot papers. So I don't say that's
a blot on Mr McPhillips. I think it's totally in accordance with his
political philosophy. But that philosophy is one that I hope would
never take root in this country and that's why I think that the
contest waged by the Industrial Groups to oust the Communists from
control of the union movement in Australia was, despite some mistakes
made by the Groupers, a progressive thing for the history of
Australia. After that, the formation of the Democratic Labor Party, I
think, was a disaster and I, of course, had nothing to do with the
Democratic Labor Party. But I think that the vilification of the
Industrial Groups that we've heard here today from Mr McPhillips is
totally unjustified in the light of Australian political history.

Bob Gould: I belong to the Jim Macken faction in these matters. On
that matter, I also believe that the ballot in the Ironworkers in
1949 was rigged on the basis of the evidence in the Court and the
indentations on the ballot papers. But I had a discussion with Rod
Shaw a few months before he died when he came into my shop and I
asked him point blank did he, as the printer, know anything about it
and he denied it, so I think you have to be careful about a bloke
who's dead ... ascribing things to him. My experience of asking him
direct questions about the business - Rod Shaw denied it. I don't
know whether he said different things to McClelland but he certainly
denied it to me. I think that the circumstantial evidence is that it
was rigged but Rod Shaw certainly denied it in my experience.

This exchange speaks for itself about the 1949 ironworker's ballot.
We are unlikely ever to know much more about what Rod Shaw said to
Jim McCelland, as Jim McClelland has now also past away.

New information has now, however popped out of the woodwork about the
rigging of the ballot in the Balmain branch of the ironworkers union
during the war period. A great survivor of leftism and modernism in
Australian art, the accomplished, affable and knowledgeable Bernard
Smith, recently published the second volume of his autobiography,
Pavane for another time1 (McMillan, Australia, 2002). Bernard Smith
was in the 1940s and 1950s a member of the Communist Party, and
generally looks back on that experience favourably in his two volumes
of autobiography. Nevertheless, on page 93 of the recent second
volume, he writes:

It was about this time that the District Committee of the Party
decided to abolish occupational branches such as those for teachers
and journalists, instead directing their members to suburban
branches. Individuals in the same family were often told to enrol in
different branches, especially if they were considered by the Party
bureaucrats to be "bourgeois intellectuals". So Kate was transferred
to the Kings Cross branch and I to the North Shore branch. I resented
this. It meant I must take the trolley bus to Town Hall Station, then
the train to North Shore to attend. The only people I knew in the
branch were Bob and Daphne Gollan. Shortly after, Bob joined the Air
Force. Split up in this way, my political ardour began to cool. The
Teachers' Branch had been a kind of social club for me after the
isolation of Murraguldrie, a friendly group of activists I admired.
But now we both began to feel a little of the heavy hand of the Party
bureaucracy. Shortly afterwards Kate came back from the Kings Cross
branch in a highly disturbed state of mind. "Well," she said, "you
can stay in the Party, Peach, if you want to, but I'm finished". It
appears that one of the branch members had come to the meeting armed
with vacant voting tickets for a current Ironworkers' Union election.
One of the activities of the meeting was to mark up the cards he
brought with him in favour of Ernie Thornton, the communist secretary
of the Ironworkers' Union. Thornton's position was under threat from
the right-wing led by Laurie Short. The Kings Cross branch was
apparently helping to fake the election. I had no problem with Kate's
decision to leave the party. In the circumstances it was the only
thing to do. A day or so later I went up and saw J.B. Miles, the
Party Secretary; and told him what had occurred. He replied to the
effect that he knew that kind of thing happened, and left it at that.
I had admired Miles and reluctantly accepted the fact that there were
problems in all political parties, but began to realise that the ACP
was more pragmatic than most parties when it came to justifying means
to ends.

This extract from Bernard Smith's autobiography is pretty powerful
direct evidence. The Gollans and the Smiths were close personal
friends; they stayed with each other in Britain and Australia, they
travelled together to Britain by ship, and it's pretty clear to me
that one of the sources for Daphne Gollan's assertions that
ironworkers elections were rigged was Kate Smith. The truth often
comes out in the wash, even if 45 years later. I knew both Daphne
Gollan and Nick Origlass. Daphne was a feisty, intelligent and
courageous woman and her late-in-life love affair with Nick Origlass,
one of the main protagonists in all those battles, was a warm, human
sidelight on both their lives and times. They're both now dead. Both
their funerals and wakes were large diverse gatherings of many
people, mainly of the left, who had known them and been influenced by
them. We put these articles up on Ozleft as a tribute to Daphne and

We may never see their like again.

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