TLC brawl, 21 May 1971

Throughout May 1971, 38,000 NSW building trades workers struck to improve accident pay. On Thursday, 20 May, a mass meeting at the Wentworth Park accepted a return-to-work package. BWIU secretary Pat Clancy had cut a deal with Justice Sheehy to give the men what they wanted if they returned. He kept his word at a hearing the next morning.

On the Thursday evening, a handful of builders’ labourers busted up the meeting of the NSW Trades and Labor Council. The Right seized on the brawl to suspend the branch from the T&LC. Its secretary Ralph Marsh and president John Ducker libeled Mundey about his role in the punch-up. The ABLF refused to use the capitalist courts for redress. The branch conducted its own investigation and provided a transcript of proceedings.

When the branch executive met the next day, it suspended seven suspects. It also set up an inquiry panel of the seven State officers, fifteen delegates to be selected from the largest jobs, and the Federal president and secretary. The latter pair declined to participate, arguing that they would have to hear any appeals. The State executive summoned nine members to defend themselves on 26 May.

The officers had had to contrive a charge. The framers of the union rule book had not anticipated an offence of “smashing chairs over the heads of T&LC delegates”. The union could not charge the nine with criminal matters such as assault or disturbing the peace. An allegation of bringing the union into disrepute was pathetic given the level of violence. So, the Executive argued that, by causing the melee, the nine had obstructed ABLF delegates Joe Owens and Tom Hogan from the performance of their duties at the Labor Council. They gave a detailed account of what they remembered seeing at the time. (p. 5)

Mundey’s address in prosecution made it clear that the men were on trial for more than the two notified offences. The publicity since the brawl had allowed all of the Union’s enemies to put the boot in:

It seemed earlier this week that we wouldn’t see the week out ... We had it on good authority that the employers were moving for de-registration of our union. This would have left the way open for other unions to get coverage of our work. (p. 3)

One of the accused, P. Wharton, agreed that the inquiry was not to convict the nine but “to exonerate the Union leadership.” (p. 13)

The media had leapt at the chance to equate the brawl with the Vigilantes. Those flying pickets were being arrested because of guilt by association with the Trades Hall violence. The brawlers had jeopardised the union’s effort to make “scabs” unacceptable. In Mundey words: “Working class principle and discipline go together … There is a big difference between strong militant action and sheer anarchy.” (p. 3)

One version of the punch-up is that the nine were all opponents of the NSW leadership. In a more colourful retelling, they were part of a Maoist plot to discredit the leadership and trigger intervention. Organiser Tom Hogan interrogated the accused as to whether a prominent member of the anti-leadership faction, Joe Ferguson, had advised the nine not to attend the Council that night. They had been drinking since the mass meeting ended around lunch time. Ferguson had told them to go home and sleep it off. (pp. 9&12) The nearest the brawlers came to premeditation their only clear intention had been “to heckle”. The inebriation rendered them less than reliable witnesses for being clear about the order of events. A couple of the nine accused the delegates from the Police Association of throwing the first punch. On the basis of known character, that was a distinct possibility.

Their motive in going to the Council was to give Clancy curry for the way he had behaved that morning. Kalloway voiced his annoyance at the lack of leadership from his own officials:

After P. Clancy outlined his garbage it was moved by him and seconded by Boyce the recommendation to return to work. Our Union jumped up and moved an amendment to go back to work with a different proviso. This came from the floor. To the ordinary people, the amendment was bloody stupid. When our union moved another amendment to me it was ridiculous. The W’gong meeting was a fiasco. There was no proper count held. This is why we were sold out. I apologise for being in the fracas. I apologise to the Union. (p. 14)

Wharton was equally contrite. The stumbling manner of his confession was indicative of the difficulties that many labourers experienced in expressing their views. In the past, they had relied on Mundey to voice their frustrations. That morning, they felt let down by their own tribunes:

I did disrupt the activities of the elected delegates, but there is more to it than that. The leadership of the Union didn’t go far enough. I can understand why the amendment was moved but we should have voted as one to stay out on strike. It is difficult to talk to anyone about your feelings. The rank and file were all emotionally disturbed about what had happened. We had no one to talk to who disagreed with us. I wanted a number of representatives within the Labor Council movement to know that a fairly large proportion of those involved in the strike were not happy about the decision. That was the reason for talking to the bloke on the stage. I am still not satisfied. We haven’t got what we are after. Things haven’t gone right. I think our Union should have made stronger stand, I don’t apologise to the Labor Council for being there. I apologise to the Union because it is dragged out into a bad position. This makes the Union weaker. If it could have happened again and I could possibly go down as a private member not representing any factional group I would have done it. When we came down people talk to us representing the union. (p. 13)

Wharton’s statement makes it clear that not all the brawlers were against the leadership, although a couple spearheaded the opposition.

To read the transcript of the inquiry is to see that the nine got a fair hearing. They were found guilty by 20 votes to 2. There was no rubber stamp on penalties. Mundey’s proposal of 12 months expulsion and 12 months suspension was voted down 20 to 4. Tom Hogan’s compromise of six months expulsion and 18 months suspension was lost by 14 to 9. Owens’s harsher punishment of two years expulsion got up 16 to 7.

The inequitable part of the decision was to impose the same punishments on all nine. The evidence of the officials made it clear that some had got caught up in the fighting, while John McNamara had gone beserk. If Wharton merited two years expulsion, then J McNamara should have been expelled for life.

The decisions went to mass meetings in the four principal cities for endorsement on Tuesday, 1 June. The other topic at those meetings was the Accident Pay claim that had sparked the affray. By 4.30 pm, 500 members had arrived at the Paddington Town Hall. Only 270 remained for the finish two hours later.

The mass meeting voted down an Executive recommendation not to admit the nine to put their side of the case. Mick McNamara thought the two years on his brothers was too harsh. The members then voted 141 to 131 to uphold the inquiry’s determinations. A motion of confidence in the leadership was then carried with only 12 against.

The accused then appealed to the Federal Management Committee (FMC) on 2 June. The guilty verdicts were overturned on the grounds that ABLF had no jurisdiction over what happened at the Labor Council. Two days later, the NSW officers appealed to the nine to accept the original verdict in order to protect their Union. The FMC had taken the letter of the law as an opportunity to injure its opponents in NSW. To let the nine off without even a reprimand did harm to the Federation.

The branch voted not to credential the nine as job delegates. The officials noted that the Federal Council, in over-ruling the local verdict, had limited the power of the branches. (MLK Box 04266, 29 July 1971)

A side-effect was that the pro-Soviet faction used the fracas as an example of Mundey’s support for the “revolutionary confrontation” line inside the CPA. The Maritime Branch of the Party attributed the brawl to the adventurism of their factional opponents and to the “hooliganism” of the nine.

The T&LC had broken its own rules by suspending the BLF, acting in haste and fury. The Council on 3 June set up its own committee to investigate what had happened. The BLF offered to assist. Its delegates waited outside chamber on 10 June in expectation of being invited to resume their places.

The sticking point came with the naming of names. The branch executive drew the line at being party to dobbing its members into the police.  The suspension ran for three months. Mass meetings of BLs agreed to pass on the names with the guarantee that they would not be used in criminal proceedings.  

That was not the last of the matter. In August 1972, a brawl erupted at a meeting of striking Plumbers. Labour Council president Ducker implied that BLs had been involved. Mundey demanded a retraction or particulars. He got neither. Instead, the Council asserted “that violence is becoming a recurrent feature from among an element in the Trade Union Movement.” 

NSW branch records, Mitchell Library, MSS4879, Box 04266