Convenor, work, organisation, struggle: the Seventh National Labour History Conference, held in Canberra, April 2001

This small book had its genesis in the Seventh National Labour History Conference, held in Canberra in April 2001. The organising committee were approached by Hal Alexander and Bob Boughton with the idea of running a series of talks on the history of communists organising in Australia. Brian Manning, Chris Elenor, Hal himself, Drew Cottle, Ben Bartlett and Beverley Symons all contributed their wonderful stories and research about rank and file organising and defiance of official authority.

But there was something more: Bernie Brian, another Communist Party activist, had found a copy of the memoirs of Murray Norris and his work rebuilding the North Australian Workers Union in the 1940s. It was in the Northern Territory Archives. Then came the obvious question: would we publish Murray Norris’ story? The answer was easy: Of course we would. We thank the NT Archives Service for permission to do so. There were omissions and lost words in the copy we received from the NT Archives Service, and we have been able to correct these using an earlier draft of Murray’s memoirs from the Connie Healy papers in the Fryer library collection at the University of Queensland. We thank the Fryer and their staff for their assistance. We have made unobtrusive grammatical changes and occasionally spelled out acronyms or full names in Murray’s text.

Drew Cottle’s chapter previously appeared in the volume of papers published out of the 2001 conference, Work, organisation, struggle, edited by Phil Griffiths and Rosemary Webb (Canberra 2001). All the other chapters are previously unpublished.

We would like to thank Connie Healy and Chris Sheil for information about Murray Norris, and Sigrid McCausland and Rosemary Webb for the significant work they did proof-reading, checking facts, and digging in archives to ensure the successful production of A few rough reds. The footnotes are the work of Phil Griffiths and Sigrid McCausland; the endnote references are of course the work of the authors.

While the format of this volume is modest, the stories are inspiring accounts of working class activism guided by a serious commitment to socialist politics. In fact, one of the great sub-texts of this volume is the way that strong rank and file trade union organisation provided a space for the most oppressed — Aboriginal people, people with leprosy, Chinese seafarers — to stand up and fight for their rights. It also provided space and resources to support those fighting their national oppression in East Timor. This is not to say that strong, political trade unionism meant an end to racism and sexism; they are ideological weapons too powerful for the ruling class to easily give up. But in these stories you can see the potential for really challenging them.

This small book represents but a tiny proportion of the stories that could be told about rough reds organising. This organising work represents the best traditions of Australian communism. These are stories to educate all who want to change the world.

roughreds: email