‘For the Cause’: Unionism, Crime, and Work Refusal
Nick: Part 3 of 5
In this post Nick discusses connections between the informal and black economy, crime, and forms of class struggle and organisation. The CPA, Wollongong Out of Workers Union, as well as everyday practices of work refusal are all explored as expressions of class struggle.
Mark: Okay, there's so much going on in all of these things you are sharing, and I think we will probably get back to some of them in terms of the morality of crime, and how that can sometimes appear clear and at other times not so clear. But just coming back, we’ve got this image of the CPA and its role in defying the law, but you also mentioned the unions and crime and I wanted to dig back into the relationship between unions and crime. What was it about unions and crime that you wanted to explore, to share, to talk about? And how does this relationship between unions and crime connect to the issues of unemployment and poverty?
Nick: I'm trying to start with some of the stories and then think more deeply about what else they might help us to reflect on and tell us about, the larger questions, because they can be helpful in making things less clear in some ways, because that’s how things are - unclear. However, it was pretty clear to me, once I became Party cadre and I got immersed in the way the Party and the unions were operating, and that didn't mean I got to see everything, absolutely not, but I got a real sense over a number of years of some of the more hidden issues in relation to crimes. For instance, during that time, there was a local member of the Party, Bill Kelly, who was an FEDFA (Federated Engine Drivers’ and Firemen’s Association) union organiser on the docks, and one morning a gunman came to his front door and fired shots into his house. He was wounded, hospitalised, and I think his wife was hit as well. Obviously, they called the cops because that's what you do when somebody fires shots into your home.
But I also remember that it was the Party's job to arrange armed guards for the family. So, there was immediately a question about where do we get the guns from? and we needed to organise a protection roster. It's like well okay we're going to tell the cops 'cause you know this is a traditional crime. But we’re not relying on the cops. We're going to get guns and if whoever it was comes at our comrades with guns then we're going to defend ourselves. It was rumoured, at the time, that the shooting was over a dispute between the FEDFA, the TWU (Transport Workers’ Union) and truck drivers over operations at the Port Kembla coal loader. There was a long history of violent struggles on the Australian waterfront and there was a Royal Commission into the Painters and Dockers Union around this time which explored a range of criminal activity, including murders related to union activities. That was until the Commission started to uncover connections to the rich and powerful and the Commission's findings ended-up implicating the ‘Goanna’, Australia's richest man Kerry Packer, in tax evasion and organised crime, including drug trafficking and murder.
I had another comrade, Rod, a union organiser on the docks, who told me about the first time he was on the job as a delegate at Port Kembla. A Painters and Docker’s union official left him in charge of the situation on the wharf that day. He explained to Rod ‘the company is going to want to do this and you need to tell them we’re not doing it.’ As this was the first time he’d had this responsibility, he was very excited and nervous. The boss comes and says, ‘this is what's happening’ and Rod says ‘no’. So, he said, the boss took him around the corner and put a gun to his head and said ‘yeah it's going to happen’. There was a lot of stories about the violent struggles on the docks and the associated black economy. An ex-girlfriend’s dad was involved in a local import-export business at Port Kembla and he fled the country when things got too hot and became a gun-runner for the New People's Army in the Philippines. He was certainly no communist and was in it for the money. I've already mentioned prominent unionists who were involved in criminal activities. Then there was Neville Hilton, a local ALP and union official and a Port Kembla brothel owner, who was defended by other union leaders close to him, before he was imprisoned for child prostitution.
A very good friend of mine, a CPA comrade who was a national organiser on the docks and elsewhere, used to tell me all sorts of stories about union related crimes. Some were dangerous to the class and some he considered part of what the class did to further its interests. When I would ask him ‘what do you think about the morality of criminal activity within the union movement?’ He would say ‘well it’s seen as moral when it’s done for the cause’ and among those who were involved or turned a blind eye to these sorts of things, that was a common line, that if it was ‘for the cause’ then a lot of things could be permitted or excused. And I wonder about the long-term legacy of this position.
In recent years, for example, we've heard about the crimes of trade unionists being exposed by Liberal governments and the inquiries they’ve set-up to use as weapons against organised labour. I've written elsewhere about the Health Services Union, the Australian Workers Union, and people like Bill Shorten, their connections to bosses, and how they’ve been involved in various forms of criminal corruption. And, surprise, surprise, there’s no serious penalties for many of those who are up the hierarchy of organising such crimes. So, it's important to think about how there was a whole range of different things going on in the past, how there undoubtedly remains a lot of stuff going on in the present, and how the morality of that is contested, how it may be justified, the dangers of these crimes, and how these things impact unionism, labour movements, and social struggles.
Mark: Yeah ‘in the name of the cause’ at a certain time implies that those organisational forms had enough power to be doing a whole range of things. Whereas it seems some of that power, or that particular communist ethic, is not really characteristic of some of those institutions anymore.
Nick: In relation to these concerns, I think it was always contestable. While I've made the argument that you can politically distinguish between capitalist bourgeois law and crime and communist proletariat lore and crime, I don't think they're totally distinct and that they’re not intermingled and that there's not a complexity there that means that in the past, those who would be considered communists and called themselves communists, or were members of the Communist Party, or whatever, weren’t at times working in the interests of capital and the ruling class. How people and what they do is perceived, including by themselves, is often contradictory, and what communist ethics and capitalist ethics are can be unclear.
Mark: To stick with the unions and crime question but maybe turn more towards WOW, you have mentioned if it's done in the name of ‘the cause’ that's a sort of justifiable thing and there’s an inherent base knowledge that so much of the legal infrastructure in the system we live in is against us. But something I always thought about is, ‘okay there’s crime and there's criminal life, but some crime is just everyday life, getting by, which is not necessarily a question of ‘the cause’’. So, I wondered, within WOW it seems like some of the activity would have been to fund the operations of the union, to help people get by, but there may have been other proximities to crime that are like, iffy. And if it is appropriate, I wondered if you could speak to these different proximities to the black economy, crime, and WOW? And were there discussions about navigating the morality of crime within the union and what did that look like?
Nick: The union was made-up of its membership and our members often relied on the black economy to survive, to get by. Therefore, in many ways WOW relied on people being able to do that and in some ways the union helped them to do that. Yet, while the union did quite a bit of ‘ducking and weaving’ and scamming in various ways, it didn't rely on the proceeds of crime. So, it was much more about how people got by and that wasn’t just an individual endeavour, it was often a collective and communal effort. But it wasn't the union as such, it would be some union members and that varied because we had all sorts of people, in all sorts of circumstances, who were members. WOW was already in a dicey position and our membership were often engaged in criminal activities, so having the organisation involved in overt traditional law-breaking was likely to bring more attention, more likelihood of unemployed and poor people getting targeted and punished and could undermine the union's ability to protect people from the law. Because WOW wasn't engaged in those types of crimes, but instead defied the law as a form of political organisation, this meant, in some ways, that our members could continue to do things that were illegal.
For example, we had the house, the union offices, which we had occupied, seized, and held despite opposition from the owner and various authorities. Because we had the support of the trade union movement and were socially popular the cops wouldn’t come into the house. I often tell the story of a union member and somebody who was close to me getting drunk at the local pub across the road, being thrown out, and throwing a brick through the pub window in response. Then they ran across the road into the house and the police, who were located only another block away, came running up to the front door, going ‘where's the person who threw the brick through the pub window?’ and us saying ‘he's not here’ and them asking ‘so can we come in and have a look’ and we said ‘no’ and they didn't. They knew he was there, but they didn't come through the door, even though the place was a squat, we had no legal right to bar entry, and they didn’t have to ask to come-in. One of the reasons they didn’t cross the line we’d drawn is because there was no sense that you'd come inside and be able to find other crimes going on, there was no organisational crime they felt we were engaged in. Even occupying a house in the middle of the city, which normally would be treated as a crime, wasn’t, because the labour movement and the community more generally had told them, and the owner, that it wasn't. The owner had to tolerate our occupation because of the power of the labour movement and this support, our popular support, was in some ways reliant on understandings that the union included criminal members and cultures but wasn’t a criminal organisation. On that basis we were able to hold that space for more than five years. A space that didn’t police what union members considered justifiable crimes of the poor and the class.
But the ‘morality of crime’ debates were constant within the union because it's existence was intense, involving people immersed in outlaw practices and criminalised cultures, people of different types, like street kids, those who came from broken homes, from domestic violence experiences, poverty backgrounds, punks, bikies, skinheads, mods, drug cultures, involved in all sorts of crime, some serious, some of them less so, a whole range of shit going on all the time. There was a keen awareness that almost everybody was doing something dodgy and questions about what is ethical and what isn’t ethical were continually being discussed and debated within WOW. We did have members who were ‘straight’ and ‘law-abiding’ and they'd be like ‘why are these young people going and getting in that car, clearly that woman is a madam, what are they doing? Or ‘why do those people have so many holes in their arms?’
I mentioned before about how it was felt it wasn’t okay to deal smack, but dealing pot was generally seen as fine, as long as you weren’t ripping people off. Dealing acid got more criticism 'cause it's a higher penalty and a stronger drug which could fuck people up. But selling smack, the general feeling was that's immoral, you shouldn't be doing that, we can't have people around who are doing that, for a whole range of reasons. But that was debated, even in union meetings, but union members stances on such things were usually decided among the membership outside of meetings. On the question about the ethics of dealing smack, for example, there were different views, because while there's all sorts of cliches about heroin users and dealers, especially from those who haven’t had a lot to do with heroin, there's all sorts of beliefs about what risks those people pose. For those who were closer to it, maybe they use it sometimes, or their partner uses, it's much more complex and their views often encouraged more nuanced discussions, suggesting that it’s not as black and white as is made out, that we had to think more carefully about who we could be excluding and why? What lengths were people willing to go to exclude people? Were people going to call the cops? And this could all be incredibly serious.
So, there were constant debates about the morality of crime. We would be laughing about one of the union position holder’s thieving skills – he used to dress in overalls, take a clipboard and a trolley into a white goods store, load-up something and wheel it out. But when the same thing happened to union stuff, somebody just came in and stole our washing machine or the fridge, we thought that was fucked. So, constant discussions of the morality of crimes, which was great, although it was very very edgy a lot of the time and it was hard. Quite often these debates and discussions could degenerate into people getting really angry and sometimes violent, because a lot of people were incredibly vulnerable and felt they had a lot to lose depending on which way those debates went.
Mark: Which brings us to how non-abstract these questions are, about what crime is and how we think about participation in it and those around us who participate in it. I think we can maybe step into the next part of the questions. We touched on some of this already, but I guess this is where we're starting to think a little bit more about the morality of it, the edginess of it, or how some of it is quite desperate. That's something that came up when we were discussing my history as well, but we also think about this in relationship to class power, class composition, and the proletariat. So, I want to ask about crime as a form of rebellion and crime as a form of work refusal, or at least related to work refusal. Did you see your own participation in crime as a form of rebellion and as a form of work refusal and if so in what ways? And do you think that crime helped facilitate a form of life that allowed for work refusal for you and those around you?
Nick: I did see my own participation in crime as a form of rebellion. I wanted to break the rules, because I wanted to break the rule of capital and its state forms. So, for me, breaking those rules and finding out where the lines were and what I could do without getting too hurt or harming others, or losing out - what were the rewards and what were the costs? - these were constant considerations for me. It was also, partly, about not feeling safe. A testing of the boundaries because I felt like I wasn’t safe and I wanted some idea of how vulnerable I was, what sort of support I had, what is actually going to happen to me when I try to do the things I know they don't want me to do? Along with my criminal record, I’ve been arrested a number of times while taking part in protests. But only once did I end-up being charged and appearing in court in relation to protesting. That was for trespassing during the Sandon Point protests. Thankfully I managed to defend myself and was found not guilty. And I’ve been very fortunate to have a lot of support and solidarity when I’ve been in conflicts with the law.
Crime as a form of work refusal? Well, yeah, I wanted to refuse capitalist work, I've always wanted to refuse capitalist work, and so finding ways of getting the DSS off my back by avoiding and navigating around the ‘work test’, being able to find ways of getting money that they didn't know about, working, but not working in the traditional sense, I was always thinking about that too. And, yes, crime facilitated a form of life that did allow for work refusal. Not just my own, but other people’s. So, thinking about how I can help people who are also committing crimes, getting around laws that I think are unjust, so that we can do it together, provide solidarity for each other, helping each other to do that without any repercussions, or the least repercussions possible, so that we can communally share in the ability to do that and also in the benefits of doing that. That was the case before WOW and then WOW in many respects was a way of doing that on a grander scale, being able to exert more power over that sort of process, of work refusing and facilitating the breaking of unjust laws, giving more people the ability to do that.
Job losses, unemployment, and poverty are forms of punishment and discipline, they target class power and seek to mobilise workers to struggle for waged labour, not against it, to toe the line and bow to the rules of capital, rather than resisting and rebelling. Crime offers a way of getting money or things that you might need or want, but also a way of gaining more social power and learning to do that, with the understanding that there's no pure space, there's nowhere you aren't going to remain entwined with the social relations of capitalism, these things are riddled with contradictions and ambiguities. So, we explore and test these in struggle, we find out about what the downsides or the benefits of different forms of crime are by actually engaging in the struggles occurring around us.
If you're going to do work refusal, you've got to flout the traditional role of the worker, and resist poverty, oppression, and repression. But how do you actually do that in a way that doesn't increase your poverty, repression, and so forth? That, of course, involves finding ways of redistributing wealth and power, rejecting bourgeois morality and bourgeois law as much as possible, being able to make your own rules, and live as you decide to, both individually and collectively, and creating a sort of commonality and solidarity among the poor and saying ‘we have common enemies and we have common struggles in relation to those enemies’ – capital and its state forms. We can help each other to break unjust laws and get away with it, so we don't have to do the stuff they want us to do, so we can refuse their work, their orders, and do our own stuff, that we want to do.
The next post will look at, Class Crimes, Power, Poverty, and Violence. It will be published in about a week.