Tony Thomas

The comrade from the newsroom

Things were different in the Australia of 50 years, as our ink-stained correspondent recalls in his memoir of unpaid dues and newsroom dissidence


Around 1961 the WA branch of the Australian Journalists’ Association (AJA) was dominated by right-wingers – probably Democratic Labor Party factionistas, although union politics at that time were way above my head. Certainly I was dimly aware of bad blood between the leadership and some left-wing rank and file members.


One day at home, Mum took me aside and said, “Do you know that the AJA has had a woman member arrested at the WA Museum where she worked, and taken off to the police station? Just because she hadn’t paid her union dues?”

“Really?” I asked. I had already developed a native scepticism about wild stories like this.

“Yes, you can get in touch with her if you like. I think you should expose these union heavies for what they have done. But Annie (the woman –not her real name) doesn’t want her case to be publicised because it’s all been pretty traumatic for her.”

So I rang Annie and we met at the Museum, where she worked as a public relations person. She was of a certain age and seemed a bit fragile. She poured out a story of how she had been struggling financially and hadn’t paid all her union dues for that reason. The union had got a bit threatening and next thing she knew, two policemen came to the Museum and took her off the police station as a defaulter.

I’ve forgotten what happened to her at the station, maybe she was formally charged with some offence, fingerprinted, whatever. Maybe she was just advised that the bailiff was now entitled to seize her goods and chattels and sell them to settle the debt.  Either way, she did then find the money to pay her union dues.
This was about 50 years ago, but even so I didn’t think owing money could be cause for arrest – heavens, for that, who would ‘scape whipping? as mad Hamlet suggested. I’m now not even sure there was an "arrest" per se or just an invitation by two visiting police that Annie accompany them to the copshop for a chat. Whatever, Annie thought she’d been arrested for.

Even 50 years ago, weren’t unions in existence to protect their members rather than have them taken from their workplace to the local copshop? Mightn’t the worker’s workplace manager consider such a tainted employee to be a liability and hence sackable? Or only slightly less worse, unpromotable? Might the employee’s workmates form views about the oddness or moral turpitude of their fellow-employee, causing him/her to suffer opproprium,  ridicule, or at best pity or Schadenfreude (shameful joy, as the Germans have it)?

Naïve as I was, I still realised that debtors’ prisons were or should be obsolete, even in Perth in 1961. On the other hand, police powers in those days often trumped what we  now think of as civil liberties.  It was only  17 years since the obscenity trial of Max Harris in Adelaide for having published the abstract poetry of the fictitious Ern Malley, which a detective named Vogelsang (“Birdsong”) considered contained immoral and indecent content. In today’s terms, the "offence" would be laughable.

"Ern Malley had no friends. Perhaps his lonely existence drew him to write about parks at night, a subject that had Vogelesang fingering his truncheon. Apparently someone is shining a torch in the dark,’ he said, ‘visiting through the park gates. To my mind they were going there for some disapproved motive.’ His clue was the iron birds with rusty beaks. ‘The nature of the time they went there and the disapproval of the iron birds, make me say it is immoral. I have found that people who go into parks at night go there for immoral purposes,’ Vogelesang told the court. ‘My experience as a police officer might under certain circumstances tinge my appreciation of literature.’

(Magistrate Clarke) warned Harris that he displayed ‘far too great a fondness for sexual references… I cannot but regard it as an unhealthy sign even from a literary point of view. Boldness in sexual reference is too often mistaken for brilliance. I think that the defendant should either acquire that art of delicacy in the handling of sexual topics which is so necessary in Literature, or avoid the topic altogether.’

Harris was fined £5 in lieu of six weeks’ imprisonment. Costs of £21/11/- were awarded against him." — Michael Heyward, ‘The Ern Malley Affair’, Qld Uni Press, 1993).

As I recall reading (but can’t remember where), in the 1930s left-wingers would sometimes be convicted and gaoled with hard labor for use of even such mild words as “bloody”. Australians of that era through to ca. 1960 might have been ‘young and free’ but only within certain limits.

My problem, returning to my main theme, was what to do about Annie and her ugly experience, given that Annie didn’t want to be identified. I decided to publicise the case within WA Newspapers, which employed maybe half the city’s journos and certainly was the base of the AJA leadership in WA.

In the big hall of the building on the south side of St George’s Terrace was The West reporters’ and sub-editors’ territory, a cacophonous scene of desks, clattering typewriters, loud talk and telephones. Around the western side were glass partitioned offices of executives, and on a bit of wall on the west side was a green-baize union notice board, about 70cm square. This was in pristine condition and was only used for formal notices like changes to award conditions or date and details of the annual union picnic. As I recall, the union might also post there any management responses to union matters.

A corridor ran down the centre of the second floor and on the east side was a mirror-image reporters’ hall, this one belonging to the Daily News, our sister paper (now long defunct) that appeared in the afternoon, and was manned by a more louche set of journos.  There they treated the union notice board with no respect and used it for pinning up ribald cartoons, car-for-sale notices and howlers that had got into print, both in the Daily News and The West. Any howlers involving sexual double entendres were highly prized for display.

I tapped out a note in the form of a signed letter to the union executive, wording it to disguise even the sex of the worker involved, but setting out the facts of the workplace arrest over non-payment of dues. Then I pinned it on the West’s union noticeboard, and put a second copy in the pigeon-hole of the union president, a man in late middle age whom I hardly knew.

I had work to do thereafter but from the corner of my eye I did notice a trickle of journos studying the notice board and creating a bit of a buzz about it. Strangely, no-one to my recollection came up to me and cross-examined me about the matter. They all knew I was Communist-affiliated and perhaps for that reason they stayed away. But the message was explosive enough, regardless of who threw the grenade.

With a few days everyone knew about the matter but how they viewed it, I knew not. A few Daily News lefties saw the affair as very legitimate stick with which to beat the rightist union leadership, and even asked me if I wanted to take part in some procedural coup against the executive. I was clueless about such things and there was no follow up.

After a week, everyone got in their pigeon-holes an explanation from the leadership: The woman (they let that slip) had been recalcitrant about her dues. She had been given every opportunity to pay up. She had given undertakings but not upheld them. Sending in the police had been a last resort in this painful affair.

I don’t recall anyone coming up to me and discussing my complaint and the official union response, even then. It was as if I was radio-active – stand back!

The grand finale was that a day or two later I got an official letter from the union in my pigeon-hole. I had breached union rules and union propriety by mis-using the official union notice board for non-official purposes. There was potentially some financial penalty or other applicable punishment but the executive would generously waive resort to this remedy for my crime, myself being a first offender.

The leadership seemed strangely unaware of the plethora of unofficial adornments to their official notice board in the Daily News, 20 metres to the east. I should have put their reprimand on the West’s union noticeboard, given that the reprimand was official union business, but I lacked the necessary degree of assertiveness.

Strange times, those days.

Tony Thomas lately is not so left-wing

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