A Trotskyite on the Wartime Waterfront

Kenneth Gee (left) was a leading light of the Australian bar, but before that he laboured on the docks, an ardent advocate of the worldwide workers’ revolution. Those who have decried Hal G.P. Colebatch’s account of union sabotage will find the jurist’s memoir very hard to dismiss

geeOne waterfront-worker crime in  World War Two not touched upon in Hal G.P. Colebatch’s prize-winning book Australia’s Secret War is the theft of emergency supplies from ships’ lifeboats, mentioned in my recent piece on Colebatch’s book. My source is Comrade Roberts – Recollections of a Trotskyite, by Kenneth Gee QC (Desert Pea Press, 2006). The book is notable for  recording Leon Trotsky’s directive from Mexico to his Australian followers, that female members of the movement “should be rooted on the workshop floor”. Despite his command of five languages, Trotsky was unfamiliar with Australian idiom.

Gee is more au fait with the argot of the workplace, having spent the critical war years 1941-43 under the nom de guerre Comrade Roberts, working as a boilermaker’s laborer on the waterfront while trying to put into practice Trotsky’s blueprint for the overthrow of capitalism. Gee was originally a conveyancing solicitor from a middle-class background, and  later reverted to the law, becoming a Sydney QC. Like numerous other left proletariat (author, Windschuttle et al), he later moved to the right.  He died in 2008.

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Gee, a wartime mate of Governor-General John Kerr and (later) Senator Jim McLelland, was also the father of novelist Kate Grenville (The Secret River, 2005) and Stephen Grenville, a deputy governor of the Reserve Bank (1996-01). His other son, Chris, a QC and judge, won prizes for his marmalade at Sydney’s Royal Easter Show.

For those keen to brush aside Colebatch’s accounts of union wartime mayhem as confabulations of rheumy old men,  Gee’s account is a harder nut to crack. Here’s Gee’s introduction:

“I must confess here that as I kept no diary or other record of events and am relying entirely on a distant memory, there will be faults in this narrative, especially of chronology. All I can say is that in this chronicle of steady disillusionment, all the persons portrayed were very real, only a few of the names have been changed, and that all the events recounted actually did occur.”

The incident of theft from a lifeboat (pages 116-17) is written in a curious style. I’ll extract it here, suggesting readers focus on what happened rather than on Gee’s sentiments.

One day Manpower sent a new man down to join the Neilson Bros [ship repair] crew on the  Ville d’Amiens. He was a rat-faced man, unable to meet your eyes when you spoke to him. All of us, including Big Andy, were sitting on the deck during smoko, when we saw that Cyril (and of course no toiler on the waterfront should ever be called Cyril) had climbed to the top of  one of the ship’s lifeboats, had lifted the tarpaulin cover, and was packing his bag with the canned food that might have stood between the crew and starvation as they floated among the debris of their stricken ship.

Now the waterfront was not a cradle for civic virtue or the home of glowing moral standards, and a little larceny, cleansed by the name ‘scrounging’, was de rigueur,  but the unwritten law was clear – a lifeboat’s victuals were sacred, not to be touched by the lightest of fingers.

The rest of us looked on in silent disapproval, each as in High Noon, with a fine reason for not interveningNot so Big Andy. He unwound himself from the deck, took Cyril by the scruff of the neck, and carried him bodily, as you might carry a naughty puppy, to the thirty-foot drop into the ship’s hold, where he was held squealing for mercy. The lesson taught, Andy took Cyril down to the wharf with a boot in his bottom, throwing his bag after him. We never saw Cyril again.” (my emphasis).

Cyril’s brazen  conduct in full view of a deck gang suggests he got away with such thefts previously.   Gee and his mates, despite their ‘silent disapproval’ , were passive.   Big Andy did intervene, effectively. Big Andy, Gee makes clear in various chapters, was tall and strong  and possessed of old-fashioned scruples against thefts from lifeboats, abuse of women, and bullies who attack his mates.

However, Big Andy had no scruples about bludging off the war effort. As Gee says:

“As far as I could tell, Big Andy did no work, although he was a laborer like myself, to one of the fitters. Even Kelso, the ‘pannikin boss’ (under foreman) a bully of massive build, was circumspect about giving orders to Big Andy. Every night, after we’d washed the coal dust out of our throats at the six o’clock swill at the Woolloomooloo pub, Andy would disappear, turning up next day on the ship’s deck, to disappear again that night. He was obviously Doing A Doubler, or Working a Darkie, waterfront jargon for working 24 hours in two separate jobs.  But even an iron man must have some sleep, so Big Andy had invented for himself a hessian bed on the copper piping inside one of the huge idle  boilers of the ship, from which neither Kelso nor his fitter mate – if he had one – made any attempt to dislodge him…” (pages 69-70)

He would

“…lie stretched out like a contented cat on his hessian bed and sleep until some in-dwelling timepiece woke him in time to join us in the Mad House in the Woolloomoloo pub.” (page 88)

When Big Andy was over-sleeping in the boiler, Gee and his mates would run from pub fights.  Wharfies in a fight would use their cargo hooks, “capable of ripping open a human face with one deadly stroke” (page 90). Gee notes, “We were saving face very literally.”

The stokers on the Ville d’Amiens (a 25,000 ton ex-luxury liner) were Senegalese, with the same ethos as the wharf workers. To keep the ship in port, rather than on seas infested with Japanese submarines, they sabotaged whatever tardy repairs the boilermakers had made:

“Every night in our absence they pumped cold water into the boilers, causing them to squirt jets of water into the stokehold like leaking kettles, and undoing our day’s work.” (page 71).

The aversion to work continued several layers above laborer Gee. On his first day, he asked the foreman Joe for a job.   Joe: “If you want a f***ing job, you can git that bar’er there and shift that f***ing shit to the other side of the f***ing yard.” This, says Gee, was long before the coyest of maidens had added the f-word to her lexicon. (page 66)

So Gee barrowed loads of steel offcuts across the yard all day.

“Next day  I went to Joe again to ask for a job. I was just unaccustomed to idleness. Joe could hardly believe the ears supporting his crumpled bowler.

“Christ! You’re the first c*** that’s ever asked for work instead of f***ing dodging it. You can get f***ing barrer and shift all the shit back again.”

Gee continues:

“It was my first experience of wartime cost-plus as an antidote to the bosses’ insolvency. The more the job cost him, the more money he made.” (page 67).

It seems there is another book to be written on war profiteering, this one about Australian businesses.

Gee at one point caused the entire Sydney waterfront to down tools. A boilermaker’s assistant, he had given his aged boilermaker mate, Little Andy, a rest by taking over with an expander tool. This violation of demarcation was discovered by another boilermaker but the pair refused to conform.   The Boilermakers Union was run by a Stalinist called Hughie Grant, and Grant  ordered the entire workforce of boilermakers on the wharf to down tools. “Every ship, dockyard and workshop had ground to a halt.” p108-11. This was after June, 1941, when Hitler invaded Russia, and the Communists were now supporting the war effort. But demarcation disputes trumped solidarity with Moscow.

Because of rivalry between Boilermaker and Ironworker unions, the latter ordered its own shop stewards to enforce a stopwork. The Amalgamated Engineers stopped work to support the boilermakers and the Painters and Dockers stopped work to support the laborers.

“The French officers [of the Ville d’Amiens] wondered what new madness had entered the heads of these wild Australians, on strike while the Emperor Hirohito was breathing down their necks.” (page 111) Not without reason, they regarded the wharf workers  “ as overfed, overpaid, illiterate colonialists, experts in dodging work.” (page 137)

Gee believes the higher echelons of the Communist Party ordered Hughie Grant back into line:

“[The] Hitler-Stalin Pact era of wildcat strikes was over and the Nazi assault on the Soviet was in full force. The most sacred of union rules had to bow before the siege of Moscow and Leningrad. The AIF were no longer five bob a day murderers…” (page 112)

Gee concludes, whimsically,

“So my own strike, my own small contribution to the Terminal Crisis of Capitalism, came and went in two glorious hours.”

For the Trotskyists, including Gee, there was no letup in policy to sabotage the imperialist war effort, or indeed to start a new war within Australia.

“When patriotic illusions were widespread among the workers, our anti-war policy (‘The Workers Have No Fatherland!’, ‘Turn the Imperialist War Into Civil War’) was not easy to implement…” (page 112)

Nor does Gee mince words about Communist tactics for union control:

“The Stalinist Federal Secretary of the Union, Ernie Thornton, famous for his beetling black eyebrows and the smile of a Bengal Tiger, had decided that the (Trotskyite) Balmain Branch, recalcitrant and defiant, should finally be absorbed into the totality of the union – which meant the total control of himself and the Communist Party. By using the discipline of his Stalinist members, and by chicanery, vote-rigging, fraud, stacking meetings with Party men from other unions, by the ‘adjustment’ (the Party’s own cynical word) of branch ballots, in short by every device born of a ruthless mind, all other branches of the union were now within his prehensile grasp.”

His assault on the leading Trotskyites, Comrades Origlass and Short, misfired. The Trots led a strike not against the bosses but against their own union.

Thornton appealed to the federal government of Ben Chifley for action in support of the union against the strikers. He rested his case on support for the war effort, since the ending of the Hitler-Stalin Pact and the Nazi invasion of the USSR  had reversed the Stalinist line on the war overnight. (page 141)

However, the hard-fought case (during which production for the war effort was suspended) went to the courts and then to conciliation, and then to the creation of two Balmain branches of the Ironworkers, one for each faction, “to live in endless disharmony”.

The Ville d’Amiens did not survive at sea despite all this TLC:

In spite of her renovated boilers, she had been the slowest ship in the convoy, and a Jap submarine had brought her down, just as the lion fells the most laggard wildebeest in the herd. (page 138).

On the next ship in, a British freighter suffering torpedo damage, Gee and his pals had been noticed in the morning “having a blow, reading a newspaper in the engine-room” (page 147).  A British officer, with some justice, denounced them as “f***ing Australian bludgers who read newspapers while people were starving in England because ships weren’t moving”.

Gee writes,

“A few days later tugs arrived and towed the old freighter off to Mort’s Dock to have the hole in her side patched up. We never discovered her fate, whether she joined the Ville d’Amiens in the lightless depths of the Coral Sea, or whether she found haven at last in a port in southern England…” (page 148)

Gee’s career at Neilson Bros ended with the sack:

“My mate Andy’s advice had been sound: ‘Get out of all this shit, Ken. Join the Commos and get yourself a job in the union’. It had been time to move on.” (page 159).

Gee became a trade instructor at a Tech for would-be engineering tradesmen. His class of 20 was all there “to escape the clutches of the Army or Manpower”. They included big-bellied Jewish Sam, who owned and ran a pseudo Bunny Club in the city and showed no interest in the course whatsoever. Sam left at the end of the three months of school. “What will you do with all that engineering wisdom?” Gee asked. “Make f***ing bunny tails,” Sam replied (page 150).

Trotskyites can also be  entrepreneurs. There was black-marketeer Comrade Bradley of the Boot Trades Union, who died a millionaire.  He had milk bars on the Manly Corso and Shelley Beach, and he discovered the recipe for US-style thick milkshakes which the GIs doted on. Bradley had ways of acquiring blackmarket petrol, meat, tea and precious milk. He would drive his ute to Camden and return with plentiful milk and cartons of cream, ‘rare as liquid gold’. (page 125)

“Brad’s nights were haunted by a recurring nightmare that some day a posse of horsemen from the Taxation Department would encircle the kiosk, and his tax-free money would be seized, added to consolidated revenue, and lost to Brad forever.” (page 127)

Bradley later bankrolled the Communist Party, bought and wrecked an ocean-going yacht, and died in a crash in his Daimler en route to Queensland.

Trotskyite apparatchiks, full-time plotting a revolution while the Japanese were heading down the Kokoda Track, never seemed to get called up to the Army with ordinary Australians:

Where there was a danger that comrades such as Comrade Origlass or Comrade Barker, too valuable to the [Trotskyist] Party to be lost to the Army, were about to be called up, the Party had an effective antidote. A fellow traveller named Murphy was in uniform, in Army Records, and for a humble pourboire [tip] was prepared to tuck away the file of any chosen comrade to the bottom of the heap, never to rise again.” (page 114)

Gee describes the petty corruption involved in dodging recruitment. Normally the Manpower official, if paid a fiver, would give you a choice of three jobs. ‘It would be a sad day if a citizen in his crucial position was not able to extract a wee share of wartime affluence.” (page 159). But now Gee found that only two jobs were offered, one outback and one in the islands, in expectation of a tenner as remedy. Gee paid the official and got a job in a local hearse factory instead, converted to trailer production. “My mates in the engineering shop were happy enough with good wartime wages and penalty rates. They’d never had it so good,” Gee says. (page 164)

Sacked, Gee returned to the Manpower official with another tenner and got a job in the Commonwealth Aircraft Factory in Lidcombe, which made fourteen-cylinder  radial engines for Beaufort bombers. It was being converted to make ramjets, with the help of  shiploads of state of the art machine tools of exquisite 1/10,000in accuracy.

It was a closed shop with ten unions involved. The management was cracking down on what it considered excessive toilet usage. “Everyone knew that there were men, especially,  who would creep away from their machines to spend half an hour studying the form guide in The Telegraph,” Gee says.

“I had been able to convince the Stalinist shop steward that there was no  connection between the war effort and the truants studying  form in the Commonwealth Aircraft’s too-comfortable toilets.” It was instead a health issue. A union notice went up on the toilets: “All unionists are instructed to ignore any attempt by management to restrict the time in the toilets required by nature. By order, the Combined Union Shop Committee.”

The management responded by announcing a time-and-motion study of the shop.

The truth was that the Americans had provided shiploads of state-of-the-art machines in the hope of putting some life into the Australian war effort, which was flagging since the US navy sank the last Jap aircraft carrier at Midway Island  [June 1942] and Australia was saved. (pages 176-9)

The American experts arrived:

“A con-rod that had needed four operations on three machines could be done with one operation on one machine with a single miraculously accurate template…they themselves, I discovered, were good blokes, never talking politics, but just eager to beat the goddam Japs and end the war and get home to their Mom and their apple pie…”

Gee was so impressed with these Americans that he realized that Trotskyite dogma was nonsense, and began his retreat from revolutionary ardor. He was spurred on by observing the union getting a nice chap Joe sacked because he would not join the union for religious reasons: “Joe and his large family would face joblessness for a long time.” (page 190)

Gee concludes,

“Three years with Leon Davidovich Trotsky had been enough… Time was, in my own Trotskyite days, when the voices of [Communists] Thornton, Healy, Elliott, Sharkey, Miles and the rest, could cause a whole nation to listen in apprehension – when on Moscow’s command an economy could be brought to a halt. But their own false paradise, Stalin’s Soviet Union, was brought down in ignominy by corruption and terror and is ruled now by a larcenous mafia.” (pages 192-5)

The wartime Trotskyite leader Origlass went on to become Mayor of Leichardt, moving from world revolution to kerbing, guttering and rules about dog droppings.

“In his robes of office, in street processions in support of his decisions, Mayor Origlass resembled an oversized naughty boy arrayed in his mother’s floral dressing gown.” (page 199).

Idly googling, I discovered Leichardt boasts an Origlass Park “in recognition of the contribution given by Councillor Nick Origlass to the community over many years. It has a covered playground and open grass area with Drinks Fountain and picnic area.” Origlass’s top-deck colleague, John Royston Wishart, a lawyer, misused clients’ money and did six months at Long Bay, emerging “to become a minor official in the Builders’ Laborers Federation, although he would not have know one end of a wheelbarrow from the other.” (page 200)

Gee returned to law, became a Crown Prosecutor, took silk and rose to the Bench as one of the Queen’s Judges in the District Court of NSW from 1975-85.

Tony Thomas blogs at No B-S Here, I Hope

COMMENTS [3]

  1. Patrick McCauley

    astounding … an army of Trots killing us with bludgery from within . Excellent work TT .. Kenneth Gee seems volume 11 of Australia’s Secret War – Hal G.P. Colebatch has found a hole full of dark matter that quite possibly is still with us.. Remember Albert Langer and the Monash Trots who sent money to the Viet Cong? Wonder where David Hicks got his ideas?

  2. en passant

    Many years ago I spent a short time in the car assembly industry and saw demarcation in spades. I really do think Australia needs a manufacturing industry, but there was simply no way it could be done when I attended so many meaningless meetings discussing how many unionists could dance on the head of a pin. I soon realised that I would either go mad or need a lobotomy if I stayed. I found another job and left. The plant closed 5-years later despite government subsidies as the Pavlovian Shop Stewards would rather destroy their livelihood than agree to reason and improved work practices. Workers of Australia! You are getting what you deserve … The same suicidal self destruction happened in the Scottish shipyards where they refused to adopt new methods and quickly ceased to exist. They thought this would bring a socialist Utopia, but all it brought was 20% unemployment and poverty – and mass immigration. Have you noted the dulcet Scottish accent among Australian Unions and in our parliaments?

  3. DRW

    It’s not the workers but trade unionists who are going to get theirs, how many manufacturing plants have been closed by trade union militancy?

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