top of page

2020 Bruce Childs Lecture

Steve Murphy

I want to start by acknowledging the Traditional Owners of the Lands on which we all come together today - for me, I’m on the lands of the Darug people.

I pay my respects to elders and leaders past, present and emerging, and note that sovereignty was never ceded.

I want to say thank you to Rosie (Ryan) for her introduction, and her work keeping all of us together and moving, in the challenging year that was 2020.

I also want to acknowledge and thank Bruce for attending this evening, and to thank him for the legacy and example he has set for so many of us.

I want to start by sharing a story with you about the genesis of the work we are here to discuss tonight, the Hunter Jobs Alliance.

It was November 2019, I was just over 12 months in as the New South Wales State Secretary of the AMWU.

I stood by the sink of a workers lunchroom in Rutherford as workers poured in for their 12.30 lunch break.

Over 60 AMWU members took their seat, opened their lunches and quietened down as their local organiser, Tim Jackson introduced me.

For a fleeting moment, I wrestled with myself internally.

Was what I was about to do a one-way ticket to mass resignations? Was it going to make me a one term state secretary?

Was I really going into a coal industry workplace, not even 6 months after the horrific Federal election result, to talk about a Just Transition?

As Tim handed the floor over to me, I had no more time to engage in any internal dialogue, and had to trust that the thinking, research and work we’d done up to this point was sound, and in our members best interests.

I spoke for about five minutes, explicitly moving past the merits of climate science, and instead talked about the decisions of private Capital that put the writing of the future of this industry in blinding lights.

I was seeking both insights from our members about what they collectively needed, to shore up their industrial interests, and license to act on their behalf to argue for a new way forward from the poison chalice of the climate culture wars.

As I finished up, there was a short moment of silence, and then a robust discussion about what future projects could look like, and how that would fit within the industrial ecosystem of Newcastle and the Hunter Valley.

As the 30 minutes for lunch quickly ran down, and workers broke off into individual discussions, two older members came up and shook my hand.

They told me that it was exactly the thing they expected of an AMWU Secretary, and were happy to see someone finally talking honestly about the problems we face - that they had also been thinking and worried about.

Since then, we have been organising for over 12 months on a new, local organisation aimed at ending the climate culture wars and fighting for decent, secure, sustainable Union jobs in the Hunter Valley.

It is an absolute honour to address comrades tonight about the Hunter Jobs Alliance, and it feels all the more profound that I get to share this story with you in the name of Working Class Champion, Bruce Childs.

For those that don’t know, the union that Bruce led later became an important part of an amalgamated AMWU.

I never got to watch Bruce up close as an activist - other than pairing up for votes at Labor Conferences - but what I’ve learnt from anecdotes from my own mentors, and what I found when reading about him for this lecture, I know that his impact far outlasted his tenure.

There are three things that really stood out to me when I read more about Bruce’s journey to leadership through the union movement.

Working Class Mobility

When reading about Bruce, to plug the gaps in my own knowledge, what struck me was how markedly similar our experiences have been.

Both encouraged into leadership in our union as a young apprentice, both had a relatively short run from delegate to union secretary, both healthily suspicious of ALP leadership.

The only departure for me, is that I don’t aspire to political office.

But, really, on reflection, these similarities are not some quaint “follow-in-your-footsteps” kind of union tale.

In fact, it is simply a program - designed on purpose - by generations of AMWU leaders before us - to build a Union that makes space for passionate, working class activists.

I look at many of the young leaders in my union now, and indeed unions all across our movement, and believe it is the values-led design of our political engagement that gives us the space for leadership and political mobility.

This, of course, does not mean the path is any easy one.

I don’t pretend that this opportunity is not afforded to many of us by virtue of layers of privilege, nor that there is a distinct or right way to lead, there is so much left to do to ensure our leadership reflects the rich diversity of our movement.

What is worth celebrating, though, is the path to leadership that trade unions create.

I like to think of someone going to a young printing apprentice, and telling him that in a matter of decades, he would front the media as a New South Wales Senator and call out the Prime Minister of the day for failing to adhere to the Party Platform on the sale of Uranium to France.

In our movement, we teach our people that impossible is nothing, and that changing things for the better is our ambition.

Hard Fought Unity

What’s important in the lesson of working-class mobility from Bruce’s example, is that it should not, and cannot, exist in individual ego.

I note that recollections of Bruce’s time in the Senate, coming from politicians of all persuasions, was he did the unglamorous and tedious work that often made a difference, but rarely made a headline.

The prevailing legacy from Bruce’s time as a leader in our movement was the sheer value in bringing divergent parts of our movement together - around issues of mutual importance.

The story of Bruce uniting both Catholic and Jewish clergy alongside Leninists and student unionists in the anti-Iraq movement is undoubtedly a formidable skill.

This hard-fought unity is an important lesson for us in the left, and one we are starting to learn together through the Hunter Jobs Alliance.

The HJA brings together 13 member-based organisations.

The organisation was originally founded by LEAN and the AMWU, and has since included formidable comrades from the left in the ASU, CPSU, our Education Unions and the United Workers’ Union. We also have progressive and passionate community and environmental groups.

Our collective efforts now sit squarely with building community leadership on the future of the Hunter Valley.

We all came to this work through our own anxieties about the present and out own passions for a better future.

For me, it was watching the social dislocation where I lived when BHP closed their doors, and the rule of thirds rang true- a third of workers got another decent job, a third went into insecure or low paid work, and a third never worked again.

In the sharp words of Felicity Wade, environmentalists were tired of losing.

We came to the realisation, together, that the only group benefitting from the silos that we were in respectively, were conservative politicians and mining corporations.

As I foreshadowed, we started this work with member organising.

Long, tough conversations where we didn’t all agree on the detail, but agreed on the principle. We agreed on justice.

Once we had our members on board, we started the work of learning to work together.

We dipped our toes in the water with small joint projects, like joint op-eds and joint NSW Parliament submissions.

And when the world didn’t fall in because of this, we set our sights higher, to build something more lasting.

We made a bunch of mistakes, like sending two delegates to country conference to move a motion about justice for workers in any transition without telling anyone that we planned to do it.

And we had to sit for a long time in our own discomfort.

We often had divergent views on things like consensus versus majority, the value of direct action tactics in this corner of the world, and how much our messaging could water down the urgency of the climate emergency.

But, we pushed through, respecting what would be a deal breaker for our diverse membership - and we built something in the growing space where we had agreement.

We finally launched earlier this year in Maitland – the town where I grew up.

We landed on a deep community organising model, that prioritised workers leading the way.

We have built community support for hyper-local, labour-intensive projects like renewables for the Tomago aluminium smelter, offshore wind in Newcastle, repurposing old metal fab shops for electric bus manufacture and mine rehabilitation.

Consensus on these projects was not an easy feat. This would never have happened without LEAN’s Felicity Wade, Jaden Harris and Tim Lang and supporting me was Hannah Smith and Chloe Smith from the AMWU. I acknowledge and thank them for a lot of that hard work.

The lesson for me in this is that it is not easy to build unity, but it is so meaningful & worthwhile.

Ambitious For Our People

As we began rolling this work out across the Hunter Valley, we have come across some bureaucrats and policy experts who believe they know how to guide these communities out of trouble by acting quietly and “not worrying workers’ with these questions”

While this felt like an attractive proposition at first, really, this is just patronising and short sighted.

We know so acutely that when we design good policy, devoid of working-class ownership we get exactly what we saw in May of 2019.

There are still those in our movement that will have us believe that if we shrink our ambitions and shelve our values, we might get a turn at government next.

This is lazy, it is cruel to workers, and it is false.

Bruce’s example is one which demonstrates what we can do when we are ambitious for our people.

Bruce has undoubtedly left a legacy of being a more ambitious and kinder movement.

We in the socialist left have always been ambitious - not for positions, but for outcomes.

We acknowledge that positions of leadership are vehicles for good outcomes, but it is incumbent on all of us to build and execute the visions together and bring working people with us.

To imagine a Hunter that struggles together through the cruel exit of good jobs by private capital, as there will inevitably be, to come out the other side with a thriving community and a sustainable industrial landscape with good Union jobs, is of course, ambitious.

But 2020 calls for ambition, and our history shows us what is possible when we give ourselves the space to chase after it.

Steve Murphy is the National Secretary of the AMWU.

Note: These speaking notes have been lightly edited for clarity.


bottom of page