Dare to Struggle, Dare to Win – If you don’t fight you lose was the often-used catchcry by which John Cummins lived. Sadly, John passed away on 29 August 2006, aged 58, after a 12 month battle with cancer. John lived a life dedicated to the working class, for whom he fought often and won repeatedly.
Cummins, affectionately known as Cummo, was a key strategist in the union movement and the president of the Victorian branch of the Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union. Like many others, he became part of the CFMEU when it amalgamated with the former Builders’ Labourers’ Federation (BLF), where he had risen through the ranks in the 1970s and 1980s after being recruited from Melbourne’s La Trobe University where he was a student activist.
John was born to Mary and Jack and grew up in Melbourne’s inner north. He grew up supporting the Fitzroy Football Club until they were sold to Brisbane. As a student at Parade College, John played football for his school and captained their first team in his final year. He went on to a tertiary education, but the radicalisation of the times brought profound changes to John’s outlook and ambitions.
Working in blue collar jobs, like the production line at Northcote Pottery, accelerated these changes. So it was no surprise when he rejected a career in teaching and looked to a more radical political and working life. He began working in the building industry in 1972, immediately joining the Builders’ Labourers’ Federation, an organisation of which he remained an active and influential member of until it amalgamated with the CFMEU in 1994.
John worked as a labourer and a scaffolder on some prominent jobs in Melbourne including Collins Place and the West Gate Bridge where he became a union activist, chairing BLF site meetings.
His determination and considerable skills on the job came to the notice of BLF Secretary Norm Gallagher, who offered him his first job as an organiser in Melbourne. His next stint was in the Pilbara region of Western Australia where he succeeded Jim Bacon as organiser in 1980. His wife Dianne and young son Mick made the move to the remote area with him. It was a wild time during the last big minerals boom, in industrial circumstances that put the calm, self-reliant young organizer under extreme pressure. He thrived on the challenge and became a popular and effective organiser.
He also became a respected mentor in our industry. A favourite piece of advice: ‘Stop sooking. You’re only as good as your last blue’, was made in jest, but through his work he exemplified the truth contained in it. He returned to Melbourne and took up organising in the increasing rough and tumble of a building industry under pressure from the Fraser Liberal Government. This continued under the Hawke Labor Government and led to the deregistration of the BLF and the de-recognition of the Union by the Cain Government in 1986.
Cummo stood up to police harassment of workers. He was prosecuted for trespassing on sites and imprisoned for these activities and for breaching court orders. Many times, he was physically removed from site by police, but continued to return to service Union members. He lead by example, helping others to resist the intimidation of BLF members. He was an integral player in the BLF resistance to the assault on the Union, and many construction workers saw him as the front line.
However, in the early 1990s faced with a second five year de-registration of the BLF, Cummo and other BLF members around Australia were forced to chose between continuing to fight an increasingly onerous battle on their own or to amalgamate with the new CFMEU – a union which included BLF opponents from the Building Worker’s Industrial Union. After a struggle with then Federal and Victorian Secretary, Norm Gallagher, who opposed the idea, Cummo and those supporting amalgamation won the argument and the merger took place in 1994. CFMEU organiser and former BLF official John Setka recalls that many in the labour movement were surprised at Cummo’s willingness to be a part of the team with people who had been his political enemies.
‘I asked him once how he could forgive people who had fought hard against him in the past and he said: ‘You can’t hold it against them for being loyal to their union’. John had the ability to rise above the personal if it was in the best interest of the workers.’
In 1996, Cummo was elected President of the Victorian branch of the CFMEU. In this role, John was played a major part in building a strong team under a new leadership drawn from all parts of the new union. As part of this team, Cummo played an influential and positive role in developing the wages policy and strategies that saw wage increases, shorter hours and improved long service leave entitlements for Victorian construction workers. Like pepper and salt, he was in everything.
The success was ongoing and to an extent it resulted in the Howard Government singling out the CFMEU for special attention in the legislative attacks on the trade union movement. Cummo faced the Cole Royal Commission and conducted himself in the dignified, but politically combative manner that such an inquiry deserved.
Cummo will be remembered for his tenacity, principle and strategic brilliance. Few union officials could hold a candle to John at a mass meeting of workers. He was charming, charismatic and possessed a wicked sense of humor with a collection of quotations and sayings to rival Chairman Mao. John loved a beer, a bet and the Fitzroy and North Heidelberg Football Clubs, and he loved the building industry. Most of all he loved his family.
Setka says that many will mourn Cummo because he did so much for so many, without any fanfare.
‘If someone died and there was no money for the funeral, John would raise the money. He looked after widows, he looked after kids. And this was all separate from his official duties.
’He was again in the middle of the struggle against Howard’s anti-union Taskforce and new legislation, when he was struck down in July 2005 with a brain tumor.
Cummo fought the illness for over twelve months and reached his 58th birthday on 26 August just before succumbing to his cancer three days later, dying peacefully surrounded by his loved ones, Diane, Mick and Shane and his brother Geoff, sister Jan and their families.
A comrade, friend and inspirational leader of building and construction workers. A man who served his Union and served his class like few others. He will be sorely missed in the continuing struggle against the latest wave of anti-union attacks.
Vale John Cummins. Dare to Struggle, Dare to Win
– If you don’t fight you lose. In Cummo’s own words: ‘You’ve done yourself a treat.’