Talking with Peter Close is a lesson in working class struggle – in Australia and around the world. As a seafarer, Peter has lived his working life, and now his (very active) retirement, building solidarity with people in every part of the planet.
“I was very lucky to be afforded an excellent political education in the MUA as a deck boy. I was on five ships as a deck boy. Proletarian internationalism, class politics, and class struggle itself was on the menu every day. When I was young I sailed under six different national flags.”
Sixty years on, he can still remember his first taste of the power of solidarity: “I was an ordinary seaman in the ’50s, that’s basically your second or third year at sea … We were at a fortnightly meeting at sea, [a] union meeting, and a bloke moved that we send a motion of solidarity… to anti-colonials fighting [the French government] for liberation.
“All I did was lick the stamp, and post it off to an address in Paris. A few weeks went by, couple of months maybe, and I get a letter back. It’s from the commander in chief of the liberation forces. He’s right over the top. It was in French and I had to get a translator, I’m sitting there thinking, jeez this bloke’s right over the top. Thanking us you know, over and over again.
“Anyway, as the letter progressed, the reason became very clear. When they received the message of solidarity they were on the back foot, having a bad time, and he used this letter of solidarity to revitalise his troops. They were now on the front foot and that’s why they were thanking us.”
Solidarity is not just a nice idea for Peter – it is literally a matter of life and death. He tells us of a more recent experience.
“Just recently … we had a bloke over from Colombia, trade union official [Edwin Mejia, from the food workers’ union Sinaltrainal] … While he was here he got a text: he was on the short list for assassination when he returned to Colombia.
“They get knocked off every other week over there. He got another one from his missus, that she’d been put on the short list too, and the two kids.
“So we went into panic, real panic because over there the fortunate ones get assassinated on the spot full stop. The ones who got nabbed from their homes or out on the streets … there’s one thing you can guarantee for them. Within a few days they’ll meet their torturer and he’ll be so easy to identify because he’ll have his tools of torture with him. Chainsaw. That’s Colombia.
“Anyway, we got 10 unions to send messages to the Colombian government and called for Edwin’s protection. And he’s still alive, his life was saved, just because 10 unions supported the call for his protection.”
Organised workers hold enormous potential power, which means solidarity messages from them have strength. But some of the most dramatic stories, of solidarity industrial action, come from Peter’s 36 years working on the tugboats in Port Phillip Bay.
Famously, Australia’s maritime unions took regular industrial action against ships that had picked up cargo from the racist apartheid regime in South Africa while coming around the Cape of Good Hope.
Ordinarily the tugboats guide cargo ships to dock in the Port of Melbourne, but for these anti-apartheid stoppages, “We got an open go from the officials … In the towage we’d jack a ship up before it come in and what that meant was it had to come in on its own.
“So it would be what they call ‘head in’. Very hard to get out! They couldn’t go anywhere! We’d jack anything coming round the Cape. We’re dirty we never got a free trip to Suez; we put a lot of work their way…
“We’d have to rely on wharfies, ‘This job had [South African] cargo on their last lift’ or something, so we’d take their word and jack it up next time on the chance it might have something.”
We ask Peter why people should be involved in international solidarity. His answer is always another story. There’s the time they banned US shipping after the US bombing of Haiphong during the Vietnam War:
“What really freaked me out was, fair enough, they got rid of the infrastructure, bombed all the cranes and so on. But then they went after the hospitals and the schools.”
There was the strike over pensions, part of a successful campaign to raise the pension to 25 percent of the average wage. “We pulled a political strike … [and] we had a demo in town. Ball park, 1000 there. Three hundred wharfies. Fantastic job. That’s what you could do then … half a day we were out. That was a good turnout, real good, 300 wharfies.”
Gus Haddon, “the best mass worker I have ever worked with”, was crucial to this fight – as was the Builders Labourers’ Federation, its offset printing press and militants such as George Despard and Norm Gallagher.
We hear about Peter’s recent trip to Colombia with a union delegation. “Miner’s lung”, he tells us, is a complaint that usually affects workers who have spent their life down a coal pit.
In Colombia, in communities living near a giant BHP coal mine, even children suffer from it.Peter has many accounts of the struggles around the world he witnessed as a seafarer. He mentions the recent protests in Brazil. “I was there in ’64 when [leftist President] Goulart was overthrown by the coup.
“I was on the street with armed workers. I was in a restaurant watching, and went out when they went past. First 10 rows all had [guns], and I said ‘… where’s ours?’ And I was told when they got shot, we go in and get theirs …
“Those odds did not grab me, not too much hero in me, comrades. I was very discreet, no one would have jerried, but by the time we had gone about 500-1000 metres, I had managed to get to the end of the said armed-led demo.
“They were brave people, gee, and the bloke that was leading it, all he had was a megaphone … In Brazil, day of the coup, the final day they were rifle-butting wharfies. Call over ‘Hey you’ and rifle-butt them next to the army truck …
“The first time I saw starvation [was in] southern Brazil. Half a mile out of town you could go and pick bananas, and there’s people in town starving. I didn’t understand that at all.”
At some stage, the penny drops for us. There’s no point asking Peter to explain why, even in retirement, he works in solidarity with workers all around the world.
Having seen how the system treats people, and having seen how people organise and fight, there is simply nothing else to do.
[The next Solidarity Delegation to Colombia is 14 April to 3 May 2014. For information email [email protected] or call 0425 539 149.]