Turner Freeman is saddened by the passing of legendary trade unionist Laurie Carmichael.
Laurie started off on the shop floor, joining the Amalgamated Engineering Union (AEU) while working at the Williamstown Naval Dockyard in Melbourne. He rose from rank-and-file to shop steward to State Secretary of the AEU in 1958.
In those days, the metal trades were divided into three separate unions. Laurie and his comrades recognised that, if they joined forces, the combined union would have formidable industrial power.
Turner Freeman was then known as Roy F Turner Jones & Co. Our founding partner, Roy Turner, was instructed by the AEU to act in the amalgamation of the AEU with the Boiler Makers and Blacksmiths Society of Australia.
On its own terms, this project was ambitious. However, in 1970 Laurie prevailed upon the Sheet Metal Workers Union to join the merger – to form one big union in the metal trades to be called the Amalgamated Metal Workers Union (AMWU).
In those days, the amalgamation of unions was fraught with undue legal complexity. The prospect of carrying off a three-way merger was daunting.
Laurie and many other leaders of the amalgamating unions were communists and their opponents in the labour movement sought to obstruct the formation of what they feared would be a monolithic communist union.
Senator Jack Kane, the Secretary of the Democratic Labour Party, attacked the amalgamation as “the brain child of Laurie Carmichael, the top communist union strategist” and said that the amalgamation plans had “long been communist policy”. In late 1971 the Federated Iron Workers Association, the Federated Clerks Union and the Shop Assistants Union announced that they would contest the creation of the new union in court.
In the face of such opposition, our founding partner Roy Turner assembled a crack legal team. At first, Roy briefed Mr Neville Wran QC, who had to step down after he was elected to the Legislative of Council of NSW in 1970. In his place Harold Glass QC, Frank Hutley QC, Michael Kirby and Mary Gaudron were brought on.
After some early legal victories by the opponents of amalgamation in early 1972, the legal team emerged from a string of wins in the nation’s highest courts to a total victory. The AMWU was born.
Laurie had been a leading force behind the creation of what became the country’s most powerful union. He became the first National Assistant Secretary of the union.
Brian Aarons, a long term friend and comrade of Laurie’s, told Turner Freeman:
“Laurie was a true legend of the union movement. The amalgamation of three major metal trades unions was a major achievement of his, and it made the AMWU the mighty force for working people that it continues to be today.”
Under Laurie’s leadership the AMWU had many victories. In 1981, he won the 38 hour working week. After the Hawke Government was elected in 1983 Laurie put the union’s industrial muscle behind the Accord, which helped secure for working Australians Medicare and universal superannuation. He was also a visionary. The report Australia Reconstructed was the most far-sighted program of economic reform that Australia has seen.
As AMWU National President Andrew Dettmer said in his recent tribute to Laurie, “the AMWU, the ACTU, the workers of Australia and the Australian people owe Laurie Carmichael a debt that can never be repaid”.
These victories should not obscure the more human side of Laurie. He was a famously warm and interesting man. Richard Walsham, former Deputy Federal Secretary of the Australian Education Union, was a close friend of Laurie’s during his time as Assistant Secretary of the ACTU. Richard told Turner Freeman: “Laurie was a transformative leader of a blue collar union, but he was also a remarkable and eclectic man of culture. He had so many diverse interests. I once walked in with him to a classical music shop in Melbourne, and all the staff knew his name! He had a list in his notebook of all the classical music records he owned. It must have gone on for pages!”.
Richard emphasised that Laurie was not only a “master industrial strategist”, but also a “true champion of a working class which appreciated arts and culture”.
Turner Freeman pays our respects to a true giant of the union movement.
We extend our deepest sympathies to the Carmichael family.