Monday, June 18, 2012

FIGHTING FOR UNDERDOGS -The continuing saga of NT editor, Big Jim Bowditch , by Peter Simon

In his position as secretary of the Alice Springs section of the South Australian branch of the Federated Clerks’ Union , Jim Bowditch, above, had extensive dealings with the SA secretary, Harry Krantz . Krantz, born 1919, regarded by ASIO as a Communist because of his union and ALP involvement , in subsequent years served as a member or chairman of numerous South Australian organizations , dealing with matters as diverse as the university, labour , trotting and architecture , became a recipient of the OAM and was a justice of the peace . Krantz died on March 30, 2006,aged 86,and the Senate was told that he had been " a warrior for the workers ."

Krantz had served in Darwin and overseas during WW11 and expressed admiration for the Australian wartime PM, John Curtin. In an oral history recording he made for the John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library, Perth, Kranz , in 1996, provided some interesting insights into the wartime PM.

One anecdote told how soldiers in Darwin in 1942 ,after being shown a Department of Information film about Curtin in which he was seen walking his small dog on a lead to his home at Cottesloe, a seaside suburb of Perth, rose and cheered . Curtain , he said , had impressed the audience as a sincere and humble man. While on a break from war service in the NT, Krantz stood for the ALP in the seat of Barker in SA in 1943 , secured a 15 percent swing to Labor , and had contact with Curtin.
Curtin, who had been a journalist , usually wore a hat and a dark suit, with a gold chain connected to a fob watch on one side and his Australian Journalist ’ Association medal on the other. Curtin , a reformed alcoholic, he added , had developed his oratory with the help of a visiting British Socialist by going down to the seaside and projecting his voice across the waves . In wartime film footage of Curtin he has a strong voice , his message strengthened by hand gestures .

Krantz said Bowditch took to unionism with great enthusiasm . As the union leader put it so eloquently, Bowditch “ imbibed it ( unionism ) in big mugs . ” Jim also contributed items to the FCU roneod newsletter The Clerk under the byline Doop the Snoop . Krantz explained that due to the disruptions caused by the war , the FCU had been the only union in the Territory . Krantz went to Darwin in 1946 on union business. During that visit he met author Xavier Herbert’s brother , David, and his wife . Mrs Herbert, a member of the union, was a nursing sister who worked and lived at the large Belsen Camp in Darwin. Her husband ran supplies in a smart looking vessel to Aboriginal settlements . Most things were in short supply , from food to building materials , and Krantz recalled arranging powdered milk to be sent to the Territory to feed children .

Krantz was in Darwin when the huge war surplus auctions were being prepared . Apart from much sought after cars, trucks and machinery , there were hundreds of thousands of shoes and about 30,000 gas masks . Buyers came from all over Australia and Krantz said rackets were worked which made a lot of money for some crooked people.

As union activities increased, Krantz visited Alice and Darwin from time to time and described Alice as a “ docile and conservative place”. Jock Nelson, whose electorate secretary was Bowditch's wife, Iris , had always been helpful; whenever Krantz went to Canberra on business he operated out of Nelson’s office in the House of Representatives .

Through keen involvement in union affairs , Bowditch began to campaign for people who were being treated unjustly in government departments and private enterprise . In August 1949 he wrote to Krantz in Adelaide asking if Phil Muldoon, the Alice Springs head jailer , could be covered by the union because he was working under unfair and anomalous conditions. Muldoon was the second longest serving officer in the entire NT public service , having been the Alice turnkey since the establishment opened in 1938. He resided at the prison , could not be absent overnight , and was on duty seven days a week . Bowditch said he had investigated Muldoon’s situation and felt that something should be done. “We all know how futile it is to fight a lone battle with the authorities ,” Bowditch wrote.

Muldoon sent many letters to the union and mentioned “ the vicious circle in Administration in Darwin,” adding : “ They do not want the honest truth in Administration . You have to be a BBBB liar or else a Yes- man to make the grade . ” After 30 years’ service, Muldoon was still classified as a senior constable and his salary had only increased by 48 pound in 20 years. Krantz wrote to Muldoon and said his treatment by the Commonwealth was a scandal and that he had been forgotten by the powers that be. Muldoon said a “ dirty plot ”had been hatched to dispossess him of his position as the man responsible for running the prison. In calling for action to rectify the situation, Muldoon said : “ I am tired of being fed promises ... Let us have some action . It is the only thing this rotten Administration appreciates ...This Dictator State has been ruled with a rod of iron long enough...

Bowditch also took up the case of a woman working for a lawyer who was being paid only seven pounds ($14) a week. She had two children and lived in a hostel. As there was no award for clerks employed in private enterprise in the Territory, her employer was able to get away with paying so little. Krantz responded by saying it was a disgraceful situation and if the lawyer did not come to the party some “discreet publicity ” such as a letter to Truth from a “disgusted employer” could be used , or perhaps the “blackmail ” column , Things I Hear . Bowditch also campaigned for the first cost of living allowance for women in the NT .

A controversial person who strongly influenced Bowditch’s outlook in politics and union matters was the golden voiced orator , John R. “Jack ” Hughes, secretary of the NSW Federated Clerks’ Union, and a president of the NSW Trades and Labour Council. Hughes had been elected to the the NSW ALP executive after the defeat of Jack Lang at the 1939 Unity Conference . He was a leading figure in the left wing group of the NSW party which took stands at variance with the official ALP line,supporting the republicans in Spain, aid for China and opposing the Chamberlain Munich agreement with Hitler . Hughes said the only war the nation should get involved in was one on poverty .

When Prime Minister Robert Menzies brought in the Communist Party Dissolution Bill in 1950, which would have enabled individuals to be declared Communists and prevented from working in the government service or a trade union , even when elected to office by a democratic vote, Hughes was named and said to be a member of the central committee of the Australian Communist Party . In an embarrassing error , The Sydney Morning Herald ran a photograph of the Deputy Commissioner of Taxation , J. W. R. Hughes, saying he was the Communist union leader named by the PM.

Menzies named 53 individuals as being Communists, but later he was forced to admit that information supplied about five had been incorrect . Bowditch met Hughes several times, once at a fiery FCU conference in Nowra , NSW, decisions from which were later declared null and void through a court ruling. At that stormy Nowra gathering Bowditch flattened a man in a fight at a social function . Present at the conference was another prominent unionist Ernie Thornton of the Ironworkers Union, who ASIO claimed also influenced Bowditch.

While Bowditch never mentioned Thornton to this writer, he did talk about Hughes , describing him as a powerful speaker intent on advancing the cause and conditions of the working class. Unions, Hughes told Bowditch, were the great vehicles to advance the cause of humanity , but they had to be dilligent and tough because the Establishment would use every trick it could to deny the average person a fair go. Bowditch became a member of the Alice Springs Progress Association and was given the task of handling its jubilee anniversary publicity. He was also appointed to a committee to draw up proposals for better working and living conditions for all government employees.

He even convened a meeting of butchers and pastoralists in a bid to have the price of beef reduced by as much threepence (three cents ) a pound . ASIO entered this in his file. Legacy and the RSL were other involvements ; he supplied the local paper with details of RSL activities, one being the sending of a letter to the British Prime Minister seeking to have Alice Springs included in a Royal visit. NEXT : More theatrical involvement in Alice Springs and named a wartime hero. {Photo of Bowditch by Kerry Byrnes .}