Ray Harrison was a union activist and lifelong fighter for social justice. For most of his life he was a rank and file metalworker in the Sydney Redbelt. He held elected positions in union and combined shop committees and together with his wife, Joan Harrison, was active in social justice and community campaigns. He was a member of the CPA from 1956 until its dissolution in 1991.
As Ray tells it, his first political act came towards the end of World War II:
"I was at Uranquinty out of Wagga in the Vale of Winds. I was an electrical fitter at the RAAF flying school. It was the end of 1945 and the Indonesians were resisting the attempts by the Dutch to recolonise. The Dutch Air Force was touting for recruits from the RAAF. We had a meeting at the Base and decided that none of us would join the Dutch Air Force. The Labor government eventually followed our lead and no one was allowed to go, by Air Force orders."
At this stage over 3000 CPA members were in the armed forces. Ray was demobbed in 1946, and managed to acquire the all-important Tradesman’s Rights certificate as a fitter. In June 1946 he married Private Joan Valda Manser, an Australian Women’s Army Service (AWAS) ambulance driver and nurse, whom he had met while stationed at Amberley airbase near Brisbane. They had a son and four daughters, and a personal and political partnership spanning 58 years.
By 1949, Ray was working at the Canite Factory in Pyrmont. The workers were all stood down by CSR management, so to earn a quid, Ray and a mate hitched to Wilberforce to cut bakers’ wood for the seven-week duration of the lockout. From CSR he went to the Balmain Power House and the fight around the Communist Party Dissolution Bill. Although Ray didn’t join the CPA until 1956, he was already a fellow-traveller.
Ray next went to the Gas Company and worked with leading communist Ernie Thornton from the Federated Ironworkers’ Association (FIA). Ray said, “We got the sack together. Everywhere he went he got the sack. They called him ‘week in lieu’. Some thought he was Chinese.”
In the post-war boom, industrial relations in metals manufacturing was very different from today. Union membership was about 60 percent of the workforce, many employed in large manufacturing workshops. These were the sites where the share of wealth going respectively to labour and to capital was fought out in the hourly rate. For communists like Ray this was a key battleground of the class struggle.
It was a 40-hour week (44 if Saturday work was required). Pay was regulated by the arbitration system, plus any over-award payments that could be extracted from the boss by threat, negotiation or strike action. Some workplaces were closed shops where you had to be a member of a specific trade union.
Work was highly demarcated by trades and classifications, each covered by a specific union, so there was fitters’ work, boilermakers’ work, and so on. This usually meant several unions on the one site. Joint shop committees were needed to coordinate action on wages and conditions and to advance social justice. They often produced a regular publication; at the Brewery it was The Honeypot, at the Silverwater Refinery it was The Good Oil.
As a maintenance fitter, Ray was able to get around the worksite, talk to other workers and distribute publications. If he lasted long enough before getting his ‘week in lieu’, he would be elected as a union delegate and play a role in the shop committee and the local CPA branch. He was known around the traps as Red Ray, and was renowned for his dedication to selling Tribune on the jobs and in pubs around Liverpool. Much of Ray’s industrial and political work in the 1950s and early ‘60s was in countering the push by the National Civic Council (NCC) ‘Groupers’ into the union movement.
By 1964 Ray was working at Pettifords, an ACI subsidiary, and had become president of the Hurstville No 1 branch of the Amalgamated Engineering Union (AEU), which had over 1200 members.
By the mid-1960s, opposition to the Vietnam War was building. Ray was showing anti-war films and, on his job and others, they won the right to knock off early to attend anti-war demonstrations in town.
Ray moved to CC Diecasting the following year and within a month was elected chair of the combined shop committee. In this workplace, apprentices washed-up early on a Friday so they could get out the strike fund collection boxes to catch workers as they went out the gate. Once a year, delegates went to Canberra on the ‘budget train’.
The big struggle for the AEU during this period was over margins. Ray quoted a communist pamphlet of the time, Women should receive equal wages to men. The local CPA publication was The Punchbowl Beacon which had stories from the factory, and articles about the margin. Ray contributed stories, but other comrades distributed it at the gate, as it didn’t help to be identified by the boss as a communist.
Ray talked of meeting with trade union officials from Indonesia, who disappeared in the aftermath of the 1965 military coup. This was the year his wife, Joan, joined the CPA, after being active in the Union of Australian Women (UAW) and the women’s movement for many years. Together they became active on the Liverpool Council Peace Committee and Access Committee.
Following the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968 the CPA split in 1971, with the so-called ‘Russian-liners’ forming the Socialist Party of Australia. Ray stayed with the CPA and, despite bitterness and acrimony, managed to work with pretty much everyone on industrial campaigns – he always had the capacity to connect with other people of whatever left hue. In 1969, a million workers including some from non-union shops went on strike against the industrial court’s penal powers. There were 3,000 at the meeting in Bankstown.
July 1971 saw big demonstrations against the South African Springboks rugby team who were playing in Sydney. Ray said:
July 1971 was my Mother’s 80th birthday party. It was also the big demonstration against the Springboks at the Sydney Cricket Ground. I went into work to get some bolt cutters. I was due to be working that Saturday so I had to make excuses to the foreman before sidling out. I hid the bolt cutters down the leg of my trousers and into my socks to get into the game. There were all these rugger buggers chanting through the fence: “Paint them black, send them back”, ugly. After cutting the fence which was supposed to keep us from the ground, I was thrown over the top barbed wire strands and kicked by the muster of coppers stationed around the ground inside the fence. A number of people had got onto the ground. They took us up to the cells in Darlinghurst. Fred Hollows, I didn’t know him then, was in there writing on the walls ‘Land rights for Aboriginals’. He had a look at my eye socket which was bleeding. I never did get to Mother’s birthday party.
In 1972 Ray went to Canberra to support the Aboriginal tent embassy. By 1973 he had scored a waterfront job as a maintenance fitter at Seatainers in Balmain. Ray described this as “like winning the lottery”. The organisation and militancy of the Waterside Workers’ Federation had won excellent wages and conditions.
When the Whitlam Labor government was sacked in 1975 there were calls for a general strike. Ray commented:
Whilst Whitlam was saying maintain the rage, Bob Hawke who was the ACTU President at the time was saying no industrial action, stay at work. The Party produced a Daily Tribune during this period which I sold at a huge meeting in the Domain and at other locations.
Ray retired in 1988 but stayed politically active. He went along with the decision to dissolve the CPA in 1991 and continued as an active member of the SEARCH Foundation.
In 1998 when Corrigan and the Liberal federal government locked the waterfront out, Ray was down at Port Botany and along Sydney’s Hungry Mile picketing with many hundreds of other outraged unionists and citizens. This was the period of men in balaclavas and dogs on chains, but the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) was here to stay and the scabs had to leave when the global reach and power of international solidarity was applied.
Ray had been slightly ‘dusted’ at the Balmain powerhouse in the 1950’s by asbestos used to lag steam pipes. With other retired MUA members he picketed the Hardies site demanding adequate compensation for the victims of this epidemic of sickness and death. He became involved in the Asbestos Diseases Foundation (ADF) and in 2011 scored a part in the mini-series Devil’s Dust.
Ray moved to Haberfield and in 2013 got involved in the campaign against the WestConnex privatised toll tunnels, picketing the asbestos waste dump in St Peters and on one occasion occupying a drill rig site in Ashfield.
In 2016 Ray moved into aged care in Ashfield. Here he found other retired unionists and a former CPA member and he started to agitate about the quality and quantity of the food! Ray retained his interest in politics, watched the news and read the Herald daily until his hearing and eyesight failed. He always voted in the SEARCH Foundation elections, taking a great deal of interest in the candidates. Comrades would visit him regularly for a chat, a debate and to seek his vote.
Ray died on 26 September 2018.
Chris Elenor was Ray Harrison’s son-in-law. Ray came into Chris’s world when, as a migrant Pom, he took up with Ray’s eldest daughter, Paula. Chris quickly became enmeshed in the extended and extensive networks of Ray and Joan Harrison’s family, the CPA and the wider left movement. Chris joined the ‘Left Tendency’ in the Party in 1974 and in the recent period was elected to the SEARCH Foundation committee. In 2005 Chris helped Ray write the story of his post-war working and political life for the online publication Vintage Reds. This biography is largely informed by Ray telling his own story. When Ray left Liverpool, he lived with Paula and Chris for five years before moving to aged care.
Lockwood, R., Black Armada (Sydney: Australasian Book Society, 1975).
Harrison, R, ‘A metalworker in the Redbelt’ in Vintage Reds: Australian Stories of Rank and File Organising, 2005. http://roughreds.com/rrtwo/harrison.html
Ray Harrison, interviews with Chris Elenor, Sydney 2005
This biography drew on the biography of Joan Harrison published in Comrades! (Sydney, SEARCH Foundation, 2021)