OBITUARY: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
Laurie Short: an Australian hero (1915-2009)
, April 18, 2009
Laurie Short waged a protracted and bitter fight to topple Communist power in Australia's trade union movement, writes Peter Westmore.
Laurie Short, for many years one of Australia's leading trade union officials, died on March 26 at the age of 93.
His life closely intersected that of B.A. (Bob) Santamaria, as well as the history of the Movement, the National Civic Council and the Australian Labor Party.
Born in 1915 in Rockhampton, Queensland, Laurie Short had just turned 14 years of age when Australia was drawn into the Great Depression.
At the age of 17, he joined the Young Communist League, the Communist Party's youth organisation, but resigned a short time later after falling out with the party hierarchy over their attempts to enforce party discipline.
He worked for short periods in Queensland and Victoria where he became involved with the Trotskyites - mainly ex-Communists who supported the "democratic communism" of Leon Trotsky, the exiled Bolshevik leader. Afterwards, Laurie Short moved to Sydney and, in 1937, got work at Mort's Dock in the Sydney suburb of Balmain, working as a boilermaker's assistant.Bitter struggle
He became a member of the Federated Ironworkers' Association's Balmain branch, then one of the smaller branches of the union, where the Trotskyites and Lang Labor members were involved in a bitter struggle against the national leadership of the union, led by one of Australia's leading Communists, Ernie (Czar) Thornton.
Thornton and his fellow communists were determined to smash any opposition within the union, and to push Communist policies into the ALP, with which the Ironworkers' Union was affiliated.
As Australia emerged from the Great Depression, the Ironworkers Union became one of the largest and most militant in Australia and the citadel of Communist power in the labour movement.
This was enhanced during World War II, when the union more than doubled in size, then redoubled, due to the growth of Australian manufacturing industry and the union's merger with the Munitions Union. By the end of the war, the union had over 60,000 members, compared to just over 10,000 in 1936.
In the meantime, the Balmain branch of the ironworkers' union was involved in a desperate struggle to survive repeated attempts by the Communist Party to capture it, until the Communists finally won in 1943 in what was widely regarded as a rigged ballot.
Laurie Short emerged as one of the leaders of the rank-and-file opposition in Balmain and, in 1944, he led the democratic opposition in the first national elections in the union, but was soundly defeated in an election conducted by the Communist leaders of the union.
In 1945, after the national officials disciplined Balmain union delegates, a major strike of Balmain ironworkers took place against the national union leadership. Laurie Short emerged as the national leader of the opposition. The first Fighting Fund, conducted by Freedom
's predecessor) in 1945, raised money to support Laurie Short and the striking Balmain ironworkers.
As a result, anti-Communists won control of the Balmain branch of the ironworkers' union in 1945.
With the assistance of the Movement, headed by B.A. (Bob) Santamaria, and the formation of the ALP Industrial Groups from 1946, it became possible to turn the fight in the Balmain branch into a battle between Labor and the Communist Party.
In the national election in 1949, the Official Labor Team led by Laurie Short opposed the Communist team led by Czar Thornton and his deputy, Jack McPhillips. The Official Labor Team door-knocked every member of the union throughout Australia seeking support for Laurie Short and his colleagues.
In elections conducted by the union's officials, during which Short was bashed by Communist thugs, Thornton narrowly won. Short and others immediately took the case to the Commonwealth Arbitration Court, alleging that there had been large-scale ballot-rigging.
In an historic court case which concluded in 1951, Justice Dunphy found that the election had been characterised by "forgery, fraud and irregularity on a grand scale", deposed Thornton, and installed Laurie Short as national secretary of the union.
Short was isolated in the national office of the union, sitting on a chair in a corridor, until the 1952 national elections, conducted by the Commonwealth Electoral Office, saw the Industrial Group team - led by Darcy Ahearn (president), Laurie Short (national secretary) and Harry Hurrell (assistant secretary) - rout the Communists and inaugurate a period of democratic unionism which has continued to the present day.
Laurie Short's contribution was to lead a new generation of democratic, patriotic Australian union leaders who changed the face of unionism in Australia, supporting independently-conducted union elections, and opposing Soviet and Chinese influence in the Australian union movement, in the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions and in the International Labour Organization.- Peter Westmore.