Ted Bull was a working class leader, radicalised by being unemployed during the Depression. After years of working as a wharfie, Ted was elected as Secretary of the Waterside Workers Federation in 1967 and held the post for 12 years.
The Freedom Socialist Party first worked closely with Ted against the Cain government’s assault on the Builders Labourers Federation in 1987. The Defend the Unions Committee was formed out of this fight. In this period, with the majority of the trade union leadership shackled by the Accord, the rapid activation of solidarity networks was vital for unionists who were out on strike.
Ted’s many picketline speeches were stirring polemics, designed to strengthen class consciousness. While the trade union officials preached consensus between capital and labour, Ted lucidly explained the fundamentals of Marxism in the most practical manner. Surplus value, the sometimes treacherous role of the union bureaucracy, imperialism – these concepts lived in Ted’s speeches. Through his warmth and humour, Ted conveyed his deep respect and admiration for the working people he was talking to.
After the decline of Defend the Unions, we continued to work with Ted in many struggles. We often crossed paths at functions in solidarity with Cuba, at May Day or in defence of the environment. We would talk. On many, many things we’d agreed. We also knew where we disagreed. We knew Ted as a Maoist and a member of the Communist Party of Australia [Marxist/Leninist], and he knew us as Trotskyist feminists. Perhaps the difference that came up most was over Ted’s radical nationalism, which characterises national capital as independent from multi-national capital and an ally for workers. We see Australia as a junior imperialist power and see nothing progressive in Aussie nationalism.
But Ted did not let ideological differences stand in the way of uniting around questions of agreement. He chose his party and clearly worked hard to build it. But he also respected other working class organisations and made sure his own course of action always advanced the interests of his class.
Ted had a deep commitment to Indigenous sovereignty. In 1995, when Radical Women organised a rally protesting the construction of the Hindmarsh Island Bridge and defending the Ngarrindjeri women (who are still fighting for their traditional beliefs), Ted was there in the front row listening intently to strong women leaders as they explained what was at stake. While many people were confused over the issues, Ted was among those who could see that this, too, was a fight against big capital. He knew which side he was on.
Aboriginal society promotes the importance of respecting the wisdom of the elders. In the socialist movement, we also respect and learn from our veterans. In honour of Ted’s memory, we must teach a new generation of working class fighters what we have learned. In the ‘90s we face the challenge of blatant union busting, casualisation and individual contracts as the bosses work to undermine collectivity and class consciousness. Those speeches that Ted delivered so effectively are still needed today. Let’s do it for the whole working class.