Born in Coburg in 1925, Laurie was a graduate of Brunswick Technical School and, as he would have said, of the Williamstown naval dockyards. Working as a fitter, he became a socialist by instinct as much as by his reading of Marx and other theorists. He saw everyday how working people were oppressed, and understood that they could only end that oppression by organising industrially and politically.
Laurie joined the Amalgamated Engineering Union and the Communist Party. He rose to become secretary of the former and president of the latter. He was active in the struggles that divided Labor in the 1950s, advocating unity tickets under which Communists and socialist ALP members stood together in union elections. In the ‘60s and ‘70s, he was a prominent opponent of conscription and the Vietnam War.
He never abandoned the fundamental convictions he formed during those times, but Laurie is above all remembered as one of the great modernisers of Australia’s trade union movement. The AEU was the forerunner of today’s AMWU, and he became assistant national secretary of the AMWU and assistant secretary of the ACTU. Together with Bill Kelty, he is regarded as the union leader who had the greatest influence in shaping the concept of the social wage, which underpinned the Accord between the union movement and the Hawke and Keating Labor governments.
Laurie was a proponent of the Australia Reconstructs campaign, which drew inspiration from the European experience of social democracy. Despite his role in the Accord, he did not share Paul Keating’s enthusiasm for the free market. But they did have another passion in common: the music of Gustav Mahler. Laurie had a deep knowledge of classical music, and Bill Kelty tells the story of introducing Laurie to Keating – he was unable to get a word into the conversation because the pair of them spent most of the time talking about Mahler.
But not the whole time. Laurie was also passionate about education, and the meeting with Keating laid the groundwork for his later contributions to the reform of vocational education and training. Laurie was working-class intellectual who read extensively and expected AMWU officials and organisers to do the same. It was essential, he said, to keep in mind both what was happening on the shop floor and in the wider society, and to understand the connection between them. Education was the key to that.
Since Laurie died many leaders of the labour movement have praised his intellect, his indomitable spirit, and his contributions to working people. We will do so again on September 6. But it is also worth remembering how even those who were his opponents came to acknowledge his character and integrity. Consider this remark during the Accord negotiations by Bert Evans, an employer advocate and leader of the Metal Trades Industry Association: a handshake deal with Laurie Carmichael is enough.