Six things we learnt from Jim Sharp


Humphrey McQueen

Yorkshire-born, Brisbane Communist Jim Sharp died on 6 November aged 85. Everyone who knew Jim will have stories about the struggles that they engaged in together – opposing wars from Indo-China to Iraq, street marches against the Petersen regime, shoulder-to-shoulder with the first peoples, for a livable city.

Here, the focus will be on six of the lessons that Jim articulated from his workplace activism as an industrial butcher.

One: no matter how militant, anyone who thinks that a fair day’s pay is possible under the rule of capital has not got to first base. If Jim had a refrain that was it: there’s no such thing as a fair day’s pay, which he hammered home against the ACTU slogan during the Worst Choices campaign. Out of that effort, Jim saw the need to get across Marx’s concept of surplus-value to explain why every worker must be exploited under capitalism. From that experience came

Two: the correct handling of scabs. Some of the strikes in the meat industry went on for weeks. Sometimes, blokes cracked under the worries about feeding the kids and paying the mortgage. These were not scum brought in to break the strike, but long-term employees. Jim distinguished strike-breakers from scabs. You could ‘scab’ only if you had been part of the decision to withdraw your labour.  When the dispute was settled, how did you deal with the latter? The danger was that if the Union excluded them forever, it handed the boss a permanent fifth-column. Of course, the Union could not pretend that the scabs had not broken solidarity. The solution was to send them to Coventry for a few months. You spoke to them only to extent necessary to uphold safety. Then, slowly, you re-established friendly exchanges. The result, without fail, was that the erstwhile scab joined the ranks of the most committed unionists.

Three: take every occasion to highlight the moral gulf between the Union and the bosses. A top official had been stealing union funds. After being dumped from office, many of the rank-and-file wanted to expel him from the Union. In those days, without a Union ticket, he could not have worked in the industry. The Reds argued against expulsion. They insisted that the crook should never be allowed to hold any position again, not even as a delegate in a shop committee. However, they opposed his expulsion. Depriving any worker of the means to earn a livelihood is the hallmark of capitalism. Opposing expulsion was one more way to drive that message home. Jim’s side won a ballot of all the members.

Four: show that workers can manage their industry by taking control of production. The bosses thought they could intensify labour if they replaced the boning tables with chain lines on which the carcasses passed from one boner to the next. The men could see that the plan was unworkable from the bosses point of view. Following orders did indeed result in a lower output. Months later, the management came crawling to the job committee for help. The unionists agreed – but in return for a raft of improvements in their conditions. The Reds also pointed up the political lesson: workers do not need bosses. On contrary, capital is useless without the experience and wisdom accumulated in social labour.

Five: the members would always stop if the union or the works committee called them out. But they would stay out only if the leadership could convince them that the issue ‘had legs’, as Jim liked to put it. The Reds put that experience into practice in convincing the abattoirs to ‘Stop Work to Stop the War’ in 1970-71 Moratoria.

Six: skill is strength and strength is skill. Lots of industrial butchers aspired to be ‘gun boners’ – the fastest on the floor. Some of them supposed that success depended on muscle. They never learned that the deciding factor was not brute strength but the skill in how keenly you sharpened your knives. Jim extended this fact from the shop floor to his politics. Militancy becomes self-defeating if it remains mindless. Without the cutting-edge analysis provided by Marx, Engels, Lenin and Mao, how could you even begin to grasp why there can never be a fair day’s pay under capitalism?

Jim put every argument through the prism of what he called his ‘class materialism’.

To gain the full import of these six lessons, we need to sketch the compass of Jim’s life. His mother died in childbirth leaving him to the care of his Gran. He’d left school to earn a few pence by the time he was eight years old, and so was in effect illiterate for his working life. Made redundant, and with support from his comrades, he set about educating himself. One of the first books he read was Marx’s Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts from 1844. The difficulties he faced in comprehending some of its finer points, he said, were as nothing compared with how its passages ‘spoke to me’ as an alienated wage-slave. About this time, Jim began to write, starting with political Haiku, before publishing a collection of poems in 2010, Left Side. There is no better way to empathise with the trajectory of Jim’s struggles than from reading ‘handheld tools’:

handheld tools
…….[man makes the tool & the tool makes the man?]
i remember yesteryear when our hands were tools
where as a bairn earning pocket monies i’d be seen
striding across a farmers spring-prepared field
a seed basket slung over me shoulders
and ever mindful of the strength of the breeze
whilst sowing me hands full of new life
which fell in-waiting for a shower of rain

i remember yesterday’s meatworkers handheld steel tools
and the mechanical chain a monster timed to the second
and the boners’ 48-inches of elbow room work space
where only a well honed knife & our own learnt proficiency
eased away those daily aches & pains, but not
the mind numbing “shit on the liver” complaint!

nevertheless we all aspired to be a gun-boner’s boner
with the ability to grind remake & hone a fine knife’s edge &
steel the steel like a maestro violinist making his stradivarius sing
coz only then can a gun boner make every cut a winner
as well as winning the generous smiles of everyday boners

nowadays in me fag end days my machine driven tool
be my handheld oxford electronic dictionary & thesaurus
on which me fingers dance ever so lightly across the keys
while calling upon what little rudiments one got from schooling
i’m learning to read real deadly stuff & write poetry & all that
‘tis fun not wage labour living to work making words work
whilst rising as a social being studying kinder late
marx’s labour theory of value & all that!

coz after fifty years of wage slavery earning nought but
enuff bread for me & the family
it was our union’s daily democratic tradition which larded
my autodidactic motor mouth with words for occasions
and yet! it’ll take more than my class instincts
for the social continuum to mature
and shud one spruik about that then without class unity
the sack & blacklisting wud be your lot for sure

meanwhile from conception to consumption
farmers sow & reap the matured seeds
truckies truck to feed-lots & then to the abattoirs
where slaughtermen process the cattle &
boners bone & slicers cut the beef into piece meats
followed by the packers doing quality control
packing individual pieces into cryovac bags
thereafter supermarket chains sell to the multitudes
nature & the social means of production

Music played an important part if Jim’s politics. For many years, he was on the door at FOCO, a monthly folk music event in Brisbane’s West End. Another FOCO regular, and Jim’s closest comrade, clarinettist, Ross Gwyther, went with Jim to his first opera, a cinema transmission of Verdi’s Don Carlos. He was blown away by how the music and the politics reinforced each other, one more instance of Jim’s openness to ideas and experiences.

Humphrey McQueen, Canberra, 18 November 2017