Farewell George Zangalis – Speech Delivered by RTBU State Secretary Luba Grigorovitch at the Celebration of the Life of George Z
On behalf of the Rail Tram and Bus Union, we extend our deepest condolences to Georges immediate and extended family and friends who are here today.
It’s a great privilege to speak to you on behalf of the Rail Tram and Bus Union this afternoon.
So many great words have already been said about George’s life and contribution over many years and decades.
But I do hope I can do some justice in paying tribute to George on behalf of our great Union.
I remember when I first met George. It was when I was still the Union’s Women’s Officer and Organiser, George came up to me and spoke to me that afternoon about the Union, and how proud he was of the RTBU and how pleased he was to see a young woman working at the Union.
And then again in 2014, when Trevor Dobbyn retired as State Secretary and I became the new State Secretary, George called me with joy. He asked me to go onto his radio programme on 3ZZZ, because he loved the idea of a young woman being the state secretary of the RTBU.
In 2015, our Union’ brought the Rail and Tramway networks in Melbourne to a standstill with our first industry wide strike action in 18 years. George was thrilled and I remember him clenching his fist and saying, “All power to the Members!” This really summed up George’s approach to the Union and the many causes for social justice for which he worked and fought for with such zeal.
When George arrived in Melbourne in 1950 he found work on the car assembly line at the giant GMH factory in Dandenong. He joined his union straight away. and when he turned up for his first day at work on a Saturday only to be shocked to learn that Australia had a 5-day working week. From Monday to Friday. Years later he would also recount the story of battling for position in a queue of 500 to get a hot meal at GMH that stretched for over 100 metres. With a meal break of only 30 minutes those left at the back of the queue were lucky to get slices of bread, of which they paid full price. That sort of humiliation of the workers by the bosses was routine and only fuelled Georges determination to set things right.
George, like so many newly arrived migrants of the time, were unfairly seen as unskilled or semi-skilled workers, and a range of prejudices by employers, governments and some – too many – in the labour movement were openly on show. Georges willingness to fight injustice and racism saw him become a full time organiser with Communist Party of Australia from 1961-1969.
During this time a young George witnessed a series of strikes in the car industry, especially the ground-breaking 1964 national strike of GMH’s 18,000 mainly migrant workforce.
This event made a huge impact on George and gave him great hope for the future of the labour movement. George eventually moved jobs and joined the railways in 1969, joining the Australian Railways Union, where he began his long career in service to the ARU and its members.
In 1972, as North Melbourne Laurens Street Workshop Committee President, George pushed forward on an issue which he was to campaign on for almost twenty years and that was the right of migrant workers to be provided access to be taught English on the job.
The railways had over 55% migrant workforce in the seventies and many had difficulty in reading, writing or understanding English. Most worked in large workshops, freight centres, track and construction maintenance and as station assistants.
George always felt that this situation made ripe the conditions for the exploitation of workers, as well as denying access to critical safety issues and basic understanding of wages and work conditions.
George, along with many of ARU migrant workers, was now on a mission to rectify this. The time for a campaign for migrant workers’ rights and the right to access English on the job had finally arrived.
When George was elected as an ARU Organiser in 1975, he became responsible for the Ways and Works area, which saw many mainly migrant workers treated with contempt, arrogance and on occasions physical violence.
Many track workers were forced to work in intolerable conditions, often deep in mud & slush or extreme heat, with gross violations of basic safety regulations and little to no access to basic amenities such as meal areas and toilets.
George endured physical threats against him by bosses at a number of sites as he tried to address workers in their own languages during the lunch breaks.
George was particularly proud of the role he played in a dispute in 1976 of Vic Rail Car Cleaners and Freight Workers in West Melbourne, who took successful action by occupying the Railway Administration Building in Spencer Street where they won their demand for separate lunch and dressing rooms. Later in the early 1980s, railway infrastructure workers blockaded the front of PTC headquarters with a cavalcade of work trucks, tractors and bulldozers.
The re-telling of these events always made George smile.
Between 1982 and 1984 George was involved in a successful campaign to improve amenities for maintenance and construction works, including winning for the first time for rail workers across Australia the provision of air-conditioned depots, separate eating and toilet facilities, air-conditioned vehicles and portable toilets.
But no worker’s victory is easily achieved, and as the Organiser for the area, George played a crucial role in a campaign that saw 50 stop-work meetings, 20 strikes and countless job meetings to achieve a great win for all.
Through all these issues and so many more George continued to push for English on the Job.
The ARU and the Migrant Workers Committee made a series of demands on Vic Rail management including demanding that full-time bilingual staff be employed in head office, workshops and depots, as well as the provision of information in non-English languages on awards, safety, health, compensation and superannuation, and critically, also demanded that Vic Rail management make the teaching of English on the job be available to all who wished to participate.
In the 1980’s, as a result of both an industrial and political campaign, the ARU gained a Federal Labor Government commitment to introduce a new system for teaching English on the Job along with a grant to employ a full time Migrant Welfare Officer for 3 years.
The Victorian Branch of the ARU became the first union in Australia to take trainee translators & interpreters on placement and expand the services the union could provide to its many migrant members.
George would always acknowledge the work of union shop stewards and job delegates in achieving all this, and while some of the gains achieved were dismantled under Jeff Kennett’s privatisation agenda in the 90s, George never lost hope in union members and the labour movement and what it stood for.
George was also about building alliances between the ARU and community groups and this was evident in Georges early days as an organiser where a major fight erupted over the closure of the Shepparton to Cobram rail line, this campaign saw local community groups, bushies and farmers in alliance with the ARU opposing the then State Liberal government of Lyndsay Thomson’s decision to close country rail lines.
It was a hard fought campaign of picket lines, community rallies which involved local media and though the campaign was not entirely successful it did see the conservative government of the day forced into a humiliating open parliamentary public enquiry into the rail cutbacks, which played into the election of the Cain Labor government.
George brought many social and left-wing issues into the union including the campaign for Peace and the fight against the proliferation of Nuclear weapons during the cold war and George was a great internationalist.
When he returned to Greece after the collapse of the fascist military junta he wrote glowingly in the ARU magazine of the election of the left leaning Passok government and the freedoms that he encountered across Greek society which only a year earlier saw fear, kidnappings, assassinations and torture at the hands of the Generals.
This was a Greece that was totally different to the one he had left behind as a young man.
To read this article years later George’s joy virtually leaps off the page as he must have written the article with a that broad grin of his and overwhelming heart felt pride.
George wore a target on his back his entire life for his political advocacy. Like so many trade union, left-wing and migrant activists of his era (and George was all three!), George was extensively spied on by ASIO for much of his political life. So I urge you all to contribute financially so George’s family can digitise and publish George’s extensive ASIO files and give us all a better insight into this ‘hidden history’.
In conclusion, Georges contribution to the union and the broader labour movement can best be summed up with this quote he recently told a friend “You must never step away from the fight to make the world a better place. You must fight injustice in all its forms.”
No quote better sums up George’s contribution than those words.
His life long fight against injustice wherever it occurs is the legacy he leave us.
Farewell George, our friend and comrade.