Godfather Of May Day Turns 80

George Gotsis, communist, freedom fighter and retired wharfie turned 80 this week and the MUA Sydney Branch threw a party for him.

George is best remembered as the Godfather of May Day - keeping it alive for the past four decades.  He is also remembered for leading black bans on Greek shipping during the persecution of unionists and other progressives under the Greek junta in the seventies, organising Greek immigrant workers in Port Kembla and being a mentor for young activists - Sydney Branch Secretary Paul McAleer among them.

"I first met George down at CTAL after I'd been on the waterfront just four months and I've never seen a table shake so much," said Paul.   "The way he beat that table, the passion he displayed is what's so inspirational about George.

"George came from struggle, had a whole working life devoted to the working class and he's never retired from the struggle."

Paul paid tribute to George still coming into the union rooms most days and providing him the skills and inspiration for the job.

"I absolutely love the bloke," he said.  "He's a mentor of mine.  George is president of May Day committee, I'm secretary and without his contribution May Day would be dead. Comrade you are an icon of MUA and internationally."

MUA National Secretary Paddy Crumlin was unable to attend George's birthday but sent his greetings from China where he was meeting with  union officials alongside ACTU and ITUC President Sharan Burrow:

"Congratulations on the latest quantitive achievement of one of Australia's great socialists," wrote Paddy Crumlin.  "We expect a qualitative leap from you after year 80 into a heightened and accelerated process of class struggle.

"I am sorry that I cannot be there today as I am in Beijing and yesterday met at the Great Hall of the People with the President of the All China Federation of Trade Unions who passes on his warmest regards and solidarity on behalf of the 232 million Chinese workers he represents.  He, like everybody there today is looking forward to your analysis of the political and economic crisis in Greece and Europe and the ramifications to the international proletariat of this latest failure of capitalism.

"I know your speech today will be again meeting the high standards you have always set in our long friendship and comradeship.

"Seriously George, your contribution to our movement is beyond peer; your courage and determination and commitment inspiring to all of your comrades and I would like to communicate my personal best wishes along with those of the officers, members and staff of the Maritime Union of Australia.  We look forward to many more years of political and industrial struggle and activism with you on behalf of our membership and retired membership, the Australian trade union and progressive political movement and the international working class.

Long live Comrade George Gotsis!"

Jim Donovan, former Sydney branch secretary of the Waterside Workers' Federation and the MUA was next to laud George for his contribution to working class struggle:

"I've known George 40 yrs and we've had some turbulent times in those 40 years.  George was born during the struggle in Greece against Fascist occupation and is a product of  the era."

Jim spoke of how George had himself been a freedom fighter against the Greek junta after the war and eventually fled  to Australia as his life was in danger.

"It was Greece's loss and Australia's gain,"  said Jim.  "The work this bloke has done is second to none in this room. Mate, you're a wonderful comrade, a wonderful fighter and may you have many more years in front of you to continue the fight."

Mark Lennon , UnionsNSW then spoke on behalf of the broad labour movement.

"The strength of the trade union movement is the sum of its parts," he said.  "George Gotsis is one of the icons of the trade union movement.  When you think history, when you think of the struggle unions have been through, when you think May Day you think George Gotsis. George has never lost his passion and values. On behalf of all the unions of NSW George -  Happy Birthday."

Then it was George's turn to take the mike.

"I'm very proud to be a member of the Maritime Union and proud to continue the working class struggle,'" he said. "The best days of the worker are the days of struggle."

George recalled his first years in Australia in the sixties working at BHP in Port Kembla, fighting the right wing ironworkers union and organising Greek immigrant workers.

"We were all unskilled workers from southern Europe," he said.  "The job was dangerous and young workers were burnt and injured. We had to organise ourselves and the first progressive union leader I met was Snowy Webster from the Seamen's Union."

In 1964 George got a tip off from the local wharfies' branch that jobs were going on the Sydney wharves.  Soon after he began organising black bans on Greek shipping to protest the military junta. Australian maritime unions slapped 48 bans on five ships.

"EV Elliott said we'd continue the bans until the people won freedom in Greece," George recalled.

So it was no surprise when George made his first application for citizenship under the conservative government it was rejected.

"In 1966 I made an application," he said. "And here's what they said: 'Your application for naturalization as Australian citizenship has been received but after careful consideration, the minister decided your application is not acceptable.'"

A couple of years later George tried again.  And again it was refused.  In 1969 a third application had the same outcome.

"With the election of the Whitlam Government in 1972 and Al Grasby becoming minister for immigration George was confident his application would not be rejected again.  But it was.  This time it did not even reach the minister. It was rejected by the department.

So George went to his union and a call went through to government with the message that if George Gotsis was not made an Australian citizen within the week they'd stop all the ships.

"In three days I was an Australian citizen," said George.