MUA Remembers John Benson - Committed Unionist, Renowned Internationalist And Leader Of The Global Peace Movement
Former long-serving Presiding Officer and Sydney Branch Secretary of the Seamen’s Union of Australia (SUA) John Benson has passed away at the age of 88.
“Comrade Benson was a leading trade unionist, peace activist, community leader and renowned and respected internationalist throughout his whole life,” said MUA National Secretary Paddy Crumlin, who succeeded John as Sydney Branch Secretary.
“The Maritime Union of Australia offer our deepest condolences and sympathies on behalf of all members, officers, staff and veterans to John's wife Wilma, son Shan and his wife Melissa and their daughter Samantha.”
John and his son Shan
“John was one of the leading trade unionists in the ALP and held a number of executive positions while an officer with the Seamen's Union of Australia. He was an important contributor to the shaping of pro-worker policies that brought both state and federal Labor governments to office after many years of opposition.
“His work in particular with the NSW Wran Labor Government saw great improvements to the working conditions of port authority workers including the aggregate wage and rosetted leave, an achievement that led the way in the consolidation of working entitlements in the industry nationally.
“John was one of the architects and a foundation member of the Tradies Club at Miranda that was one of the first trade union clubs in the state and was a central meeting place for trade union and labor activists in the community.”
John was Sydney Branch Secretary of the SUA from August 1967 - July 1990, having been Assistant Branch Secretary since January 1961.
Comrade Benson was also Executive Secretary of the World Peace Council in 1980 and part of the estimated one million people who marched on the United Nations Special Session on Disarmament in New York City in 1982.
John at the World Peace Corp meeting
His work with the WPC involved an enormous amount of travel and he was internationally recognized as was one of the driving forces in the world peace movement at the critical time of the tensions of the Cold War.
John had sailed to Japan with the navy in 1946 and later said: ‘it was very eye-opening for me to visit the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki which had been destroyed by nuclear bombs. I kept asking what the reasons for and the functions were. I’m still asking.’
History shows that 1967 was a pivotal year in protests against the Vietnam War with both the SUA and WWF refusing to load the Boonaroo and Jeparit that were set to carry explosives and bombs to Vietnam.
This was because of the real stories and experiences relayed to comrades in the unions, rather than the sanitised and nationalistic versions of history put forward by the Government and media.
Later, the United Nations made 1986 the International Year of Peace and the SUA pledged to redouble its efforts to bring world peace through working with other unions.
In 1980, Comrade Benson led the Australian delegation to the World Peace Congress, a meeting of more than 2000 delegates from seventy-two countries, and including representatives from 232 trade unions.
The delegation from the SUA comprised Queensland Branch Secretary Kevin Durnian, Victorian Assistant Branch Secretary Ken McClelland, and rank and file members John Underwood from Queensland and Victorian John Higgins, the former deck boy on the Boonaroo.
John told the story of a personal encounter with the evil brutality of South African racism when he was on the World Peace Council, attending a meeting which was held in Ethiopia because it couldn’t be held in South Africa.
‘It was about African affairs, and the young man from South Africa, who had smuggled in there, had been captured and tortured, was revealing the nature of these tortures, dramatically, at our conference.
‘He was still recovering from the severity of his injuries and physically collapsed at the conference and had to be rushed to hospital.’
Comrade Benson was also part of the committee in the late 1980s and early 90s that led to the amalgamation of the SUA and Waterside Workers’ Federation (WWF) to form the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA).
Diane Kirkby’s history of the SUA, ‘Voices From The Ships’, chronicles the path of many Australian seafarers, including John, as they became internationalists and socialists.
The book says: ‘[John] was married in Melbourne but then decided Sydney was the best place to work.
‘[My wife] was rather reluctant and we had a young son at that time but we had to accept it was a necessity for us because me being away was making money.’
John missed his family when away but also loved life at sea. He said there was no victimisation on a ship:
“You live together, eat together, struggle together – it’s not just a job but a way of life. The general thing among seamen was to relax altogether and they could confide to each other.”
According to the book, travelling to other countries meant that experience relayed through stories told to other seafarers developed an international outlook.
Added to the fact of travelling was the ease of immigration – the ability to ship out on foreign-owned vessels, or to jump ship in a foreign port.
Comrade Benson recalled that in the years following World War II there were many seafarers in Australia who had been stranded during the war who decided to stay.
Belief in internationalism was not just from life on board ships – it was also apparent in home ports, around the dockyards and wharves, where seafarers ‘would mix, find out what was going on, talk about their conditions, their governments, develop an affinity with seafarers from other countries’.
The internationalism of the SUA also lay in the fact that the union membership and its leaders came from all across the world and brought their ideas with them.
Retired official Pat Sweetensen was one of those born overseas who said internationalism grew ‘because of the very nature of what you’re doing. You saw conditions in other countries’.
To others it was the issues with which the SUA was concerned. Seafarers’ identity came with a sense of shared humanity.
After his retirement now deceased Federal Secretary of the SUA Pat Geraghty said seafarers travelled to the poorest countries in the world where they could see for themselves ’the disparity the difference between what was available to some in society and what wasn’t available to the deprived people of different countries’.
Vale comrade John Benson.
John Benson’s funeral is at Woronora Crematorium, South Chapel, 121 Linden Street, Sutherland at 10am on Wednesday April 19th.
Special event to name the Sydney Branch Unions Rooms after John and Tom Nelson