The red flag flies at half mast above Trades Hall, as the union movement has lost a titan. George Zangalis was a champion of the community, the movement and the working class. He passed this week, at the age of 90.
The story of George’s life is the story of migrants in Australia: their struggles, and their hopes.
Migrant Workers in Australia
If you take the lift up to the Workers’ Museum at Trades Hall, you can hear George’s voice recalling some important moments in the plight of migrant workers coming from post-war Europe. Australian unions were, at the time, not exactly friendly to migrant workers. At best they were sceptical of migrants’ abilities to understand and be a part of the union. At worst they were outwardly hostile to them for no other reason than their backgrounds. The work of George Zangalis and others like him was integral in the slow acceptance of migrant workers into the union movement.
One of the memories he describes is the 1973 strike at Ford in Broadmeadows. The workforces at these car manufacturing sites were around 75% from migrant backgrounds: Italian, Greek, Turkish and Yugoslavian predominantly but representing many nations and backgrounds. Conditions in these places were terrible. If you were a few minutes late for work, you might be docked your whole week’s pay. There were no bathroom breaks, no tea breaks. Migrants were the ones who did this work, because their options were so limited when they arrived in Australia.
Many hailed from European countries that had long and proud histories of working class revolt. Some of them fought fascists in a very real sense.
The strike, which began more like a riot than a planned industrial action, was not supported by established unions in the beginning. Workers smashed up the factory and forced a standoff with police, chanting “Don’t work!” in several languages. Only afterwards did Laurie Carmichael, then Assistant National Secretary of the Amalgamated Metalworkers’ Union, come to them, hat in hand, and declare at a mass meeting, “I say to you sincerely that I have made a mistake and you have taught me a lesson.” The workers’ demands for breaks and union rights were granted after a four-week strike, but something else was starting to build.
The First Migrant Workers’ Conference
Fighting for the rights and for full participation of migrants in Australian society was George’s life’s work. As an avowed lifelong communist, he felt that the union wasn’t just a way to win pay rises and better conditions (although of course, that was important) but also that organised labour had the ability to transform society and bring dignity to the working class.
In 1973, George helped organise and was Secretary for the first Migrant Workers Conference in Australia. It is viewed now as a major turning point in the progress of migrant workers in Australia. Migrant-dominated workplaces from all over Victoria elected delegates to the conference and sent them to discuss the issues that were largely going unrecognised or only being spoken about in isolated pockets.
Communication was George’s big thing: he often said that unions put so much emphasis on “speaking the language of the worker” but they never took that to mean their actual languages. They didn’t really want to speak those languages and reach those workers: it was the workers who banded together to demand inclusion into union spaces. This was one of the aims of bringing migrants together at the conference: not so much to organise against employers (yet) but to make the unions recognise them as a force and speak their languages. Of the previous year’s 700 delegates to an ACTU congress, only 5 were non-British migrants. The conference was conducted in English, Italian, Greek, Yugoslav and Spanish.
He often said that unions put so much emphasis on “speaking the language of the worker” but they never took that to mean their actual languages.
The conference and the organising efforts that contributed to its success led to the beginnings of a change within the union movement. It was not an immediate victory, but it was something of an acceleration. George himself also rose in prominence, and he was elected as an organiser of the Australian Railways Union (back in the days when organisers were elected) in 1975. In 1988 he was elected President. This was almost certainly due to his work with migrant communities and the faith they had in him as a leader and a tireless agitator.
With the demonstrated success of multilingualism fostering multiculturalism, it was no surprise that George became interested in broadcasting and, specifically, radio. He was a founding member and President of 3ZZ (now 3ZZZ) which started in the basement at Trades Hall and presented weekly as one of the station’s most popular hosts for over 30 years. He served on the ABC’s Advisory Board and the Board of SBS. He was President of the National Ethnic and Multicultural Broadcasters’ Council of Australia from 1995 until his retirement in 2009.
The full list of George’s roles, positions and accolades would be too long for this article. He was President or Secretary of just about everything, at one point or another, including the Ethnic Communities’ Council of Victoria and the Fair Go For Pensioners Coalition.
He wrote books and articles, somehow, in the time between meetings. His first was an examination of the lives of migrant workers in Australia, entitled Migrant Workers & Ethnic Communities: Their Struggles for Social Justice & Cultural Rights: The Role of Greek-Australians. He also wrote another, more personal tome entitled Ode To Mother: To My Mother, The Other Eleni. This recounts the tale of his young life in war-torn Greece and the trials faced by his family.
Both are recommended reading, for all the details this article fails to convey regarding a man who lived such a giant life. They are still in stock and can be purchased from the New International Bookshop, at the Victoria Street Entrance of Trades Hall.
The ASIO Files
As a prominent member of the Communist Party of Australia, ASIO has extensive files on George and his activities in the community. Cold War paranoia and capitalist hypersensitivity couldn’t let him go unmonitored, so his movements, associations and writings were extensively documented. The problem is, we don’t know what exactly the files say. We can make some guesses, but there is no telling what distortions or inaccuracies are allowed to exist in their vaults without the light of truth to scrutinise them.
ASIO has 22 large files on George Zangalis (they had 44, but 22 have so far been released) and the Zangalis family are seeking to raise the funds to digitise them. Each file costs $250. Friends and comrades are encouraged, in lieu of flowers, to make a donation to the fund for the access to these files.
The account details for making donations are as follows:
BSB: 313 140
Account number: 123254453
Rest in power, George. Your work continues. A dedicated Migrant Workers Centreis now housed at Trades Hall, built on many of the same fundamentals that guided those early organising efforts. The cultural experience of not just migrants but everyone in Melbourne has been enriched by the participation of so many various ethnic groups. And perhaps, most importantly, you leave behind many friends and loved ones who will forever be changed by the impact you have had. They carry you with them, and will go further because of it.
George is survived by his two children: one of whom, Vasso, is a union health and safety trainer in Trades Hall's OHS Unit.
The red flag flies at half mast above Trades Hall, as the union movement has lost a titan. George Zangalis was a champion of the community, the movement and the working class. He passed this week, at the age of 90. The story of George’s life is the story of migrants in Australia: their struggles, and their hopes.