A lifetime of struggle

Revolutionary socialist Issy Wyner (1916-2008)

As I moved into politics and the union movement as a relatively young bloke, I did so not realising that I was related to a well known and respected figure in the Australian labour movement, a man named Isadore ‘Issy’ Wyner.

Today (23rd August 2014) marks six years since his passing, and in memory of Issy I’m noting some of his history, some personal memories, and reflecting on my time with him and his (our) family.

As a young boy, my family and I would spend half of Christmas day with my father’s family. It was the 70’s and 80’s. My father’s parents were divorced when he was young and when his father re-married he linked the ‘Sullivans’ up with another family – the ‘Wyners’. So there I sat every Christmas for the best part of fifteen years, with my Aunty Trish (my dad’s step sister) and her family, Uncle Larry and their children Melissa and James. Also sitting at the table and around the Christmas tree each year was Larry’s mother and father – Issy and Ruby Wyner. My Godmother, ‘Aunty Joyce’ Heffron, would take part in heated discussions with Issy and my Grandfather, usually furious agreement about the state of the world, politics, and the city we lived in. I was young and presents under the tree interested me as much as the family chats that went on, but they were warm and caring Christmas Days which I remember fondly.

Thinking back, I can remember the politics discussions and banter across the room about things I knew little of, activism, ministers, political parties, etc. I remember Issy holding court as he spoke with us all about what was happening, but so much of it went over my head – or did it? It wasn’t until I joined the NSW Fire Brigades as a 20 year old that I joined a union and started to learn what unions did. As I took more interest in principles and issues in the workplace, I moved into an elected role within my union, the Fire Brigade Employees’ Union (FBEU). I was able to learn more about the labour movement, and become more involved in politics more broadly. Before long I was on picket lines, and rally’s, and leading my union into battles with the government of the day. It wasn’t until talking to some of my comrades in the labour movement, and starting to read books and historical notes in the mid 2000’s that I realised just how influential and important Issy (and his family and friends) were to the labour movement, especially here in Sydney NSW. Ruby had passed away in 2000 and just as I made the connections of the history that had been right next to me all of my life, Issy passed away.

Having finally gained political knowledge and armed with my own experiences, stories, and a willingness to sit with him and learn much more, I missed the opportunity. He passed away just as I realised who he was (and in some ways who I was). Of course I still have his family, his writings, and his history but I often reflect on missing that access to him that, due to matters of timing and fate, I never utilised or got a chance to appreciate.

Perhaps it’s a co-incidence that I do what I do now in the labour movement, not knowing when I was young what Issy did? Then again, perhaps as children we absorb adults and family interactions, their desires for a better world, and what they do? Perhaps subconsciously we do hear what’s going on, and that helps form the paths we make in later life? Perhaps there was just a few phrases, a few comments that I put into the back of my mind until they made sense? Are we born as conflict theorists or do we learn how to use conflict theory as a matter of survival and principle?

On the anniversary of Issy’s passing, while I reflect on opportunity lost and the ghosts of my Christmas’s past, please spare a thought for the legends in our society that spent their lives making a difference.

Below are reproductions of published pieces written about Issy, his family and friends.

– Darin Sullivan

open council

Issy Wyner, (1916-2008)

Originally published Saturday, August 23, 2008 By Tony Stephens in the Sydney Morning Herald
Reprinted in the Green Left Weekly with the author’s permission.
When a teacher at Fort Street High School recommended that students read the economist John Maynard Keynes, the school boy Isadore Wyner suggested Karl Marx. Young Issy was reprimanded. This did not stop him from engaging with the world for another eight decades. While Marx lost most of his supporters many years ago and even Keynes has fallen from the fashionable, Wyner maintained his youthful curiosity, almost until his death at 92, in everything from the world’s biggest geopolitical dramas to the future of a local park in inner Sydney. Issy Wyner was born in Marrickville to Samuel, a Jewish cabinetmaker from Riga, Latvia, and his wife Rachel (Welling), from Estonia. The Wyners arrived in Sydney in 1914. Issy was the eldest of four boys and a girl. The family moved to Rozelle in 1920, then to Balmain. He attended Rozelle Public and Drummoyne and Fort Street high schools. Samuel Wyner was a founding member of the Communist Party of Australia in 1921 and provided young Issy’s first reading material, minutes of the first meeting of the Communist International. Aged 12 during the Depression, Issy joined others occupying houses to prevent the tenants from being evicted, a defiance that often ended in brawls with police. His father would take him to the “dole dump” in the Haymarket, where food was distributed to hungry families. His father was expelled from the Communist Party in 1932, the year he left home. Issy left school at 16 to become the family breadwinner. After joining the Young Communist League he was expelled in 1933, with Laurie Short, who was to overturn the communist control of the Federated Ironworkers Association. Wyner was also a member of the Unemployed Workers Movement and his first political victory was when he and Short had the swimming pool at Birchgrove, now the Dawn Fraser Pool, opened free to unemployed young people. Wyner became a public servant, stamping dole books, and was transferred to Newcastle. He later went to sea on coastal steamers and became an ironworker at Mort’s Dock during World War II. In 1940, Wyner met Ruby Bundy, a seamstress, at a party held by Nick Origlass, a left-wing political activist who was to become Issy’s colleague. Ruby had led a strike by 40 laundry workers. They married in 1942. After the war Wyner became a painter and docker at Cockatoo Island and joined the Ship Painters and Dockers Union. He was a paid union official for 30 years, and its historian. The union held annual elections for officers, which Wyner won repeatedly. Together with many elections to Leichhardt Council, he was elected 44 times. Hall Greenland, his political colleague, says Wyner was the most elected man in Australia. After the Bob Hawke government disbanded the union, the unsentimental Wyner said: “I’m a life member of a dead union”. In 1983, he published With Banner Unfurled, tracing the union’s early history from the 19th century. A second volume, The Union Right Or Wrong, published by the State Library in 2001, took the history to World War II. Wyner was elected as a member of the Labor Party to Leichhardt Council in 1959, joining Origlass. For years they defied authority in pursuing such unfashionable causes as preserving the environment, opposing developers, coal loaders and expressways, and opening council meetings to the public. The ALP expelled them in 1968 for opposing a caucus decision to allow a chemical tank depot in the community, but they returned in 1969 as independent Labor. They were ejected from meetings and ordered by the Supreme Court to comply with the mayor’s rulings. The open council meetings from 1971 meant all residents could have a say, although meetings sometimes lasted until 3am and development applications were delayed interminably. Critics accused them of stopping reasonable medium-density housing in the inner city and forcing the growing city further into its westward sprawl. Wyner’s last book, Open Council: A New Era In Local Government, was launched only two weeks before his death. When Wyner opposed public housing in Mort Bay, he was accused of having moved rightwards across the political spectrum and joining the yuppies. He countered that he was not opposed to public housing but wanted open spaces. He saw the opening of Bicentennial Park, Rozelle Bay, stopped the building of a huge marina at Rozelle Bay, and led the first struggle to save Callan Park, when he was mayor in 1990. His Community Independents lost power to Labor the same year, when the NSW government appointed an administrator to control planning in Balmain. Ruby died in 2000. Wyner is survived by their son, Larry, his wife, Patricia, grandchildren James and Melissa, great-grandchildren Nina and Astrid, and sister Marie.

Issy Wyner (1916-2008)

By John Percy Sept 2008 [Reproduced from original here] Issy Wyner, one of the pioneers of revolutionary socialism in Australia, died in Sydney in August, aged 92. Issy was an early member of the Workers Party, the first Trotskyist group in Australia, formed in May 1933. Those early Trotskyists were mostly former members of the Communist Party of Australia (CPA), maintaining their original support for the communist ideal as exemplified in the Bolshevik Revolution, and rebelling against the political degeneration of the Communist Party taken over by Joseph Stalin, and the subsequent political and organisational degeneration of communist parties around the world. Prominent among them were Jack Sylvester, CPA central committee member, and national secretary of the Unemployed Workers Movement, who had been expelled in 1932; Laurie Short and Issy Wyner who had been expelled from the Young Communist League; Professor John Anderson of Sydney University, who transferred his allegiance from the CPA to the Workers Party; Ted Tripp, another CPA central committee and political bureau member who was expelled in 1934. Joe Boxhall was the first secretary of the Workers Party. They had a base among the unemployed movement in Glebe in Sydney, and later among dock workers in Balmain, and in October 1933 started publishing their paper, Militant. In 1934 Nick Origlass joined the Trotskyist group, also after coming up against the degenerating politics and undemocratic practices of the CPA as it succumbed to the influence of Stalinism. Origlass was the backbone of the small Trotskyist group for the next three decades, and Issy Wyner became his closest supporter. “Nick ’n Issy” became a shorthand way to describe their group. Wyner’s father was a founding member of the CPA, and Wyner was a radical and rebel from childhood. Against the stream in the ’30s, against the repression from the much larger CPA and from the state, they tried to build a party adhering to the ideals of Lenin and the Bolsheviks. They attracted many talented individuals, but never grew beyond 50 members. Perhaps the highpoint of their struggle was the battle during World War II led by Nick Origlass and his comrades in the ironworkers, union in Balmain. Origlass had taken work as an ironworker at Mort’s Dock, and Wyner was also working in the industry. They won mass support for maintaining a principled industrial struggle even during the war, and against attempts by the CPA — who led the rest of the ironworkers’ union — to remove the Trotskyists from their leadership positions. This story of the Balmain Trotskyists – Origlass and Wyner, and others like Jack Sponberg in the Boilermakers’ Union – is well told in Hall Greenland’s biography of Nick Origlass, Red Hot. It’s one of the most exciting and inspiring struggles in the history of the Australian labour movement. The small Trotskyist group was still fighting against the stream during the war and after, and some of their members sold out to the right. Origlass and Wyner never sold out. They continued to struggle, although undoubtedly made many mistakes in their efforts to build a party. During the ’50s their group adopted the tactic of entry into the ALP, but it ossified into a permanent strategy. In January 1968 Origlass and Wyner were expelled from the ALP for breaking a municipal caucus decision. They were councillors on Balmain Council, Origlass having been first elected in 1958. The ALP machine was supporting the establishment of a chemical tank facility on the Balmain peninsula. Origlass and Wyner had the support of their local ALP branch, and the local residents, and ran as Balmain Labor in the early state election called for February 1968. Origlass and Wyner were elected to Leichhardt Council as the Balmain Leichhardt Labor Party in December 1968, and then as independents. Origlass became mayor of Leichhardt in 1971-73, Wyner in 1989. They were able to implement their ideas for an “open council”, encouraging resident participation, and contributed to many local conservation victories. For most of the ’50s Trotskyism in Australia was represented by this small circle around Origlass and Wyner, who were loyal followers of Michel Pablo, the secretary of the Trotskyist Fourth International (FI), winning a few supporters from the CPA following the 1956 Khrushchev secret speech denouncing Stalin and the Hungarian revolution. The Trotskyists experienced some modest growth in the first half of the ’60s, recruiting some youth and students through activity in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, solidarity with Cuba and anti-apartheid work. When Pablo’s supporters left the FI in 1965, the pro-Pablo supporters had a narrow majority in the Australian group. After the World War II Issy Wyner had became a painter and docker at Cockatoo Island and for 30 years was a full-time official of the Ship Painters and Dockers Union. He was elected as full-time vigilance officer or NSW secretary of the union, elected every year for 30 years. In 1983, Issy Wyner published With Banner Unfurled, tracing the union’s early history from the 19th century. A second volume, My Union Right Or Wrong, published by the State Library in 2001, took the history to World War II. Nick Origlass died in 1996. Issy Wyner delivered the main address at his funeral. Wyner concluded: “Nick Origlass believed, with a boundless fervour and dedication, in the eventual triumph of the people over the evils accumulated and distilled over past centuries into what we now regard as modern capitalism; in the certainty that humanity will overcome the barbarians, the mass destroyers, the wreckers of the potential for advancement, whether fascist or Stalinist; to the eventual end of a social system which can tolerate what Maxim Gorky described as ‘mountains of gold out of seas of human blood’; and in the certainty that the people would soon set their feet firmly and unswervingly on the road to a society that knows no bounds in human endeavour and achievement.” These words applied also to Issy Wyner himself – a revolutionary socialist who didn’t give up on his original ideals, and had a proud history fighting in the interests of the working class. [John Percy is national secretary of the Revolutionary Socialist Party, and was one of the first recruits to the Trotskyist movement from the generation radicalised by the campaign against the war in Vietnam.]

See also: From the Oral History collection: Issy Wyner

About Darin Sullivan (1980 Articles)
Former President of the Fire Brigade Employees’ Union (2009-2018) and a professional firefighter with more than 30 years experience. I live and work on the NSW South Coast, Australia. I am a strong advocate for firefighters and emergency service workers with an interest in mental health issues and caring for those around me. I am a former Director on the NSW Fire Brigades Death and Disability Super Fund and work with charities including ‘The Movember Foundation’. As a leader and activist I have long been active in the campaign for action on climate change. I am a Station Commander in the fire and rescue service in NSW and have 30 years experience fighting fires, both rural and urban. I am passionate about highlighting the impact climate change is having on fire preparedness and fire behaviour in Australia, and the risks associated with inaction on climate change. I am also a spokesperson for the Australian Climate Media Centre.
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