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Issue #1761      December 14, 2016

“… to smash the old pay system”

Les Purkis: 1925 - 2016

Long-time Party member, trade union and community activist Les Purkis passed away recently after a long battle with illness. Much could be said and written about his contribution to the well-being and future happiness of the working class and other battlers in society. In 2007, he made the following summary of his life in the struggle for a book, Movers and Shakers, compiled by friend and fellow activist, Jim Doulgas. Comrades will recognise and remember the no-nonsense style and commitment of Les. There are also words from his late wife, Connie, and the book’s author. The Communist Party of Australia passes on its deepest condolences to his family and friends.

Photo: Fernando M Gonçalves.

I was born in 1925 in London and grew up during the Depression – a scene of terrible poverty all around us.

World War Il was declared on September 3, 1939, and I turned 14 the next day. When I started my apprenticeship as a plater in the boiler-making trade I was approached to join the union – the Boilermakers and Iron and Steel Ship Builders of Great Britain. My work-mates were committed members of the Communist Party of Great Britain and my ideas were cemented by talking to them. This involvement led to my election as the apprentices’ representative on the local branch committee, then district representative on the London Shop Stewards’ Committee.

During the war, I met my future wife Connie. We married in 1948 and migrated to Australia in 1956. Soon after, I began working for the SA Railways. About 2,500 men were employed there, represented by about 14 unions. Almost immediately, I was elected Boilermakers’ shop steward – through opening my mouth!

On the executive of the Islington Workshops Committee (WSC), I held almost every position, except Secretary, and remained on it until I retired in 1983. We tackled peace activities like anti-nuclear war, anti-nuclear testing, and in particular anti-Vietnam War. When the Dunstan government instituted the Adelaide Festival of Arts in the ‘60s, the Committee organised their own festival. They held concerts, poetry readings, displays of paintings, photographs, sculptures, arid even needlework. Imagine fitters with big horny hands, doing needlework! It was marvellous!

Over the years there were many successful campaigns related to wages and working conditions. These included: four weeks annual leave, instead of two; ten full-days and ten half-day’s sick leave; and the fight for boots and overalls. These conditions flowed into almost every industry in Australia.

Probably the most interesting, hard fought, funny campaign related to the events of payday. A whistle would be blown around mid-day, and a couple of thousand blokes would rush out of the workshops over to this row of pay windows, and line up in numerical order, come rain, wind or sun. In turn, each was given a handful of money – notes with coins wrapped up inside. You would have to unwrap this to count your pay. Inevitably, there were instances of short pay, and for one or two, it was as much as £20.

The Commissioner of Railways and the comptroller responded to this problem basically with: “My officers don’t make mistakes.” So, the WSC found a clause within the Railway Regulations that said that if a worker had to wait more than 15 minutes to receive his pay he would be paid for that waiting time at time-and-a-half of his hourly rate. Immediately, the WSC launched a “Count Your Pay” campaign. The blokes would purposely make mistakes, start to recount; make another mistake, and this would go on for a couple of hours. After a few weeks, the WSC instituted a shield – like a sports trophy, with numerous brass plates – made by the paint shop foreman.

Every week it was awarded to the shop that took longest to count its pay! Funnily enough, the shop that won the shield most times was “the pump gang” with only about half a dozen blokes. So, I asked how they managed to do it. The answer was: “Well, we organised to make lots of mistakes, drop coins and fumble, then the boys would jostle and shout numbers so they would forget what they had counted, and have to start again.” Try as we might, we couldn’t beat them!

We also made up cartoons and poems: “Count your pay, count your pay, the muttered words spread out, and mingled with the laughter of the throng milled about. Some were restless, some were calm, others knew the task – to smash the old pay system and finish it at last.”

So, not only did we get paid for counting our pay we also took our full 45 minutes lunch break at time-and-a-half. It cost the Department thousands of dollars each payday. They begged us to stop the campaign. Proper pay packets were soon found, and the workers were paid in their section, in working time.

Connie Purkis adds to Les’ story:

Les was always out at meetings, and I was a little worried about when I would see him. Later, there were gatherings at the house, often with suppers afterwards, which were most enjoyable. We attended marches, rallies and all types of meetings together. In 1981, we spent nine months in the Soviet Union. I have always seen Les as a dedicated person with great beliefs – nothing was ever too much trouble for him. Les’ political life has been full time, and I have enjoyed the high level of activity and the interesting people that I have met. We have been married for 57 years, and it has been very smooth going with only a few arguments along the way. (Connie laughs.) It has been a marvellously interesting life.

Jim Douglas, a long term friend and workmate of Les, also comments:

Polly was right up the front urging and supporting us along. He is such a gracious character with a great sense of self, a true believer in justice and fairness to all. He was loved and hated, but always respected. He was a great mentor for younger activists such as me and he nurtured many of us.

Les was a boilermaker and worked at the Railway workshops, Islington for 27 years. He was known as Polly (Politician) Purkis. He was a member and shop steward of the Boilermakers’ Union, considered to be the true left and leaders in winning wages and conditions. He was involved in the union employing a full time education officer – the first in Australia.

Next article – Historic win – CUB dispute ends

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