John was 58 when he died on 29 August, 2006 of a brain tumour. His working life was spent in the construction industry and he dedicated his life to working people, in particular to construction workers for the improvement of their health and well being; and to advance their status.
“Don’t get all sensitive on me now.”
— John Cummins
John was the President of Victorian Branch, CFMEU from 1996 till 2006.
Prior to that John held various positions within the Victorian Branch of the Builders Labourers Federation (BLF). The 1980’s and early 1990’s was a period of turmoil in the construction industry. During that time the BLF was deregistered. The BWIU was declared the “legal” union to represent building workers. In spite of this the BLF retained its members who continued to be loyal to their union. In turn John supported them and the “right to organise”. In response to members’ requests John continued to enter construction sites. As the union was deregistered this was seen as an illegal action. John was not deterred, in fact he was jailed several times for indefinite periods and multinational construction companies sought civil damages of $87k per day from him. A broad campaign of building workers, other unions, civil liberties organisations and a range of community organisations rallied each time John was jailed and each time secured his freedom.
It became clear that the building unions needed to amalgamate to not only survive but to be able to effectively represent the industrial rights and safety of construction workers. John was central to the achievement of the amalgamation of the two unions in 1994. John held various leadership positions in the state and national union. He was a delegate to Victorian Trades Hall Council, and represented the union on various industry bodies.
Social and Political activist
John was also a social and political activist. He participated in and led many struggles from the 1970’s until the time he died. These ranged from student campaigns, trade union struggles, the independence of East Timor and many community causes and campaigns. John was a strategic activist, he was able recognise when trade union support in community issues was warranted and would be effective. John strongly believed that the union participation in community campaigns was secondary and that community causes needed to be led by community leaders. Notable earlier campaigns included harnessing trade union support to save Victoria market and the Regent theatre. Others included public housing and community facilities under threat from opportunistic development. John demonstrated an unswerving commitment to the right to organise.
John attended Parade secondary college, and Latrobe University. He remained connected with a number of his peers from those times whose careers took a range of directions; no doubt these wide connections influenced his social and political outlook.
Confidence in young people
John was devoted to supporting young people experiencing disadvantage. He was the president of North Heidelberg junior football club for a number of years, during the time that his sons played with the club. Under his leadership there was an emphasis on building a culture on inclusion and development of the young players, believing that team sport can be a positive influence on disaffected youth. He assisted numerous young people into apprenticeships and jobs in the construction industry.
John was able to connect and engage with people from wide ranging backgrounds, industry, business, politics etc. John treated everyone with respect; he was a role model to his peers in this regard.
He was an inspirational leader who was not only motivated by injustice but also the spirit and strength of those he represented.
They won’t have died in vain
2004 - 34th anniversary of the West Gate Bridge tragedy keynote address, entitled ‘They won’t have died in vain’ was delivered by John Cummins, the Victorian Branch President of the Construction, Forestry, Mining, and Energy Union’s Construction and General Division.
Today marks the 34th anniversary of Australia’s worst peace time industrial accident.
It is my pleasure to formally welcome you to this annual memorial service to those 35 construction workers who lost their lives in the bridge’s 1970 span collapse.
In many ways this is a sad occasion – remembering the lives cut short in the collapse – the heartache and tragedy caused to the families and loved ones.
But it is also our custom to pause and make this a celebration of the lives of the individuals, characters and personalities – the family men, the lovers, the dads, the sons and the brothers, the larrikins, the trade unionists, the special individuals each and every one of them were.
We have also made a habit of dedicating this occasion to the need for us to be forever vigilant about maintaining safe workplaces.
We think there is a correlation between safe workplaces and organised workplaces. We think that this is one of the unmistakable lessons that have come out of the construction of the West Gate.
Leaving job safety to others, or taking it for granted, are recipes for injuries and worse. And this is not going to be tolerated by any of us.
With the passage of time, whilst there are now too many West Gate construction workers no longer with us, we have seen the comings and goings of governments of all sorts of political persuasions. And notwithstanding some of their best or worst efforts, we still proudly stand by the legacy bequeathed to us by the lessons of the West Gate tragedy.
John Howard’s (Federal) Government has been returned, and we understand he has a self-given mission to target the union movement and industrial relations – construction unions especially, and our members’ wages and conditions.
We take the opportunity presented by today’s occasion to pledge that the memory of our 35 workmates guarantees that we will give John Howard no quarter. They won’t have died in vain.
Safety standards and union organisation on our jobs are non-negotiable. This year’s commemoration, of course, is also a special occasion in that it now takes place in the newly developed and soon to be formally opened Memorial Park.
Until now, this sacred ground has only been marked by the memorial plaque that was erected and paid for by West Gate workers. It is now complemented by this wonderful park.
A concept a mere year ago, it is now a powerful reality. You will agree, you can’t help but be struck by it.
I would like to formally acknowledge the support of the Bracks (State) Government, the efforts of Bob Bennetto and Holland’s, and the commitment of Serdar Baycan and the West Gate Memorial Park Association.
Without their efforts, continuing reflections to the memories of the West Gate collapse victims would have occurred in increasingly unsatisfactory surroundings and circumstances.
I am sure you’ll all agree – they deserved better.
Letter of support 2009
In response to his invitation to the 2009 John Cummins Memorial Dinner, held in August Jack Mundy wrote:
Because of a long standing commitment on Friday in Sydney, I am unable to attend John's annual dinner.
The Fund appears to be an ongoing successful venture. Congratulations on all the good work.
It is gratifying to know the fine name and work of John lives on, not only in the trade union movement, but in the wider community as well.
In my opinion he was one of the most outstanding trade union leaders we have produced.
Wishing the third annual dinner success.
These obituaries are a heartfelt tribute to Cummo written by his family, friends and workmates.
Other tributes to Cummo include:
A poem titled, 'Ode to John Cummins' by Gary McCarthy
A speech made to Parliament by Senator Gavin Marshall
A piece on working with John at the CFMEU written by Anne Duggan on behalf of the women he worked with
A poem titled, 'Workin' Class Mums' by George Despard
A summary of Cummo's working achievements written by Michael Bull
A tribute written by Steve Jolly
A speech given by Martin Flanagan at the First John Cummins Memorial Fund dinner in August 2007