Andrew Casey, no doubt on his way to causing trouble somewhere. Photo: Facebook

The man who inspired me to work for unions

Refugee, journalist, unionist, social activist: Andrew Casey will not be forgotten

AS I sit down to eat my breakfast on a Friday morning, the first text message beeps on my phone and then my Facebook feed begins filling with the same news: Andrew Casey has died.

Andrew would have got a kick out that, social media flooded with messages of grief alongside the tributes, like the day that David Bowie died. He was a social media junkie, something like 40,600 tweets in the decade he was on Twitter (as usual, he was an early adopter). As a compulsive communicator, Twitter was the perfect medium for Andrew, as was Facebook, where he was equally active.

The messages came from prominent journalists, union leaders, politicians, and dozens of ordinary people whose lives Andrew had touched over his 64 years. They came from Australia, and from Fiji, from Hong Kong, from England and Canada and the US, and from Europe. Gone too soon, but what a life.

He collapsed in the street, aged 64, no doubt racing from one coffee meeting to another. He was always on the go, always chasing that next titbit of gossip or looking for that next campaign to contribute to. He had suffered health problems in recent years, but still, this was a terrible shock.

On Tuesday, we buried him, after a Jewish funeral service at a cemetery in northern Sydney, near where he had lived most of his life, and again, Andrew would have got a kick out of the love inside the chapel that was filled to overflowing. It wouldn’t be entirely true to say he was a modest man, but I think he would have been overwhelmed at just how much he meant to so many people.

Andrew with Jeff Lawrence, his boss at the LHMU, and later the author’s boss at the ACTU.

LOOKING back now, Andrew was one of the two people who inspired me to quit journalism and work full-time for the union movement. The other was Greg Combet, a man of incredible intellect and vision, combined with rock solid integrity and commitment during the hard slog of the Howard years.

From Andrew, I learnt that there was great purpose in using the skills I had gained as a journalist to serve working people through unions. He inspired me as someone who had been a fine journalist himself, and who pioneered new communication techniques through unions. And that if we really wanted to make a difference to social justice, it was not enough to be an observer or a commentator; you had to be an activist.

Andrew never said any of this explicitly to me, but it was something I absorbed from conversations before I made the leap.

For a long time, I only knew Andrew Casey as a voice over the phone. I had only just started as the Herald Sun’s industrial reporter when I got a phone call to introduce himself. He was working for Jeff Lawrence at the Missos then, and I soon got to recognise that drawling, nasally voice at the other end of the line. He’d always call with a story, but also with a bit of gossip or a history lesson, or some media analysis.

I learnt more about him through his writing for Workers Online, the web-based weekly newspaper that was edited by Peter Lewis out of the Unions NSW offices between 1999 and 2006. Andrew would write mostly about international issues, but gave his views on other things as well. One day he wrote a piece about the decline of the industrial round, and mentioned me as one of the few reporters worth following. That was an enormous boost to the confidence of a journo who was always second-guessing himself and wondering if he was any good at his job.

When I came across to the ACTU in 2008, I could finally put a face to the name. By now, Andrew had moved to the AWU and was working for Paul Howes. The profile and influence of the AWU was rising quickly, much of that thanks to Andrew, and we soon began talking several times a week. Maybe Andrew saw something of himself in me, in that we had both quit successful newspaper jobs to work as the ACTU’s media officer (in fact, Andrew was, allegedly, the first full-time media officer employed by the ACTU in the late-1980s), but I doubt if he ever consciously set out to be a mentor. But that’s what he became.

It is only in the last few days that I’ve found out he played the same role to many other people in the union movement.

As I became Andrew’s friend, I also discovered more about his life, which he would share in phone chats or over a coffee whenever I was up in Sydney — often in the atrium of Trades Hall — or he was down in Melbourne. I learnt about how his parents were Holocaust survivors, how they had fled Hungary after the failed revolution in 1956 with their two tiny children and come to Australia with the help of people smugglers.

He was a proud Australian and he loved Sydney Harbour more than any place on earth, but he was even more proud of his roots as a refugee, and that is where he got his lifelong passion for social justice from, along with his dignity. His refugee background made Andrew a true internationalist who recognised how we are all inter-connected and that the artificial boundaries of national borders are irrelevant.

There was something spiritual about Andrew, although he was not overtly religious. He identified as Jewish, more so culturally than religiously, and he schooled me not only in union history and union politics, but also in the Jewish world, one time gently admonishing me over the phone for posting a message on the ACTU website about our Christmas office hours. “It’s Chanukah also, comrade,” he chided. But he was no one-eyed Zionist and worked tirelessly to build bridges between Israel and Palestine.

Most of all, he was a humanist. He wore his compassion for the disadvantaged and the dispossessed on his sleeve.

He could be infuriating, of course. There were periods when I mistrusted him, times when his advocacy of particular political positions — usually involving the Middle East — verged on hectoring. But it was impossible to be angry at him for too long, and I learnt that when he was lecturing me, it wasn’t to tell me off, but to help me protect my own back. He was watching it for me also, and I probably owed him for saving my job after the ACTU purge in October 2012.

I’ve been quoted elsewhere saying Andrew was “an incorrigible gossip”, and it’s true. He was equally generous in sharing stories as in plugging you for news. His sources were generally impeccable and his information usually on the money, and more than once he passed something crucial on to me before it became common knowledge because he wanted to help me, and to help the union movement. His partial deafness was frustrating, but he was funny, and he was wise, and he was always full of stories. He liked a good conspiracy as well.

STARTING from when he was uprooted from Hungary, aged three, Andrew had a hard life and I saw him during some of the worst periods, after his separation from his wife and her subsequent early death, as he single-handedly nursed both of his elderly parents and his parents-in-law through their final days. You would tolerate his crankiness because you knew how lonely he was during that period, and how the squabbles with his children pained him, because he told you; but the last few years, despite his health problems, were among the happiest I’d seen him.

Perhaps freed from such a burden of responsibility after his parents’ death, and with some extra cash, he was like a man reborn, excited at renovating and moving into his new apartment, embracing his Judaism, spending time with his grand-daughter, travelling overseas to Europe and America and Asia, a social butterfly, and dressing like a dandy. And still contributing every day to the union movement and other social justice movements. He never stopped working and he never missed a rally.

That’s why his death is doubly cruel because he still had so much to offer. Both his parents had died in their 80s and Andrew deserved at least another 20 years. He hadn’t even reached retirement age.

He was proud as punch in the middle of last year when he presented the inaugural Walkley Award for industrial relations journalism. Andrew was the driving force behind the establishment of the award and personally secured much of the sponsorship. This was one of Andrew’s great passions: ensuring that the IR round, which we had both worked on, continued to be respected and that journalists had the education and knowledge to report IR fairly and accurately. He wanted to set up a scholarship for young IR reporters, and to develop a course module on IR reporting for universities and media cadetships.

We both chuckled that night when it was announced that the winners were the team from The Age for their reporting on the scandalous enterprise agreements between the SDA and Coles, Woolworths and McDonald’s; Andrew was relishing the expressions on the faces of union leaders when they found out that was the winner.

That was another of Andrew’s qualities: he was a union man through and through, but it wasn’t blind faith. He believed unionists had to live up to certain ideals and high standards, and he was prepared to call out cant and hypocrisy and corruption when he saw it. He was one of the first to identify Kathy Jackson as a crook, and he covered the Heydon royal commission with the enthusiasm of a cub reporter.

This is why Andrew was so respected across the board: he was a straight-shooter and he respected other straight-shooters. Even though he spent much of his career as a mouthpiece for unions, he realised that the best industrial relations reporters weren’t there to be propagandists for either side, but to report the facts fairly and honestly, and he had enormous respect for the likes of Ewin Hannan and Mark Skulley because they knew their stuff and had integrity.

Andrew Casey speaking at a rally for Iranian unions in Sydney a few days before he died.

EVEN after all those years working for unions, Andrew never stopped being a journalist. He took his role as an editor with LabourStart incredibly seriously, and in his final years was a regularly contributor to Working Life, which I edited from 2012 to 2015. I appointed Andrew our unofficial world editor and gave him a brief to comb the globe for stories about workers’ struggles that we could bring to Australian audiences. He was enormously proud that our own Sharan Burrow had been elected as the head of the global peak union body, the International Trade Union Confederation.

He was still looking after his parents at the time, so sometimes struggled to meet a deadline, but he wrote some great stories for Working Life. In 2014, he covered the ITUC conference from Berlin, filing several times a day for the website, and he wrote ACTU Congress diaries for me in 2012 and 2015. Few people had attended as many Congresses as Andrew, and in one of the final editions of the print version of Working Life, I asked him to provide me with his top five most memorable Congress memories (number one, of course, was Bob Hawke’s uranium mining speech in 1979 in Melbourne, which Andrew attended for the Sydney Morning Herald).

But the story he wrote for Working Life which summed up the man more than any other was in February 2014, and titled ‘I am a unionist and I am a refugee’.

Andrew’s passport photo from when he was a child.

Andrew had attended a memorial in Sydney for Reza Barati, the Iranian man murdered in a riot at the Manus Island detention centre, and when we spoke a day or so later, he was still emotional about it. I encouraged him to write about his own refugee story and relate that to the present day struggle, and what he came up with was pretty much a manifesto for the union movement. He related how his family had fled Hungary and been accepted into Australia, and how the first people to meet them on the dock at Sydney were union people. And he argued that the union movement must lead the opposition to the bipartisan cruelty of Australia’s modern day treatment of refugees and asylum seekers.

“We must underline a core union value — to fight discrimination in all its forms,” he wrote. “Our union leaders must repeat, again and again, that our historic role demands today we help this new wave of refugees — especially in their workplaces.”

Clearly, Andrew was ahead of his time.

At the Heydon royal commission in 2014; Kathy Jackson has just described a key witness as a “charity shag”.

A LITTLE over 24 hours after I am told Andrew had died, I am standing in my local supermarket when my phone beeps. The message says Michael Gordon has died. I stand shocked and speechless in the canned fruit aisle.

If Andrew inspired me to work for the union movement, Michael Gordon was the type of journalist I always aspired to be: trusted, accurate, fair, and most of all, a voice for the voiceless.

Compared to Andrew’s upbringing as a “wog” with an anglocised name, Mick Gordon was born into privilege — the son of one of the most celebrated Australian journalists and editors in history — although he never took advantage of it and made his way as his own man. But despite the security into which he was born, the sense of social justice burnt just as strongly in Michael Gordon as it did in Andrew Casey.

He was most renowned as a political journalist — and his 1993 book about Paul Keating remains one of my favourite political biographies — but he wasn’t interested in ploughing the same fields of political intrigue and gossip as most of the Press Gallery. Michael Gordon explored how political decisions impacted on people, particularly on those marginalised by society, and his greatest contribution as a journalist was in reporting to the rest of Australia about the struggles of Indigenous Australians and the plight of asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus Island.

He was Australia’s conscience, but it is a measure of the man that although he wrote critically of the policies of, for instance, the Howard government, he had the enduring respect of John Howard.

I didn’t know Michael Gordon any more than to say hello to and to exchange a few pleasantries, but he was always exceedingly polite and generous with his time, and to lose him so close to losing Andrew was almost too much to bear.

The author (far left) with Andrew Casey at the mid-year Walkley Awards in 2017.

I AM a better person for having been educated by the journalism of Michael Gordon, and I am a far better person for having known Andrew Casey.

The last time I saw Andrew was at the ACTU NexGen conference in August last year. When I sat down for the conference dinner that night, there was an empty seat next to me with a satchel hanging over the back. We had no idea who it belonged to, but 10 minutes later in came Andrew and he plopped down next to me.

The speakers that night included Bob Hawke and Bill Shorten, and I recalled that I also sat next to Andrew at the 2012 Congress dinner, held in honour of Bill Kelty, who Andrew revered. On both nights, we ended on our feet and punching the air while Hawkey sang ‘Solidarity Forever’. If that is to be my last image of Andrew alive, it’s not a bad one.

He was one of a kind, that’s for sure, and it is in his memory I will try harder every day to be a better person and to make the world a better place.

Andrew Casey (Katona Andras) born, Budapest, 25 March 1953; died Sydney, 1 February 2018.