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Dawson, Gerald Macadam (Gerry) (1905–1979)

by Manfred Cross

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Gerald Macadam (Gerry) Dawson (1905-1979), carpenter and trade union leader, was born on 15 July 1905 in South Brisbane, fifth child of Cress Dawson, a labourer from New Zealand, and his Queensland-born wife Annie Maria, née Ott. Cress was secretary of the Brisbane branch of the Waterside Workers' Federation. Gerry was educated locally at St Laurence's (Christian Brothers') College. He entered the Ipswich Road workshop, Department of Public Works, as an apprentice and remained there as a tradesman. In 1924 he joined the Amalgamated Society of Carpenters and Joiners, of which he was elected shop delegate. At the Vulture Street Congregational Church, South Brisbane, on 18 February 1928 he married 19-year-old Gladys Pokarier, a waitress. Unemployed for almost four years during the Depression, with a wife and child to support, he was to be conditioned by the experience for the remainder of his life.

An active member of the Dutton Park branch of the Australian Labor Party, Dawson was a well-informed and widely-read debater. He was a delegate to the South Brisbane electorate's executive-committee and in 1932 was campaign director when V. C. Gair won the seat in the Legislative Assembly. From 1942 until 1969 Dawson was his union's State secretary; he was also secretary of the Queensland Building Trades Group and edited the Building Workers' Journal for more than twenty-one years. He was able to weld the union's numerous provincial city branches into an effective, State-wide organization. The relationships that he developed with smaller unions, such as the plasterers, bricklayers and painters, led to later amalgamations. Following the formation of the Building Workers' Industrial Union in 1945, he was its State secretary and later federal president (1955-68).

At a time of steadily growing support for communism in the Queensland trade union movement, Dawson had joined the Communist Party of Australia in 1940. His union subsequently withdrew its affiliation from the A.L.P. Due to his strategic position, he was elected to the Queensland committee of the C.P.A., but his role was essentially industrial. He was a union delegate (1935-71) to and vice-president (1943-48) of the Trades and Labor Council of Queensland. In July 1948 he succeeded H. J. Harvey as president, and for nine years worked alongside the energetic communist secretaries Michael Healy and Alex Macdonald. In this period Dawson developed into an uncompromising negotiator and outstanding advocate in the State Industrial Court; he was especially concerned with basic-wage and safety issues, and campaigned for the provision of public housing.

The T.L.C.Q. played an unprecedented role in the railway strike of 1948 and in the pastoral industry strike of 1956. By then the reduced power of the C.P.A. encouraged an attempt to broaden the leadership of the trade union movement in Queensland and to preserve Macdonald's position as secretary of the T.L.C.Q. In July 1957 (Sir) John Egerton was elected president of the T.L.C.Q., but Dawson remained as an executive-member and was a delegate to the powerful interstate executive of the Australian Council of Trade Unions; he also continued to act as chairman of the basic wage committee and as the council's advocate.

From the mid-1960s he suffered so severely from Parkinson's disease that he was barely able to complete his term as union secretary. Survived by his two sons and two daughters, he died on 18 May 1979 at Annerley and was cremated. Dawson was a sincere and honest representative of working people: his personal prestige allowed him to pursue an independent line in the trade union movement and enabled him to steer the T.L.C.Q. through some of its most difficult times.

Select Bibliography

  • Building Workers' Journal (Brisbane), 1942-69
  • Queensland Guardian, 1943-54, 1960-66
  • Telegraph (Brisbane), 18 May 1979
  • Courier-Mail (Brisbane), 19 May 1979
  • TLCQ, minutes, 1935-79 (University of Queensland Library).

Citation details

Manfred Cross, 'Dawson, Gerald Macadam (Gerry) (1905–1979)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://labouraustralia.anu.edu.au/biography/dawson-gerald-macadam-gerry-9928/text17583, accessed 23 September 2017.

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