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Oliver, Cecil Thompson (Charlie) (1901–1990)

by Harry Knowles

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Cecil Thompson (‘Charlie’) Oliver (1901-1990), trade union official, was born on 23 December 1901 at Bangor, Wales, son of John Murray Oliver, grocer’s manager, and his wife Elizabeth Jane Veitch, née Thompson. Early in his life the family moved to Chester, England, and then to Liverpool. Aged 13 ‘Charlie’ was granted an exemption to leave school to work as a farm labourer; he joined the agricultural employees’ union. Later becoming a steelworker, he was a member of the steelworkers’ union. After World War I he decided to seek new pastures and, with his elder brother Jack, migrated to Australia.

Landing at Albany, Western Australia, Oliver journeyed to Meekatharra, a remote goldfield. By now tall and well built, he found work as a miner, became active in Australian Labor Party politics, served on committees of the metal miners’ union and joined the Australian Workers’ Union when its Western Australian branch assumed control of the miners’ union in 1923. Moving into transient work, he took any job that paid well. On 22 January 1931 at the district registrar’s office, Midland Junction, he married Ray Lord. They bought a smallholding and Oliver supplemented the couple’s income by resuming mining work, from which he contracted silicosis. During the 1930s he continued to serve as a union delegate, claiming that he could not afford to be a paid official on the low wage offered.

Oliver enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force in July 1940 and was discharged at his own request in November. In 1942 he accepted a position as an AWU organiser and on the goldfields built a strong reputation that ensured his election as secretary of the AWU mining branch. He proved to be a skilled and formidable negotiator, winning a number of industrial disputes. In 1948, as the ALP candidate, he won the by-election for the seat of Boulder in the State Legislative Assembly that followed the death of the former Labor premier, Phillip Collier; Oliver defeated the Liberal Party candidate, (Sir) Billy Snedden, by a large margin. Although Oliver was re-elected in 1950 he struggled to adapt to the life of an Opposition back-bencher and yearned to resume the role of a trade union official.

The opportunity arose in 1951 when Tom Dougherty, federal secretary of the AWU, recruited Oliver as a candidate for secretary of the union’s New South Wales branch. On the AWU executive council, Oliver had been Dougherty’s ally. Aroused easily to enmity, Dougherty saw him as the means of destroying the incumbent, Bill Wilson. Oliver easily won the position. He left his wife and son in the West; although he intended to stay only four years and had a succession arrangement with the retiring secretary of his home branch, the move proved to be permanent. Apart from annual holiday trips to the West during his initial years in office, he never lived with his family again.

Oliver ran successful campaigns to improve the standard of shearers’ accommodation and played a central role in the 1956 shearers’ strike. Demonstrating his shrewd leadership abilities during the post-strike reconciliation processes, he successfully negotiated the delicate balance between satisfying embittered members, adhering to the settlement provisions with the graziers, and observing the union’s legal obligations. During his first decade in office Oliver put the branch in a healthy financial and membership position. The branch derived an alternative income source through Oliver’s acquisition of real estate properties, which enabled him to keep membership fees low and to build up the value of branch assets.

Early in the 1950s, according to Federal ALP parliamentarian Fred Daly, Oliver had been ‘a placid, tolerant, understanding, soothing influence’ over the pugnacious Dougherty in their joint campaign against the industrial groups. Oliver also fought the communist influence in his union. As a vice-president of the New South Wales ALP executive in 1956, he helped to prevent the defection of parliamentarians to the Democratic Labor Party and a party split. By the late 1950s his relationship with Dougherty had changed; he was his own man with his own power base. In 1958 he demonstrated the ruthless side of his character by successfully opposing a challenge to his position in the State AWU. He was determined to retain power and to build upon it. In 1960 he was elected president of the New South Wales ALP.

Oliver was shaken by the ALP’s defeat in the 1965 State election and speculation that he might be considering retirement was further fuelled when he decided to embark on a trip abroad, funded by a United States of America leadership grant. He returned to find his position as AWU branch secretary under serious challenge by Lewis McKay, the AWU’s South Coast organiser. There had been tension between the two for some time over McKay’s frequent challenges to Oliver’s authority. Oliver’s team was returned in the 1967 branch elections but the McKay-led rank-and-file group, the Better Deal campaign committee, won easily two years later, although Oliver remained branch secretary.

Charlie Oliver’s response put paid to rumours about his imminent retirement. Demonstrating a resolute determination to regain power, he mobilised his supporters and soundly defeated McKay’s team in the election of delegates to the AWU convention two months later. The battle between the Oliver and McKay forces then shifted to the Commonwealth Industrial Court. Three years of bitter litigation, office lockouts and turmoil followed. Oliver’s resolve and his powers of endurance proved too formidable for his opponents and in 1972 he regained full control of the New South Wales branch.

Yet his political influence continued to ebb. In 1970 he had voluntarily relinquished the position of State ALP president, after a ten-year term. While his reasons for doing so remain unclear, it was rumoured at the time that an ALP federal executive inquiry’s findings of partiality against him in his conduct of ALP State branch affairs might have prompted the decision. During the 1970s Oliver attempted to consolidate his power and influence within the New South Wales AWU through two amalgamation proposals, firstly with the Shop Assistants and Warehouse Employees’ Federation of Australia and later with the Building Workers’ Industrial Union of Australia. Oliver’s amalgamation strategy, along with his defiance of an AWU federal executive ruling over membership ticket prices and his unsuccessful bid to replace the incumbent, Frank Mitchell, as AWU federal secretary, soured his relations with his federal counterparts, who were convinced that he aspired to overall control of the union.

Oliver’s ambitions for the New South Wales branch of the AWU ended when the amalgamation attempts failed. He continued as secretary of the State branch of the federally registered AWU until 1978 and as president of the State-registered AWU until 1985. While he had also remained an active participant at ALP conferences, the political pre-eminence that he had enjoyed in earlier decades dissipated.

Oliver had become a Freemason in 1962. He was appointed AM in 1984. Predeceased by his son, he died on 24 February 1990 at Caringbah and was cremated. Following the death of Tom Dougherty in 1972, Oliver was arguably the last survivor of the ‘big men’ who had dominated the labour movement during its heyday. His eulogist, the Federal parliamentarian John Armitage, said that ‘we shall not see his like again’.

Select Bibliography

  • M. Hearn and H. Knowles, One Big Union (1996)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 4 Sept 1964, p 2, 4 Nov 1980, p 13, 26 Feb 1990, p 8
  • Tribune (Communist Party of Australia), 12 Feb 1969, p 10
  • M. Dodkin, Charlie Oliver (MA thesis, University of Sydney, 1990)
  • Australian Workers’ Union convention reports and executive council minutes 1950-85 (ANU Archives)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Harry Knowles, 'Oliver, Cecil Thompson (Charlie) (1901–1990)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://labouraustralia.anu.edu.au/biography/oliver-cecil-thompson-charlie-15422/text26634, accessed 25 September 2017.

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