Labour Australia

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Browse Lists:

Seelaf, George (1914–1988)

by John Lack

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

George Seelaf, (left), c1962

George Seelaf, (left), c1962

State Library of Victoria, H38849/4044

George Seelaf (1914-1988), trade union leader and community activist, was born on 4 April 1914 at Albert Park, Melbourne, elder child of Estonian immigrant George Seelaf, wharf labourer, and his Victorian-born wife Janet Rachel, née Anderson. His father, who had entered Australia in 1910, worked as a wharf labourer, cartage contractor and ship wrecker in the Port of Melbourne. In 1917 the family moved to Footscray, where George attended various state schools and Williamstown High School (1925-27).

For a decade after leaving school Seelaf was either unemployed, in part-time or short-term work, or scratching a living on the small market garden his father had purchased at Lyndhurst South, near Frankston. In 1936 he got a temporary job at the Footscray meatworks of W. Angliss and Co. Pty Ltd. Conditions there were poor; the company had deskilled, casualised and divided the workforce in the Depression, and remained virulently anti-union. Working as a ‘sparrow starver’ (scavenger) on the yard gang, with access to the whole plant, Seelaf discovered his gifts for communicating and organising. His work experience, particularly friendships with unionists and socialists, politicised and radicalised him.

Seelaf joined the Australasian Meat Industry Employees’ Union, Victorian and Tasmanian branch, and became a union delegate (1938), secretary of the Angliss inter-union shop committee (1939), Angliss AMIEU walking delegate (1940) and union organiser (c.1944). His membership of the Australian Labor Party was brief. Pamphlets provided by friends persuaded him of the evils of monopoly capitalism, and in the summer of 1942-43 he joined the Communist Party of Australia, Footscray branch. Thus began a lifelong commitment to socialism.

In 1943 Seelaf managed Cecil Sharpley’s campaign for the seat of Footscray in the Legislative Assembly. He attended the CPA’s Marx School in 1948 but, instinctively pragmatic and ameliorative, he had little enthusiasm for communist theory, and readily defied party ideologues. In February 1950 he told the Sir Charles Lowe royal commission on the Communist Party in Victoria that the interests of his union took precedence over the party. Sir Charles also investigated and dismissed the allegations of a disaffected Sharpley that Seelaf had rigged union elections. By then Seelaf was one of Victoria’s most successful trade union leaders.

Under Seelaf as secretary (1947-73), the AMIEU became renowned for its effective campaigns, backed by threatened and actual industrial action, for annual leave, shorter hours, better wages and improved conditions. The union also became noted for its enlightened opposition to anti-Semitism and rejection of homophobia, and for its support for small farmers in an industry dominated by meat cartels. Employers and farmers came to admire Seelaf’s unrivalled knowledge of the Australian livestock and meat industries. In 1958 an Australian Security Intelligence Organization officer recorded that Seelaf had declined a lucrative executive position in private enterprise with the words ‘my work and my beliefs are my religion’.

Comfortably retaining his position as union secretary, Seelaf also held office in the Victorian Communist Party and as a member of the central committee of the CPA. He sat on the Australian Council of Trade Unions interstate executive (1957-59) and was afterwards the AMIEU delegate to the ACTU congresses. In 1959 an ASIO field officer assessed him as a shrewd, quick and deep thinker, ‘without any doubt, the key industrial member of the Communist Party in Victoria’.

Supported by Professor (Sir) Douglas ‘Pansy’ Wright and the industrial lawyer and Labor politician Clyde Holding, Seelaf and the AMIEU pioneered union involvement in occupational health and safety with the establishment in 1964 of the Trade Union Clinic and Research Centre at Footscray. In 1969 he joined the ACTU advocates Bob Hawke and Ralph Willis to argue the case for equal pay before the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Commission. Later that year, Seelaf was the key organiser in Hawke’s successful campaign for ACTU president. Principled and incorruptible, Seelaf was in person ebullient and gregarious, and a fair-minded and honourable negotiator. Nevertheless, his style, forged in the hurly-burly and largely masculine world of the meat industry, offended several feminists.

Seelaf had a vision of the good life that extended beyond normal trade-union concerns with wages and conditions. He published original Australian short stories in the AMIEU’s Meat Employees’ Journal and assisted with the publication and distribution of Frank Hardy’s Power Without Glory (1950). He was co-founder (1952) and inaugural chairman of the Australasian Book Society and chairman or secretary of the Melbourne May Day Committee for some twenty years to 1967. The AMIEU brought the arts to workers and their families with a Youth Arts Festival in 1970, and after a submission from the union, the ACTU followed suit. Seelaf encouraged unions to emulate the lively meatworkers’ annual Butchers’ Picnic, and to broaden their concerns to the full life that Marxism extolled and promised.

On 4 April 1938 at Albert Park Seelaf had married with Presbyterian forms Edna McMillan, a rubber worker. He retired as union secretary in 1973, aged 59, to undertake community work at Footscray, and to spend more time with his family. In retirement Seelaf remained a champion of workers’ rights to the good life. His consumerist approach, stressing access to ‘high’ culture, matured to embrace participation, self-development and expression. Focusing his energies on Footscray and the western suburbs, he was a driving force on numerous committees concerned with cultural activities, social development, recreation, education, community relations and the arts. In 1976 he was appointed as the Victorian Trades Hall Council’s arts officer, later filling the same role for the ACTU; he arranged concerts and exhibitions in the workplace and artists-in-residence with unions and businesses.

Appointed AM in 1976, Seelaf was named Footscray Citizen of the Year (1983) and received the Footscray Institute of Technology’s first honorary bachelor of arts (1984). In 1988, terminally ill with cancer, he was honoured at a public dinner that established the George Seelaf Trust to support the arts in Melbourne’s western suburbs. Survived by his wife, Seelaf died on 9 August 1988 in Melbourne and was cremated. Their only child, Anthony, had died in a road accident in Kuwait in 1976. Seelaf’s union hailed him as ‘a comrade who rests easy with his own conscience’. He was the subject of John Hughes’s documentary film Is It Working? (1985) and the radio series ‘Hello, Fellow Slave’ (1994). Portraits are held by the Bendigo Art Gallery (Noel Counihan) and the Victorian Trades Hall Council (Rick Amor). Seelaf Square at the former Angliss meatworks site commemorates him.

Select Bibliography

  • A. E. Davies, The Meat Workers Unite (1974)
  • Z. D’Aprano, Zelda (1977)
  • B. d’Alpuget, Robert J. Hawke (1982)
  • C. Healy (ed), The Lifeblood of Footscray (1986)
  • J. Lack, A History of Footscray (1991)
  • F. Bartak with P. Deery, A Unique Endeavour (2004)
  • Parliamentary Papers (Victoria), 1950-51, vol 2, paper 12, p 89
  • Guardian (Melbourne), 17 June 1965, p 4
  • Age (Melbourne), 11 Aug 1988, p 25, 12 Aug 1988, p 16
  • Mail (Footscray), 17 Aug 1988, pp 1, 3
  • Recorder (Australian Society for the Study of Labor History, Melbourne Branch), no 153, Oct 1988, p 4
  • Australasian Post, 5 Nov 1988, p 53
  • Royal Commission on Communist Party (1949-50), minutes of evidence, vol 34, pp 9026-57 (Supreme Court of Victoria Library)
  • A6119, items 2925-7, 2930, 2937, 3048, Seelaf George (National Archives of Australia)
  • private information and personal knowledge.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

John Lack, 'Seelaf, George (1914–1988)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://labouraustralia.anu.edu.au/biography/seelaf-george-14878/text26068, accessed 22 November 2017.

© Copyright Labour Australia, 2012