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Summers, David Robin (Dave) (1932–1995)

by Richard Fotheringham

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

David Robin (Don Ric Dave) Summers (1932–1995), trade union official, was born on 7 February 1932 at Nottingham, England, and registered as David Robbin [sic], son of Edith Eveline Summers, a general domestic servant. In November 1948 Edith, then a process worker on clocks, and Dave, a dry cleaner, sailed for Australia as third-class, assisted passengers aboard the Mooltan. He was five feet eight inches (173 cm) tall and had brown hair and grey eyes. Arriving in Brisbane on 5 February 1949, mother and son both stated they intended to work in Australia and stay ‘for good’ (NAA BP26/1). He obtained employment as a clerk.

On 12 June 1954 at the Baptist Church, Bulimba, Summers married Violet (Vi) Ada Clark, a packer. He claimed they met while both were moonlighting at Brisbane’s Theatre Royal: he backstage and she as a featured soprano in George Wallace junior’s variety company. They would have six children and work closely together until his death. Both were staunch supporters of the Australian Labor Party; he became a member in 1955 and she in 1980. When Summers applied for registration as an Australian citizen in 1968 (approved the next year), he was working as a storeman. He joined the Federated Storemen and Packers’ Union of Australia and was a shop steward while employed by the clothes manufacturer Edward Fletcher & Co. Pty Ltd. His long crusade against what he termed ‘Australian workers’ jobs being exported to cheap labour Asian Countries’ (UQFL118) probably began at this time.

Summers came to prominence about 1973 when he, Vi, and others initiated the annual Queensland Variety Wallaces awards, named in honour of both George Wallace senior and junior. On 10 May 1976 he was elected, simultaneously, as secretary of the Queensland division of the Actors’ and Announcers’ Equity Association of Australia (Actors Equity of Australia from 1982), and of the Actors, Entertainers, and Announcers Equity Association, Queensland, Union of Employees (the two bodies operated as one). He made particular efforts to sign up entertainers at popular commercial attractions, including the new theme parks, such as Sea World, on Queensland’s Gold Coast. Under his leadership, the union engaged in disputes with a wide range of organisations, from the Australian Broadcasting Commission to commercial radio and television stations.

Fiercely protectionist, Summers complained about the ‘flooding of Australian television screens with overseas shows’ (UQFL118), argued against a proposed national satellite system that he feared would adversely affect employment at regional radio and television stations, and fought to prevent overseas actors appearing in Australian films. He also opposed the appearance at the 1980 Brisbane Warana Festival of ‘30 visiting cultural performers’ (UQFL118) from Indonesia, Japan, and Papua New Guinea, unless they joined Equity; the festival’s management resisted, on the grounds that they would not appear in commercial, political, fund-raising, or even charitable events.

Summers devised a system for paying union dues which suited the unpredictability of work in the entertainment industries but also enabled him to inflate total Equity membership. Any member could go on suspension simply by informing his office but nobody could resign without first paying their entire back dues. The apparent size of the union added weight to his position on the Trades and Labour Council of Queensland. Because artists, journalists, musicians, and stage workers belonged to four separate unions, demarcation disputes were endless. Efforts by the TLC to bring the unions together made little headway during his tenure, in part as a result of his opposition.

Compering in suburban hotels and clubs appears to have been the limit of Summers’s own stage career. He was best suited to supporting those at the variety end of the entertainment business and was dogged in pursuing wage justice for them. The actor and former Equity committee member Leo Wockner recalled Summers’s going to Geraldo Bellino’s illegal casino in Fortitude Valley and being evicted by the ‘bouncers’ when he sought entry to complain that some of the female employees had not been paid. Summers refused to give up and eventually secured a meeting with Bellino, who wrote out a cheque. He engaged less with the theatre, opera, and ballet companies, but served as treasurer (1975–90) of the Actors’ Benevolent Fund.

From early in Summers’s secretaryship, there was disquiet among Equity’s committee members over dubious bookkeeping, chaotic administration, and conflicts of interest. Vi worked in the office and was paid an honorarium but together they also ran a private theatrical agency; in their view, there was mutual benefit through combining these roles: those for whom they found work had to join Equity.

In November 1990 an organised campaign resulted in a landslide electoral defeat for Summers, who failed even to retain a position on the divisional committee. He fought bitterly but unsuccessfully in industrial tribunals to have the election declared applicable to the federal union only, leaving him as secretary of the State union. The new joint executive found Equity heavily in debt and its records out of date and inaccurate.

By 1988 Summers was styling his given names as Don Ric or Don Ric Dave. Soon after he lost his position, Vi turned sixty and began receiving the age pension; he obtained unemployment benefits. A consequent dispute with the Department of Social Security disclosed that they owned their own house and had moderate investments so, in a turbulent industry, their working lives, if opportunistic and sometimes perhaps unscrupulous, were successful. Don Summers died on 18 March 1995 at Meadowbrook and, following a Catholic service, was buried in Beenleigh lawn cemetery. His wife and their five sons and one daughter survived him. A plaque in Brisbane’s Twelfth Night Theatre commemorates his career.

Select Bibliography

  • Affiliated Unions Correspondence, Actors Equity 1978-1983. Trades and Labour Council of Queensland records, 1894-, UQFL118, box 78. Fryer Library, University of Queensland
  • Anonymous. Interview by the author, 12 December 2014
  • Condon, Matthew. Jacks and Jokers. Brisbane: University of Queensland Press, 2014
  • New Lines. Actors Equity of Australia, Queensland Division, Quarterly Newsletter (Spring Hill, Qld). ‘Election Results—Queensland Division.’ 1, no. 1 (January 1991): 5
  • New Lines. Actors Equity of Australia, Queensland Division, Quarterly Newsletter (Spring Hill, Qld). ‘Ballots for Divisional Committee Members—AEA Rule 61.’ 1, no. 1 (January 1991): 6
  • National Archives of Australia. BP26/1, SUMMERS D R
  • New Lines. Actors Equity of Australia, Queensland Division, Quarterly Newsletter (Spring Hill, Qld). ‘Roving Deputies.’ 1, no. 1 (January 1991): 8
  • New Lines. Actors Equity of Australia, Queensland Division, Quarterly Newsletter (Spring Hill, Qld). ‘Actors Equity: Benevolent Fund.’ 1, no. 4 (October 1991): 8
  • New Lines. Actors Equity of Australia, Queensland Division, Quarterly Newsletter (Spring Hill, Qld). ‘1991: A Retrospective.’ 2, no. 1 (January 1992): 2
  • New Lines. Actors Equity of Australia, Queensland Division, Quarterly Newsletter (Spring Hill, Qld). ‘Getting on with the Job.’ 2, no. 1 (January 1992): 3
  • Re Don Ric Summers and Department of Social Security [1993] Administrative Appeals Tribunal of Australia 46 (10 February 1993). Accessed 5 March 2015. http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/cases/cth/AATA/1993/46.html. Copy held on ADB file
  • Partridge, Des. ‘Actors to Farewell Unionist and Mate.’ Courier Mail (Brisbane), 21 March 1995, 22
  • Personal knowledge of ADB subject
  • Wockner, Leo. Interview by the author, 9 December 2014
  • Wockner, Leo. Letter to the author, 16 April 2015

Citation details

Richard Fotheringham, 'Summers, David Robin (Dave) (1932–1995)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://labouraustralia.anu.edu.au/biography/summers-david-robin-dave-20256/text31314, accessed 1 April 2020.

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