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Bull, Albert Edward (Ted) (1914–1997)

by Dmytro Ostapenko

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Albert Edward John (Ted) Bull (1914–1997), trade unionist and communist, was born on 29 January 1914 at Fitzroy, Melbourne, third of six children of Victorian-born parents Edward Watkins Bull, wharf labourer, and his wife Ida Maud, née Roberts. The family struggled financially and moved whenever they were unable to pay the rent. Ted was educated at Catholic schools at North Fitzroy, Brunswick, and Kensington, and at Lee Street State School, Carlton. Influenced by his mother’s religious devotion, he was an altar boy and briefly considered becoming a priest. His father’s death in 1925 placed the family in desperate economic circumstances. Ted, the eldest son, left school to work at the age of fourteen.

Employed initially in a tobacco factory and a retail shop, Bull left Melbourne when the Depression made job prospects scarce. Travelling as far north as Darwin, he tried various jobs, including picking fruit, digging trenches, cutting cane, and pitching hay. He returned regularly to Melbourne, to visit his family and work for sustenance on the Yarra Boulevard project. His experiences prompted him to look for radical solutions. Reading Marxist literature and listening to Ralph Gibson’s and Jack Blake’s public speeches led him in 1933 to join the Communist Party of Australia (CPA). He perceived communist ideology as a universal guide for public struggle against the shortcomings of capitalism. It was mainly his passion for and belief in justice, not obedience to the party command, that drove him to campaign for free speech and participate in dole strikes.

On 2 April 1935 at St Brigid’s Catholic Church, North Fitzroy, Bull married Winifred Doreen Sybil Wright. They had two children but their union was fragmentary and short-lived. Like others in the CPA, he opposed Australia’s involvement in World War II, until German forces invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941; he enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force on 27 January 1942. He was promoted to acting corporal in March and posted to the 2/1st Tank Transporter Company in November. In February 1945 he joined the 2/42nd Australian Transport Platoon and went to Singapore (September-November) to assist with the repatriation of prisoners of war. Back in Victoria, he was discharged in January 1946. He held several jobs over the next two years before becoming a ‘wharfie’ (wharf labourer) in Melbourne and a member of the Waterside Workers’ Federation of Australia (WWF). On 6 November 1950 he married Helen Irene (Nellie) Lacey at the office of the government statist, Melbourne.

Conditions on the waterfront were tough: ten-hour shifts, high injury rates, and inadequate amenities such as canteens and showers. Politically, the leadership of the WWF Melbourne branch was dominated by representatives of the anti-Communist Industrial Groups. Dissatisfied with their reluctance to challenge the employers, Bull spoke out and promoted change at the grass–roots level, winning support among rank-and-file members. He recognised that ‘[i]f you couldn’t talk, you couldn’t organize; and if you couldn’t organize, you’d be kept right down’ (Independent Australian 1980, 15). In February 1952 he was arrested for holding a protest meeting on Melbourne Harbor Trust property without permission. The charges were dismissed in the City Court and the High Court of Australia upheld the magistrate’s ruling, decisions that he regarded as crucial to securing free speech on the waterfront. In that year he also stood unsuccessfully as a communist candidate for the Senate and for the federal council of the WWF.

In 1954 Bull was elected as a vigilance officer for the Melbourne branch of the federation. His militant tactics helped to raise labour standards on the waterfront. He took the lead in securing higher pay, shorter working hours, improved health and safety standards, and a fairer system of work allocation. In 1964 he won the newly created position of assistant secretary in the branch. Three years later he stood for the role of secretary, defeating the incumbent, Les Stuart. A conspicuous figure when addressing a crowd, with his tall wiry frame, and passionate staccato delivery, Bull attributed his success and popularity to his ability to take an active stance on behalf of his fellow unionists.

The greatest challenge for Bull, as a union leader, came from the maritime technological revolution. With the adoption of mechanised equipment in the 1950s and 1960s, and the growth of container shipping in the 1970s, a vessel that had formerly taken two or three weeks using one hundred wharf labourers to load and discharge, could be handled within twenty-four hours by several workers. Requiring fewer workers, such innovations eroded the WWF’s membership base. In response Bull argued that industry management should share the productivity gains of new technologies with employees.

While fighting for the bread-and-butter interests of unionised labour, Bull took part in broader struggles against inequity at home and abroad, motivating WWF members to join him. They rallied to oppose Australia’s military commitment to the Vietnam War, and to expose the injustices of the South African apartheid regime and the juntas in Greece and Chile. The WWF used its industrial power to boycott shipping linked to the sources of oppression. Politically uncompromising, Bull remained committed to revolution as a path to socialism. He was a founding member in 1964 of the breakaway Communist Party of Australia (Marxist-Leninist), and a passionate supporter of the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of Cuba. He believed that it was ordinary people in large numbers, not just a few communists, who would implement change in Australia and beyond. Most of all, he sought to inspire people to believe they could fight effectively against oppression, exploitation, and injustice.

Although Bull retired in 1979, he did not withdraw from the class struggle. Among other things, he campaigned against deregistration of the Builders’ Labourers’ Federation in the mid-1980s. He died in Melbourne on 11 December 1997 after a short illness. Predeceased by his wife (d. 1993), he was survived by their son and two daughters, and the two sons of his first marriage. At his request, his body was donated to the University of Melbourne’s department of anatomy. Later that month some seven hundred people gathered for a memorial meeting in his honour at the Victorian Trades Hall.

Select Bibliography

  • Beasley, Margo. Wharfies: The History of the Waterside Workers’ Federation. Rushcutters Bay, NSW: Halstead Press with Australian National Maritime Museum, 1996
  • Bull, Ted. Interview by Barry York, 9–11 December 1988. Transcript. National Library of Australia
  • Bull, Ted. The Relevance of Communism in Australia Today. [Melbourne: Communist Party of Australia (Marxist-Leninist)], 1984
  • Independent Australian. ‘Nine Stone Six Wringing Wet: Ted Bull Retires—End of an Era on Melbourne Waterfront.’ 4, no. 1 (1980): 14-17
  • Kirkby, Diane, and Dmytro Ostapenko. ‘Pursuing Trade Union Internationalism: Australia's Waterside Workers and the International Transport Workers Federation, c. 1950-70.’ Labour History, no. 110 (May 2016): 57-75
  • Nebauer, John. ‘Ted Bull, 1914-1997.’ Green Left Weekly, no. 302 (21 January 1998). Accessed 14 December 2020. https://www.greenleft.org.au/content/ted-bull-1914-1997. Copy held on ADB file
  • National Archives of Australia. B883, VX73576
  • Vanguard, Communist Party of Australia (Marxist-Leninist). ‘Our Comrades: Ted Bull.’ 28 January 1998 and 22 April 1998. Accessed 14 December 2020. http://www.cpaml.org/post4.php?id=1494069810&catitem1=Our%20Comrades&catid1=11. Copy held on ADB file.

Additional Resources

Citation details

Dmytro Ostapenko, 'Bull, Albert Edward (Ted) (1914–1997)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://labouraustralia.anu.edu.au/biography/bull-albert-edward-ted-31353/text38793, accessed 28 May 2022.

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