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Charles Henry (Charlie) Fitzgibbon (1922–2001)

by Brad Norrington

from Sydney Morning Herald

This entry is from Obituaries Australia

He steered the wharfies' union through two decades of difficult change as it adjusted to automation on the docks.

And as a key figure behind Bob Hawke's rise to power, Charlie Fitzgibbon was instrumental in getting Hawke the ACTU presidency. He remained Hawke's confidant, striving for a united ACTU that helped pave the way for Hawke to make his run for prime minister.

Fitzgibbon, who has died aged 79, was often touted as Hawke's likely successor as ACTU president during the 1970s, although he later expressed relief that the idea fell through.

Raised in Newcastle during the Great Depression, Fitzgibbon was one of 14 children. His father was a coal trimmer and three of his brothers worked on the wharves.

After high school, Fitzgibbon was employed as a junior clerk in the Newcastle branch of the Waterside Workers Federation. He studied shorthand and bookkeeping, but went to work on the wharves in 1942 when the office could no longer afford a clerk.

It was during these years labouring in often tough conditions on the Newcastle docks that Fitzgibbon was drawn to union activism. Steel products were manually stevedored, with minimal safety protection for workers. The pay was low and the hours were long. "It was nothing,'' Fitzgibbon recalled, "to load 50 tons of plates from a rail truck in an hour and a half with fixed gear.''

In 1953 Fitzgibbon was elected to the national council of the Waterside Workers Federation and the following year became a full-time union official as president and vigilance officer of the Newcastle branch.

His move to the union's headquarters in Sydney came quickly and unexpectedly in 1961 when Jim Healy, the communist and outstanding leader of the wharfies for 24 years, died suddenly while still in office.

As the ALP's candidate, Fitzgibbon ran a well-organised campaign with personal backing from the party's Federal leader, Arthur Caldwell, against the communist candidate and logical successor to Healy, the Sydney branch secretary Tom Nelson.

When Fitzgibbon won, it was expected inside the ALP that he would turn against the communists and move the union to the Right. Indeed, Fitzgibbon sat on the ALP executive in NSW and, as a member of the Centre-Left faction, was regarded as a moderate. However, he could see no point in alienating influential sections of his union and refused to shut out communists.

Healy's main success had been to improve pay and conditions, including an end to the "bull'' system in which foremen picked wharf labourers for work like cattle.

The earliest challenge for Fitzgibbon was to fight the Menzies Government's penal provisions against industrial action, by attaching sanctions to long-service leave.

His main task, though, was to lead the union through mechanisation and the inevitable job losses that followed.

There were many strikes and membership declined. But Fitzgibbon negotiated limits on job losses and some remarkable improvements in conditions, such as a notional 35-hour week, a 25 per cent annual leave loading, long-service leave and the best superannuation scheme in the country. He was the first to campaign for an industry union.

In 1967 Fitzgibbon joined the ACTU executive and became the crucial player, along with Ray Gietzelt, in backing Hawke for the ACTU presidency when Albert Monk retired in 1969.

Hawke tried to position Fitzgibbon as his successor in 1973 by having him elected to a specially created position of ACTU executive vice-president. But the attempt failed when union officials felt the proposal had been sprung on them, and they rejected it.

Hawke again tried to position his most able of allies at the 1979 ACTU congress, shortly before quitting for a parliamentary seat, by backing Fitzgibbon for junior vice-president. But Fitzgibbon was dumped from the ACTU executive altogether because of a ring-in Centre-Left ticket and a Left-Right deal that saw him come last in the vote.

Antipathy towards Fitzgibbon was bound up in his staunch support of Hawke's pragmatic endorsement of uranium mining, an issue lost on the congress floor.

Hawke still wanted Fitzgibbon to succeed him, but Fitzgibbon was not on the executive now and not especially interested. The job went to the man next in line, Cliff Dolan.

By 1981 Fitzgibbon was back on the ACTU executive as a senior vice-president and was one of the architects of the ALP-union accord on wages, job creation and social improvements that Hawke took to the March 1983 election as party leader.

Soon after Hawke's election, Fitzgibbon, at 61, opted for early retirement from the Waterside Workers Federation. His swansong was the Economic Summit in April, where he drew applause from all sides for his advocacy of economic growth and union restraint under a fair centralised wage system.

During his career, Fitzgibbon worked hard for the International Labour Organisation and was chairman of the dockers' section of the International Transport Workers Federation. He was a Whitlam government appointee to the ANL board and Australian Shipping Commission. Hawke appointed him to the Reserve Bank board.

As a member of the Hawke government's Economic Planning Advisory Council, Fitzgibbon wrote a paper in 1986 that was controversial because it accepted some Coalition criticisms, in particular that a shift in the balance of power had led to union excesses.

Throughout his life he was a forward thinker and shrewd tactician. He was a mentor and friend to the ACTU's longtime secretary, Bill Kelty.

Many thought Fitzgibbon would have made an excellent Cabinet minister, although he rejected a parliamentary career.

Fitzgibbon died after a long illness. His wife, Nancy, died two years ago. He is survived by his stepdaughter, Valerie, and two grandsons.

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Citation details

Brad Norrington, 'Fitzgibbon, Charles Henry (Charlie) (1922–2001)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 23 May 2024.

© Copyright Labour Australia, 2012