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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

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Ray Gietzelt (1922–2012)

by John Faulkner

from Parliamentary Debates

This entry is from Obituaries Australia

Tonight I want to recognise the life and contribution of the late Ray Gietzelt. Ray was a reformer and moderniser. For 30 years he fought to open up his union and the Labor Party to the voices of their members. He understood that people's commitment to any organisation is influenced by their ability to determine its direction.

Ray Gietzelt was born on 29 September 1922. His parents owned a tyre business in the Sydney suburb of Newtown. Initially the business prospered, but it faltered during the Great Depression when many of their clients were unable to honour their debts. For a time the family struggled and, as with so many of his generation, this experience shaped his politics. In 1940, Ray Gietzelt joined the New South Wales branch of the Federated Miscellaneous Workers Union, or FMWU. He did so despite the fact that he was working for his father's business at the time. He joined because, in his words, 'It was the logical and principled thing to do.'

His early employment was interrupted by the outbreak of war in the Pacific. Incensed by the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, Ray enlisted in the Army aged 19. He served with the 9th Field Company of the Royal Australian Engineers in Papua New Guinea from 1942 to 1945.

At war's end he rejoined the FMWU but was underwhelmed by the organisation's leaders, who he thought 'worked actively to prevent rank-and-file members from voicing their opinion on wages and conditions of employment'. And so Ray Gietzelt helped found the Protest Committee along with other members such as Jack Dwyer, Harold Facer and Mary Rohan. The committee was dedicated to democratising the elected offices and decision-making processes of the FMWU. In response the right-wing leadership tried to stymie reform by abusing the union's antiquated rules. This included attempts to have Ray's and other reformers' memberships cancelled.

After a period of petitioning rank and file members, a special meeting of the FMWU was held on 7 December 1953 at which members voted for the replacement of the existing leadership. The dispute was finally resolved in favour of the Protest Committee after a hearing before the Conciliation and Arbitration Court. Not for the last time Ray Gietzelt and his allies were represented by Lionel Murphy. The losing side was represented by John Kerr.

In 1955 Ray Gietzelt was elected General Secretary of the FMWU. With what he described as a mixture of 'self- and collective discipline', Ray expanded the union's membership and democratised its processes. He inherited 22,000 members but retired leading a union of more than 122,000 workers—122,000 cleaners, night watchmen, manufacturing workers and many others. It was a group so diverse 'miscellaneous' was part of the union's name and 'missos' their moniker!

Ray Gietzelt's methods were always true to his principles. He was once horrified to find out that some of his own officials were threatening employers with legal action if they did not sign up their employees. In his memoirs, Worth Fighting For, he argued: 'Such practices harm the union movement—workers need to be persuaded that joining the union is the right thing to do, not compelled. They will join a union if the union has democratic structures in which their views can be heard and their rights asserted if they are protected in exercising their rights, if they are given proper service by their officials and if they see the results of their collective action.'

But Ray's influence extended beyond the labour movement. He was a confidant and friend to three great Labor figures: Lionel Murphy, Neville Wran and Bob Hawke. He supported Murphy's preselection as New South Wales Labor senator. He helped garner support for Neville Wran's switch from the upper to lower house in New South Wales. He supported the Wran challenge for the parliamentary leadership in New South Wales. And he was instrumental in Bob Hawke's election to the presidency of the Australian Council of Trade Unions. But Ray Gietzelt was much more than a patron within the ALP. In July 1970 he helped initiate federal intervention into the New South Wales Branch of the Australian Labor Party. Intervention led to some democratisation of the branch, including the introduction of proportional representation.

In 1985 Ray was awarded an Order of Australia. In 1986, along with Neville Wran and Gough Whitlam, he helped establish the Lionel Murphy Foundation. To this day the foundation provides postgraduate scholarships to students of law or science. In 2003 Ray Gietzelt was awarded a life membership of the ALP. It was said on his retirement that under his leadership the FMWU never 'broke its word with any employer, industrial tribunal or kindred organisation'. Those who knew him best spoke of his decency and fairness with allies and adversaries.

Of course, many in this building, including some in the chamber, would know of Ray's brother, Arthur Gietzelt, who served in this chamber from 1971 to 1989. I must say that Arthur spoke eloquently and warmly at his brother's funeral. It was a fine speech from Arthur Gietzelt—perhaps the best speech I have ever heard Arthur give.

On a personal note, I would like to take this opportunity to acknowledge the personal support I received from Ray over many, many years. In some tough times in the Labor Party in New South Wales I can say that that meant a great deal to me.

Ray Gietzelt died on 12 October 2012. He was 90 years of age. His loss is felt by many. My sincere condolences go to his wife, Vi; daughters, Suzanne and Joanne; other members of his family; and friends.

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Citation details

John Faulkner, 'Gietzelt, Ray (1922–2012)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 15 July 2024.

© Copyright Labour Australia, 2012