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Alexander (Alex) Macdonald (1910–1969)

by Cecily Cameron and Greg Mallory

This article was published:

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Alexander (Alex) Macdonald (1910-1969), ironworker and trade union official, was born on 21 May 1910 at Greenock, Renfrewshire, Scotland, third of five children of Alexander Macdonald, sawmill foreman, and his first wife Sybil, née Smith. Alexander senior worked for Scotts' Shipbuilding & Engineering Co. and presided over the Greenock Central Co-operative Society. Young Alex attended Homescroft School until the age of 13. He worked at the shipyard for a short time, but was unable to find permanent employment in Scotland. His mother had died when he was 6 and his father remarried in 1920. When relations between the children and their stepmother deteriorated, Alex followed his elder sister Anna to Australia. Emigrating under the 'Dreadnought scheme'—which aimed to train British youths to work on Australian farms—he sailed from England in the Sophocles on 13 August 1925. The ship was delayed at Cape Town for almost six weeks due to a worldwide seamen's strike; during this time Alex carried messages to the sailors in the Sophocles.

After landing in Sydney, Macdonald spent three months at a training farm at Scheyville, then worked on properties in the mid-west of New South Wales. He made his way to Western Australia with the intention of returning to Scotland, but his father dissuaded him because unemployment had risen at home. Alex 'humped his bluey' and reached Queensland in June 1932. The Depression deepened and labourers' wages were cut. He refused the ten shillings a week then being offered on small farms, preferring to take seasonal work around the State. Involved in the Unemployed Workers' Movement, he was present when the jobless clashed with the Mackay City Council in January 1933 over the issue of their shelter-shed. He learned much from this experience, and was soon committed to the U.W.M., and to organizing and educating the unemployed.

Moving to Brisbane, Macdonald laboured on government relief-projects and lived in one of many camps for those 'on the dole'—a disused tobacco factory in South Brisbane known as the 'Crystal Palace'. Late in 1933 he attended a conference of the unemployed at the Trades Hall. About this time he joined the Communist Party of Australia. Elected to the party's State committee in 1936, he became Brisbane district branch secretary in 1937 and was subsequently elected to the party's central committee. As a communist candidate, he was defeated for the Legislative Assembly seat of Kurilpa in the 1938 elections, and for the Senate in 1949 and 1951. At the general registry office, Brisbane, on 11 August 1939 he had married Molly Cassandra Neild, a 32-year-old nurse. They lived at West End.

Macdonald was employed (from 1940) as an ironworker at the Evans Deakin shipyard. A member of the Federated Ironworkers Association of Australia, he was elected full-time secretary of the Queensland branch in January 1943. He took an active role in the wider trade-union movement as secretary of the Metal Trades Federation, of the central disputes committee in the Queensland railway strike (February-April 1948), and of the Labor Day committee of the Trades and Labor Council of Queensland (1943-48). In addition, he belonged (1949-69) to the interstate executive of the Australian Council of Trade Unions and later worked to secure the presidency for R. J. L. Hawke.

Although he lost the secretaryship of the F.I.A. in a court-controlled ballot in 1951, Macdonald was elected secretary of the Queensland T.L.C. in January 1952. He spoke quietly, rarely raised his voice and seldom showed anger; he was also tolerant and understanding, and a good listener. The united front he built up involved many shades of militancy and political outlook, and his judgement earned the respect of various factions. His strength lay in negotiation. Macdonald played a leading role in several major disputes, among them the Queensland meat strike (1946), the shearers' strike (1956) and the Mount Isa conflict (1964-65). When he spoke at demonstrations and meetings he presented a well-researched and logical case. Conscious of the good name of the trade-union movement, he was careful in handling and recording money received.

Macdonald prepared cases for basic-wage and equal-pay claims in the State Industrial Court, promoted youth education and employment, advocated the extension of the basic wage to Aboriginal workers, and tried to improve annual, long service and sick-leave benefits, minimum wages, restricted hours, safety laws and pensions. From November 1968 he represented the forty unions affiliated with the T.L.C. before the State Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Commission. He tried to establish a liaison with university students and admitted them to the Trades Hall. Passionately interested in history, he collected, preserved and indexed union records. He was a member and vice-president of the Queensland Peace Committee.

Five ft 11 ins (180 cm) tall, solidly built, with brown eyes and brown hair, Macdonald smoked heavily, enjoyed a social drink, and was interested in music, theatre, art and reading. He was a devoted husband and father, and had a host of friends. At heart he was an internationalist and a humanitarian. Survived by his wife and two daughters, he died of myocardial infarction on 18 August 1969 at Princess Alexandra Hospital, South Brisbane, and was cremated. His death shocked the union movement: thousands of mourners attended his funeral at which a piper played the lament of the clan Macdonald.

Select Bibliography

  • Queensland Railways Central Disputes Committe, TLC, Report and Balance Sheet of the Queensland Railway Strike, February 2nd to April 6th, 1948 (Brisb, 1948)
  • Telegraph (Brisbane), 9 Nov 1968, 18 Aug 1969
  • Courier-Mail (Brisbane), 18 Aug 1969
  • TLCQ records (University of Queensland Library)
  • family papers and other documents (privately held).

Additional Resources

  • photo, Tribune (Sydney), 12 May 1948, p 1
  • funeral, Tribune (Sydney), 27 August 1969, p 4

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Cecily Cameron and Greg Mallory, 'Macdonald, Alexander (Alex) (1910–1969)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 23 July 2024.

© Copyright Labour Australia, 2012