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Clarence Lyell (Clarrie) O'Shea (1905–1988)

by John Merritt

This article was published:

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Clarrie O'Shea, Herald and Weekly Times, c.1969

Clarrie O'Shea, Herald and Weekly Times, c.1969

State Library of Victoria, 49346593

Clarence (Clarrie) Lyell O’Shea (1905-1988), union leader, was born on 24 June 1905 at Franklin, Tasmania, fourth of eight children of Victorian-born parents James O’Shea, orchardist, and his wife Ann, née Braydman. In 1911 the family moved to Albert Park, Melbourne, and, for a year, to Leongatha, Gippsland. Returning to Melbourne in 1913 they settled at Richmond and then at nearby Burnley. Clarrie began contributing to the family income at 11, delivering papers before school, selling them in the evening and earning about £1 per week. On a Saturday morning, helping a local baker, he earned around half a crown and a bun loaf. Leaving school at 13, he worked as an office boy (in the Labor Call office), a grocer’s assistant and warehouseman before, in 1925, becoming a tram conductor. On 3 February of that year at Brunswick he married with Methodist forms Edith Florence Pomeroy (d.1970), a milliner.

Protesting against the ‘class collaborationist’ policies of Labor governments during the Depression, O’Shea joined the Communist Party of Australia and became a member of the Militant Minority Movement, a front organisation that aspired to build the collective strength of unionists. In 1932 he was elected a depot delegate to the Victorian branch executive of the Australian Tramways and Motor Omnibus Employees’ Association, becoming federal secretary (1942), Victorian president (1946) and finally Victorian secretary (1947-70). Through the post war years O’Shea exploited sustained prosperity, using a shrewd mix of advocacy and industrial action to win numerous advances for his members.

Frequent work stoppages in the 1950s induced the Commonwealth government to insert ‘bans clauses’ in arbitration awards. In 1969, after a complex legal battle that had gone to the High Court of Australia, O’Shea’s branch of the union was fined $8100 for strike action. He refused to pay and, on 15 May, Judge (Sir John) Kerr found him guilty of contempt of the Commonwealth Industrial Court and fined him $500. Again O’Shea refused to pay and was gaoled. Unions called protest stoppages in all mainland States on the following Monday. Two days later, with calls for a national stoppage mounting, a Sydney lottery winner, Dudley Macdougall, paid both fines, ‘to help the general public and the country’. O’Shea emerged from gaol convinced that an embarrassed Commonwealth government had pulled strings, and knowing he had proved the penal sanctions ineffective.

Overnight O’Shea had become Australia’s best known union leader and, in the eyes of many, a working-class hero. His defiance won the respect of friend and foe alike. He had left the CPA in June 1963 to join the breakaway, Maoist-aligned Communist Party of Australia (Marxist-Leninist), led by E. F. Hill, which he served as vice-president. These commitments, however, had no impact on his standing as a unionist. His members valued his probity and courage and stood by him throughout the most intense cold war years.

Tall and solidly built, Clarrie O’Shea had a forbidding public image. In private he was welcoming and amiable and in his later years came to resemble everybody’s ‘favourite uncle’. Survived by two daughters and a son, he died on 16 August 1988 while visiting Adelaide and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • Journal of Industrial Relations, vol 11, no 3, 1969, p 269
  • J. Merritt, ‘The Trade Union Leader Who Went to Gaol’, Canberra Historical Journal, no 59, 2007, p 8
  • Sun-News Pictorial (Melbourne), 21 May 1969, p 1, 5 Apr 1977, p 14
  • J. Merritt, interview with C. O’Shea (typescript, 1982, National Library of Australia).

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

John Merritt, 'O'Shea, Clarence Lyell (Clarrie) (1905–1988)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 14 June 2024.

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