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Crofts, Charles Alfred (1871–1950)

by Graham Dunkley

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

Charles Alfred Crofts (1871-1950), trade unionist, was born on 11 July 1871 at Bethnal Green, Middlesex, England, son of James Crofts, general dealer, and his wife Ann Rebecca, née Luxton. He left school at 12 to work in a sheet metal factory where he soon joined the Tinsmiths, Braziers and Gas Meter Makers' Society of London. On 6 August 1893 at Bethnal Green he married Agnes Humphreys in the Anglican Church, though in Australia the family became Presbyterian.

With his wife and daughter, Charlie Crofts came to Melbourne in 1898 on a two-year contract with the Metropolitan Gas Co. Working as a metermaker, he soon became active in the Sheet Metal Workers' Union which at that time covered the gas industry; he was vice-president in 1907 and president in 1908-09. He was a foundation member in 1911 of the national executive of the Federated Gas Employees' Industrial Union (usually known as the Gas Employees' Union). In 1914 he was elected to the national executive of the Sheet Metal Workers' Union, and that year was dismissed by the Metropolitan Gas Co. for attending a meeting of the union in Sydney after being denied leave. Shortly afterwards, on 26 March, he was elected to the paid position of Victorian secretary of the Gas Employees' Union, and two months later was also elected national secretary. He retained these two positions for the rest of his life.

Crofts became one of the most active union leaders in the country, serving for many years on the executive of the Melbourne Trades Hall Council and on the T.H.C. Disputes Committee. He was T.H.C. president in 1924-25 and a member of the Gas Meter Makers' Wages Board in 1913-49. He was a delegate from his union to most of the major trade union congresses and a strong advocate of a national central body of the trade union movement. After involvement in the short-lived national Council of Action formed by the 1921 congress, he was secretary of the Commonwealth Council of Federated Unions while it existed from 1923 to 1927, and president of the ephemeral Commonwealth Industrial Disputes Committee in 1925.

In 1927 at the foundation congress of the Australasian (later Australian) Council of Trade Unions Crofts was elected secretary ahead of J. S. (Jock) Garden and R. S. Ross, his support coming mainly from the Victorian and the politically moderate sections. He held the position on an honorary basis until 1943, working from the Gas Employees' office. In 1930, as A.C.T.U. secretary, he travelled overseas, acting as the Australian trade union delegate to the Fourteenth Session of the International Labour Conference in Geneva, the Fifth Annual Congress of the International Federation of Trade Unions in Stockholm and the British Commonwealth Labour Conference in London. For a time he was a deputy member of the governing body of the International Labour Organization.

As A.C.T.U. secretary Crofts played a part in the long and bitter watersiders' and timber workers' strikes of the late 1920s and several other disputes of the period. He was the leading union advocate in the basic wage cases of the Depression period, and was in frequent contact with people at all levels of government, putting the union point of view. He relinquished the A.C.T.U. secretaryship when it became a full-time position at the 1943 congress, preferring to retain his post with the Gas Employees' Union, but remained a Victorian delegate to the executive until his death.

Crofts was active in the Labor Party for many years at both State and Federal levels, being a long-standing executive member of the Victorian branch and ten times a delegate to Federal conference between 1927 and 1945. He was president of the Victorian branch in 1926-27 and treasurer in 1942-44, and an unsuccessful Labor Senate candidate in 1934.

In the trade union movement Crofts supported stronger, more centralized union structures, a national trade union centre, the use of arbitration for settling industrial disputes and greater co-operation between employers and unions. In the 1920s he set himself apart from many in the movement by supporting the Federal government's referendum for an extension of the powers of the Commonwealth Arbitration Court and by advocating tripartite industrial peace conferences on the 'Mondist' model in Britain. Partly because of his influence, the A.C.T.U. in its early years supported such conferences and was known among militant unions as 'the graveyard of strikes'.

As an industrial advocate Crofts had many successes. In his early years with the Gas Employees' Union, he was prominent in the attainment of a six-day week, alternate weekly changes of shifts and the raising of gas workers' wages to above the average levels for labourers. As chief advocate for the Commonwealth Council of Federated Unions in the 1926 standard hours case, he succeeded in having the 44-hour week accepted in principle by the Arbitration Court. He led the A.C.T.U. panel of advocates for the 1930-31 basic wage case in which it was reduced by 10 per cent, the unsuccessful 1932 and 1933 cases and the successful restoration case of 1934. Crofts was always well prepared with highly detailed economic material. However, he was at times unduly lengthy, taking several days when one would have been adequate, which often irritated members of the bench; during the tense Depression hearings he sometimes clashed with judges. His submissions to the court were always technically meticulous in questioning the current methods of calculating the basic wage and the price indices on which it was based, and he commonly argued for wage levels based on the standard set by the Piddington commission of the 1920s.

Crofts's early political education had begun in London listening to the speeches of Tom Mann, Ben Tillett and Keir Hardie and took a dramatic turn when he once saw horses being used against strikers in a street march. He was never a militant unionist though he was capable of rhetoric bordering on the radical, such as at the announcement of the 10 per cent wage reduction in the Arbitration Court chamber, when he led the singing of The Red Flag and called for three cheers for the social revolution.

His position in both the union movement and the party was that of a moderate, though in Labor politics Crofts was a firm advocate of union control over the party machine; during the Depression he was prominent in the expulsion of Premier Hogan and other supporters of the Premiers' Plan. On the other hand, in the 1930s he incurred the wrath of many on the left, especially for his anti-communist activities in the party and the unions. Ideologically he regarded himself as a socialist, frequently publicly advocating greater government controls over banks and the money supply. But he was not anxious to enter parliament, claiming that ideals too often became tarnished there. He was a sometime member of the Council of the Melbourne Technical College, the Australian Council for Civil Liberties and the Victorian Fabian Society.

Crofts died at Caulfield on 25 March 1950 and was cremated, survived by his wife, three of his four sons and two of his three daughters. One daughter, Irene, worked for many years in the trade union movement. His estate was valued for probate at £3027.

Select Bibliography

  • Herald (Melbourne), 14 Feb 1948
  • G. Dunkley, The ACTU 1927-1950: Politics, Organization and Economic Policy (Ph.D. thesis, Monash University, 1974)
  • private information.

Citation details

Graham Dunkley, 'Crofts, Charles Alfred (1871–1950)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/crofts-charles-alfred-5823/text9887, published in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 14 July 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

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