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Elliott, Eliot Valens (Vic) (1902–1984)

by Richard Morris

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

Eliot Valens (Vic) Elliott (1902-1984), trade unionist, was born on 12 September 1902 at Huntly, New Zealand, and named Victor Emmanuel, son of New Zealand-born parents James Elliott, wheelwright, and his wife Helena, née Gray. After the deaths of his father and stepfather in mining accidents, Vic’s schooling was cut short. In his teens he worked on the New Zealand railways and went to sea as a ship’s fireman. He joined the Federated Seamen’s Union of Australasia (Seamen’s Union of Australia) in 1919. By 1922 he was chiefly domiciled in Australian ports, where he earned a reputation as a trade union delegate capable of holding his own with the toughest colleagues in grim conditions. After he campaigned for improved working conditions in 1924 he was blackballed by the Commonwealth Government Shipping Line.

Under the name Eliot Valence Elliott McPherson, on 26 August 1930 he married Violet Muriel Uhr at the district registrar’s office, Rockdale, Sydney. During the Depression he walked from their home at Five Dock to the city wharves in search of work, watched sculling competitions on the harbour, bet on racehorses and bred greyhounds. He came to prominence in the waterfront labour movement during the 1935 seamen’s dispute as assistant-secretary of the Sydney strike committee. That year he unsuccessfully challenged the constitutionality of the controversial anti-union Commonwealth Transport Workers Act (1928-29) in the High Court of Australia.

Elliott was elected Queensland branch secretary of the FSUA in 1937. He claimed that he began his career as a union official in order `to earn a quid so I can eat’ after being blacklisted for employment by shipping companies. In office he displayed a talent for negotiation and organisation absent in his predecessors. He regularly produced a union journal, Seamen’s Voice, as a vehicle for policy formulation and expressions of solidarity. Becoming a member of the Communist Party of Australia, he attended the party’s classes and theatre groups to develop his communication skills. Like his fellow CPA member and maritime trade unionist James Healy, Elliott was a moderniser in touch with national issues, who was able to combine a radical vision of socialist progress with realistic and successful bargaining tactics.

After a bitter contest with old guard rivals burdened by the failures of the Depression years, Elliott became general secretary of the FSUA, based in Sydney, in 1941. During World War II he maintained a balance between mili­tancy and support for the productivity aims of the war economy. In 1942 when the Curtin government created the Maritime Industry Commission, shipping’s wage-setting and regulatory body for the next ten years, he was appointed as the representative of the seamen. After a spat with other unionists on the commission over penalties, he withdrew in June 1943. Ten months later he rejoined the MIC but his socialist hopes were disappointed when it failed to sponsor the postwar nationalisation of the shipping industry.

In the 1940s Elliott established a reputation in the international labour movement, sponsoring union recruitment and organisation among Australian and visiting seamen in the closing stages of the war, and promoting collective action by Chinese, Greek and Indonesian shipboard workers. He became a member of the central committee of the CPA and in 1949 accepted the vice-presidency of the maritime section of the Moscow-backed World Federation of Trade Unions. The Australian Council of Trade Unions decided later that year to withdraw from the WFTU but the Seamen’s Union did not disaffiliate until September 1952, and even then continued some involvement. Elliott was removed from the central committee of the CPA in 1969. Maintaining his pro-Moscow orientation, he joined the new Socialist Party of Australia in 1971. Press photographs revealed him as groomed in the style of Trotsky with a clipped moustache and, later in life, a goatee. According to one journalist he had `a face fierce with concentration and zeal, and capped by a shock of white hair. He looked the part. He spoke the part. He acted the part. About his public image there was a touch of the larrikin’.

Elliott’s work demanded sophisticated planning and tactical skills. He worked long hours, attending political party meetings at night as well as numerous ad hoc meetings with union faction members to consider industrial action. The union’s public role in opposition to wars in Korea and Vietnam embroiled him further in arguments with conservative politicians and journalists. But, industrially, conditions continued to favour high wages and generous provisions for his members. Australian shipping, and indirectly the jobs of Australian seamen, remained subsidised and protected. Believing that `it is easier to walk down the gang plank than walk back up’, he tried to avoid costly strike action and relied on negotiating acumen to win benefits for his members.

In the later years of his general secretaryship, Elliott continued to defend his members’ rights in vigorous campaigns against shipowners including Broken Hill Proprietary Co. Ltd and the American mining conglomerate Utah Development Co. A Senate select com­mittee in 1958 inquired into indemnity payments made by shipowners when Australian crews were not used, and in 1974 a royal commission into alleged payments to maritime unions examined money given to the unions in respect of the use of permit vessels. Both reports deemed that the unions were acting improperly in demanding payments from shipowners. Elliott’s retirement in 1978, after thirty-seven years as general secretary, was marked by the unveiling of a portrait by Graeme Inson in March 1979.

On 24 September 1982 Elliott, by then a widower, married a 64-year-old divorcee, Kondelea (Della), née Xenodohos, a journalist and accountant, at their home in Roseville. Her father owned a café at Circular Quay that had been frequented by the seafaring fraternity since the 1920s. Elliott’s long-standing relationship with Della, who was politically active, had given him support both in the office and at home. Survived by his wife and his son from his first marriage, he died on 26 November 1984 at Hornsby and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • B. Fitzpatrick and R. J. Cahill, The Seamen’s Union of Australia (1981)
  • R. Morris, `The Maritime Industry Commission, 1942-52’, Great Circle, vol 20, no 1, 1998, p 46
  • Smith’s Weekly, 10 May 1941, p 7
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 21 May 1966, p 14, 7 Sept 1974, p 24, 21 Oct 1978, p 6, 27 Nov 1984, p 17
  • Age (Melbourne), 28 Dec 1978, p 21
  • Seamen’s Journal, June/July 1979, p 131, Dec 1984, p 428
  • series A6119, items 138 and 139 and series SP1714/1, item N41557 (National Archives of Australia)
  • Elliott papers (University of Wollongong Archives)
  • private information.

Citation details

Richard Morris, 'Elliott, Eliot Valens (Vic) (1902–1984)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/elliott-eliot-valens-vic-12458/text22407, published in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 2 September 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

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