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Laidlaw, Kenneth Hunter (Ken) (1887–1981)

by Janis Bailey

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Kenneth Hunter Laidlaw (1887-1981), union official, was born on 4 March 1887 at Townsville, Queensland, only son of William Hunter Laidlaw, a Scottish-born bank manager, and his Queensland-born third wife Harriet, née Westaway.  In 1902 Ken entered Brisbane Grammar School but he left when his father died in 1904.  Joining the staff of his father’s former employer, the Queensland National Bank Ltd, he worked as a clerk in Brisbane apart from an eighteen-month stint in 1907-08 at Muttaburra, western Queensland.  While at Muttaburra he became a member of the Australian Workers’ Union but soon resigned because the bank, which strongly opposed unionism, threatened him with dismissal.  On 31 March 1917 at St Andrew’s Church of England, South Brisbane, he married Violet Rebecca Grose, thereby contravening a bank rule that forbade clerks earning less than £200 per annum to marry.

In September 1919 Laidlaw organised a meeting at which twenty-two clerks, from several banks, resolved to apply to register a union.  Although warned by his manager that the bank would 'squash the Association like a rotten tomato', he went ahead.  The United Bank Officers’ Association of Queensland rapidly signed up members and was registered within a month, with Laidlaw as president.  Next March, on behalf of the union, he argued successfully for an award in the Queensland Court of Industrial Arbitration (headed by Judge T. W. McCawley).  The award, the first for bank officers in Australia, fixed maximum weekly hours of work, provided annual holidays, increased wages and envisaged equal pay for women.  A second case the same year, again with Laidlaw as advocate, resulted in increments for clerks and increased managers’ salaries.  By the end of 1920 more than 90 per cent of eligible employees had joined the union.

As its paid secretary from 1921, Laidlaw acquired a reputation as a skilled negotiator and an articulate arbitration court advocate.  He travelled tirelessly, visiting members across the State.  Having failed to prevent retrenchments and a reduction of members’ wages in the Depression, he negotiated their restoration when it ended.  In 1934 he won compulsory union membership for officers receiving less than £400 a year.  From 1933 the union had resisted the Australian Labor Party’s proposals for bank nationalisation, finally dropped when the party lost the 1949 Federal election.  Towards the end of his career Laidlaw pressed for long-service leave, granted in 1952, and for the abolition of Saturday trading which, after a long campaign, was achieved in April 1961, nine months after his retirement.

Deliberately keeping the UBOAQ non-political and refusing to affiliate it with peak union bodies, Laidlaw also resisted amalgamation with a federal banking union.  He argued that gains made at the State level might be undercut and the Queensland union’s autonomy reduced.  Some members were critical of his stance:  Queensland joined the Australian Bank Officials’ Association in 1965.

Laidlaw was also part-time secretary of the Queensland Nurses’ Association (1922-39), the Commonwealth Bank branch of the UBOAQ (1924-25), the Australian Insurance Staffs’ Federation (1924-27), the Queensland Union of Commercial Travellers (1926-60), the Queensland Printers Travellers Association (1927-60) and the local branch of the Municipal Officers’ Association of Australia (1932-45).  In his youth he had been a State sailing champion; in later years he was a member of the Auchenflower Bowling Club.  He was a Freemason.  A widower, he died on 2 January 1981 at Sandgate and was cremated.  His son and two daughters survived him.  An obituarist described him as 'a legend and an inspiration'.

Select Bibliography

  • D. Murphy, Ken Laidlaw, 1979
  • J. Hill, From Subservience to Strike, 1982
  • Australian Bank Employees News Bulletin (Qld division), February 1981, p 1

Citation details

Janis Bailey, 'Laidlaw, Kenneth Hunter (Ken) (1887–1981)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/laidlaw-kenneth-hunter-ken-14068/text25043, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 16 February 2019.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

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