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Lonergan, John Thomas (Jack) (1902–1979)

by R. P. Davis

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

John Thomas (Jack) Lonergan (1902-1979), trade union official, was born on 29 May 1902 in Hobart, eleventh child of David Lonergan, labourer, and his wife Louisa, née Coe. Educated at the Central School, Hobart, Jack went to work on the waterfront at the age of 17. On 24 July 1926 he married Effie Gladys Mary Sherrin in Hobart with Catholic rites; they were to remain childless. He was increasingly active in the Tasmanian branch of the Waterside Workers' Federation of Australia and was elected vice-president in 1935. Succeeding to the presidency that year, he retained the office until 1970, with only two breaks (1951-52 and 1956-57) when he chose not to stand.

In 1936 Lonergan was elected branch representative on the union's federal council. Three years later he became federal president of the W.W.F. He held this part-time position throughout a vital period in the union's development. Working closely with the general secretary Jim Healy, he presided over negotiations with the Curtin government that led to the establishment (1942) of the Stevedoring Industry Commission with worker representation. After a campaign of stoppages that closed fifty-two Australian ports on 11 December 1946, Lonergan proudly reported the securing of an annual two-week paid holiday for all watersiders.

Lonergan maintained a remarkable popularity with Tasmanian dockers and was frequently unchallenged in annual elections for the State presidency; when the post was contested he usually scored easy victories. Yet, he had opponents within the union and sometimes incurred criticism for his efforts to reach compromise settlements. Even in his final year as federal president of the W.W.F. he and Jim Healy were accused of supporting the Australian Council of Trade Unions' policy rather than that of their union. Handing over the federal presidency to Jack Beitz in 1950, Lonergan continued for several years as a federal councillor.

When the occasion warranted strong action he was a tough upholder of union principles. Lonergan was branch president in Hobart during a celebrated case (1956-59) when two W.W.F. members, Frank Hursey and his son Dennis, objected to paying a political levy for the Australian Labor Party. Following protracted litigation, the High Court of Australia finally accepted the legality of political levies and union expulsion for non-payment, but prohibited exclusion of non-unionists from the workplace.

Short and stocky, Jack Lonergan was an excellent public speaker, capable of swinging a public meeting by oratorical devices such as variations of tone and emotional appeals. He remained a staunch unionist: content to represent his members at State A.L.P. conferences, he sought neither party nor political office. In 1970 he escorted Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh during their inspection of the Hobart waterfront. Survived by his wife, he died on 16 April 1979 at Lindisfarne and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • T. Bull, Politics in a Union (Syd, 1977)
  • R. Davis, Eighty Years' Labor (Hob, 1983)
  • Maritime Worker, 8 May 1979
  • Mercury (Hobart), 18 Apr 1979
  • Waterside Workers' Federation of Australia, Tasmanian Branch records (Maritime Union of Australia, Hobart)
  • private information.

Citation details

R. P. Davis, 'Lonergan, John Thomas (Jack) (1902–1979)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/lonergan-john-thomas-jack-10855/text19267, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 22 October 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

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