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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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O'Brien, Michael (1900–1967)

by Greg Patmore

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

Michael O'Brien (1900-1967), trade unionist, was born on 15 April 1900 at Toowoomba, Queensland, younger of twin sons of Toowoomba-born parents John Joseph O'Brien, farmer, hotel yardman and Labor member (1904-07) of the Legislative Assembly, and his wife Margaret Mary, née Fahy. Mick was educated at the Christian Brothers' primary school, Toowoomba, and Valley State School, Brisbane. In 1915 he took a job as a clerk in the Queensland Railways and joined the Queensland Railways Union (later the Queensland branch of the Australian Railways Union). A keen sportsman and secretary of the Queensland Railway Institute cricket club, he managed a number of teams that played interstate competitions in Sydney and Melbourne. He also played Rugby League for the Carlton and Valley clubs in Brisbane.

After holding (from 1927) some minor posts in the union, O'Brien was its State president from 1930 until 1952. At St Joseph's Catholic Church, Kangaroo Point, on 31 July 1937 he married Ethel Morrison, a 38-year-old dressmaker; they were to remain childless. He resigned from the Queensland Railways in 1948 when the office of president was made a full-time, paid position.

O'Brien was A.R.U. delegate to the Queensland Combined Railway Unions' committee from its foundation in 1936. He became president in 1944. As president of the Central Railway Disputes Committee, he gained national prominence during the 1948 Queensland railway strike, which lasted nine weeks and challenged the industrial relations policies of the Hanlon Labor government. At various times he also served on the executives of the Trades and Labor Council of Queensland and the Australian Council of Trade Unions. He represented Australian trade unions at an International Labor Organization conference in Geneva in 1947.

From 1952 until his death O'Brien was based in Sydney as general secretary of the A.R.U. He proved a successful advocate before the arbitration courts and became an expert on the impact of technological change, particularly in the transport industry. Although he was a member of the Australian Labor Party, he championed the right of trade unions to challenge Labor governments if their members' interests were not being met. He defended the civil rights of communists during the Cold War, and criticized interference by A.L.P. industrial groups and the Catholic Social Studies Movement in the internal affairs of trade unions. In supporting H. V. Evatt as leader of the Federal parliamentary Labor Party, he clashed with Dr Lloyd Ross, the 'grouper' leader of the New South Wales branch of the A.R.U., and briefly took control of that branch in 1955. O'Brien advocated a continuing dialogue with trade unions in the Soviet bloc and the need for Australian unions to assist labour organization in Asian countries.

A powerfully built man with heavy jowls, O'Brien was strong willed, passionate and obdurate. He died of cancer on 21 August 1967 at the Ryde District Soldiers Memorial Hospital and was buried in Nudgee cemetery, Brisbane. His wife survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • M. Hearn, Working Lives (Syd, 1990)
  • D. Blackmur, Strikes (Syd, 1993)
  • records of the ACTU and ARU and TLCQ records (Australian National University Archives)
  • Public Transport Union records (held at national office, Sydney, and Queensland branch, Brisbane)
  • private information.

Citation details

Greg Patmore, 'O'Brien, Michael (1900–1967)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 20 October 2020.

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

View the front pages for Volume 15

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