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Orr, William (1900–1954)

by Don Dingsdag

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

William Orr (1900-1954), coalminer and trade unionist, was born on 25 April 1900 at Bellshill, Lanarkshire, Scotland, son of Joseph Orr, coalwashery foreman, and his wife Christina, née Watson. He left school aged 9 and worked in Scottish coal-mines. After serving briefly in World War I he returned disillusioned, and migrated to New South Wales where after a few months he entered the coal-mining industry at Lithgow.

During the late 1920s Orr attended Marxist study groups organized by C. Nelson at Lithgow. He became prominent in communist fronts, the Unemployed Workers' Movement and the Mineworkers' Council of Action, the mining section of the Militant Minority Movement, contributing to its newspaper, the Red Leader. On 23 December 1931 he married Irene May Russell at Newtown, Sydney. Next year he attended the Red International of Labour Unions in Moscow as one of six Australian delegates. Owing to his prominence in the M.C.A. he was elected general president of the Australasian Coal and Shale Employees' (Miners') Federation late in 1933 without having served as a lesser official.

The coalmining industry had been declining since 1927: the coalowners reduced the workforce, production fell and, despite the intensification of the industry's customary intermittent employment, mechanization was increased. With Nelson, Orr set out to rectify the miners' intolerable working conditions and to prevent machines replacing manual labour. To gain support among the rank and file to combat deteriorating wages and conditions Orr, an inspired orator, propagandized the miners. His monographs, Mechanisation: Threatened Catastrophe for Coalfields (1935), Coal: The Struggle of the Mineworkers (1935), written with Nelson, and Coal Facts (1937), as well as Common Cause, the federation's news-sheet, reinforced his message.

Taking advantage of an improving economy, Orr gained important concessions for coalminers in 1937 and 1938 through arbitration as well as strike action. One major reform was achieved when, as a result of a general strike organized by Orr in 1938, the State government appointed the royal commission upon the safety and health of workers in coal mines and incorporated many of its recommendations in the Coal Mines Regulation (Further Amendment) Act of 1941. Disregarding the federation's earlier rejection of arbitration, Orr gained underground workers the forty-hour week and other concessions in 1940 with skilful advocacy before the Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration. In 1940 he was forced to resign the federation's general secretaryship through ill health, but as a direct result of his indefatigable efforts the State government appointed a royal commission which culminated in the Coal and Oil Shale Mine Workers' (Pensions) Act of 1941; the Act provided for compulsory retirement at 60 and pension entitlements far superior to comparable pension schemes. In better health he was appointed to the Commonwealth Coal Board as the federation's representative in 1942 and in 1947-53 was a coalworkers' representative on the pensions tribunal.

Survived by his wife and son, Orr died suddenly of thrombosis of coronary arteries on 9 March 1954 at Canley Vale, Sydney, and was cremated with Presbyterian forms.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Gollan, The Coalminers of New South Wales (Melb, 1963)
  • E. Ross, A History of the Miners' Federation of Australia (Syd, 1970)
  • Common Cause, 20 Mar 1954
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 10 July 1932, 12 Mar 1954
  • Tribune (Melbourne), 17 Mar 1954
  • D. Dingsdag, Technological Change in N.S.W. Underground Coalmines 1903-1971 (Ph.D. thesis in progress, University of Wollongong)
  • Plebs League, Brisbane, papers, 1927-29 (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Militant Minority Movement, Sydney, papers, 1928-29 (State Library of New South Wales)
  • information from Mr W. Parkinson, general president, Miners' Federation, 1955-67 and Mr E. Ross, editor, Common Cause, 1935-66.

Citation details

Don Dingsdag, 'Orr, William (1900–1954)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/orr-william-7923/text13785, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 23 February 2019.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

View the front pages for Volume 11

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