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Schreiber, Oscar Ferdinand Gordon (1887–1963)

by Ray Markey

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

Oscar Ferdinand Gordon Schreiber (1887-1963), cabinet-maker and trade unionist, was born on 7 October 1887 at Forbes, New South Wales, sixth child of John Schreiber, a grocer from Saxony, Germany, and his Scottish-born wife Annie, née Fraser. Oscar completed an apprenticeship to a cabinet-maker and worked in Sydney for Beard Watson Ltd. In 1913 he became secretary of the Furnishing Trade Society of New South Wales. On 7 March 1916 in a civil ceremony in North Sydney he married Lilian Goodere, a teacher of dressmaking; they were to remain childless.

As a member of the Australian Labor Party, a delegate to the Labor Council of New South Wales and president of the Trade Union Secretaries' Association, 'Ossie' Schreiber wielded considerable influence in the labour movement. He was relatively self-effacing, however, and seems never to have aspired to high public office. In the early 1920s he held left-wing views and allegiances. About 1925, while remaining a 'sincere socialist', he emerged as a leader of moderate union opinion. By 1927 he had helped to restructure the A.L.P. in New South Wales, reducing the power of the Australian Workers' Union and consolidating Jack Lang's leadership.

At the special State conference of the A.L.P. in November 1926 Schreiber moved the extraordinary motion confirming Lang's leadership and authorizing him 'to do all things and exercise such powers as he deems necessary in the interests of the [labour] movement'. The motion was carried by 274 votes to 4. From that time Schreiber and his new ally J. S. Garden belonged to Lang's 'inner group' of advisers. After 1930 Schreiber's influence was critical in ensuring that moderate unions backed the Labor Council's leaders against their left- and right-wing opponents. He and Garden provided Lang with a strong union base. Lang responded with grants of government money for unemployed members of Schreiber's union. In 1936—reacting against the disastrous leadership of the State parliamentary Labor Party—the Labor Council, Garden and most other union leaders withdrew their support from Lang. Schreiber did likewise and was expelled from the A.L.P.

Schreiber was readmitted to the party that year. His subsequent struggle against Lang involved extensive co-operation with communists. Nevertheless, he opposed communist influence in the A.L.P. and in 1940 endorsed action by the federal executive to discourage joint public platforms in political campaigns and to replace communist sympathizers on the State executive. In 1947 he joined right-wing union leaders in publicly opposing communist attempts to ban the construction of the rocket range at Woomera, South Australia. Two years later he urged Prime Minister J. B. Chifley to attack the Communist Party of Australia more forthrightly, in part to shore up electoral support for the A.L.P.

The Federal government had appointed Schreiber a member of the Commonwealth Disposals Commission (1944-49) and of a committee to advise on the development of a plywood industry in the Territory of Papua-New Guinea. He was a driving force behind the agreement, reached in 1946, between his union and the Associated Furniture Manufacturers of New South Wales on a voluntary code of standards for the trade. Implemented by the Standards Association of Australia, the code was overseen by a joint panel of employer and union representatives. Schreiber was also credited with being largely responsible for several legislative measures to protect consumers. These activities earned him the respect of a number of employers and senior government officials.

In the 1930s Schreiber had been a staunch advocate of shorter working hours to aid economic recovery and generate employment. He argued that increased productivity would neutralize the cost. Following World War II, he emerged as an outspoken critic of the growing movement for equal pay for women. He contended that most women's work was not 'competitive' with that of men and that paying women the male basic wage was unjustified as they were usually not family breadwinners.

Although he retired as secretary of his union in 1948 because of ill health, Schreiber continued as part-time country organizer and maintained his political connexions. He developed a warm friendship with Chifley, with whom he corresponded in the late 1940s. In the early 1950s he was a confidant of New South Wales A.L.P. leaders, notably Joe Cahill and Reg Downing. Survived by his wife, he died on 2 July 1963 at his Roseville home; his body was bequeathed to the medical school at the University of Sydney and later cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • H. Radi and P. Spearritt (eds), Jack Lang (Syd, 1977)
  • B. Nairn, The 'Big Fella' (Melb, 1986)
  • R. Markey, In Case of Oppression (Syd, 1994)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 4 Oct 1934, 15 Feb, 11 Sept 1935, 12 June 1940, 5, 17 Oct, 8, 9, 12, 15, 19, 30 Nov 1946, 14 May 1947, 10 July 1963
  • correspondence, leaflets, pamphlets and newspaper cuttings, MSS 4318 (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

Ray Markey, 'Schreiber, Oscar Ferdinand Gordon (1887–1963)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/schreiber-oscar-ferdinand-gordon-11635/text20783, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 24 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

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