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Stout, James Victor (1885–1964)

by Peter Love

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

James Victor Stout (1885-1964), trade union leader, was born on 10 August 1885 in Port Melbourne, fifth child of James Stout, a labourer from Scotland, and his English-born wife Agnes, née Lloyd. Vic grew up in the working-class suburb in which he was born, and attended Graham Street and Nott Street State schools in the depths of the 1890s depression. He worked in the boot trade and later in a draper's shop. An avid reader and amateur musician, he was a serious self-improver, non-smoker and temperance advocate. About 1906 he joined Tom Mann's Victorian Socialist Party and the Political Labor Council of Victoria (Australian Labor Party). From 1907, when the drapers combined with other retail workers to form the Shop Assistants' Union of Victoria, he became more active in union affairs. On 17 September 1912 at the office of the government statist, Queen Street, Melbourne, he married 37-year-old Maud Mary Newton; they lived at Toorak and were to remain childless.

During World War I and the years immediately following, Stout was swept along by the tide of radicalism in the labour movement. In 1915 he was elected to the Melbourne Trades Hall Council as a delegate of the Shop Assistants' Union. In 1916-17 he staunchly opposed conscription for military service overseas. Although he was often sceptical of Labor's parliamentary wing, he agreed to contest the Victorian Legislative Assembly seat of Toorak in 1920, but lost to (Sir) Stanley Argyle. After the Stouts moved to their own home at Black Rock, Vic began his career as a paid union official, becoming an organizer for the shop assistants in 1924. Despite his slightly high-pitched voice and unprepossessing appearance—he was about 5 ft 6 ins (168 cm) tall, of medium build and wore spectacles—he impressed colleagues with his resolute approach and his candid, occasionally abrupt, manner.

In the late 1920s Stout gradually assumed more prominent roles in the Victorian labour movement. In 1929 he again stood unsuccessfully against Argyle for Toorak. He was an active member of the Workers' Anti-Liquor Group that urged Victorians to embrace prohibition in 1930. He resolutely opposed the Premiers' Plan of 1931 and pressed for a 'clean out' of Labor Party members who accepted it. He contested the Legislative Assembly seat of Prahran in 1932, but was beaten by John Ellis, the United Australia Party candidate. In 1933 he was elected president of the Melbourne Trades Hall Council, for a one-year term.

After Albert Monk relinquished the secretaryship of the T.H.C. in 1938, Stout won the post in a three-way contest. He was to retain it until his death. His ability to balance his private convictions and his public interests was immediately tested when the liquor issue arose once more: this time he moved that the T.H.C. adopt a neutral attitude. On most matters he took predictable positions. He believed that non-union, immigrant workers undercut industrial conditions and that wartime rationing threatened jobs. Throughout World War II he was at the centre of power in the Victorian labour movement. A long-time member of the central executive of the State A.L.P., he began the first of his five terms as president in 1942. He also served on the interstate executive of the Australasian (Australian) Council of Trade Unions. In addition, he sat (1938-43) on the General [Wages] Board and was appointed (1942) a member of the Industrial Appeals Court.

Stout was alarmed by increasing communist influence in unions affiliated with the T.H.C. From about 1942 he supported the A.L.P.'s industrial groups and, although he was a Protestant, began to co-operate secretly with the Catholic Social Studies Movement. By the end of the war the Victorian labour movement was bitterly divided. The State parliamentary party, led by John Cain, came under pressure from a faction dominated by 'the Movement'. Meetings of the T.H.C. often ended in bitter squabbles. With industrial issues increasingly complicated by ideological faction-fighting, Stout juggled unstable alliances at the Trades Hall and in the A.L.P. In 1948-49 he was criticized by left-wing unions and the Labor Party for reaching an agreement with the Hollway government on the Essential Services Act (1948). In 1950 he resigned from the A.L.P.'s Victorian central executive in protest against a decision by the parliamentary party to support a Country Party government, a decision which reinforced his view that Labor politicians could not be trusted to represent workers' interests. Next year, however, he rejoined the central executive.

As right-wing elements became more stridently assertive, Stout changed tack about 1952 and looked to the left for support. Following H. V. Evatt's denunciation of 'the Movement' in October 1954, the A.L.P.'s federal executive dismissed the Victorian central executive in November. A special State conference of the party elected Stout president of a new central executive in February 1955. He immediately turned on his former allies, declaring that the Victorian A.L.P. was 'almost in a state of fascism'. The federal Labor Party split at the Hobart conference in March and the Cain government in Victoria lost the election in May. Stout became a belligerent 'anti-grouper'—at the Trades Hall and on the A.C.T.U. and federal A.L.P. executives—periodically bemoaning the poor relations between labour's industrial and political wings.

In the midst of the turmoil, Stout's wife died on 8 July 1955. Never a gregarious man, he found occasional solace in playing the violin or listening to operatic recordings in private. As the labour movement slowly rebuilt its strength in the ensuing years, he went about his Trades Hall and other duties (including Sunday afternoon broadcasts on radio-station 3KZ) in his usual methodical manner. In 1961 he was elected federal president of the A.L.P.

On 12 March 1964 Stout collapsed at his desk in the Trades Hall. He died next day in St Vincent's Hospital, Fitzroy, and was cremated. Old comrades and adversaries paid him generous, if diplomatic, tributes.

Select Bibliography

  • L. J. Louis, Trade Unions and the Depression (Canb, 1968)
  • R. Murray, The Split (Melb, 1970)
  • P. Weller and B. Lloyd (eds), Federal Executive Minutes, 1915-1955 (Melb, 1978)
  • J. Hagan, The History of the A.C.T.U. (Melb, 1981)
  • K. White, John Cain & Victorian Labor 1917-1957 (Syd, 1982)
  • T. Sheridan, Division of Labour (Melb, 1989)
  • A. Best, The History of the Liquor Trades Union in Victoria (Melb, 1990)
  • Catholic Worker, Apr 1964
  • Outlook, Apr 1964
  • Labour History, Melbourne, Recorder, Feb 1969, June 1977
  • Age (Melbourne), 14 Mar 1964
  • Sun News-Pictorial (Melbourne), 14 Mar 1964
  • Herald (Melbourne), 18 Mar 1964.

Citation details

Peter Love, 'Stout, James Victor (1885–1964)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/stout-james-victor-11785/text21081, published in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 3 September 2014.

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

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