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Thompson, Albert Baden (1900–1982)

by Malcolm Saunders and P. A. Howell

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Albert Thompson

Albert Thompson

Albert Baden Thompson (1900-1982), trade union leader, was born on 11 April 1900 at Parkside, Adelaide, second of five children of Sidney William Thompson, brass-fitter, and his wife Emma Jessie, née Wadham. Alby attended Sturt Street Public and Adelaide High schools, leaving at 13 to learn his father’s trade. He was a lifelong supporter and vice-president (1951-70) of West Adelaide Football Club. A keen boxer, he fought twenty-three bouts; though losing only one, he resisted pressure to turn professional. He retained a pugilistic manner, was always ready for a fight and had a distinctive walk, almost on his toes.

A shop steward at 26, during the Depression Thompson was fortunate to be one of the few employees kept on at Hitchcock’s brass-works. The plight of the unemployed prompted him to read works by the Fabians and subscribe to the Left Book Club. He studied history and politics through the Workers’ Educational Association and had private tuition in public speaking. As an industrial advocate, he won respect from all sides. On 27 December 1923 at Grote Street Church of Christ he married Jean Elizabeth Rouse (d.1947). They lived in rented accommodation in Adelaide’s south-west until 1936, then in Kensington, moving in 1940 to Marryatville to a house that Thompson purchased in 1951. On 10 December 1949 at St Augustine’s Church of England, Unley, he married Hilda May Boden, a machinist.

Thompson was elected president (1935-39) of the South Australian branch of the Australasian Society of Engineers. He became its organiser (1938) and full-time branch secretary (1941-68). Prominent and influential in the United Trades and Labor Council of South Australia, he was its president in 1940-41. As a young adult he had been a self-declared socialist and admirer of the Soviet Union. From the early 1940s, however, he was strongly anti-communist, largely in reaction to communists’ efforts to take over the ASE and force it to merge with the Amalgamated Engineering Union. In 1942 he helped to found Common Cause, a movement seeking to promote zeal for defeating fascism through public discussion of methods for creating a fairer and more just society in Australia after World War II.

When re-elected president (1948) of the UTLC, Thompson deplored the number of industrial disputes that had occurred during the previous year. He infuriated the left by reaching ‘sweetheart’ deals (which sought to exclude communists and communist sympathisers from employment) with Pope Industries Ltd, a leading manufacturing firm. In 1952, as a guest of the government of the United States of America, he toured for three months to investigate labour conditions and confer with union leaders. On his return he praised American manufacturers’ ‘efficient production’ on the grounds that goods were more affordable there than in Australia, and lauded the ‘close harmony’ that existed between employers and unions in the USA.

During and after World War II Thompson was a lynchpin of the right wing which for many years dominated the South Australian trade union movement. Though never a member of B. A. Santamaria’s Catholic Social Studies Movement, he was a powerful supporter of the industrial groups. In Trades Hall meetings there was always tension and sometimes shouting matches and near-violence between Thompson and left-wing trade union leaders, particularly the communist secretary of the Federated Ironworkers’ Association, Charlie McCaffrey. In 1948 he successfully sued McCaffrey for slander. Thompson took pride in being considered ‘Public Enemy No.1’ by South Australian communists.

Promoting cordial relations by advocating co-operation rather than confrontation with employers, Thompson initiated cricket matches between the Trades Hall and the Chamber of Manufactures (1949-53). Other appointments illustrate his willingness to work with people outside the labour movement. He was president (1940-41) of the WEA, and he served on the royal commission on state transport services (1947-51), the Board of Industry (1955), the board of the State Bank of South Australia (1950-75) and the council of the South Australian School of Mines and Industries (South Australian Institute of Technology) (1952-73). In 1953 he was appointed MBE on the recommendation of the Liberal and Country League premier, (Sir) Thomas Playford. Thompson travelled to East Asia in May 1960 as a guest of the anti-communist Chinese Federation of Labor, Taiwan.

Thompson retired from the ASE in June 1968, leaving it one of the largest and most powerful unions in South Australia. Though a long-time member of the Australian Labor Party, he harboured no ambitions to enter politics. Despite the loyalty of ASE’s members, left-wing denunciations resulted in his being remembered as ‘a boss’s man’. Survived by his wife, son and four daughters, he died on 1 December 1982 at Kalyra Hospital, Belair, and was cremated. He had been the longest-serving trade union official in South Australia.

Select Bibliography

  • S. Cockburn, The Patriarchs (1983)
  • J. Moss, Sound of Trumpets (1985)
  • M. Saunders & P. Howell, ‘Workers’ Champion or Bosses’ Stooge?’, Journal Historical Society SA, no 38, 2010
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 24 May 1968, p 2, 3 Dec 1982, p 9
  • South Australian Engineer, Sept 1968
  • PRG797/24, SRG112/9 (SLSA)
  • Australasian Society of Engineers, SA Branch, records (Noel Butlin archives, ANU)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Malcolm Saunders and P. A. Howell, 'Thompson, Albert Baden (1900–1982)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/thompson-albert-baden-15668/text26864, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 19 July 2019.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

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