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Wright, Thomas (Tom) (1902–1981)

by John Shields

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

Thomas Wright (1902-1981), sheet-metal worker and trade union official, was born on 25 February 1902 at Bridgend, Kinross, Scotland, eldest of four children of John Easton Wright, coalminer, and his wife Kathleen Florence, formerly Wallace, née Jessop, who had two daughters from her first marriage. The family migrated to Sydney in 1911 and settled first at Redfern, where Tom attended the public school to the age of 13, and then at Hurstville.

Aged 14 Tom was apprenticed as a sheet-metal worker at Wunderlich Ltd, where he was strongly influenced by Paddy Drew, an Australian Socialist Party activist and later a founding member of the Communist Party of Australia. After going bush with a mate for two years at the end of his apprenticeship, Wright returned to Sydney and his trade in 1923; he became active in the Sheet Metal Working Industrial Union of Australia, which he had joined in 1921. In 1924 he became a member of the union’s State management committee, treasurer of the New South Wales branch, and a delegate to the Labor Council of New South Wales, a position he retained until 1973.

In his early twenties, he also immersed himself in politics, joining the Australian Labor Party and becoming secretary of Hurstville branch. In 1923 he joined the Communist Party of Australia and was expelled from the ALP in 1925 following its decision to exclude communists. Prevented by the Bruce-Page government from attending the Pan-Pacific Trade Union Congress in China in 1927, he went instead to the Comintern meeting in Moscow, reporting his impressions in Russia To-day (1927).

A supporter of the CPA’s Jack Ryan-Jack Kavanagh faction, after serving briefly as financial secretary in 1925 he became general secretary, a position he held until the removal of the Ryan-Kavanagh faction from the executive in December 1929. Ryan was expelled in 1930, Kavanagh in 1931; but Wright escaped this fate. In disfavour with the Communist Party’s new Third Period leadership, Wright recanted, became a steadfast party functionary, was restored to the CPA’s central committee in 1931, and remained a member of the party until 1970.

Wright met Mary Margaret Lamm, née McAdam, a Communist Party colleague, while both were working in the Unemployed Workers’ Movement in Glebe. Widowed in 1931, she had three children (a fourth had died). She and Tom lived together for a decade before marrying on 23 January 1941 at the registry office, Five Dock. During the Depression Wright worked intermittently at his trade but more frequently as a Communist Party organiser among the un­employed and in the Militant Minority Movement, writing for Red Leader and editing Trade Union Leader. In the 1930s he stood unsuccessfully as a communist candidate for the House of Representatives and the New South Wales Legislative Assembly.

In 1936, in a significant advance for communist-aligned union activists, Wright was elected State secretary of the sheet-metal workers’ union. The next year he was elected vice-president of the Labor Council of New South Wales, retaining the post until 1940, when he was elected federal president of the union. Wright was both State secretary and federal president of the Sheet Metal Working Agricultural Implement & Stove Making Industrial Union of Australia (as it became in 1945) and played a leading role in the amalgamation push in the mid-1940s. He was State president (1972-73) and a Commonwealth vice-president (1972-74) of the Amalgamated Metal Workers’ Union, as it was known officially from 1973.

Wright was also prominent in the work of union peak bodies at all levels. He was a foundation member (1943), delegate (1943-73) and vice-chairman (1952-73) of the Metal Trades Federation of Unions. Credited with having gained support from New South Wales unions for the formation of the Australasian (later Australian) Council of Trade Unions in 1927, he was a delegate to the congress for some years and a member of the executive in 1939-1941 and 1961-1965; in 1947 he stood unsuccessfully for the presidency.

A committed social and political activist, Wright was a strong advocate of Aboriginal rights and in the later 1930s succeeded in persuading both the Communist Party and the Labor Council to adopt a path-breaking policy of absolute Aboriginal ownership of tribal lands. A second edition of his book, New Deal for the Aborigines (1939), was published in 1945 with a foreword by Katharine Susannah Prichard. He was associated with Brian Fitzpatrick and the civil liberties movement in the 1930s, the peace movement before and after World War II, and the campaign for equal pay for women, particularly during the war when he initiated a women’s organising committee within his union in acknowledgement of the influx of women into war industry.

In 1949 Wright faced the threat of prosecution for criticising conciliation commissioners during the coal strike of that year. In 1953 he and Ronald Maxwell were elected, with almost 9 per cent of the vote, as the first two communist aldermen on the Sydney City Council. He was re-elected once, but was defeated in 1959 after the voting system was changed to eliminate proportional representation. As the leader of a left-wing union delegation, he visited China in 1952 and Cuba in 1963.

Small in stature, and serious and taciturn by nature, Wright was nevertheless a powerful orator, renowned in the union movement for his availability to members, his powers of reasoned persuasion, and his incorruptibility. Long-time inner-city dwellers, in 1953 the Wrights moved to outer suburban Greenacre. He and Mary remained a devoted couple. Their only political difference came after they both left the Communist Party, which had become critical of the Soviet Union. Mary joined the Socialist Party of Australia, while Tom would join no other party. An accomplished writer and propagandist, he published We Defend Peace (1937), A Real Social Insurance Plan (1937), Lenin and the Trade Unions (1940), The Basic Wage (1943), World Trade Union Federation (1945), United Action Wins (1947) and Australians Visit People’s China (1952), as well as numerous articles in Communist Review, Australian Left Review, and the Sheetmetal Worker, of which he was a long-time editor. Survived by his wife and their son and her daughter and two sons, he died on 10 January 1981 at Kogarah, Sydney, and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Johnson, Bread and Roses (1990)
  • S. Macintyre, The Reds (1998)
  • Tribune, 21 May 1949, p 3, 21 Jan 1981, p 8
  • Amalgamated Metal Workers’ Union Monthly Journal, July 1973, p 7
  • Metal Worker, Feb 1981, p 6
  • Tom and Mary Wright papers (Noel Butlin Archives, Australian National University)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

John Shields, 'Wright, Thomas (Tom) (1902–1981)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/wright-thomas-tom-15654/text26849, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 26 September 2017.

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

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