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Rochus Joseph John (Joe) Bukowski (1901–1960)

by Harold Thornton

This article was published:

Rochus Joseph John (Joe) Bukowski (1901-1960), trade unionist, was born on 7 August 1901 at Mount Morgan, Queensland, second child of Joseph Aloysius Bukowski, a tailor born at sea, and his wife Elizabeth, née McInnes, from Brisbane. The child of a father who was proud of his Polish background, Roch was raised as a Catholic. Growing quickly to a massive size, he became renowned as a school bully at Christian Brothers' College, Rockhampton, where one of his alleged victims was the physically smaller V. C. Gair. Bukowski also attended Nudgee College, Brisbane. After leaving school, he worked as a labourer in a variety of rural and mining jobs, and briefly prospected in New Guinea. On 9 September 1921 he married a 27-year-old nurse and widow Grace Lily Dumbrell, née Evans, at St Joseph's Catholic Cathedral, Rockhampton.

While employed as a canecutter at South Johnstone in the early 1930s, Bukowski came to the attention of Australian Workers' Union organizers. Aspiring A.W.U. leaders and Australian Labor Party politicians needed the support of union bosses like Clarrie Fallon if their careers were to progress. By the 1920s the Queensland A.W.U. leadership had been effectively insulated from formal challenge by rules which required candidates for official positions to be endorsed by the executive. The size of the union within the Queensland labour movement and its strength in rural areas ensured its dominant role in the ruling A.L.P. The main threat to this monopoly lay in communist-inspired attempts to foment unofficial strikes and to form breakaway unions. Large and ruthless, Bukowski was useful as an enforcer in the violent and bitter industrial relations of the time.

In this role he rose to prominence in 1934-35 when the A.W.U., the Queensland government and the Colonial Sugar Refining Co. combined to suppress communist-led, canecutter strikes against unhealthy work practices. Bukowski earned the nickname 'Midnight Joe' for his alleged, intimidatory, nocturnal visits to strike leaders. Although he had ceased to be an active churchgoer and had little time for clerics, the passionate anti-communism of the Polish Catholic Church remained a lifelong influence and helped to advance his career in the A.W.U. He was appointed a full-time A.W.U. organizer at Ayr in 1935, then at Mackay (1939-40) and Townsville (1940). A widower, on 12 May 1938 Bukowski married Ailsa Barbara McGrath at the Sacred Heart Church, Ayr; they were to be divorced in 1945.

In 1941 Joe was elected central district secretary of the A.W.U. and appointed one of its delegates to the Queensland Labor-in-Politics Convention. Next year he became southern district secretary, based in Brisbane. There, on 3 September 1946, he married Alma Elizabeth Williams at the Salvation Army Temple. The 1950 Labor-in-Politics Convention appointed him secretary of its industrial groups committee. In 1951 he advanced to A.W.U. State president, editor of the Worker and heir apparent to A.W.U. secretary Harry Boland. Bukowski's involvement with the industrial groups brought him into contact with B. A. Santamaria's Catholic Social Studies Movement. The ancient enmity between Bukowski and Gair had continued to fester, and, after Gair's elevation to premier on 17 January 1952, relations between the parliamentary Labor Party and the A.W.U. soured. 'The Movement's' support for Gair was one factor that turned Bukowski against it, and against the industrial groups which he had helped to create. In 1954 H. V. Evatt's denunciation of the groups was enthusiastically endorsed by Bukowski in the Worker and was followed by impassioned attacks on 'the Movement's' supporters at A.W.U. conventions in 1955.

The political struggle was mirrored industrially by Gair's support for employers' moves to cut the A.W.U. shearing award rate, which led to a prolonged, official, pastoral strike in 1956. Seeking support for the strike and for his confrontation with Gair, Bukowski drew close to the left-wing Queensland Trades and Labor Council, led by (Sir) John Egerton, from which the A.W.U. had remained aloof for decades. When Boland died in July 1956, Bukowski was appointed secretary of the State branch of the A.W.U. and also president of the Queensland central executive of the A.L.P. He immediately reaffiliated the A.W.U. with the T.L.C. This unlikely axis had the strength in the A.L.P. to direct government policy, an advantage pressed incessantly by Bukowski who was reported as saying that the rule book was unnecessary when you had the numbers.

Matters came to a head in early 1957 when the Queensland central executive pressed Gair to comply with the 1956 convention's direction to introduce three weeks annual leave for public servants. When Gair repeatedly refused, Bukowski and Egerton organized the numbers on the executive to expel him from the A.L.P. on 24 April 1957. They thereby split the parliamentary Labor Party, occasioning the government's defeat on 12 June.

After Gair's removal, the now feared and hated Bukowski soon fell out with his allies in the T.L.C. Motions critical of A.W.U. behaviour within the party were passed during 1958. Finally, on 18 December, he was suspended as president for his allegedly drunken and intimidatory behaviour towards Brisbane Labor alderman Jean Howie at the executive's Christmas party held the previous week. In a characteristically impetuous response, he disaffiliated the A.W.U. from the T.L.C. and the A.L.P. on 23 February 1959. The following month his A.L.P. membership renewal was rejected by the Oxley branch of the party. Subsequent negotiations made it clear that any reaffiliation of the union with the A.L.P. would be contingent on Bukowski's removal. Embittered and lonely, he died of a coronary occlusion on 20 January 1960 at his Annerley home and was buried with Catholic rites in Lutwyche cemetery. He was survived by his wife, their daughter and two sons, by a daughter of his first marriage and by two sons of his second.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Murray, The Split (Melb, 1970)
  • D. J. Murphy et al (eds), Labor in Power (Brisb, 1980)
  • D. J. Murphy (ed), The Big Strikes (Brisb, 1983)
  • R. Fitzgerald and H. Thornton, Labor in Queensland (Brisb, 1989)
  • W. Swan, Factionalism—The Case of Queensland Labor 1959-1966 (B.A. Hons thesis, University of Queensland, 1975)
  • Australian Labor Party, Queensland Labor-in-Politics Conventions (State Library of Queensland)
  • Queensland Central Executive minutes, 1941-58 (State Library of Queensland)
  • Australian Workers Union, State Conventions minutes, 1954-59
  • private information.

Citation details

Harold Thornton, 'Bukowski, Rochus Joseph John (Joe) (1901–1960)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 23 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (Melbourne University Press), 1993

View the front pages for Volume 13

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


7 August, 1901
Mount Morgan, Queensland, Australia


20 January, 1960 (aged 58)
Annerley, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

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