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Tom Nicholson Dougherty (1902–1972)

by Greg Patmore

This article was published:

Tom Nicholson Pearce Dougherty (1902-1972), trade unionist, was born on 2 March 1902 at Bollon, Queensland, sixth child of native-born parents Robert Alexander Dougherty, telegraph linesman, and his wife Louisa Sarah, née Gibson, schoolteacher and postmistress. Leaving Goondiwindi State School at 13, Tom had a variety of jobs—dairying, clearing timber, road and stock work, and tramway construction; he was also employed on a rubber plantation in New Guinea. He gave his occupation as salesman when he married Ruby McArthur, a waitress, on 14 July 1924 at the Presbyterian manse, South Brisbane; they were to have two sons and a daughter.

Working as a canecutter in the Mackay district until 1932, Dougherty rose through the dominant Queensland branch of the Australian Workers' Union: he was a job representative (from 1924), a paid organizer around Mackay (1932-38), northern district secretary at Townsville (1938-43) and the branch president (1943-45). In addition, he was a delegate to the A.W.U.'s State and federal conventions, and represented the union on the central executive of the Queensland Labor Party. Dougherty became a fervent anti-communist, accusing the 'Reds' of disrupting and undermining the A.W.U.

Elected in 1942 to the federal executive of the A.W.U., in January 1944 he was appointed general secretary in Sydney, following the removal of W. B. Hay. Dougherty was to maintain tight control over the union until his death. He fought with Clarrie Fallon for federal control of union assets and defeated Fallon's efforts to replace him as general secretary. In 1944 Dougherty intervened in the New South Wales branch, removing officials he perceived as hostile, and maintaining federal control until elections in December 1952. His domination of the A.W.U. led to a long-running feud with Clyde Cameron, Federal Labor parliamentarian and former Adelaide branch secretary, who launched a successful legal challenge against certain A.W.U. rules in 1959. Dougherty was once (in 1960) sued for having 'terrorised' branch secretaries. In 1971 he was to be awarded $150,000 damages after he had been accused in the Australian of being a 'ballot-rigger and of crushing anyone who refused to be subservient to him'.

Despite all his political manoeuvring, Dougherty gained a reputation as an extremely competent industrial advocate and bargainer on behalf of his 180,000 members. He won good awards for Snowy River workers and helped to make Australian shearers the highest paid in the world. A shrewd, hard-headed businessman, he built up the union's assets and in 1960 the once ramshackle Macdonell House brought in over £40,000 in rents.

As general secretary, Dougherty continued the A.W.U.'s hostility to the Australian Council of Trade Unions which he claimed was communist influenced. In 1959 he flirted with the idea of forming an anti-communist confederation of trade unions to challenge the A.C.T.U. Eventually, in 1967, he supported the affiliation of the A.W.U. with the A.C.T.U., claiming that communist influence had become negligible. A friend of Professor Harry Messel, in 1957 Dougherty had persuaded the A.W.U. to affiliate with the Nuclear Research Foundation within the University of Sydney and to contribute funding. He opposed the nuclear arms race, particularly British nuclear testing in Australia, but believed that the benefits of peaceful nuclear research would help to weaken the communist threat to the West.

Dougherty represented (1945-53) the A.W.U. on the Wool Consultative Council, served on the boards of the People's Printing & Publishing Co. (later Westland Broadcasting Co.) and Labor Papers Ltd (managing director from 1950), and was secretary of the board of control of the Australian Worker. At the invitation of the American Federation of Labor, he visited the United States of America in September-October 1950 and addressed its convention at Houston, calling for the end of all trade with the Soviet Union. In Sydney in October 1953 he and Laurie Short, federal secretary of the Federated Ironworkers' Association, briefed Vice-President Richard Nixon on the continuing strength of communism in Australian unionism.

A member (1950-54) of the New South Wales Labor Party executive and a delegate to A.L.P. federal conferences, Dougherty was committed to the abolition of the Legislative Council. In January 1952 he criticized the New South Wales party for failing to honour its abolitionist policy and claimed that a number of those on the State executive supported retention of the council because they enjoyed the perquisites of membership. At the party conference in June he successfully moved a resolution excluding parliamentarians from the State executive, thereby assisting the anti-communist 'groupers' to gain control of the executive. His support for the 'groupers' evaporated when he suspected that they were trying to seize control of the A.W.U. In September 1957 the Labor Party chose Dougherty to fill a casual vacancy in the Legislative Council. He promised to resign if he failed to abolish the council and did so in May 1961, following the defeat of the abolition referendum.

'Big Tom' was over 6 ft (183 cm) tall and weighed 14 stone (89 kg). Physically and mentally tough, he had a racy vocabulary, 'interlarded with homely bush sayings'. He continued to show 'traces of his old arrogance and impatience of restraint', dressed in 'well-cut suits, smart ties' and in summer a stylish straw hat, and enjoyed fishing and playing golf. A widower, Dougherty married a 33-year-old divorcee Gwendoline Gertrude Church (d.1956), née Farrow, at the Presbyterian Church, Kogarah, on 25 July 1951; they were to have one son. On 14 November 1959 at the Presbyterian manse, Randwick, he married another divorcee, 39-year-old Elaine Mary Reynolds, née Daley. Survived by his wife and their daughter, and by the children of his previous marriages, he died of coronary thrombosis on 14 October 1972 at his Laurieton home and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • S. Short, Laurie Short (Syd, 1992)
  • D. Connell, The Confessions of Clyde Cameron 1913-1990 (Syd, 1990)
  • R. Murray, The Split (Melb, 1972)
  • People (Sydney), 28 Feb 1951, p 48
  • Bulletin, 24 Mar 1962
  • Australian, 16, 20 Oct 1967
  • Sun-Herald (Sydney), 15 Oct 1972
  • M. Dodkin, Charlie Oliver—A Political Biography (M.A. thesis, University of Sydney, 1990)
  • K. I. Turner, The New South Wales Legislative Council: An Evaluation with Special Reference to the 1961 Attempt at its Abolition (M.Ec. thesis, University of Sydney, 1965)
  • AWU records (Australian National University Archives)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Greg Patmore, 'Dougherty, Tom Nicholson (1902–1972)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 21 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (Melbourne University Press), 1996

View the front pages for Volume 14

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