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James (Jim) Healy (1898–1961)

by Ray Markey and Stuart Svensen

This article was published:

James Healy (1898-1961), by unknown photographer

James Healy (1898-1961), by unknown photographer

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an24862734

James (Jim) Healy (1898-1961), trade unionist, was born on 22 March 1898 at West Gorton, Manchester, England, son of Dominic Healy, corporation labourer, and his wife Mary Ellen, née Schaill, a cotton-mill worker. Educated at the parish school of St Francis of Assisi, Gorton, Jim was influenced by his father's Irish republicanism and at age 8 began assisting electoral canvassers for the Labour Party. In 1915 he enlisted in the 8th Battalion, Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. He was wounded in action on the Western Front and discharged medically unfit in 1918.

Finding regular employment scarce in England, Healy moved to Scotland where he initially worked as a plate-layer with the tramways. At St Cuthbert's Catholic Church, Edinburgh, on 19 July 1919 he married Elizabeth McGowan, a woollen weaver. They emigrated to Queensland with their three young sons in 1925. He found jobs as a fireman and boiler-attendant at the Mackay powerhouse, and from 1927 as a labourer on the town's wharves. In 1928 he was elected to the local committee of management of the Waterside Workers' Federation of Australia and was the union's delegate to the Mackay branch of the Australian Labor Party. Next year he was appointed to the trades and labor council at Mackay and began his first term as branch president of the W.W.F.

Healy became disillusioned with the A.L.P. after witnessing the Queensland Labor government's inability to aid the plight of the unemployed in the Depression. A union-sponsored study trip to the Soviet Union in 1934 reinforced his growing belief that the communists best represented the interests of workers. He and Ben Scott wrote a pamphlet about their experiences, Red Cargo (Sydney, 1934), and Healy joined the Communist Party of Australia, remaining a staunch member for the rest of his life.

Working conditions and pay for wharf labourers were poor in the 1930s and the men were divided between two unions, the W.W.F. and the Permanent and Casual Wharf Labourers' Union of Australia. Strikes in 1917 and 1928 had weakened the W.W.F. and there was an influx of non-union labour during the Depression. Healy realized that change was necessary at a national level. He moved to Sydney about 1936 and at the union's all-ports conference in October 1937 was elected general secretary of the W.W.F. In 1939 he transferred its head office from Melbourne to Sydney. Starting with no money, little assets and few prospects, he began to turn the federation into a modern, effective union. He had obtained approval at the 1937 conference for a national policy to be adhered to by all branches and for the establishment of a national journal, the Maritime Worker, of which he became editor.

In 1937-38 Healy led public campaigns in support of the Sydney waterside workers' bans against loading scrap metal for Japan and by the Port Kembla men against loading pig-iron destined for the same country. The federation was able to strengthen its position during World War II due to the increased demand for wharf labour and the need to expedite the shipment of war materials. A member (1942-49) of the Stevedoring Industry Commission, Healy secured substantial pay rises for his unionists and the replacement of the 'bull' system (in which overseers selected workers like cattle) by rotating gangs. In return, the W.W.F. executive encouraged the men to put maximum effort into loading and unloading military supplies. Healy again demonstrated his commitment to broader political issues by leading the boycott (1945-49) on Dutch ships carrying goods which could be used to crush the Indonesian independence movement.

Healy's greatest challenge and ultimate triumph was the absorption into the W.W.F. of the rival P.C.W.L.U., a union detested by many of his comrades for having been formed by 'scabs'. This amalgamation—commenced in 1946 and completed in 1955—underlined Healy's determination and his capacity for strategic thinking. In the 1949 coalminers' strike he had been gaoled for contempt of court, after refusing to reveal the location of money withdrawn from the bank to assist the strikers. Sentenced to twelve months imprisonment, he apologized and was released after five weeks. The industrial groups within the unions attacked communist officials in the 1940s and 1950s, but Healy was able to shrug off all challenges to his position. He took an active part in the successful campaign (1950-51) against the Menzies government's attempt to ban the Communist Party.

Menzies' administration introduced the Stevedoring Industry Act (1954) which established a committee of inquiry into the industry and aimed to put an end to the W.W.F.'s monopoly on the supply of wharf labour. Supported by the Australian Council of Trade Unions, the federation struck in protest. Healy appeared before the committee of inquiry and produced evidence to show that high stevedoring charges in Australia stemmed less from excessive labour costs than from collusion between the shipping companies to keep rates as high as possible. None the less, the government pressed ahead in 1956 with new legislation aimed at weakening the federation and the improvements it had gained in working conditions and safety provisions. In 1957 he was appointed to the A.C.T.U. executive as the representative of the transport unions.

Healy died of a cerebrovascular accident on 13 July 1961 in St Vincent's Hospital, Darlinghurst, and was cremated; his wife, daughter and sons survived him. An atheist, he was given a 'comrade's farewell' in the W.W.F. Hall, Sussex Street. Hundreds of mourners filed past the open coffin and The Internationale was played. His funeral cortège stretched for nearly a mile and blocked city traffic for more than an hour.

The universal respect for 'Big Jim's' integrity and dedication was demonstrated by the tributes paid to him after his death by his political opponents and spokesmen for the employers. The Bulletin referred to him as the 'best single P.R. device the Australian Communists ever had'. As his nickname suggests, he was a large man, and he was often pictured smoking a pipe. Portraits by Newton Hedstrom and Ralph Sawyer are held at the Maritime Union of Australia's offices in Sussex Street. Healy's capacity for analytical thinking, his unflappable personality and his patient persistence were instrumental in unifying the wharf labourers' unions, and in gaining improvements in wages and conditions. He was a communist, and also a democrat. Asked when Australia would become socialist, he had replied, 'When fifty-one per cent of the people think as we do'.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Lockwood, The Story of Jim Healy (Syd, 1951)
  • T. Nelson, The Hungry Mile (Syd, 1957)
  • In Memory of Jim Healy (Syd, 1961)
  • V. Williams, The Years of Big Jim (Perth, 1975)
  • T. Bull, Politics in a Union (Syd, 1977)
  • S. Moran, Reminiscences of a Rebel (Syd, 1979)
  • A. Moore (ed), The Writings of Norman Jeffery (Campbelltown, NSW, 1989)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 14, 18 July 1961
  • Bulletin, 22 July, 12 Aug 1961
  • C. Ryan, Ships and Sickles: The Communists and Three Australian Maritime Unions 1928-45 (M.A. thesis, University of New South Wales, 1986)
  • Waterside Workers' Federation Archives (Australian National University Archives).

Citation details

Ray Markey and Stuart Svensen, 'Healy, James (Jim) (1898–1961)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 15 July 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

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

James Healy (1898-1961), by unknown photographer

James Healy (1898-1961), by unknown photographer

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an24862734

Life Summary [details]


22 March, 1898
Manchester, Greater Manchester, England


13 July, 1961 (aged 63)
Darlinghurst, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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