Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Albert Ernest Monk (1900–1975)

by Peter Love

This article was published:

Albert Ernest Monk (1900-1975), trade union leader, was born on 16 September 1900 at Waltham Abbey, Essex, England, son of Ernest George Monk, munitions worker, and his wife Ada Kate, née Dennis. About 1910 the family emigrated to Melbourne where Ernest helped to establish the Commonwealth Government Cordite Factory at Maribyrnong. Albert was subjected to 'anti-Pommy' bullying at Moonee Ponds West State School. He later recalled, 'I think that what happened to me in the sixth grade helped to start me on my rebellious career'. After leaving school, he attended a business college. By the age of 18 he had become an accomplished shorthand writer, a skill which was to serve him well in his subsequent career.

At 19 Monk took a clerk's position with the Carters' and Drivers' Union. He joined the Australian Labor Party and was soon appointed secretary to the Conference of Federated Unions. In 1924 he was employed on the staff of the Melbourne Trades Hall Council. His shorthand earned him the job of minute secretary at the 1927 All-Australian Trade Union Congress which established the Australasian (Australian) Council of Trade Unions. He was promoted assistant-secretary of the T.H.C. in 1929. The political and industrial turmoil at the onset of the Depression pushed him into increasingly prominent roles. Spurred by the growing influence of the communist-led Unemployed Workers' Movement, the T.H.C. executive established the Central Unemployment Committee in 1930, with Monk as secretary. Tensions between the rival organizations often erupted into violence. On one occasion, in the Trades Hall courtyard, Monk was bashed to the ground and kicked.

Like other union leaders in the Depression, he found himself in the uncomfortable position of representing the rank and file in dealings with the ineffectual Labor governments of Premier E. J. Hogan and Prime Minister James Scullin. Monk's proposals for public works were approved by A.L.P. conferences, but little heeded by Labor governments. His appointment in 1931 to Victoria's Unemployment Relief Works Board increased his involvement in the conflict between the labour movement and its politicians. He supported union objections to the pay and conditions associated with relief work, especially the 'work for sustenance' scheme. But, when militant members of the C.U.C. demanded that State Labor parliamentarians who breached party policy on these issues should lose their endorsements, he sought a more conciliatory approach. In 1934 he became chairman of the Victorian State Relief Committee, a post he was to hold until 1944, and again in 1954-75. He emerged from the Depression with an enduring anxiety about mass unemployment, tempered by a preference for compromise rather than confrontation in working to prevent it.

Following the death of W. J. Duggan in 1934, Monk took over as T.H.C. secretary and part-time president of the A.C.T.U. Combined with his various positions in the Federated Clerks' Union of Australia, these offices brought him a heavy workload. At this time the labour movement was divided and demoralized. In his quiet, practical and methodical way, he worked to consolidate the organization of which he was titular head. His expanding range of responsibilities left him little time for private life, apart from a day at the races and an occasional drink. In 1938 he relinquished the T.H.C. secretaryship after being appointed union representative on the Victorian Workers' Compensation Board. He joined the Federal Labor Advisory Committee, through which representatives of the A.L.P. federal executive, the federal parliamentary party and the A.C.T.U. conferred on industrial matters. By the outbreak of World War II, he proudly wore the 'triple crown' as president of the A.C.T.U., the T.H.C. and the Victorian branch of the A.L.P.

Monk attended the 1941 International Labour Conference in New York and was a party to its resolutions. His views on the need for co-operation between nations to secure full employment and better living standards were consistent with the objectives of the International Labour Organization. He also endorsed the I.L.O.'s policy of encouraging collaboration between unions, employers and governments in the development of policies affecting workers. In 1945 he represented Australia at conferences of the I.L.O. and the World Federation of Trade Unions, held in Paris. For most of his postwar career he served as a member of the governing body of the I.L.O. and of the executive-board of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions. He made more than sixty trips abroad. In 1969, at Geneva, he was elected vice-president of the fiftieth anniversary session of the I.L.C.

In 1943 Monk had given up the presidency of the A.C.T.U. and his place on the Victorian Workers' Compensation Board, and had taken the new, full-time, paid post of A.C.T.U. secretary. On 6 October that year at the office of the government statist, Melbourne, he married Frances (Frankie) Mary Fealy, a 33-year-old munitions worker; they were to remain childless.

As A.C.T.U. secretary, Monk had to tread warily in negotiations with factions in the union movement, and with the Federal Labor governments of John Curtin and J. B. Chifley. In general, however, he and the A.C.T.U. executive tended to favour pragmatic reform by cautious negotiation rather than radical change by militant tactics. Hostilities between Curtin's government and the Miners' Federation escalated at the end of 1944. The A.C.T.U.—through Monk—declared that it would act as an intermediary in the dispute, but soon backed the government. It was clear to the miners' leaders that Monk placed the Labor government's continuance in office above their union's demands. The A.C.T.U.'s subsequent decision to support Chifley in the 1949 coal strike was typical of its responses to activism by its militant left-wing affiliates.

Nevertheless, there were occasions—such as the fight with the Chifley government in 1946-47 over its wage-pegging regulations—when Monk and the A.C.T.U. executive appeared to back their industrial constituency against their political allies. Many of Monk's views were expressed in the declaration of the 1947 national tripartite conference on industrial peace, signed by Chifley, Monk and an employers' representative: it endorsed free enterprise, advocated greater production and rejected 'unauthorised' strikes.

In 1941-49 Monk's statements and actions showed him to be a committed supporter of the A.L.P.'s broad Keynesian approach as expressed in its white paper on full employment in Australia. The pursuit of full employment in a mixed capitalist economy, with systematic government intervention along broadly social democratic lines, was congenial to his personal inclinations and consistent with I.L.O. resolutions. Within that framework, he believed that sustained economic growth was the best guarantee of jobs for all. Accordingly, it was not surprising that, despite misgivings in the union movement, he resolutely defended the Chifley government's postwar immigration programme which aimed to expand the size of the workforce and so stimulate economic growth. From the late 1940s he was an active member of the Immigration Advisory Council and the Immigration Planning Council (chairman from 1973).

When the A.C.T.U. presidency became a full-time post in 1949, Monk replaced P. J. Clarey in the position and R. R. Broadby assumed the secretaryship. (Sir) Robert Menzies was elected prime minister that year. Monk faced the challenge of establishing a working relationship with the new conservative government during a rapidly intensifying Cold War. Despite his personal views on communism, he opposed the government's plan in 1950 to ban the Communist Party of Australia. None the less, on traditional matters of wages and conditions an accommodation was finally reached. Having gained a 40-hour week in 1947, the A.C.T.U. concentrated on wages. The 1950 basic-wage case linked minimum earnings to the capacity of the economy to pay. Monk responded by pressing the government to reintroduce price controls, and by urging joint action by government, employers and unions to increase production.

Over time he developed a relatively cosy, interdependent relationship with Harold Holt, the minister for labour and national service, and with (Sir) Henry Bland, Holt's departmental secretary. The A.C.T.U.'s official historian has suggested that, when the department recognized the A.C.T.U. as the sole voice of the union movement and the A.C.T.U. spoke only with the department, the arrangement served to bolster each party within its respective constituency. The A.C.T.U. was able to obtain easy, if informal, access to departmental research, which it could not conduct with its own resources.

The co-operative approach of the government and the A.C.T.U. found organizational form in the Ministry of Labour Advisory Council. Established in 1952 to provide advice to the government, the council included representatives of the government, the A.C.T.U. and the employers. The A.C.T.U. grew concerned that its participation involved a conflict of interest since some members of the A.C.T.U. executive were A.L.P. office-holders. Despite Monk's opposition, the A.C.T.U. decided to withdraw from the M.L.A.C. in 1958. This action simply forced Monk, Holt and Bland into closer consultation. Leslie Bury, a later minister, was to revive formal, tripartite discussions by setting up the National Labour Advisory Committee in 1967. Monk was appointed C.M.G. in 1966. Bland acknowledged in 1975 that he and Monk had been 'partners for 25 years in seeking solutions to industrial relations problems'.

Monk's uneasy dealings with the A.C.T.U.'s more radical left-wing elements continued. Jim Healy's accusation that the A.C.T.U. executive had betrayed the Waterside Workers' Federation of Australia in the 1956 strike was a case in point. When the metalworkers, seamen, miners and waterside workers challenged the A.C.T.U. executive's authority in 1957, the matter was resolved through changes to the A.C.T.U.'s constitution. Despite pressure from the militants in 1962 and 1964, Monk hesitated to confront the penal powers in the Commonwealth's Conciliation and Arbitration Act. In 1965 he refused A.C.T.U. support for proposed stoppages by seamen and waterside workers in protest against the Vietnam War. He took a similar position on conscription.

Although Monk often opposed political action by left-wing unions, he did not ignore their industrial interests. Between November 1965 and April 1967, in the face of a threat by the Federal government to reform the stevedoring industry, he and Harold Souter, the A.C.T.U. secretary, helped W.W.F. representatives to win permanent employment for their members without loss of pay.

Not all of Monk's trade-union difficulties came from left-wing affiliates. During the late 1940s and 1950s he had to deal with some disruptive tactics from 'grouper' unions. Among his most persistent critics on the right were officials of the Australian Workers' Union, especially its general secretary Tom Dougherty who had refused to join the A.C.T.U. and denounced it as a hotbed of communism. Irritated by Dougherty's truculence, Monk observed that the A.W.U.'s admission to the Federal Labor Advisory Committee in 1951 put 'a premium on trade union isolationism'. After increasing co-operation from the A.W.U. in industrial campaigns, and extensive negotiations by the A.C.T.U.'s industrial advocate R. J. L. Hawke, Monk finally welcomed the A.W.U. into the fold in 1967. In the early 1960s Monk had prevented a split in the A.C.T.U. when some right-wing unionists objected to funding trade-union trips to the People's Republic of China.

With about 1.5 million members, the A.C.T.U. was by 1968 the undisputed peak council of the trade union movement. Monk retired on 31 December 1969 due to poor health. He had represented Australian workers at home and abroad, presided over the boisterous growth of the A.C.T.U. and guided it through numerous crises in a quiet, self-effacing, but resolutely determined way. He did not have the charisma of his successor, Bob Hawke. Monk was a reserved, rotund, bespectacled man and an unimpressive public speaker who preferred patient, behind-the-scenes negotiation to declamatory confrontation.

In retirement Monk lived quietly at Moonee Ponds, maintaining contact with old friends and working for some of his 'good causes'. In 1970 Monash University conferred on him an honorary LL.D. Survived by his wife, he died on 11 February 1975 at Fitzroy and was cremated. Hawke delivered the eulogy at his funeral.

Select Bibliography

  • L. F. Crisp, The Australian Federal Labour Party 1901-1951 (Lond, 1955)
  • L. J. Louis, Trade Unions and the Depression (Canb, 1968)
  • R. J. Hawke, In Memoriam, Albert Monk (eulogy, 13 Feb 1975)
  • R. M. Martin, Trade Unions in Australia (Melb, 1975)
  • J. Hagan, The History of the A.C.T.U. (Melb, 1981)
  • T. Sheridan, Division of Labour (Melb, 1989)
  • R. J. Hawke, The Hawke Memoirs (Melb, 1994)
  • M. Beasley, Wharfies (Syd, 1996)
  • M. Hearn and H. Knowles, One Big Union (Cambridge, 1996)
  • Age (Melbourne), 29 Aug 1964, 12 Feb 1975
  • Australian, 12 Feb 1975
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 12 Feb 1975
  • Sun News-Pictorial (Melbourne), 12 Feb 1975.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Peter Love, 'Monk, Albert Ernest (1900–1975)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 21 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (Melbourne University Press), 2000

View the front pages for Volume 15

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


16 September, 1900
Waltham Abbey, Essex, England


11 February, 1975 (aged 74)
Fitzroy, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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