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Nelson, Thomas (Tom) (1908–1995)

by Ray Markey

This article was published online in 2019

Tom Nelson (1908–1995), union leader and political activist, was born Charles Andrew Smith on 29 July 1908 at Wilcannia, New South Wales, second child of New South Wales-born parents Charles Norton Smith, station manager, and his wife Elizabeth Bridget, née Dugan. Following his mother’s death when he was still young, Catholic nuns raised Charles at White Cliffs. Leaving school early, he was employed as a shearer during his teen years.

Moving to Sydney in the second half of the 1920s he began working on the waterfront, joining the Waterside Workers’ Federation (WWF) in 1927. On 23 March 1934 he married New Zealand-born Hazel Josephine Buckley at St David’s Church of England, Surry Hills. Adopting the name Thomas (Tom) Nelson, he would remain with the union for the next forty-six years, holding office as Sydney branch president (1942, 1944–45, and 1947) and branch secretary from 1948. State representative on the union’s federal committee of management (later federal council) from 1941, he was defeated for election as national general secretary by Charlie Fitzgibbon in 1961, after the death of Jim Healy.

The 1930s and 1940s were difficult times for workers and unions in Australia. The Depression led to high unemployment, declining wages and conditions, and falling union membership. Nelson’s 1957 book, The Hungry Mile, captured some of the hardships, describing how hungry and desperate waterfront workers were hired on a daily basis according to the so-called ‘bull’ system, which he compared to a slave market: the physically strongest but least militant workers—the ‘bulls’—were chosen first for shifts while the less able or more union-conscious were given the worst jobs or ignored altogether. He was frequently overlooked owing to his union activities, and was sometimes physically attacked. Little attention was paid to safety precautions, and there were often injuries. In 1940 he was sacked and fined for refusing to work longer than twenty-four hours straight.

Nelson combined the struggle for workers’ rights on the waterfront with engagement in efforts to relieve human suffering everywhere. In 1931 he joined attempts to prevent the eviction by police of tenants who were unemployed. He was involved in the pig-iron conflict of 1938 and 1939, when the WWF’s Port Kembla branch opposed Japanese military aggression by banning pig-iron shipments to Japan. Following floods in 1955, he assisted in organising teams of ‘wharfies’ to aid people in affected country towns; the WWF would go on to help fund a refuge for Aboriginal people in Dubbo after one team reported on their abysmal living conditions. An advocate of Indonesian independence after World War II, he disapproved of both the First Indochina War in the 1950s and the Vietnam War in the 1960s and 1970s, in addition to opposing South African apartheid.

In 1930 Nelson had joined the Communist Party of Australia and helped to form its waterfront branch, becoming branch leader in 1935. That decade he was involved in clashes with the New Guard. He became the subject of investigations by police and intelligence services, and one of his associates in the 1930s was subsequently revealed to have been a police agent. In 1971, after the CPA had distanced itself from the Soviet Union following the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia, he and others broke off to form the Socialist Party of Australia. However, in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse, he lamented that he and those like him had been deceived by the Soviets.

A keen rugby league fan, Nelson promoted sporting activity, including national sports carnivals, within the WWF. In 1953 he played a leading role in establishing the WWF film unit, with Keith Gow and Jock Levy; fellow wharf labourers and communists, they were also New Theatre members. They recruited Norma Disher, another New Theatre member. Workers were involved as actors in the unit’s productions, which focused on the experiences of workers and their communities, addressing subjects such as workers’ rights and industrial conflict. It went on to make films for other unions, including the Miners’ Federation, before being dissolved in 1958. He published a second book, A Century of a Union, in 1972.

On retirement in 1973 Nelson surmised that he had been involved in leading a greater number of strikes than other unionists in the country, and perhaps the world. By this time, the ‘bull’ system was long gone and the ‘Mile’ was much less hungry: the activism of his union had helped win conditions for wharfies such as paid holiday and sick leave, more permanent employment, a thirty-five-hour work week, redundancy payments, and pensions. A tough and tenacious fighter for causes he considered just, he was also a committed family man. His wife, two sons, and two daughters survived him when he died on 20 February 1995 at Arncliffe; he was cremated. Tom Nelson Hall is named in his memory.

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • Aarons, Laurie. ‘Tireless Battler for Waterfront Reform.’ Australian, 9 March 1995, 10
  • Beasley, Margot. Wharfies: A History of the Waterside Workers’ Federation of Australia. Sydney: Halstead Press in association with Australian National Maritime Museum, 1996
  • O’Brien, Geraldine. ‘When Sydney’s Wharfies Had a Starring Role.’ Sydney Morning Herald, 17 November 2003, 15
  • State Library of New South Wales. MLMSS 6138, Tom Nelson—Papers, 1928–1992, mainly concerning the Waterside Workers’ Federation of Australia
  • Wells, Fred. ‘Iron Man of the Waterfront: Union Veteran Recalls Battles of Long Ago.’ Sydney Morning Herald, 2 August 1973, 7

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Citation details

Ray Markey, 'Nelson, Thomas (Tom) (1908–1995)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/nelson-thomas-tom-21632/text31842, published online 2019, accessed online 14 November 2019.

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