Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Harold Peden (1920–1993)

by Lenore Layman

This article was published:

Harold Peden (1920-1993), trade unionist, was born on 11 March 1920 in Perth, eldest of three sons of English-born parents Charles Harold Peden, watchman and cleaner, and his wife Dorothy, née Durden. Harold left school at fourteen and worked as a messenger boy at a department store. His father’s death in 1939 brought him added responsibility as the family’s principal wage-earner. With the outbreak of World War II he found a welding job, enabling him to gain his tradesman’s rights certificate as a welder in the boilermaking trade. He became a provisional member of the Boilermakers’ Society of Australia, and a full member in 1958, after gaining his A Certificate in welding.

Radicalised by the Depression, Peden had joined the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) in 1941. On 3 October 1942 at St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, Perth, he married Jessie Garden, a shop assistant. Between 1940 and 1968 he worked as a welder, a reserved occupation during the war, and served (1952–68) as a shop steward for the union at engineering and metal fabricating shops and on construction sites around Perth and the Kwinana industrial area. Told that he was ‘as Red as Red can be’ (Layman 2014, 9), employers sometimes sacked him when the opportunity arose. In those years he developed industrial deafness.

Peden began full-time union work in 1968 with the boilermakers union, known since 1965 as the Boilermakers’ and Blacksmiths’ Society of Australia. He was elected BBS organiser in 1970, and continued in the role (1973–78) after the union became part of the Amalgamated Metal Workers’ Union (AMWU). In August 1972 he helped coordinate direct action (including a ‘flying squad’ of pickets) to successfully resist an attempt by employers to cut over-award payments. A fiercely fought campaign for shorter working hours targeted Alcoa’s Pinjarra Alumina Refinery operations and in 1975 resulted in a 36-hour week for metalworkers at the site. He was prominent in the campaign to extend this victory by embedding a 38-hour week in the metal trades award. He was elected State president of the AMWU in 1978 and, until his retirement in July 1985, he led the Western Australian component of the union’s nationwide struggle to halt the decline of Australian manufacturing.

Failures in occupational health and safety were among the problems Peden tackled as a union official. The Occupational Health and Safety Act 1984 came about partly because of his tireless advocacy and lobbying of the State government. Championing workers’ education and active in shop stewards’ training, he set up an education program with a dedicated officer within the AMWU, and assisted the work of the Trade Union Training Authority after it was established in 1975.

As a committed member of the CPA until 1984, Peden continued to believe that unions should extend their activities beyond wages and working conditions into politics. Although he was aware of opposition from some members who did not see such protests as union business, he strongly supported Aboriginal rights, and threw the AMWU’s weight behind the protest against oil drilling on Noonkanbah station in 1980. He opposed race and sex discrimination, and supported equal pay. A peace campaigner, he helped lead the mass action against the Vietnam War, organising the earliest of Perth’s moratorium marches. In 1975 he helped establish the Friends of East Timor (Western Australia) and in the 1980s was central to union participation in the People for Nuclear Disarmament protests.

A delegate to the Trades & Labor Council of Western Australia (the peak body of State unions) since its establishment in 1963, Peden had been a member of its disputes committee, and was elected to executive positions (1978–85), including junior and later senior vice president; he was made a life member in 1985. In 1990 he was awarded an OAM. With his extensive shop floor knowledge and understanding of workers’ concerns, Peden was highly respected by the rank and file, and admired for his honesty, integrity, and wisdom. ‘What’s the workers’ view?’ (Layman 2014, 11) was his consistent inquiry to shop stewards. Dedicated to his family, he also loved sailing and fishing and each year spent his annual holidays at Garden Island. He died in a boating accident off Rottnest Island on 28 January 1993, and was survived by his wife, a daughter, and a son; he was cremated. An annual lecture commemorates his contribution to the Western Australian labour movement.

Research edited by Malcolm Allbrook

Select Bibliography

  • Brown, Neil. Personal communication
  • Clarke, Arthur. ‘Harold Peden Lecture.’ Unpublished Manuscript. 18 October 2001. Copy held on ADB file
  • Gandini J. R. ‘Eulogy for Harold Peden.’ Unpublished Manuscript. 4 February 1993. Copy held on ADB file
  • Layman, Lenore. ‘“What’s the Workers’ View?” Harold Peden (1920–1993).’ Western Worker: Journal of the Perth Branch of the Australian Society for the Study of Labour History, no. 3 (October 2014): 5–19
  • Mathers, Jan. Personal communication
  • Peckham, Keith. Personal communication
  • Peden, Harold. Interview by Stuart Reid, 3 August, 14 September 1988, 21 January 1989. TLC(WA) oral history project, State Library of Western Australia
  • Peden, Harold. Interview by Judyth Watson, 1979. State Library of Western Australia
  • Peden, Harold. ‘WA Strike Shatters Wage Attack: Strikers Establish … Workers’ Embassy a “Flying Squad”.’ Amalgamated News, October 1972

Additional Resources

Citation details

Lenore Layman, 'Peden, Harold (1920–1993)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2017, accessed online 24 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

View the front pages for Volume 19

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


11 March, 1920
Perth, Western Australia, Australia


28 January, 1993 (aged 72)
Western Australia, Australia

Cause of Death

boating accident

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Key Organisations
Political Activism