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James Francis (Jim) Roulston (1922–1982)

by Samuel Furphy

This article was published:

James Roulston, by John Ellis, 1977

James Roulston, by John Ellis, 1977

University of Melbourne Archives, UMA/​I/​375

James Francis Roulston (1922-1982), trade union leader, was born on 16 August 1922 at St Kilda, Melbourne, eldest of three sons of Rupert James Roulston, labourer, and his wife Lillas Myrtle, née Hicks, both born in Victoria. His father had served during World War I (he enlisted under age using an assumed name) and returned to a life of manual labour and a struggle with his wife to raise their three boys. Roulston later recalled that ‘the poverty and the injustice in the distribution of wealth pointed me forward’. Educated at South Melbourne Technical School, Jim commenced a boilermaker’s apprenticeship at Australian Iron and Steel Ltd at age 14. On 23 November 1940 at St Matthew’s Church of England, Prahran, he married Beryl Edith Martin, a dressmaker.

In 1941 Roulston joined the Boilermakers’ Society of Australia. By the age of 28 he was a shop steward at the Spencer Street power station, where he was exposed to asbestos fibres contained in welding equipment. He became a full-time union official in 1953 and by 1966 was State secretary of the Boilermakers’ and Blacksmiths’ Society of Australia. In 1973 the BBSA joined the Amalgamated Metal Workers’ Union (from 1976 the Amalgamated Metal Workers’ and Shipwrights’ Union); Roulston was elected Victorian president and played a key role in Australia’s biggest trade union until his death. He was twice elected junior vice-president (1975-77, 1979-81) of the Australian Council of Trade Unions and was president (1978-80) of the Victorian Trades Hall Council.

Representing left-wing interests in the union movement, Roulston campaigned for better pay and conditions, notably during industrial struggles in 1974 and 1979. He was particularly proud of his union’s achievements in workers’ compensation and workplace safety. Beyond industry policy, he supported the peace movement and anti-conscription campaigns, also championing environmental issues. He was active in a union campaign against a Port Phillip gas pipeline in 1971 and actively opposed uranium mining in the Northern Territory.

Roulston had joined the Communist Party of Australia during World War II but resigned in 1963. He joined the Australian Labor Party in 1967, emerging as a major figure in the socialist left faction. After filling various senior roles in the Victorian branch, he was junior vice-president (1979-81) of the federal ALP. In 1979 he campaigned unsuccessfully behind the scenes to frustrate the parliamentary aspirations of R. J. L. Hawke, the ACTU president.

A popular and likeable man, who could sustain friendly relationships across factions, Roulston was known for his sense of humour. After polling better than Hawke in elections for the ALP national executive in 1979, he joked ‘I have been scotching the rumours that I am going to stand for Wills all day’. Despite several offers, he never sought a seat in the Victorian or Federal parliament. Survived by his wife and their son and daughter, Roulston died of mesothelioma on 7 March 1982 at Noble Park, Melbourne, and was cremated. In a tribute, the Victorian ALP secretary, Bob Hogg, described him as ‘one of the rare people who never got involved with the personality side of politics’.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Hurst, Hawke (1979)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 17 July 1963, p 7
  • National Times, 16 June 1979, p 19, 17-23 Feb 1980, p 9
  • Age (Melbourne), 20 June 1979, p 14, 8 Mar 1982, p 3
  • Metal Worker (Surry Hills, NSW), vol 3, no 3, Apr 1982, p 8
  • Socialist Objective (Coburg, Vic), vol 2, no 1, 1982, p 2.

Citation details

Samuel Furphy, 'Roulston, James Francis (Jim) (1922–1982)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 16 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (Melbourne University Press), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

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