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Rees David (Barney) Williams (1910–1979)

by Kate White

This article was published:

Rees David (Barney) Williams (1910-1979), bank clerk and trade unionist, was born on 15 June 1910 at Moonee Ponds, Melbourne, third child of Victorian-born parents David Williams, teacher, and his wife Martha Amy Olivia, née Etheridge. 'Barney' attended state schools at Ascot Vale and Essendon before proceeding to Scotch College. He joined the Moonee Ponds branch of the State Savings Bank of Victoria in 1925, transferred to head office six months later, studied part time at the University of Melbourne and obtained a diploma of commerce (1948). At St James's Catholic Church, Elsternwick, on 11 December 1940 he married Ellenor Sheila O'Brien, a clerk, with whom he moved to Sandringham. Sheila's brother-in-law was Francis Field, an Australian Labor Party member (from 1937) of the Legislative Assembly. Influenced by Field and the O'Brien family, Williams had joined the A.L.P. shortly before his marriage. In 1941 he was elected secretary of its Sandringham branch.

On 23 February 1942 Williams enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force. He performed pay and accounts duties in Victoria, rose to staff sergeant and was discharged from the army on 21 November 1945. After returning to his job with the bank, he invested in a biscuit-factory which he managed in his spare time with his brother-in-law John O'Brien. They lost about £4000 in the venture. On 25 February 1947 the Cain government, in which Field was deputy-premier, appointed Williams a commissioner of the State Savings Bank; his seven-year term was subsequently renewed. The Opposition, the press and Williams's former workmates regarded the appointment as nepotism. Williams supplemented his commissioner's stipend of £500 per annum by practising privately as an accountant.

When the government was defeated in November 1947, Williams sought a paid trade-union position. By April 1950 he had won a campaign to become secretary of both the State and federal branches of the Australian Bank Officials' Association (Australian Bank Employees Union from 1978). He held these posts until 1973, played a critical role in fostering increased militancy and led the A.B.O.A. in its first industrial action (1968). During this period organizations that represented white-collar workers ceased to be 'gentlemen's clubs' and became trade unions. As federal secretary (from 1956) of the Australian Council of Salaried and Professional Associations, Williams dreamed of uniting its constituent bodies and 'delivering them in a wheelbarrow' to the Australian Council of Trade Unions.

Williams had been converted to Catholicism in 1949. Within the A.L.P. he was regarded as a 'numbers man' and a moderate. In the years that preceded the party's split in the mid-1950s, he paid a heavy personal price for his commitment to mainstream Labor: supporters of both the right and left wings often vilified him, as did members of the Catholic community. From 1965 he led a largely right-wing group, the Participants, who sought to make the party more attractive to a broader section of the electorate. He established an influential network of friends, among them John Button, R. J. L. Hawke and Gough Whitlam, and tried to build bridges between the A.L.P. and white-collar unions.

In March 1973 the Whitlam government appointed Williams a director of the Commonwealth Banking Corporation. He resigned in November to become (from 3 December) a deputy-president of the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Commission. Unhappy on the bench, he stepped down in January 1975 and returned to the board of the Commonwealth Bank. Although he was a public figure, he kept his personal life private. Loyal to his friends, he could be fierce towards his opponents. He was unwavering in his commitment to radicalizing the white-collar unions and to reforming the A.L.P. in order to make it a party of government. Hawke described him as 'the most selfless man I ever met in the trade union movement and the A.L.P.'. Williams suffered from hypertension. Survived by his wife, and their daughter and two sons, he died of a coronary occlusion on 28 July 1979 at Sandringham and was buried in New Cheltenham cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • K. White, Barney, the Story of Rees D. Williams, Architect of the White-Collar Union Movement (Melb, 1989), and for bibliography.

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Citation details

Kate White, 'Williams, Rees David (Barney) (1910–1979)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 12 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (Melbourne University Press), 2002

View the front pages for Volume 16

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


15 June, 1910
Moonee Ponds, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia


28 July, 1979 (aged 69)
Sandringham, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.