Book Review — Union Jack: a ripping yarn about guts and principles

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Union Jack, by Dale Lorna Jacobsen, Copyright Publishing, 2011, 214 pages. ISBN 978-1876344801

The disgraceful behaviour of certain senior officials of the Health Services Union, past and present, is a blot on the good name of unionism in this country. It doesn’t really matter who in particular misused or stole half a million dollars of members’ money. The whole lot of them, to a person, had a culture of privilege, which had them voting themselves huge salaries, generous perks and “no questions asked” credit cards. And it’s not just that union. With a few honourable exceptions, the leadership of the movement is packed with pompous, self-promoting windbags, careerist lawyers, incompetent functionaries and political factionalists.

But it wasn’t always that way. As the reader will discover in this dramatised account of the life and times of an Australian Railways Union (ARU) organiser in the first half of last century, political intrigue and the union movement have gone hand in hand since the beginning. However, in the early days of unionism, commitment to the hard job of organising and democracy was what earned respect from ordinary workers.

Can you imagine a union organiser in the 21st century, after a hard-fought split in the union, walking 300 kilometres along country branch lines to talk to every rail worker there and reorganise them? In 1927 Jack O’Leary, South-east Queensland ARU organiser, did just that.

Union Jack is his story.

The book is not a biography, but a dramatised history, written by Jack’s granddaughter. It is based on historical documents, such as union records and newspaper clippings. Dale has taken these sketchy accounts and transformed them into a complete portrait of a principled man situated in the political landscape of his time. And there’s another rich portrait — that of his wife, Mary, who, supported his unionism and acted as the rock upon which his family and his career was built.

The book opens with Jack and Mary arriving at a navvy camp on the Gympie to Brooloo branch line in September of 1912. Their first “marital home” was a tent less than 3.5 square metres. Life building a railway was tough, and not only for the navvies. The women toiled hard in appalling conditions in that forest camp to provide some kind of normal life for themselves and their children. Mary was made of stern stuff and was always the practical member of the partnership. When she was four- and-a-half months pregnant with their first child, Mary, with Jack reluctantly in tow, turned the key to a rental house in Ipswich. But while they would never again live in a navvy camp, it would be ten years before Brisbane became their permanent home.

In the meantime, Jack enlisted, over Mary’s objections, and ended up in the trenches in France. He was wounded and sent to England. There he was assigned to make shoes for the troops on the front line until bored, he absconded, travelled to Ireland, joined the British Navy and was shipwrecked in the English Channel. Turning up at Mary’s sisters’ house, he worked in a munitions factory until, after a tip off from Mary, now destitute after the military cut of the allowance for her missing husband. The court martial judge was lenient — after all, he went AWOL not to avoid fighting, but to return to it.

Back in Queensland, Jack resumed his railway career, moving from town to town until the final move to the Woolloongabba railway yards, where his last full-time railway job was as a carriage builder. Then came the split, which saw him working full-time as an organiser.

Jack joined the Warwick branch of the Australian Labor Party (ALP). This led to a long series of political intrigues involving some very famous Australian “identities,” including three Queensland Premiers and the notorious Melbourne “businessman” and ALP number cruncher, John Wren.

Jack’s principles, and that of his union, put him on the wrong side of these corrupt political heavyweights. Jack’s lungs, weakened by his near-drowning and wracked by tuberculosis, put an end to his working life in 1931, although he remained politically active until his death in 1936. I won’t spoil the story by revealing the manner of his death. However Jack’s end was linked intimately with his commitment to unionism and to his political principles.

John Laurence O’Leary was a giant of the Queensland union movement, although he would have hated that description. The story of political infighting that enveloped, but did not ensnare him, is a great tale that has echoes down to the present time — and not only in Queensland. But the core story is of an ordinary worker who took a stand in the fight against oppression as soon as oppression confronted him, and never wavered from that.

The union movement could do with a lot more Jack O’Learys today and a lot fewer of the types who are more comfortable brokering a compromise than rallying a fightback. Union Jack,/i> is a must-read for everyone who wants to rebuild a fighting union movement, like Jack did, all those years ago.

Union Jack is available for $30 from the Solidarity Salon bookstore, 580 Sydney Road Brunswick. Solidarity Salon is open Wednesday and Friday from noon – 5 pm, Saturday 10 am – 5 pm or by appointment. Call 03-9388-0062.

Peter is the former section of the guard’s section of the ARU in Victoria who led two major strikes in the 1980s. Contact him at

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