Jack McPhillips

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Jack McPhillips, a powerful figure in the Australian communist and trade union movements, has died aged 94. His death marks the end of an era of larger-than-life communist leaders who played a major role in the union movement in the 1940s, '50s and '60s.

McPhillips was born in Rockhampton in Queensland. The family followed his father, a railway engineer and something of a martinet, from Rockhampton to first Woodford then Roma, then relocated to NSW: to Annandale in Sydney, then to Narrandera and Harden in the country, and back to Sydney in Banksia.

He the oldest surviving child in the family, and attended state and Catholic schools, finishing with his Qualifying Certificate.

His early working life was varied. At first he was an inter-departmental messenger with the Sydney Municipal Council. Next he was an apprentice wool-classer, topping the year at East Sydney Technical College and working in a number of shearing sheds. Then he had two clerical positions: first at Dairy Farmers Co-operative, then at Colgate-Palmolive-Peet. He was an active member of his union in all these positions.

He was interested early in political activities, joining the Labor Party in 1928, becoming secretary of the Hopetoun branch. But he was particularly attracted to the many soap-box orators who spruiked on street corners. Conviction combined with the times and circumstances to push McPhillips towards a more active and radical political life. Five days before Black Friday at the outset of the Great Depression, he joined the Communist Party.

Times were hard for workers and McPhillips soon became part of their struggle. Like hundreds of thousands of other workers, he was unemployed between April 1931 and October 1939, finding work for only short periods in a range of odd jobs.

During his periods of unemployment he was active in the Unemployed Workers Movement, providing relief and sustenance to homeless and hungry people. He was a leading figure in the Militant Minority Movement, which brought together trade unionists whose activities were directed to the development of unions into militant, class-conscious organisations.

In 1940, as the national secretary of the National Australian Workers Union, he went to Darwin for 18 months. In December 1941 he returned to Sydney where he became an official of the Federated Ironworkers Association, a union covering workers in the steel and non-ferrous metal industries, and unskilled workers in metal manufacturing, ship building and steel construction. He became national secretary of the association in 1950. During this time he played a significant role in several major postwar strikes in the steel, rail and metal industries.

McPhillips was jailed for two short periods in 1949. On the first occasion, he was convicted of contempt for a speech he made to a meeting of workers criticising the legal tribunal which fixed wages. On the second, he was imprisoned for actively supporting striking coalminers.

Early in 1952, along with a number of other communists and left-wing union leaders, McPhillips was removed from his union positions by anti-communist "groupers". This was the time of the Cold War and virulent anti-communism.

After being defeated as national secretary of the Ironworkers Association, McPhillips worked as a full-time functionary of the Communist Party of Australia from 1952 to 1968, with responsibility for party work in the trade unions. He had been elected to the central committee of the party in 1945.

In mid-1960s, the party leadership adopted a Euro-communist position. McPhillips and other members fought these changes. He was removed from the central committee at the 1966 congress. McPhillips worked as secretary of the conference of communists held in December 1971 which decided to form the Socialist Party of Australia to restore a Marxist-Leninist party in Australia.

He became the new party's national organiser as well as a member of the central committee, its executive (political bureau) and its secretariat. He was chairman of the central committee from 1981 to 1984 and was elected party president in 1984.

At the party's congress in 1988 McPhillips resigned as president. However, this did not end his activities in the Socialist Party - which in 1996 reverted to the name Communist Party of Australia. (The former party had been dissolved in 1991.)

He continued for well over a decade to write party pamphlets, to contribute to the Maritime Bulletin and to advise party members and trade union activists.

McPhillips and his late wife Kathleen were married for almost 54 years. He is survived by two daughters, five grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren.

He participated in a particularly active and exciting period of trade union and working class history and remained totally dedicated to the cause which he had consistently espoused.