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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

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Baker, John Simms (Jack) (1908–2001)

by Daniel Brezniak

For those who worked and laughed with John Baker, who has died in Sydney aged 92, there is new meaning in the words: "There never was a merry world since the fairies left off dancing and the parson left conjuring.'' The 17th-century English thinker John Selden must have had Baker's departure in mind.

Baker was a trade union leader, Aboriginal rights activist, socialist, raconteur and folk music promoter, among many other things.

But it was as leader of a small but influential trade union, the Union of Postal Clerks and Telegraphists, that John Sims Baker left his most enduring legacy.

White-collar workers were not always thought of as union members. If there was any one person who might be given special credit for bringing them into the mainstream of the trade union movement, it was Baker.

As publicity officer for the Australian Council of Salaried and Professional Associations, he took the lead in industrial campaigns for leave and margins in the early 1960s. Folk singers recorded tunes like Oh Pay Me, Pay Me, My Margin's Down and The Basic Wage Dream.

The use of folk music and marches gave this silent workforce a sense of participation for the first time. Memorable in those days were overflowing gatherings in Sydney and Melbourne town halls during the Four Capitals Folk Song Tour for Trade Union Week.

Baker leapt to wider attention in the trade union movement in 1947 as the honorary general secretary of the clerks and telegraphists.

This union, formed in 1885, is known to have been the very first white-collar union in the then British Empire. Its members were the most highly trained people in the Australian postal system the morse-code operators and the postmasters.

After Baker became its full-time general secretary in 1967 (he is pictured then with Gough Whitlam), the union experienced exciting, turbulent times.

Baker and his senior colleagues first moved the union's executive base from Melbourne to Sydney, to avoid rubbing shoulders with the central management of the Postmaster-General's Department.

Then they set about winning a 363/4-hour week, with Saturday as overtime.

In the inevitable confrontations, Baker exploited his commanding presence; his deliberate delivery and metalliferous voice seemed, in his television appearances, to cut to the heart of his adversary's argument.

During 1967, Baker saw his union in almost open conflict with the ACTU over industrial fines imposed on all his members. The ACTU, with Albert Monk as its president, wanted to take control of the dispute and settle it as quickly as possible.

A meeting was arranged with the then prime minister, Harold Holt, but Baker and his colleague, Lou Benaud, were quick to reject it. The union won its fight.

It was widely remarked that a small union of telegraph and postal office staffs had not only defeated the largest fine imposed on a group of unionists but had done so in head-to-head confrontation with the Federal Government and the ACTU.

During his long retirement, Baker recorded the history of his union and of those industrial struggles in the book The Communicators (UPCT, 1980).

Particularly fascinating for students of that period of Australian industrial history are the chapters whose titles speak of the vigour and the breadth of their story: The Long Strikes, Bureaucracies Are Never Beaten, White Collar Strategies and Politics And Automation.

Baker was also a veteran of the struggle for land and voting rights for Aborigines. He'd seen the privations of daily life for many Aboriginal communities.

Taking the young sons of a close friend with him, Baker once towed a caravan to an outback town, visited a group of tribal elders and learned that the settlement's water supply ran dry every time the local bowling club turned on the sprinklers to water the greens.

He also discovered, and later reported upon, a storekeeper's practice of appropriating Aborigines' pension cheques before the payments were delivered to their recipients.

Before the 1967 referendum, in which Aboriginal Australians were given constitutional recognition, Baker was the union representative on the main organising body, the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders.

Baker got together with the musician Gary Shearston to come up with We Are Going, which became the anthem of the "Yes'' case in the referendum campaign.

Baker wrote many plays, some of which were performed. These included Billy and the Anarchists, Wild Colonial Kelly, Second Fire and Plague Island.

None were published but Plague Island would be the first choice. It explores the political and emotional collisions on an island, not far from the central Queensland coast, where prisoners are subjected to brutal wartime experiments.

Baker thought extensively on automation in industry and information and the workplace. He wrote at length on the political and industrial meaning of the related radical changes to work habits.

He saw little to allay his increasing concern at the inevitable growth of databanks of personal information and the consequences of private enterprise and governmental control through electronic communication.

He was likewise alarmed at the access which the intelligence community in Australia enjoyed to participants in proper and lawful industrial activity, pointing to surveillance of which the public was not yet widely aware.

Baker was one of five children born to a carriage decorator in Quorn, South Australia. He was 14 when he fulfilled his parents' wish that he have a secure job, by joining the PMG's Department as a trainee telegraphist.

Almost immediately the PMG posted him to remote parts of northern South Australia, where he learnt morse code at his work in a telegraph station.

The passage of the years saw four regrets, the first being the deaths of old colleagues and workmates.

The second was the failure of self-management in Yugoslavia; Baker believed in it, and acclaimed it, only to see the country descend into barbarity.

The third was inevitable weakening of his power, professionally and personally; he was a thinker (many thought him a dreamer), a restless, good-humoured man.

Most of all he regretted the leaving of his wife, Joyce, who survives him. After retirement in 1973, the couple travelled far and wide, living for a time in Yugoslavia, USA, Mexico and Paris.

They were a partnership to which he gave heartfelt credit and one which friends found magnetic. They had no children.

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Citation details

Daniel Brezniak, 'Baker, John Simms (Jack) (1908–2001)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/baker-john-simms-jack-32514/text40355, accessed 11 August 2022.

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