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

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

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Thomas Robert (Tommy) Clarke (1883–1941)

by H. Aanensen

The death of "Tommy" Clarke, aged 59 years, formerly Vigilant Officer of the now defunct Port Phillip Branch, removes a well-known fighter for progressive trades unionism from the ranks of our Waterside Workers' Federation.

At a very early age he was a very active unionist on the Melbourne waterfront, and showed tremendous initiative, courage and ability in all efforts to secure the betterment of working conditions for the Port Phillip Branch members.

Possessing an articulate knowledge of Arbitration, and the award governing waterside workers prior to the 1928 strike, "Tommy" Clarke carried out his duties as Vigilant Officer in a determined and forceful manner that earned him the confidence and respect of his fellow members, and also made him a formidable opponent of the stevedoring firms in the port of Melbourne in all job disputes.

Prior to the 1917 strike the Port Phillip Branch members worked on board deep sea vessels, whilst members of the Melbourne Wharf Laborers' Union worked ashore at these vessels. One of the settlement terms of the 1917 strike on the Melbourne waterfront was that the Port Phillip Branch members supply the whole of the labor (aboard and ashore) at the expense of the Melbourne Wharf Laborers' Union. "Tommy" Clarke led the dissenting minority of 72 members (including my father and brother) who definitely opposed anything tantamount to scabbing on the Melbourne Wharf Laborers' Union.

It was just after the 1917 strike that "Tommy" Clarke's prestige as a fighter was recognised, when he successfully argued and claimed travelling time for members engaged at Williamstown Club premises to work at the Port Melbourne piers or Victoria Docks. It is estimated that the Victorian Stevedoring Co. were compelled to pay within the vicinity of £1000 "back-time" travelling.

One is recalled to the organising and leading of the "lazy strike" in 1920 in order to enforce the Victorian Stevedoring Co. to make payment of the retrospective increase in the hourly rate granted under the terms of the "Powers Interim Award." Again, in 1926, "Tommy" Clarke unsuccessfully urged the Port Phillip Branch members to give effect to the triennial conference decision: "a no overtime strike" until the 1917 scabs were removed from the Sydney waterfront.

Again, in 1926, "Tommy" Clarke carried out the mandate of the members to reject the "pernicious and vicious" Beeby Award, and urged the declaration of the vessels that the Freemantle Lumpers' Union and the Port Adelaide Branch had refused to work "black."

The Port Phillip Branch went down fighting, and in consequence "Tommy" Clarke and hundreds of members were driven off the Melbourne waterfront, never again to return.

The enmity of the Victorian Stevedoring Co. to former members of the Port Phillip Branch was extremely marked during the "post-strike" years. It is alleged that the arrogant managing director of the firm (Mr. "Robbie" Anderson) often taunted Federation members by stating: "You can tell "Tommy" Clarke that peace is restored on the Melbourne waterfront at last." This bitter jibe unconsciously paid tribute to the years that "Tommy" Clarke defended the members on the job against a "union-hating, condition-wrecking" stevedoring firm.

Many "young natives" (including myself), as we were then termed when we joined the union, walked into "ready-made" working conditions, and we all did our best to live up to and uphold the traditions and conditions, with the support and aid of our vigilant officers ("Tommy" Clarke and "Bonner" Johnson). Now that we are in our matured years of unionism, it is necessary to reflect back on those years of "strong unionism" and ask ourselves: "What has become of the inspiration "Tommy" Clarke gave us?"

I feel sure that within the many branches of the Federation, those officials and rank and file members who made contact with "Tommy" Clarke, will pause and pay tribute to a gallant fighter within our Federation ranks.

As an admirer and supporter of "Tommy" Clarke for the industrial protection he gave the Port Phillip Branch members, I shall strive to carry on the work of progressive unionism on the Melbourne waterfront within the structure of our Waterside Workers' Federation, with the zeal, courage and energy of our late vigilant officer.

Our best tribute to the memory of 'Tommy' Clarke is to build our Federation strong and powerful enough to consolidate our recent gains: "meal allowance," "four hour minimum engagement," "daytime smoke-o's on various cargoes, and to go forward to securing a "one pick-up per day," "equalisation of work and wages," and "social security and justice" for all waterside workers.

Original publication

Citation details

H. Aanensen, 'Clarke, Thomas Robert (Tommy) (1883–1941)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 25 June 2024.

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