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Douglas John (Doug) Gillies (1909–1986)

Many friends and comrades crowded into 12 Exploration Lane, Melbourne, recently to pay tribute on the death of one of Victoria's most respected comrades, Doug [Douglas John] Gillies, and to pay respect to his wife, Stella, and family.

His sudden death robbed many of a true friend, and the working class of a fighter for the rights of ordinary people and world peace. Doug was a man who carried the best traditions of the Australian labor movement.

Doug was born and raised on a northern New South Wales farm, and became a teacher during the Great Depression. With his wide reading and outstanding teaching ability, he was ideally suited to that work.

However, the hardship and poverty he saw with the lock-out of the coalminers led him to join the Communist Party which was organising among them, and he worked with the unemployed.

Before long, he found the Education Department's restrictions intolerable and resigned. He continued working for better conditions and unity between the unemployed and those working. He studied marxism, took marxism classes and became a member of the party's District Committee Executive.

Vic Bird, who attended Doug's class on The Communist Manifesto in 1931, said, "I had found what I wanted and never later lost my enthusiasm to become a real understand marxism and its application".

About mid-1937, Doug was sent to Melbourne to help overcome some of the left tendencies which were interfering with the party's capacity to influence many people in the trade union movement. For a time while there, he worked with Ralph Gibson and others on the Victorian State Committee Secretariat.

Ralph remembered how useful he was in their discussions and arguments as they tried to cultivate a system of collective leadership, how he hated authoritarian domination and insisted on the party having a base among lower paid workers and the unemployed.

He considered that the party was built in the 1930s in the struggles of the unemployed and those most in need, and that the party should always be strongly based in those sections.

Soon afterwards he went to South Australia and became an organiser for the Federated Ironworkers Association (FIA) and delegate to the United Trades and Labor Council. He also worked to improve the party's industrial work, took classes and helped recruit and train new members. In November 1938 he became a South Australian representative on the CPA Central Committee.

By 1941 he was back in Melbourne, for a short time in a paper mill and then in the metal industry. According to Thelma Prior, a metal industry shop steward, Doug knew how to work with people at the grass roots, to talk and listen, to learn from them as well as advise.

He set up one of the first Victorian union shop committees so that workers could discuss claims on management, and how to gain them. He advised them of the importance of striking only over an important issue, only after winning allies, and only as a last resort.

To strengthen worker solidarity, he organised area committees and encouraged workers' representatives from factories in the area to come together to discuss problems and plan action.

In 1943, he was elected to the FIA executive in Victoria. He worked tirelessly for day to day needs as well as in wider struggles such as the metal trades' dispute of 1946-7, in which three unions struggled for six months before gaining a wage increase that eventually flowed on to all workers.

Doug campaigned vigorously for the 40 hour week, then two weeks annual leave, then three weeks, and for peace.

He played a significant part in the long and bitter struggle against the penal powers of the Arbitration Court, and against outside interference in union business, including court controlled ballots.

Migrants usually get lower paid jobs, and Doug went out of his way to help them on the job and constantly took up their cause in the party and urged unions to use multilingual information material.

In 1952, after attacks by the groupers or Industrial Movement (later the NCC) and a court controlled ballot, progressive officials in the FIA were defeated and Doug lost his job.

He returned to the foundry among the lower paid workers, and became a shop steward and convenor of the Metal Manufacturing Group at Austral Bronze (now Australian Metal Products). While there, he assisted in gaining an award covering the whole brass and copper industry.

When he visited the Soviet Union with a Communist Party delegation in 1965, Doug was very impressed by what he saw there and he returned full of confidence in the Soviet Union's future in world affairs. He felt he had caught some of the spirit of Soviet life ... some of those dynamic qualities which made its achievements possible.

Maurie Crow, co-author of Make Melbourne Marvellous and other books on city planning, gave examples of Doug's courage: how he and his brother-in-law Bill Mackey ran to help protect a representative of Communist China from rightwing attackers near the Trades Hall; and how, while having a serious heart attack in the street, Doug calmly told bystanders how to help him.

Sol Marks, a veteran metal worker, recalled Doug's dry sense of humor and his diligent application to the technical as well as union and political aspects of his job. Doug became a master at the metal alloy business, often knowing more than metallurgists.

In his tribute, Ron Hearn said, "Doug Gillies was a fine communist in every respect... I seldom called on Stella and Doug when Doug was not preparing a meal, washing dishes or performing some other household task... as he was performing these tasks, he was generally involved in complex ideological discussion.

"He had no difficulty in applying his communist principles to his everyday life. He didn't see his political work as separate from his family life".

— Collective memories of his comrades.

Original publication

Additional Resources

  • photo, Workers' Weekly (Sydney), 6 July 1934, p 2

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Citation details

'Gillies, Douglas John (Doug) (1909–1986)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 4 March 2024.

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