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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Brown, John Joseph (Jack) (1912–1989)

by Stuart Macintyre

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

John Joseph (Jack) Brown (1912-1989), trade unionist, was born on 4 April 1912 at Hawthorn, Melbourne, second child of Victorian-born parents Percy John Brown, carter and later a railwayman, and his wife Margaret Cathrine, née O’Halloran. Educated at St Brigid’s School, North Fitzroy, Jack joined the Victorian Railways as a `lad labourer’ in 1926; he was employed in various roles, including carriage cleaner and boiler maker’s help. In April 1931 he took leave and entered the Passionist Fathers’ seminary at Goulburn, New South Wales, but he left next month. The Depression, he later explained, had a `devastating effect’ on him and in 1935 he joined the Communist Party of Australia. He was elected to the State council of the Australian Railways Union in 1936. Six years later he won the first direct election for the position of State secretary and, on taking office, suggested that his salary be reduced from £600 per annum to £500. From 1944 he also served as general (federal) president of the ARU.

In the campaign after World War II for improved wages and conditions, Brown was the most prominent trade union official in Victoria. He and Clarrie O’Shea of the Australian Tramway and Motor Omnibus Employees Association led a transport strike in Melbourne in October 1946 that secured weekend penalty rates and three weeks’ annual leave. Brown then supported the Amalgamated Engineering Union in its drive in 1947 for improved margins for skill. Further action by the tramways union in January 1948 resulted in the Hollway Liberal and Country Party government’s introducing the Essential Services Act. The legislation was proclaimed in November and officials of the railways and tramways unions were summonsed, but the prosecutions were withdrawn when the two unions agreed to submit disputes to the Trades Hall Council.

Brown clashed repeatedly with the moderate leadership of the THC. The press portrayed him as a commissar and a dictator; the red banner hanging in Unity Hall, the ARU’s building in Bourke Street, was a particular affront. Edmund Drake-Brockman, the acting chief judge of the Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration, condemned his `irresponsible, loose demagoguery’. Communist officials also criticised Jackie Brown’s lack of discipline, for he took his lead from the rank-and-file militants in the union. A robust six-footer (183 cm), non-smoker, teetotaller and fitness fanatic, he used the gymnasium of the Victorian Railways Institute to set world records in skipping; in September 1950 he achieved 30,111 turns in 155 minutes.

Brown withstood attempts by the Industrial Groups to defeat him until 1954, when he narrowly lost the ballot for secretary. The railways refused to re-employ him. Next year the Arbitration Court upheld an appeal against a new rule disqualifying him from contesting the secretaryship and he won it back in 1956—against the wishes of Ted Hill, the State secretary of the Communist Party. Brown sided with the group that opposed Hill’s autocratic leadership and left the party in 1968. He remained State secretary and federal president of the ARU until 1975, when he was appointed to the board of the Victorian Railways. Once an exuberant, hard-working organiser, he had lost much of his fire.

On 19 October 1935 at the Catholic Church of Our Lady Help of Christians, East Brunswick, Brown had married Mabel Mary Dods, a machinist; they were divorced in 1944. At the office of the government statist, Melbourne, on 2 March 1946 he married Linda Victoria Chapple, a clerk and ARU official; she died in 1962. On 20 July that year, again at the government statist’s office, he married Clara Ida Fraser, a housekeeper. He died on 25 July 1989 at Greenvale and was cremated. His wife survived him, as did the daughter of his first marriage and the son and two daughters of his second.

Select Bibliography

  • G. McDonald, Australia at Stake (1977)
  • R. Gibson, The Fight Goes On (1987)
  • T. Sheridan, Division of Labour (1989)
  • T. Rigg, John Joseph Brown (2003)
  • Age (Melbourne), 10 Oct 1942, p 2
  • Sun News-Pictorial (Melbourne), 31 Oct 1946, p 5
  • Herald (Melbourne), 26 May 1948, p 4, 26 Jan 1973, p 2
  • Argus (Melbourne), 29 May 1948, p 3
  • Tribune (Sydney), 2 June 1948, p 6.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Stuart Macintyre, 'Brown, John Joseph (Jack) (1912–1989)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 25 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

View the front pages for Volume 17

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