Eulogy to Tom McDonald, by Daren McDonald

Former National Secretary, Building Workers Industrial Union
Vice President, Australian Council of Trade unions
Delivered by Daren McDonald
Sydney Town Hall, 9 May 2022


In many ways the story of Tom McDonald’s life and the forging of the modern Australian safety net by the trade union movement is one and the same.

We know Tom McDonald as a husband, father, grandfather, brother, uncle, colleague, mate and comrade.

But for so many of us he was also a teacher, mentor, example, and inspiration. He was the revered elder of the McDonald Clan.

And he was a revered elder of the union movement.

In many ways the story of Tom McDonald’s life and the forging of the modern Australian safety net by the trade union movement is one and the same.

We know Tom McDonald as a husband, father, grandfather, brother, uncle, colleague, mate and comrade. But for so many of us he was also a teacher, mentor, example, and inspiration.
He was the revered elder of the McDonald Clan. And he was a revered elder of the union movement.


Formative influences

Dad grew up in the Great Depression and felt its misery. He came from large poor Catholic family of 10 kids.

Tom remembers:

“We grew up in poverty. Life was tough in the McDonald family. Our father carted the city’s garbage with his draft horse Bob. Our wonderful mother Elizabeth raised a large family of 10 children in a two-bedroom
terrace house in Frances Street, Glebe.

“Christmas was a very special day for our family. My mother would save money all year so she could have enough to buy us ‘bourgeois’ meats on that one day like pork and ham and turkey. She toiled so she could give
us just one day we could live like an average family."

Depression, mass unemployment, housing evictions, abject poverty, the rise of fascism, war, the emergence of a Bolshevik state offering a new type of
society, and a Soviet Union that had turn back and broken Hitler’s seemingly unstoppable war machine – this was the world that shaped my father’s beliefs and values.

He once said that the thing in this world he hated most was injustice and greed. His poor upbringing also shaped his habits. Despite being very generous towards others, Dad and Mum lived a very frugal life. Unless prompted or organised by me or friends, I never knew Dad to go to a restaurant or movie and or holiday - never. He was always too busy writing, organising, agitating for the cause of working people.


Civilising the building industry

Early in the War Dad he started an apprenticeship at Cockatoo Island as a ships carpenter and joiner.

It was there he led his first strike of his fellow apprentices. Their grievance? – They wanted more work so they could properly learn their trade!

He joined the Building Workers Industrial Union (BWIU) and met a young organiser called Pat Clancy. Clancy was to become his lifelong mentor and political father and one of
Australia’s most renowned trade unionists and communists.

Dad remembers:

“When I began working in the 1940s safety and hygiene standards were awful and employers considered that they had the exclusive prerogativeto decide the working conditions they provided. The struggles waged over the decades were not only about wages and conditions; they were about civilising the building industry…... behind each of our achievements is a story; a story of courage, struggle and sacrifice by trade unionists.”

In 1953, Clancy and Tom were elected as the new BWIU leadership team.

Together they planned a “Family Welfare Strategy” that would guide the BWIU over the next 40 years, during which time it would transform the building industry and in so doing help forge the modern Australian safety net for all workers.

Clancy was the political leader of the BWIU and Tom his chief industrial strategist and campaigner. Together they formed a remarkable partnership.

Many of the breakthroughs won by the BWIU and the Building Trades Group ofUnions (which it led) benefitted not only building workers but untold numbers of working people across other industries.

Their wins saved workers’ lives.

Their wins enriched the quality of workers’ lives.

Their wins brought dignity to working people.


Finding socialism

During the Depression, Dad couldn’t understand why impoverished working people who desperately needed all manner of things to bring the basics into their homes and who were available to work and wanted to work for these
things simply couldn’t get work.

And he wanted to know the real reasons for the world wars; wars that not only shattered many families but blew up the factories needed to produce the
things that people needed.

It was the Communists, he felt, who offered him the best answers for injustice and war.

"I became a socialist because I dreamed of a world of social justice, human dignity and peace."

As Brian Aarons writes in today’s program,

“Tom and others who joined the Communist Party shared the vision and the belief that there could be a better world; that inequalities and injustices should not be accepted as inevitable and unchangeable; that socialism was both desirable and possible”.

The Communist Party taught Tom political economy; it taught him Marxist dialectics - the laws of social change, it taught him strategy and tactics.

Of all the things the communist party ever was, perhaps the greatest was as an engine room of ideas and inspiration, and a university for the working class. Dad believed that the Party made him a better person than he otherwise
would have been.


Values and Principles

Pat Clancy mentored Tom to always “live by your principles.”

And Dad always did.

I suspect Dad would say he had 3 core principles:

His first was to fight as a class warrior:

He held that the responsibility of union leadership was to care for all workers.

For him, that meant two things.

- It meant you had to consider the interests of the union movement as a whole ahead of narrow sectional interests.

(The struggle was about more than just getting the best for your members. It demanded you thought about how you did could advance the interests of the class).

- It also meant that that he never labelled the unorganised as “non-unionists”.

(For him, there were only “organised workers” and “those yet to be organised.")

His second was to always act with integrity:

He believed in tough militant action to protect and advance the interests of
working people.

But the need for toughness could never be an excuse for abandoning principle.

“An agreement worth making was an agreement worth keeping” was a core value of the BWIU.

Tom repudiated the use of industrial tactics or behaviours that divided the workers, advanced self-interest, involved violence, or brought the labour movement into disrepute.

His third was to always act in a way that builds the movement.

Dad believed that central to every action, dispute or campaign must be to unite and build the power of working people.

A win was not a win unless it did that.

Tom’s greatest hero was Georgi Dimitrov, the Bulgarian trade union leader and communist framed by Hitler for the burning of the Reichstag.

It was Dimitrov who called for a united front of all progressive minded peopleto fight fascism and rebuffed Stalin’s sectarianism towards social democrats.

Tom said that

“All my life I tried to apply Dimitrov’s theory that you maximise the prospects of victory when you build the broadest possible united front”.


Broader social and political activism

It went without saying that Dad was deeply involved in the broader political and social campaigns of our movement.

He marched on International Women’s Day for women’s rights,

He marched for peace.

He marched against apartheid.

Important in his early political life was his activism against the Menzies’ Government’s referendum to ban the Communist Party and destroy the Labor Left and militant unions and, thereby, weaken the entire labour movement.
Had Menzies succeeded, Tom firmly believed many of the great post war social and industrial reforms could never have been spearheaded by the militant unions and Australia today would be a country like America with little in the
way of an industrial and social safety net.

But Menzies did not win.

Democracy won.

And the union movement went on to build an industrial and social safety net that makes us a very different country to America.


Tom the person

When I think of Dad, the words that come to mind are:
Gentle, Caring, Selfless, Insightful but, in particular, Driven and Disciplined.

His discipline was like granite.

I have never known anyone more driven and more disciplined in giving every available minute of their life to doing something – no matter how large or small – to making our world a better place.

Even into his 90s, it was hard to keep up with all his political projects.

Dad was deeply committed to waging - what he called - “the ideological struggle”, that is, the battle of ideas to win the hearts and minds of working people and to deepen their understanding of politics.

He was always looking for opportunities to advance the ideological struggle and authored articles, pamphlets and speeches ever day (bar Saturdays – race day)!

Dad had a powerful intellect, especially in being able to see and unpack the essence of phenomena. He would analysis and re-analysis phenomena until he was convinced he
understood them.

His powerful grasp of dialectics meant that he could see processes of social change unfolding in ways most others didn’t.

His writing style was simple but he painted vivid pictures and it often bordered on poetic.

He was a born story-teller.


The McDonald family

Because of Tom’s lack of formal schooling (he left school to start work at 14 and support the family), he struggled with English grammar and sometimes
how to structure his ideas.

My university education in the early 1980s enabled him to call on me when he became BWIU National Secretary to address these weaknesses.

Over the next 40 years years there was rarely a major speech or publication that Audrey, Dad and I didn’t work on together as a team.

The three of us would regularly discuss the current issues and problems we faced in the union, women’s, student and socialist movements and help one another find pathways forward.

We intimately knew each other’s strengths and weakness and so we functioned both as a loving family collective of 3 but also a political collective of three.

Mum and Dad were lifelong partners and soul mates who first met in 1953 and were married 62 years.

Audrey was a girl from the bush who had come from a similarly poor family background.

They shared a deep love for each other and for the union movement and the party. And Mum loved horses which blended admirably with Dad’s great passion for horse racing.

With my marriage to Nivek and the arrival of Casey our family and political collective grew to four and then five.

The McDonald’s brains trust was further strengthened with input from his brother Don and sister Helen, both prominent leaders in the union and superannuation movements, in their own right.

I remember one of Tom’s birthdays where all our families were together when Doug Cameron dropped in.

The discussion – as always – quickly turned to analysing the current political situation. Uncle Don invited all the family members gathered around the table to report their analysis in turn.

Doug raised his eyebrows and lamented “It’s all right for you McDonalds, when you need a brains trust to map political strategy, you just need to call a bloody family meeting.”


Towards the future

Today, Tom would want us to takeaway this core message:

Critical to winning the future is growing our democracy.

I think he would say that: 

o his beloved union movement must be constantly innovating in how it engages workers in the new economy;

o his pride, the industry super funds must deepen their member engagement to be true to their founding values and stand as proudly different institutions within the finance sector; and

o the entire labour movement must think beyond merely operating within the current democratic framework – our strategy must go to expanding and deepening our democracy across all its varied institutions in ways
that empower people with a greater voice.


True to principles, true to his class

My father’s life lived a life of purpose.

He helped enrich the quality of life of working people.

He dreamed of a better world and how he could help achieve it.

He never stopped dreaming. He influenced and inspired us with his dreams.

Because of his dreams - and the struggles of his generation of trade unionists - Australia is a better country.

Tom McDonald helped make the impossible dream possible.

I doubt there can be any greater testament.

And of particular importance to Dad, Tom McDonald was true to his principles.

In a letter that Dad has left for his family and closest comrades that will be
read at today’s graveside service, he writes:

'As my time draws to a close, I can look into a mirror and be proud of the man I see and with pride say “I have never betrayed my class” – the working class.’

Dad, our family love and admire you so much.

I am sure everyone here does.

I am so fortunate and proud to be your son.

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