100-year-old former shearer and official looks back on life in union movement

LEGEND: Union movement legend Jim Doyle, left, state secretary of the Australian Workers Union Peter Lamps and South Australian Labor Senator Penny Wong were at the union's Christmas dinner at the Entertainment Centre. Photo: Lee Knowles, The Headshot Creative.
LEGEND: Union movement legend Jim Doyle, left, state secretary of the Australian Workers Union Peter Lamps and South Australian Labor Senator Penny Wong were at the union's Christmas dinner at the Entertainment Centre. Photo: Lee Knowles, The Headshot Creative.

At 100 years old, Jim Doyle doesn't see the need to mince words.

He spent a lifetime in the Australian Workers Union as a shearer, driver and official at Port Augusta, the Cooper Basin, Port Pirie, Whyalla and Broken Hill.

But he has a parting shot at those who had earlier kept him on the sidelines for so long.

He said a group within the union involving later Whitlam government Minister Clyde Cameron had forced him out of standing for office.

"Any worker who didn't agree with them was automatically branded a communist and red-ragger," he said.

"Well, I copped it. If they wanted to call me a communist, it is okay with me.

"I was never one to make a point of telling everyone I was a supporter of communist theories."

Mr Doyle, whose name adorns the union office in Port Pirie, now lives in Adelaide. He was interviewed via the new-fangled device of Facetime. He is thought to be the oldest union member in the world. 

Last year, union members could have heard a pin drop as Mr Doyle spoke as a special guest at their yearly dinner to raise money for the McGrath Foundation at the Entertainment Centre in Adelaide. Port Pirie's McGrath breast-care nurse Ros Mayfield also made a speech.

Mr Doyle had thunderous applause for his words.

He said his acceptance as an official was actually triggered by a speech by former Liberal prime minister Malcolm Fraser who spoke about freedom of association in the wake of Mr Fraser's efforts to help South African refugees.

Originally, Mr Doyle kindled his beliefs around the campfire in Queensland in the 1940s as he shared a cuppa with striking shearers.

"I was known to the shearers as a shearer," he said.

"Broken Hill and West Darling were included in the Adelaide branch and I was mostly in and around Broken Hill.

"I was recognised by the shearers around Broken Hill in the union, but I was on the outer with other people.

"It stemmed from my role in winning the 40-hour week for the union in 1946. That is when I fell foul … and they never ever forgave me for it.

"They were able to stop me from going on a union ballot. I took it to court, but the judges sided with that group.

"I never held a position until 1972 when I ended up on a union ballot and was elected, no trouble.

"The shearers at that time were the most active part of the union.

"As an organiser, I visited the Cooper Basin north of Port Augusta quite a bit. I was organising the blokes who were prospected for oil or gas. It was an American firm.

"Before than, in the 1960s, I was a driver for one of the firm's transport companies.

"The summers were hot and the winters were cold.

"The American companies were good. They had caravan camps with four or six workers in each caravan.

"A lot of the time I was either driving through to Adelaide taking up petrol or picking up other supplies."

Later, he moved to Whyalla and Port Augusta where he organised the members in the railways, the steelworks and council work gangs.

"I brought some new ideas into organising," he said.

He has some thoughts on how federal Opposition leader Bill Shorten could revamp the Labor Party.

"I support Labor, but I think Mr Shorten wants to brighten up a bit and take his party more to the Left," he said.'

:"On some specific issues, they are going very well, but there has to be a tightening up of the operation of the party.

"If they want to regain influence with the working class, they have to adopt a much more active policy towards helping the workers.

"To some extent what Labor is doing is successful, but there are other aspects of working class activity that they are neglecting."

Mr Doyle has no regrets about being branded a "red-ragger" and is an amazing example of a politically self-educated man.

"It is the next 100 years that has got me worried," he said of his ripe old age.