The Union Leader Who Dared to Dream

Tom McDonald (1926-2022)

By Michael Easson

Tom McDonald was a building union leader and building industry reformer, superannuation pioneer, pro-Moscow communist turned “broad left” warrior, and celebrated elder of the Australian labour movement. With nine other siblings, he was the son of Elizabeth (“Liz”) Sarah née Davis (1905-88) and Thomas (also “Tom”) Arthur Albert McDonald (1900-54).


Tom with Bill Kelty and Ged Kearney singing Solidarity Forever 2016

When Tom and his wife Audrey launched their memoir Dare to Dream (2016) Bill Kelty AC, ACTU Secretary from 1983 to 2000, declared: “There is not one person in this country untouched or unaffected by Tom’s and Audrey’s political pursuits…”

Kelty had in mind three things: Tom McDonald’s spearheading the campaign that led to universal superannuation and the industry fund model. Second, enabling (relatively high) minimum wage rates by agreeing that the rates in the (benchmark) building award would be restrained in return for minimum rates in low paid awards being increased by the Commission. Kelty once said: “…without Tom McDonald we would not have the high minimum wages we have today, and I doubt we would have a minimum wage system today without him.” Third, championing restructuring and greater democratisation of the union movement to reposition to better meet the new economy. The cumulative effect of the McDonalds’ struggles for those who worked in one of the toughest industries – construction – was a vital part of their story.

Australia’s modern system of superannuation never would have materialised without McDonald’s strategic nous in the first term of the Hawke government, which culminated in the Superannuation Guarantee legislation in 1992.

McDonald instigated stronger health and safety practices and better working conditions in the building sector, making it one of the safest and most efficient in the OECD, notwithstanding frequent domestic criticisms.

The experience of poverty, depression, war, and the accompanying talk in blue collar workshops about the socialist alternative shaped Tom and many of his generation. Raised in Glebe, McDonald left school at 14. His father was a cleaner in the Sydney City Council who died after falling from a tram in 1954. Liz McDonald was a full-time mum; one daughter required constant care, stricken with cerebral palsy. One child died as a toddler; another, aged 23, died from glomerulonephritis (Bright’s Disease), which if detected early and treated might not have been fatal. Those were the days before universal health care. Tom’s mother called the stagnant water lying under broken floorboards at their two-bedroom tenement in Glebe “a kitchen with water views”.

He almost failed to complete an apprenticeship – he was cranky about poor work conditions at Cockatoo Island. The apprentices were not properly taught their trade and often had little to do. The first strike McDonald led (of the apprentices) was a strike for more work and for competent training. Frustrated, he sought to self-educate as a tradesman by working alongside them until he found a friendly builder who allowed him to complete his training.

His first job, store boy at Cockatoo Docks, led to hearing-out two of the Ironworkers delegates, Laurie Short (1915-2009), then a Trotskyist moving to right-wing Labor, later the head of the Federated Ironworkers’ Association (FIA) from 1951 to 1982, and Ken McKeon, a communist, who later became the FIA Sydney District secretary, later defeated by the Short forces. McDonald decided that when Short came to the store for spanners and tools, he argued the communist position. When McKeon came, McDonald would take Short’s line to determine who was right and who wrong.

Radicalised through such discussions and feeling that the communists had better explanations for the woes of the world, in the mid-1940s, McDonald joined the Communist Party of Australia (CPA). McDonald met bootmaker Tom Payne (1898-1988), one of the CPA founders, who lived nearby. McDonald saw a plaque on the wall displaying a quote from the socialist realist writer Nikolai Ostrovsky: “Man’s dearest possession is life, and since it is given to us to live but once, you must not live through years without purpose. Live so that in dying you can say that all your life and all your strength was given, no torturing regrets for wasted years, and declare ‘all my life, all my strength was given to the finest cause in all the world – the fight for the liberation of mankind’.” This seemed a philosophy to live by. The more mellow, thoughtful, and engaging McDonald, however, was yet to emerge.

The CPA during War World Two championed neutrality while the Germany-USSR non-aggression pact held, abruptly shifting to strong support of the Allied cause when almost two years later, Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa against the Soviet Union. That occurred before McDonald joined. He became a member in the context of ‘sheepskins for Russia’ fervour. In the post-war in Australia, the CPA wanted to “expose” the Australian Labor Party as weak and vacillating in combatting the flaws of capitalism.

The consequence of such Left sectarianism contributed to the ALP’s defeat at federal elections in 1949. In the early 1950s onwards, ALP Industrial Groups formed to defeat communist influence. The CPA’s control of many unions collapsed. The great ALP Split of the mid-1950s, however, saved Australian “industrial” communists from extinction; they regrouped, forged alliances with left ALP members, and attempted to prod Labor to a more “radical” line. Pat Clancy (1919-87), “Clansky”, a fellow communist and Building Workers Industrial Union (BWIU) leader from 1953, learnt important lessons and tried to build “united fronts” with potential allies, as did McDonald. Additionally, the BWIU sought to work co-operatively with the leadership of the Labor Council of NSW (now Unions NSW), the ACTU, and other unions.

Finalising his apprenticeship, McDonald joined the BWIU. Clancy recruited young Tom to co-ordinate apprenticeship campaigns, joining the union’s apprentices’ club. Tom was persuaded by an older official, “Little Hack” – to use his stage name, to wrestle at the Sydney Stadium for the BWIU: “That’s where I got my two cauliflower ears.”

McDonald was appointed temporary organiser (in 1950) and then as an organiser. He was later elected NSW Assistant Secretary, before succeeding Clancy as NSW branch secretary, then assistant national secretary, and finally national secretary, on Clancy’s retirement. Over the 41-years to 1991 he was an official of the union, McDonald had no closer mentor.

McDonald was widely seen as principled, hard-working, and honest. In the BWIU the leadership was known for sticking to agreements. “My word is my bond”, more than any Marxist precept, applied. One key principle was to put the interests of the workers (“the working class”, as Tom would say) first before sectional interest and to be mindful of caring for all workers – not just the organised but those “yet to be organised”. (Tom greatly disliked the terms “unionists” and “non-unionists” because he viewed that language as divisive). He believed in “militancy with purpose” and rejected any suggestion that being “militant” could ever justify “undisciplined” behaviour or industrial anarchy devoid of principle and integrity.


May Day March in Sydney, Tom holding his son Daren, circa mid-1960s

When the barristers’ Wentworth Chambers in Phillip Street was being built, the workers when putting the formwork up around the outside of the building had to lean over, lock their knee on the inside piece of formwork, nail it as they connected it together. It was extremely dangerous. Strikes and hearings followed. A consequence was the commitment by the Department of Labour and Industry to design external scaffolding that workers could utilise. As projects were getting taller, this transformed how building workers worked around the outer extremities of buildings.

In 1971, accident pay – the payment of the difference between workers’ compensation and full award wages, paid by the employer – was won, a major achievement of the union, with Clancy and McDonald executing the strategy, including industrial action and advocacy before the industrial tribunal. This was the biggest dispute in the history of the building industry and positive results flowed across the country.

Long-service leave for the building industry was another achievement; the union deployed as its model the State Superannuation Board legislation in NSW. The Wran government legislated accordingly after winning office in 1976, enabling a portable long-service benefits scheme; similar schemes were then adopted throughout Australia.

Winning superannuation for building workers transformed Australia. In 1983, the building unions conducted a campaign for a wage increase. The employers agreed to a $7.00 weekly allowance being paid. But when the matter went before the court, the claim was rejected as a breach of wage-indexation guidelines. Bill Kelty and Garry Weaven, the then Secretary and Assistant Secretary of the ACTU respectively, proposed: “Why don’t we seek to develop a campaign for superannuation – a weekly contribution superannuation scheme?”

At first, McDonald saw numerous complications: “… my mind boggled about all the problems … in trying to establish throughout Australia a central scheme [with] … big builders with modern, administrative systems down to a small employer [who] … uses the glove box of his ‘ute’ as his office … I walked back from down the other end of the city to the office, and I thought, ‘Well, if ever we’re going to get superannuation … this was the moment’ because we had the ACTU supporting it. The employers were morally committed to pay $7.00. That was the start.” The Builders Labourers’ Federation, led by Norm Gallagher, wanting to one-up the BWIU, decided to demand a $9.00 weekly wage increase, wanting money-in-the-hand, not “super”.

McDonald, working closely with the ACTU, Garry Weaven and Bill Kelty in particular, then added $1.00 for life insurance and $1.00 for administration and reserves to make an $11.00 superannuation claim, won in the building sector, which then became the 3% claim across other industries — the start of widespread “industry super” as we now know it.

McDonald saw that the emergence of computerisation in the 1980s, combined with the industrial opportunity and the Accord environment, made the decision to establish superannuation in the building industry and more widely possible. The simplicity of the model adopted was one of its appealing features. The claim spread to other industries as new industry funds were formed. The rest is history. The industry fund Tom founded, CBUS, now manages over $70 billion in members’ money.

Throughout BWIU history, there was an emphasis on wider activism, beyond wages and “labourism”. For example, with the building of the Opera House, the union wanted a working-class artist to perform. In 1960, a visit by Paul Robeson (1898-1976), the charismatic American baritone performer and activist, was arranged. The construction workers gave him a safety helmet, writing ‘Paul’ across the front. Robeson delivered a stirring rendition of “Ol’ Man River”.


Tom and Audrey McDonald. Photo from their book Dare to Dream, 2016.

McDonald himself, was a pro-Soviet communist mindful of flaws in Soviet socialism, understanding that socialism was disastrously discredited by Stalinism. He could not understand how on the one hand world-class healthcare could co-exist with weak occupational health and safety standards that Australian unions would never accept. Gorbachev gave hope that those contradictions could be addressed but, ultimately, Tom believed that Gorbachev came too late. Perhaps Laurie Short was right in what he told the teenage McDonald at Cockatoo Docks: The Soviet Union, at best, was a deformed workers’ state.

With the Cold War dissipating, there were fewer ideological-inspired rows in the broader movement. Was there less vigour at meetings? Yes. But according to McDonald, “…the benefits of trying to reach consensus was better from a worker’s point of view.”

It is extraordinary, a story of Australian labour and of Australian society, that three of the ten McDonald siblings were conferred Membership of the Order of Australia – Tom in 1994 for services to Australian unionism and superannuation. Brother Don (1938-2018) in 2010 for service to community health through the Schizophrenia Research Institute of Australia, and to the union movement. Don was secretary of the NSW Branch of the BWIU for a decade from 1985. Helen Hewitt (1947-2022) in 2019 for significant service to the superannuation industry, to mental health, and to women. A former accountant for the NSW Teachers’ Federation, she worked in its early days and later from 1997 to 2004 as CEO of CBUS. Helen was co-founder of Women in Super, Chair of Queen Victoria Women’s Centre and the creator of the mental health organisation SuperFriend. Also, Audrey McDonald in 1989 was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia for service to the trade union movement and to women’s affairs.

In retirement up to 2021, McDonald was still a lively force, producing ‘Activist Masterclass’ podcasts with Bill Kelty, Anna Booth, and other former union leaders, about the movement’s history and record, philosophy, covering the Accord period and future priorities. These are insightful in providing a window to his values and philosophy. As he summed up, in “my union life there were always fundamental values that I saw as crucial to the struggle – the dignity and rights of working people, the future of humanity, and empowering the working class.”

Tom’s ‘Activist Masterclass’

For his 80th birthday, Weaven, who helped turn McDonald’s super ideas into reality, gifted McDonald a poem, ‘The Power of Inspiration’, words which included:

We’ve sung of solidarity

And the feeble strength of one

But without a few good leaders

The battles can’t be won.


When he died on Saturday 16 April, McDonald was true to the message he saw displayed in Tom Payne’s place three-quarters of a century ago. He left the world not just a little better. Few Australians have had more consequence upon their fellow Australians within their lifetime. He would hate to think his brilliant, militant spirit could now be still.

McDonald is survived by his tight-knit family – Audrey, his soulmate, partner, and wife of 62-years: they were as one in their values, philosophy, and activism; their son Daren, daughter-in-law Nivek, and granddaughter Casey.

Tom McDonald’s memorial and celebration of his life is from 10:00 am sharp to 12 noon on Monday 9 May 2022 at the Sydney Town Hall.

Leave a Reply