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Issue #1653      August 27, 2014

Obituary

Wally Stubbings: wharfie, communist, veteran athlete

Born: March 10, 1913, Strahan, Tasmania
Died: July 6, 2014, Redlands, Queensland

Wally Stubbings, Life Member of the Brisbane Labour History Association, passed away on July 6, 2014 aged 101. Wally was one of the last remaining labour activists that had links to the 1940s. Wally received his Life Membership because of his life-long involvement with the labour movement, both industrially and politically.

Wally receives his life membership of the Brisbane Labour History Association.Wally receives his life membership of the Brisbane Labour History Association.

Wally was born on March 10, 1913 in Strahan Tasmania and worked as a timber worker in his home town in the 1930s. He married his wife Ada, a fellow school friend, in 1933 and had a son Col in 1934. During this time he became active in the Timber Workers’ Union which began his long involvement with the union movement.

As well as working as a timber worker he also worked as a waterside worker (wharfie) and this saw him transferring to Hobart in 1940 to work on the Hobart waterfront. In 1944 Wally came to Brisbane to work as part of the war effort. After the war Wally decided to come back to Brisbane to live but he had to go back to Hobart to establish his credentials in order to be able to transfer back to Brisbane. He came back to Brisbane in 1946 and immediately joined the Waterside Workers Federation (WWF) and the Communist Party of Australia (CPA). He threw himself into activism in both these organisations.

The WWF was a progressive organisation having got rid of the “bull” system in the 1940s, and the union was heavily involved in the Dutch shipping ban of the late 1940s. In the 1950s and ’60s the union had broadened its involvement with its members with sporting clubs, art classes, dancing studios for the children of wharfies, and had established a film unit. They were very active in the community and Wally was responsible in 1956 for organising wharfies to go to Inglewood to help the community in flood relief. The volunteers who went out there included qualified plumbers, mechanics, former shearer’s cooks and bakers. These helped immensely with the town’s recovery.

Wally’s first industrial involvement was the 1948 Railway Strike in which he, along with Fred Patterson, was “bashed” by Queensland police at a demonstration on St Patrick’s Day. After coming home and lying down for a number of hours to get over his injuries, he set out to put posters up in bus shelters and walls from Moorooka to Bulimba declaring the then premier Hanlon a Nazi. All through his active years Wally was monitored by Queensland’s “infamous” Special Branch. They spent a lot of time sitting outside Wally’s home and followed him to work and followed his son Col to school.

He was elected to the executive of the Brisbane branch of the WWF and worked as a Vigilance Officer (VO) for four years. In the CPA he was secretary of the waterfront branch and served on the State Committee and was campaign manager for various communist candidates. In 1949 he was organiser for the Party in Rockhampton during the federal elections. When famous American left-wing activists Harry Bridges, President of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, and Paul Robeson, world famous American singer and actor, visited Brisbane they were shown around by Wally.

During the 1950s the WWF was involved in two national strikes in 1954 and 1956. Throughout these strikes wharfies were involved in numerous demonstrations as well as promoting their cause in various ways. Wally was sent out to the country to talk to the farmers. As in the containerisation issue that followed in the next decade, Wally took the attitude that wharfies needed to show the farmers that they too were interested in the economy and hence it was important that wharfies were actively talking to the population.

Wally visited the Soviet Union in 1963 as part of a Communist Party delegation and was a guest of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. On May Day he was taken to the Bolshoi Ballet. Included in the audience were Nikita Khrushchev, Yuri Gagarin (Soviet cosmonaut), and Fidel Castro. He was embarrassed when the Party guides took him to the front of the queue when visiting Lenin’s tomb as he thought the people who were lining up should have been given preference to him. On his way back from the Soviet Union Wally visited Indonesia and was met at the airport by the General Secretary of the Indonesian Communist Party and they were guests of the Indonesian Party.

In the 1960s great changes were happening in the stevedoring industry with the introduction of containerisation on to the waterfront. The WWF was heavily involved in this debate, which also brought the issue of permanency for the workforce. Wally was involved heavily in this debate and argued that it was inevitable that containerisation would be introduced and once again argued that it was important to “look outwards” in order to promote the best outcomes for wharfies.

In the late ’60s and early ’70s great changes were happening in western democracies with protests over the Vietnam War. The WWF and the CPA were some of the main organisations opposed to the war and along with the student movement organised the Moratoriums which stood as mass opposition to the War. Wally was heavily involved with this movement and worked alongside leading student activists of the day. Wally was also involved in the civil liberties struggle, anti-conscription and the movement against apartheid. He was arrested in the right-to-march campaign of the 1970s and spent time in the same cell as Senator George Georges and Federal MP Tom Uren.

In 1968, Wally supported the CPA’s condemnation of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia to end Alexander Dubcek’s Prague Spring. However, most CPA maritime workers nationally supported a minority opposition that in 1971 split away to form the pro-Soviet Socialist Party of Australia (SPA). Wally and other Brisbane wharfies remained CPA members, along with some other maritime unionists nationally.

As well as being involved in the CPA and the WWF Wally and his wife Ada were involved in numerous other organisations. Wally was one of the founding members of the Council for Advancement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and had a long involvement in fighting for Aboriginal rights. He worked with Sugar Ray Walker and his wife Kath Walker who became famous for her poetry as well as being an aboriginal activist.

Wally’s wife Ada was treasurer of the WWF Women’s Committee which was responsible for visiting sick wharfies in hospital. They were particularly concerned about the plight of a young wharfie who had fractured his spine. After raising money for helping this wharfie Wally was approached by a Dr Murphy from the PA Hospital to set up an organisation to highlight the problem to the general public as well as giving help to the patients.

Wally and Ada were thus foundation members of the Paraplegic Welfare Association. Their home in Gratwick Street, Moorooka became a hive of activity. There were meetings of the Progress Association, Communist Party branch, Paraplegic Association and the Council for Advancement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, Fretlin, as well as other organisations.

When Wally retired he took a trip in a kombi van around Australia. He started by going up the Queensland coast and stayed with wharfies at various ports all around Australia.

At the age of 60 Wally took up Veteran Athletics and attended a number of world championships in various parts of the world. He competed in Sweden, West Germany, New Zealand, USA, Puerto Rico. At the age of 70, on the day Australia won the America’s Cup, Wally won the world championship 800 metres for his age group. He won many 400 and 800 metres events for his age. He was a Life Member of Queensland Veteran Athletics (now known as Queensland Masters Athletics). In his later years Wally was a member of a gym and kept his exercise routine until his overall health prevented him from continuing.

Wally was a prolific reader which could be traced back to his childhood. A few months before he died he was reading Chomsky, Pilger, Dawkins and had asked his son to get out of the library Darwin’s Origin of the Species for him to read again.

Wally’s wife Ada pre-deceased him and he is survived by his son Col and his wife Joan, his grandsons Carl and Jeff, seven great grandchildren and five great, great grandchildren.

Greg Mallory,
President, Brisbane Labour History Association

Next article – Film review – X-Men: Days of Future Past

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