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Vale Ray Gietzelt

'Kingmaker fought for democratisation of unions' - read the sydney morning herald obituary of ray gietzelt

Ray Gietzelt AO was a key figure in Australia’s union movement and Labor politics throughout the second half of the 20th Century. A war veteran who trained as a chemist, Gietzelt led the fight to democratise and modernise what was the Federated Miscellaneous Workers Union (FMWU) and which is now United Voice, one of Australia’s biggest unions.

Ray Gietzelt was born on 29 September 1922 in Sydney to Arthur Anton Gietzelt and Ida Caroline Gietzelt (nee Stoward). Ida had been employed as a stenographer in Townsville when she met Arthur, operator of a taxi service in the town. When they moved to Sydney Arthur established a tyre business in Newtown. The tyre business collapsed when the Great Depression struck in 1929 and the Gietzelt family struggled financially, often finding it difficult to pay the rent despite the resourcefulness of his enterprising father.

Gietzelt was the middle of three children. His older brother Arthur was also active in politics and was elected as a Senator for NSW in 1970 and served as a Minister in the Hawke government.

In 1940 Gietzelt joined the FMWU, the union which covered chemical workers. He worked a 44 hour week at a chemical company he was studying chemistry two nights a week at Ultimo Technical College.

When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour, Gietzelt joined the Army, becoming a member of the Transport Company of the Australian Military Forces. He was 19 at the time. When his training ended in 1942 he applied for a transfer to the 9th Field Company, Royal Australian Engineers and within weeks was transferred to Papua New Guinea where he served until his discharge in September 1945.

On 18 December 1945, just months after returning home, Gietzelt married Violet May Hinchliffe in Sydney. They had met in 1942 and their romance continued for the rest of their lives.

In 1945 when the war ended Gietzelt re-joined the union and he soon became embroiled in its internal struggles. These struggles are set out in his memoirs Worth Fighting For, published in 2004.

Gietzelt led an internal left-wing ticket known as the “Protest Committee” which sought to wrest control of the NSW branch of the FMWU back from a dysfunctional, right wing leadership which had changed the rules of the union to insulate themselves from accountability to the members of the union.

A long period of rank and file organising led to a mass meeting on 7 December 1953 which voted to oust the leadership. The dispute ended up at the Conciliation and Arbitration Court which ruled that the vote was lawful and installed Gietzelt into the branch. In a sign of the outside interest generated in the case a young barrister named Lionel Murphy appeared for the Protest Committee, while the incumbent leadership were represented by John Kerr.

Gietzelt assumed office in the NSW branch of the union in 1954 and was elevated to General Secretary of the federal union in 1955, an elected post he retained until his retirement in 1984.

The organisation Gietzelt inherited was low on money and membership, containing the “dribs and drabs” of the labour movement and riven by the sectarian tensions of 1950’s Australian labour. The FMWU consisted of cleaners, watchmen (security guards), manufacturing workers and other “miscellaneous” groups, hence their almost universally used nick-name, the ‘Missos’.

Gietzelt set about modernising and democratising the union, opening up the structures to rank and file participation and particularly encouraging the involvement of women.

Under his leadership the union undertook collective bargaining and - when the times demanded it – militant industrial action. He also pursued amalgamations with smaller unions. The success of his leadership could be seen in the extraordinary growth in membership numbers - the FMWU membership increased from 22,000 in 1955 to 122,000 on his retirement in 1984. He also secured the financial and organisational base of the union.

It was said of Gietzelt on his retirement that “his” union had “never lost a strike or broken its word with any employer, industrial tribunal or kindred organisation”

Ray Gietzelt had close personal and lifelong friendships with three great Labor figures: former Prime Minister and ACTU President, Bob Hawke; former NSW Premier, Neville Wran; and former ALP Senator, Attorney-General and later High Court judge, Lionel Murphy. His patronage and involvement in their careers led to him being dubbed the “kingmaker” or “Godfather” by contemporary journalists.

Bob Hawke had no illusions about the value of his friendship with Ray Gietzelt: “No one could have had a truer friend in the Labor movement than I had in Ray Gietzelt”, he wrote in 1985. Of Gietzelt gaining election in 1967 to the ACTU Executive, Hawke wrote: “He brought (to the job) the personal qualities that were his hallmark – decency, honesty, courage and compassion. In exchange, he won admiration and loyalty”.

Gietzelt was credited by Hawke as being the single most significant figure in helping him to the leadership of the national trade union movement which led ultimately to the Prime Ministership. He was widely seen as the numbers man who delivered Hawke the votes to assume the Presidency of the ACTU in 1969.

Hawke’s ascension was opposed by a number of forces within the ALP and the ACTU, principally those linked to the National Civic Council and the DLP. The leader of the group opposing Hawke within the Right was a delegate from Tasmania, Brian Harradine. Gietzelt led a censure motion against Harradine at the ACTU and laid charges against him which resulted in his expulsion from the ALP in 1975. Harradine went on to sit as an independent in the Senate for 20 years and his support for the Howard government in its first term was critical to its legislative program.

Gietzelt helped Wran with his switch to the Legislative Assembly and was instrumental in securing caucus support for him to become Opposition Leader, in what was a tied vote of caucus. Ray and Lionel Murphy were lifelong associates. Ray and Arthur Gietzelt combined to organise the numbers for Murphy to become a Senator for New South Wales.

In 1970 Gietzelt initiated a review of the NSW Branch of the ALP by the National Executive of the Party which resulted in a damning report into the abuse of power by the dominant NSW Right machine through the 1960’s. The National Executive forced through rule changes, opening up and democratising the NSW Party and helping it retain some of its best talent who had been at risk of being de-selected. Following these changes Labor went on to win Federal government in 1972 and State government in 1976.

On Gietzelt’s retirement from the FMWU in 1985, Neville Wran observed:

If he had gone into Parliament he could have risen to any position. He had plenty of opportunities to do that. He had plenty of opportunities to go to the Industrial Bench. He only had to snap his fingers and he was there. He had plenty of opportunities to take positions in which he could gain satisfaction and a great deal of personal aggrandizement. But he always stuck with the same course he believed in most of all, and that was his union and the members of that union and the philosophy they adopted and the philosophy for which they fought.

After retirement Gietzelt was awarded an Order of Australia. He served on the Board of Qantas and as a Member of the Automotive Industry Authority. Together with Wran and Gough Whitlam he helped establish the Lionel Murphy Foundation which awarded scholarships to students studying science or law.

He spent his final years at home in the Sutherland Shire, working on his garden and remaining physically fit and active. He was a lifelong surfer and had a particular love for Cronulla Beach.

Ray is survived by his wife, Violet and his daughters Suzanne and Joanne, son in law Ray, six grandchildren and nine great grandchildren.

Jeff Lawrence

Photo (LtoR): Jeff Lawrence, Neville Wran and Bob Hawke