Tas Bull’s life as an activist in the labour movement provides a window to Australia’s post-war political and industrial history says ACTU Secretary Greg Combet and John Coombs (former National Secretary MUA).

Obituary: Tas Bull

31 January, 1932 – 29 May, 2003

Tasnor Bull (recognising both his Tasmanian and Norwegian origins) was one of Australia’s outstanding labour movement leaders. Raised in Hobart, he began an extraordinary working life in 1946 when he went to sea at age 14 on the tanker Henry Dundas.

He was one of a group of young Hobart adventurers and friends who achieved their dream of a seafaring life. Many of them remained life-long friends.

Tas’ early years at sea took him all over the world, his seafaring often punctuated by periods ashore, hitch-hiking and riding the rails through the US, encountering the intense poverty in India, and the economic dislocation and polarisation of post-war Europe.

At sea Tas experienced the deprivations and exploitation of the international shipping industry – the inadequacy of safety and labour standards, and the often appalling food and living conditions.

His experiences contributed to the ideas and beliefs that shaped and defined the direction of his life. He developed a commitment to social justice, and a deep empathy with working people.

He gained much of his earliest experience as a union activist while working on Australian coastal shipping, as a member of the Seamen’s Union of Australia (SUA) led by the legendary Elliot V Elliot,.

By 1956 Tas, with the responsibilities of a family, left the seafaring life and joined the waterfront workforce. He was a wharfie in Hobart, Melbourne and Sydney before being elected as a full time official of the Sydney Branch of the Waterside Workers’ Federation of Australia (WWF) in 1967.

His strength and popularity as a leader carried him through many subsequent elections, culminating in his election as General Secretary of the WWF in 1984, the position from which he retired in 1992.

Tas Bull’s life as an activist in the labour movement provides a window to Australia’s post-war political and industrial history. He recorded it in his entertaining autobiography, Life on the Waterfront.

He joined the Communist Party in 1951 following Menzies’ failed attempt to ban the organisation. As a CPA and union activist he engulfed himself in the struggle to improve safety, pay and employment conditions on the waterfront.

In 1956 he became a key player in the Hursey dispute in Hobart – a national political and legal drama focusing on the right of the union to make political donations. Tas’ first book, Politics in a Union, chronicled this tussle.

In the WWF Tas was strongly influenced by Jim Healy and Charlie Fitzgibbon. These men were towering figures in their union, who did much to shape the character of subsequent leaders including Tas.

Tas Bull was active in opposing the Vietnam War, fighting apartheid in South Africa, achieving compensation for waterfront asbestos victims, improving safety on ships, and building on the gains made by former WWF leaders in superannuation and the maritime workers’ credit union. His evolving political beliefs ultimately led him to join the Labor Party.

For a decade he served as an executive member of the International Transport Workers’ Federation, and contributed to practical improvements for the crews of flag of convenience vessels, who still encounter the deprivations Tas experienced in his youth.

In the 1980s Accord period Tas Bull played an important role on the ACTU Executive as Vice President, working closely with the ACTU and Labor leadership to secure gains in the social wage. The Accord could not have worked without the political courage and social justice commitment of leaders like Bull – who were prepared to trade their sectional industrial strength for crucial society-wide improvements such as Medicare and universal superannuation.

Tas’ last challenge at the union was perhaps his greatest – the restructuring of the waterfront between 1989 and 1992. It placed him under considerable pressure, as he fought to protect the dignity and livelihoods of workers as well as negotiate the demand for change. In this he succeeded, and, as ever, retained his integrity throughout.

Tas’ history as a member of both the Seamen’s Union and the Waterside Workers’ Federation was pivotal to his instrumental role in the amalgamation of the two unions into The Maritime Union of Australia, one of the strongest and most influential unions in the country and internationally.

In more recent years he has mentored nearly four hundred new union organisers as Chair of the ACTU Organising Works traineeship program, continued his life long involvement in international union humanitarian activity as Chair of Union Aid Abroad, and has been an active President of the Cuban Children’s Fund.

Tas Bull’s special character and human quality influenced many people. His achievements have benefited many more. His care and respect for people culminated in many long lasting close friendships.

His recent funeral was the largest for a former leader of the WWF since that of the Jim Healy in 1961. Within the union there could be no greater recognition. Waterside workers, with the agreement of their employers, paused throughout the country in respect of Tas’ contribution.

He is survived by those he loved the most, his wife Carmen, and sons Anders and Peder and their families.

Greg Combet (ACTU Secretary) and John Coombs (former National Secretary MUA)