Australian Biography

Tom Uren - full interview transcript

Tape of 14

Tape 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14

Did you rise fairly quickly through the ranks?

Well, at first I thought I was going nowhere in Woolworths. I spent that nine months on the floor up at Kings Cross and then they sent me down to Liverpool Street. It doesn't exist now but there used to be a big Woolworths store, actually it was the second largest Woolworths store in the chain, which was on the corner of Pitt and Liverpool streets, Sydney, and there was a manager there by the name of Bill Maiden and he and I clicked like peas within the pod, I mean, there was just fantastic, he was a really understanding old guy and I was at first just a section floorman but before long they made me the deputy manager of the store and all the trainee executives used to come through this store and Maiden would tell me how to administer, he'd say you know, 'If you tell 'em how to do it and they don't do it, well then you've got to start examining your own, you might be in the wrong the first time. But if the second time they still don't, well there's something wrong with the bloke you told.' So it was a kind of administration and supervise kind of concept and one of my fellow floormen said to me, 'Why is it one minute they hate you, one minute they love you the next?' I said 'Oh, as long as they love me the next, that's the important thing.' And I always found the capacity to work with people, and get people to work with me. And I must have made a lot of progress under Maiden because the next thing I know is, after [I've] been in the company for about 21 months, I'm being interviewed by Laurenson, who was-- the state is cut up into two directors, under Bill Nash. And one of them was Laurenson, who later went over to New Zealand as their state manager there. And Laurenson had said, 'Look, we want to make you a manager at Lithgow.' Of course you could have knocked me over with a feather. And so they decided [laughs] that I should go to Lithgow. Lithgow was the only five-day-a-week store in the whole of the chain because in those days you used to open five-and-a-half days. and it seems we'd had in a bit of problem and so they thought that I could get it on its feet. So, there I go up and my first store is Lithgow. Because housing was such a difficult thing to get in Lithgow, the company bought a house in Wright's Road which is immediately behind the small arms factory. And I found that I got on remarkably well with the staff up there. They didn't realise but after a while I'd get them up and talk to them in the morning and talk out things, it was kind of a [way to] get used to things, doing things, practising public speaking in a way to your staff, and addressing your staff, it was a matter of communicating with them publicly of a morning, talking together before we'd start work.

And these were sort of motivational and direction-finding talks were they?

Yes, yes, and talking about teamwork, always teamwork, and you find that was always the spirit of my, basis of my management, was to work together and help: the strong, if a person was a little bit more capable, I'd get her to go over and kinda help the other person to kinda come along a little bit more. And it was quite a remarkable achievement. Anyway, the funny thing about it was this bloke, there were two, one whose name was Les Christie, and this Mr Laurenson, and they were the two state directors -- now Laurenson was in charge of me at Liverpool Street, I was under his administration, but at Kings Cross I was under Les Christie's responsibility and I didn't think I'd made headway at all with Christie. In fact I'm sure I didn't. But this store at Lithgow was under the direct administration of Les Christie. So, after I'd been there a few months, he rang up to say that he'd be up tomorrow. So I got the staff out in the morning and said, 'Look, tomorrow morning Mr Christie's coming up. I know you're all frightened of him and most people are, he might be a cold fish, but if you can get him to smile he's got a smile that's wonderful. He's got a wonderful smile.' So [laughs] the next day he comes up and he goes to talk to the staff and they say, 'Oh, how are you Mr Christie,' and they smile at him [laughs] and he got this from every one of the staff. And he pulled me in for afternoon tea, he said, 'Mr Uren, you've done more in a couple of months than I've been trying to do in six years. I always hated coming to Lithgow but there's something you've done to this place. I just feel I'll enjoy coming here in the future.' And from there on he did. And it was just making him feel secure and then the staff themselves felt secure. So it worked very well. And I had some of my own peculiar personality in my administration of Woolworths, but you'd go to a state conference of managers, managers only, of Woolworths, and they would complain about, you know, the customers were going, they were dealing out, ripping them off on money-back guarantee policies and all that, and I got up and I made a speech, 'What are you talking about, money-back guarantee policy? It's a basis of goodwill. If a company's got so much faith in their merchandise and the customer's not satisfied, why don't you want to give their money back? It's not your money. It's the company, that's the company's policy, so why don't you carry it out?' And of course, little did I know, but you knew the top echelon of Woolworths were very impressed with my philosophy in this regard. Because what they don't know though is that I sometimes used it a little bit over the odds, because I'd built up a good rapport with the people and the particular unions in the valley and also the district, particularly the outlying miners' districts. They would have their picnics and they would come in to see whether they could get a lend of some crockery or cutlery or what have you. And I'd say, 'Alright, well I'll give you on Friday afternoon, now you've got to have it back first thing on Monday morning and if you break anything or chip anything then you've got to pay for the breakages.' So it was kind of like the money-back guarantee policy only they didn't pay it until after they [broke it]. But a funny thing happened on one occasion. One of the assistant supervisors came up and he said, 'God, Tom, where's your glassware and crockery?' And I said, 'Oh it'll be alright, it'll be back in a few minutes.' [laughs] And sure enough, it came back.

So here we ...

… So I built up a basis of goodwill -- by this time I might say I had joined the Labor Party, but ...

Cos that's what I was going to ask you. Here was ...

… I was in Lithgow for four years, four wonderful years.

… Here was a bloke who had this awakening awareness of social issues, of industrial issues from a Left perspective, going into management in Woolworths. Was there ever any tension because of that?

No, no, actually, not until the end of the process, but it was the real end after I joined the Labor Party and in fact I'd ...

… How did that come about, that you joined the Labor Party?

Well, what happened was, for the first year or so I was there I'd gone to night school and I was doing accountancy with my wife and also I was tied up with Legacy, I'd become a legatee and I had several families I used to look after under legatee responsibility in the country areas, and that's where I discovered Mt Wilson, I might say, in one of these legatee outlets in 1951. So that was the first year, and a few months after I'd arrived there, Chifley, it was Chifley's electorate -- I arrived in April and Chifley died in June -- and they had his state funeral for him at Bathurst and we didn't have a car at the time, in fact I had jaundice, I was sick I had jaundice at the time, but I wanted to go to Mr Chifley's funeral, so we had to go up in a bus and Patricia and I were on this bus and we met a mate of mine called Viv Gordon, who had been a prisoner of war with me, he was a miner out at Cullen Bullen. And he was in the Labor Party so I said, 'I've always wanted to join the Labor Party, how do you join?' Well, I didn't see him again for a long while, but anyway I found I found it very hard, very hard indeed, to get into the Labor Party, because I didn't know anybody in Lithgow that -- I would go up to this shop with the ALP on top and knock on it and knock on it, but nobody ever answered it so it took me the best part of a year before I joined the Labor Party. I didn't get into the Labor Party until '52.

One would have thought in the '50s, in Chifley's electorate, in a town like Lithgow, the ALP branch would be flourishing?

Well, it wasn't, because Chifley had died and Luchetti was then the Member after he succeeded, he was a Lithgow man by the way, but no, it wasn't flourishing, and [the] strange thing about it when I went to the ALP meetings, there were so few unionists and I wondered why. You've only got to look at the miners and of course again, lack of understanding, but the miners had deserted the Labor Party and very few miners were left in the Labor Party in Lithgow. And so that was a problem then. And I always recall that in the first election [I stood] was '53, I think state election. And I had criticised -- we had raised money for the public funds from public campaign expenses and it was the haphazard way that they explained the expenditure of it. An old feller by the name of Jim Robson, who was a nice old guy, he was campaign director for Chifley in his days, but he really lacked responsibility, the way that money was spent, and I felt that when you've got money, particularly public money or people's money, you had to dot your i's and cross your t's and I criticised this you see. So that when the Senate election came about, about six months later [laughs] some of the old blokes nominated me. Kind of 'put up or shut up'. And of course, I thought to myself, 'Well, how in heaven's name can you -- the only way you can raise money is to go to the unions', so I got permission to address the miner's union. And I went down and addressed these pit-top meetings. And, except for one, they all agreed to strike the levy but the secretary of the steward would pick the money up and of course give it to me accordingly. But in the state mine, which was by far the biggest mine, they said, 'Oh no.' Jack Parkinson, he was the brother of Bill Parkinson, who had been the President at the '49 strike, you see. And he refused to collect the money for the Labor Party so I had to go down on pay day and wait, and as the blokes'd come through they'd give me their levy. And there was a period there where I really did become what you'd call anti-communist, in a negative sort of way, because of the negative attitude of the communist hardline position there was with me. But that's the only time in my period. Also in that period, there were two other communists that I'd come up against, both at the trades -- because I went to the Trades and Labor Council meetings as well. Even though I was a manager I was also a member of the Shop Assistants Union and I would discuss issues there, and there was a woman by the name of Joan Goodwin, who was a good person, and Merv Moffit, who was also a communist. When there was an economic recession in the early 1950s, particularly round about I'd say '53, there was a problem up in Broken Hill where they were determined married women couldn't work, only single women and so forth, so then there was an issue put forward about, you know, that married women shouldn't stay in jobs if there were any single women out of work, or men out of work. And course I argued the principle that, you know it's the right of every human being to have a position of employment, and of course this Joan Goodwin played a remarkable role with that as well so the tools with which we found ourselves, against the Right-wing generally on this position, and I argued the position that even if they did employ every single unemployed woman and put the married woman out of work, who's going to be the Jesus Christ to determine which one should be disemployed and the other one not, so we won the argument. And we won the argument that you had to get full economic conditions to get full employment for everybody at that time. So that was a very interesting further experience for me. And I found that, they used to challenge me on issues and by this time I was what you would call a socialist, a social do-gooder, I'd say I was a 'Roosevelt New-Dealer'. I wasn't [really] a socialist in any way. But certainly I had those values that I'd accrued out of my prisoner of war life plus my readings of Roosevelt, and my own personal experience which was starting to mature and develop.

And so you found that in the context of the political world that you were now beginning to enter, you felt the confidence to speak up and to take a leadership role in issues?

Oh yes, I rose fairly fast within the structure of the Labor Party. I've never sought positions within the branches, although I became a vice-president of the Macquarie Federal Electorate, of which Tony Luchetti was of course the Member. And I worked very closely with Luchetti and Luchetti was a person, a politician, of the Right, and he was the kind of politician that you move round with him, he was a kind of all things to all people, but an astute, tough old politician in his day. There's no doubt about him.

But your pre-existing views, really your moral framework, placed you automatically on the Left of the party?

No, I wouldn't say in those early days at all, because I had a closeness with Luchetti, and I wouldn't say that I was on the Left at all, but what really [influenced] my determination about where I should go … and some of it was sectarian in the early stages, it wasn't just ideological. There was this -- when in October 1954, Dr Evatt exposed the Movement [Catholic Action] within our Labor movement, then I certainly was attracted to Evatt's philosophy, because after all I came from a very strong Protestant upbringing, Masonic lodge and that concept, and it was always the question mark of the whisky-badge people: what were they doing, what was that secret society, and were they taking over the Labor Party? And on their negative kind of anti-communist crusade. Well, with a couple of other colleagues, we went from Lithgow down to Wollongong, which was Evatt's first public meeting after making the announcement of October 1954, and we decided to try to get a public meeting in Lithgow. And Evatt agreed to that. And I did most of the organisational work for that. Now that was a very clear position that I was beginning to take, but again internally it wasn't ideologically to the Left, it was, if I might use the term, it was [a] 'what's those bloody Catholics up to?' kind of attitude, and so that was the beginning of my movement to a Left projective position.

So did you stay in Lithgow for long?

Yes, and I was there until April '55, but in the meantime after that Wollongong meeting, we did this meeting at Lithgow, and it was organised for Dr Evatt, and Dr Evatt came there; that's when I started to do my activities. Now I had made up my mind -- it was about this time, or soon after this that Mr Nash called me down to have a discussion with me and said, 'Tom, you know there's only one thing that'll stop you going a long way in this company?' And I said, 'Yes, politics.' And he said, 'Yes. I understand you get out on the street corner and make speeches, and you hand out how-to-vote literature and all that,' and I said, 'That's right. But Mr Nash, what I do before 8.30 of a morning and after 5.30 of a night is my business.' He said, 'Oh no, Tom, no, in Lithgow, you're Mr Woolworths.' So I said, 'Mr Nash, look there's something inside me that I've got to express, fight for some social justice and for the rights of people. I know I'm no Jesus Christ, but there's something inside my heart. If Jesus Christ hadn't come out and espoused his principles we wouldn't have had Christianity today. Well, I'm no Jesus Christ but I've certainly got something in my heart and I'm gonna do something about it.' Well, d'you know the older feller said: 'I s'pose you're right. Pack of bloody Libs in our company. I s'pose we could put up with one Labor bloke.' And what I put the hard word on him about is that I said I wanted to come back from Lithgow. And I said I wanted to get back to Sydney, but what I didn't tell him was why I wanted to get back to Sydney, because I'd already made my decisions for this, I'd made my decision that I wanted to get out of Woolworths, and I wanted to open my own store. Right. I had to make the decision about politics and so I'd bought a block of land on the corner of Chetwynd Road and Hawksview Street, West Guildford. And I put two lock-up shops there. And how I was to finance that was to mortgage my home, the home that I'd built in Guildford, which I'd built and just finished, just before they called me to appoint me to Lithgow.

How did you choose Guildford? Why did you choose that area?

Well, again, that's interesting because we bought two blocks of land. We saw this lovely block of land -- I must say it was in a semi-rural setting at that time -- a lot of gum trees around it in Guildford and that's where I wanted to go, live. The other one [was] I'd bought this block of land a long time ago at Manly Vale. And I think Patricia would have liked to have lived at Manly Vale. She was a Guildford girl. And I said to Patricia, this is long before I ever joined the Labor Party, this is back in late '40s, early '50s, I said, 'Look Patricia, I could be Ben Chifley, but I'll never get into parliament' [laughs] and I wasn't even a member of the Labor Party. It's quite ironical that I'd make such a statement. So there must have been that feeling. So anyway, Patricia agreed that we should build, that it would be more economical also to build at Guildford and we built our home, the both of us did it, but we did it with contract labour and people helping us and what have you. Just a simple little house it was at first, straight up and straight out But it was broad and big, glass and steel-framed windows to get the maximum sunshine.

So you were really positioning yourself with this move to Guildford, the house, the shops, for a political life?

Well, the house first of all. But then of course, I used to use the house to get my political freedom from Woolworths. My intention was, we thought that there'd be a redistribution of boundaries round about that time. And I had to get transferred back from the Lithgow branch to the West Guildford branch of the Labor Party. I transferred at the end of 1954, so that I could stand as a delegate to the respective federal and state councils, by the early part of 1955, which I was able to do because most of the people in the Guildford West branch knew the family that I'd married into, but knew very little about me, and thought that, you know, they were fairly conservative-type people, the people I'd married into.

So Patricia wasn't a member of the Labor Party?

No, she wasn't -- well, she was a member of the Labor Party, she joined the Labor Party in Lithgow when I did, but prior to that she'd never been a member. In fact, her family came from what you'd call a middle-class background, her grandfather had been a person of some eminence in the district, he was the man that laid the foundation stone of the school of arts many years before and, if anything, I'd say that they were conservative voting people.

Menzies' people.

Well, I would have thought long before Menzies even, just conservative-type people. But it's remarkable that we never talked politics, but gradually they really followed my position very strongly in the long term. Particularly Patricia, I mean she really a really brilliant working-class woman in every respect.

Did Woolworths cooperate in transferring you back?

Yes they did, they transferred me back and I was the opening manager at the Merrylands store. At the same time I was building these two lock-up shops up on the corner and when they were completed I went back and got a further loan from the bank to stock 'em. And then I resigned from the company. But by this time unfortunately Bill Nash had died, he died of heart attack and so I didn't find that very difficult to leave. Although I must say, in fairness to Woolworths, they were a very good company to me and I feel I owe them [because] that was a part of my education process. They gave me the ability to teach, how to lead, and to work with people, and I've always had a kind of a sentimental spot for the company. I'm glad they're an Australian company, by the way. They're not an American company, they're an Australian company.

So what was your plan with the shops?

Well, just to get political freedom. I had a butcher shop and a general store and that allowed me to at least ...

So did you lease them?

No, I ran the general store myself and I leased the butcher shop. And I did that from '55 until '57, because in 1957 I ran against Charlie Morgan in a preselection. Now prior to that what happened was, when the redistribution came about, it didn't alter the boundaries in the West Guildford area at all, so in fact I was still in the electorate of Reid where Charlie Morgan was the member, and Charlie Morgan had been the member for 15 years. But in the split, he had kind of sixpence each way, and [in] Canberra he was a pro-Evatt man, in New South Wales he was pro the New South Wales Right-wing machine.

Was he a Catholic?

Well, Charlie was a product of a mixed marriage, so it was very hard to say whether he was a Catholic or not; he certainly wasn't a practicing Catholic as far as I was concerned. And I think he had his conflicts with Catholics over the years. Also in the case [of] the Browne vs Fitzpatrick affair, where Browne -- remember Fitzpatrick was a big contractor from Bankstown who also had a local paper in Bankstown threatened, or [was] supposed to have threatened Morgan and instead of Morgan taking a libel action against him, he took a privilege case in the parliament. And Browne, who was the editor of that newspaper, was brought before the Bar of the parliament, the same as Fitzpatrick, and they were given three months' jail. It's the only time in the Australian history that people have been sentenced to jail by the Australian parliament. And so that was historic in itself and a lot of people thought that the Browne-Fitzpatrick thing had upset Morgan and that's what allowed me to break through, but in fact the people who opposed Fitzpatrick in the Bankstown areas were nearly all Left-wingers, and they were supporting me. So I found that in the preselections Fitzpatrick wasn't my ally at all, in fact to the contrary, although he would have been [laughs] happy to see Charlie Morgan defeated.

Tom, you were a relatively new ALP member challenging a well-established sitting member for his seat. Did that give you any pause for thought?

No, well again, nothing happens like the turning off of a light -- you have to do the preparatory work and I moved from Lithgow at the end of '54. I came down into the ALP activities in both the Granville State Council and the Reid Federal Electoral Council during the whole of 1955, '56 and '57 and with that was an activity of crisis because the Labor Party was in crisis in New South Wales between 1955 and 1957. Now, during this period of time, I found when I came there that [in] the Reid electorate there were some wonderful people but they were all individualists, they were all putting their own individual point of view, but nobody collectivised them. And that was probably the greatest strength that I did in those days. And there were some quite remarkable people, I mean Pat Flaherty [James Patrick], who later became the party whip under the Wran government, and Jack Ferguson, who later became the Deputy Premier, under the Wran Government. They were members as well as Bob Gradwell, who became quite a famous trade union leader. And quite a number of other eminent people were there but I was able to coordinate them and work 'em together as a team. I never stood for any position, none at all. But what I did do, I discussed it with our colleagues and said, 'Well look, if we're gonna defeat old Charlie, we've got to do it in a collective way. Now I'm not myself forward as the candidate. But several of us should be considered as candidates. And if we do run against him all we've got to do is just interlock our preferences.' So what I did, I just built bridges -- there were 18 branches in Reid at that time -- and I built a bridge with a family in every branch, and what I would do was go and have a cup of tea and first of all win them, and they would then give me a history of the branch members, and gradually I'd go round in cups of tea, just from house to house, and talking about my philosophy and what we should do and what we shouldn't do and gradually, over several years, over at least two years, because there'd been a preselection in '55 when I was there when a chap by the name of John Ferguson, who was the Headmaster of the Merrylands Primary School, he had stood against Charlie, and he was beaten overwhelmingly by Charlie in a preselection. But in that two years from '55 to '57, it was my organisational work, and winning and convincing people that I could do a better job than Charlie. And at that time of the '57 preselections there were about six sitting members opposed. Now I was the only one that broke through. And I thought that I'd win by 74 votes and I actually won by 64, and I identified clearly the five votes that I missed out on, in one branch, where they'd gone one way. So I knew exactly four -- Jack Ferguson and I were probably the only two because he was the only one I would consult very closely with, and we knew that when the ballot came up that I would actually defeat them. Now the night that the ballot came up and was decided the forces, the Right-wing forces, were astounded because Charlie himself was convinced that he was going to win. Because what happened was Charlie had come up from Canberra and particularly in the Bass Hill area (which later went into Paul Keating's area, by the way), as Charlie went round, they rang me up and said, 'Look Tom, Charlie's coming round' ... [INTERRUPTION]

[end of tape]

Proceed to Tape 7