OBITUARY: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
Frank Rooney - R.I.P.
, September 24, 2005
Frank Rooney, one of the unsung heroes of the struggle to preserve democratic unionism in Australia and defeat the Communist Party's bid for power in the 1940s and 1950s, died recently after a long illness.
Born in 1914, Frank grew up in the Hunter Valley in New South Wales, where his father was a poor share-farmer. His education was limited, because he and his brothers had to work in the fields.
In the Depression years of the 1930s, he began work in the local coal-mines, and there became deeply aware of the struggle of working-class families to survive, and the work of the Miners' Federation, in protecting the jobs and conditions of coal-miners.
He also came into contact with a prominent leader in the Northern Districts, Bondy Orr, later to emerge as the national leader of the Miners' Federation.
After working at various jobs around Newcastle and Sydney during the 1930s, he moved to Sydney, and obtained work at Cockatoo Dock, which became the centre of a celebrated struggle between the communist leaders of the Ironworkers' Federation, and the Trotskyite group led by Laurie Short.
The Communist Party tried to recruit Frank into their ranks, even inviting him to a secret meeting addressed by the party leadership in Sydney, as he was clearly concerned about social questions and sided with them in industrial disputes at the Cockatoo Dock in Sydney. However, he recognised their objectives, joined the ALP and resisted communist attempts to infiltrate local branches of the ALP.
By the end of the war, he had practical experience in mining and the metal industry, and a firm practical knowledge of the workings of the Communist Party in industry.
In 1945, a series of bitter strikes, led by communists, erupted in the coal-mines which supplied coal and gas for industry, in the huge BHP plant at Newcastle, directed against the state and federal Labor governments. Frank Rooney opposed them, and began organising resistance within ALP branches and unions.
He became a delegate to the NSW ALP conference, where he spoke out against the deepening problem of communist control of the unions, to support policies of decentralisation, and to defeat the pro-communist forces in the NSW branch of the ALP.
Aware of the formation of industrial groups (i.e. branches) of the ALP in other states, Frank informally brought together anti-communist ALP members in Newcastle, effectively forming one of the first Industrial Groups in New South Wales.
After witnessing ballot-rigging in union elections, and rallying the anti-communist forces in Newcastle, he played a key role in building the ALP Industrial Group within the Ironworkers' Union, which combined with the forces around Laurie Short to challenge the communist leadership of the Ironworkers' Federation, first in Newcastle, then in NSW, then nationally.
During the great coal strike of 1949, described by Labor leader Ben Chifley as "a pre-revolutinary act", Frank Rooney built an organisation within the Miniers' Federation which ultimately led to the defeat (for a time) of the communist leadership.
He later became an ALP organiser, and held that position until the 1950s Labor Split, when he was forced out of the ALP, along with Jack Kane, assistant secretary of the Party and later a DLP senator from New South Wales, and many others.
He continued to fight for what he believed, while maintaining close friendships with those with whom he had worked long and hard in the industrial movement.
His work would have been impossible without the unstinting support of his wife, Beryl, and his family. May he rest in peace.