A Tribute to Peter Barrack: A Life to Celebrate

Rod Noble

The Hunter Valley, and the union and left political movement as a whole, lost a great comrade with the passing in January 2020 of Peter Barrack, Search Foundation member and OAM. 

Peter was born in the Newcastle working class suburb of Stockton and, like many post-WWII working-class teenagers in Newcastle, he joined a surf club and played rugby league. His early working life was as a painter, accepting an apprenticeship at the Department of Housing based in Williamtown RAAF base. His early political life involved membership of the Labor Party in the late 1960s and subsequent membership of the Communist Party from 1970 until its dissolution in 1991. 

Through his work at the RAAF base Peter became a union activist, and in the mid- 1970s, after winning a ballot, he served for a period as the northern organiser for the Painters and Decorators Union, until the right-wing-controlled state level of the union stopped him from re-nominating. He was then unemployed for several years and doing casual work. All through this, Peter was at the forefront of the anti-Vietnam War movement, leading to a stint in jail for placing anti-war posters in public places. He was Secretary of the May Day Committee for several years as well as being active in the major peace group – the Association for International Co-operation and Disarmament (AICD).

With the retirement of Newcastle Trades Hall Council (NTHC) Secretary, Keith Wilson in 1979, Peter was chosen to step up to that position on the most influential industrial organisation in the region. Peter was Secretary of the NTHC for 21 years, and this span became a major defining period in the history of the NTHC with many highlights. 

When Peter took over, the NTHC was already famous not only for defending workers’ rights, but also for defending public ownership and for green bans (eg the extension of Pacific Park). Often this was in concert with resident groups. Peter continued this tradition. There was support for Carrington residents in their struggle with the Maritime Services Board (a green ban from Feb.1983); the Tomaree peninsula campaign in 1984; a campaign to prevent closure of Wallsend Hospital in 1991-92 (a 24-hour picket operated for 18 months); the anti-Joh Belke-Petersen Campaign in May 1987; and of course, the famous Patrick’s waterfront dispute in1998.

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Peter Barrack, 2008
Photo courtesy Rod Noble

If not for the NTHC, the railway sheds in the foreshore park (now enjoyed by many, including for union rallies) would not be there. In 1987 the then Deputy Premier of NSW rang Peter up to announce that he wanted the NTHC ban lifted so that the government could put the shed up for auction. A date for the auction had been set. Peter replied that if the auction went ahead that he would be down there at the auction with a loud hailer to discourage anyone from buying it and to announce that the ban was remaining in place. The result of that conflict is there for all to see, as the shed is still in public ownership on public land. 

The struggle to maintain public services and public enterprises were continual. One example was the need to supplement funding to the Mater Hospital to avoid cuts to staff. The community and hospital staff were heavily involved in this endeavour along with the NTHC. There was also the battle to try and maintain the State Dockyard, plus many more significant events during Peter’s time as NTHC Secretary. As we know, not all of these were won, but many were.

Another important struggle was maintaining left-wing control of NTHC. In the 1980s the right-wing-controlled NSW Labor Council set up a rival Trades and Labor Council in the Hunter Valley to try and make NTHC redundant. The organisation they set up was called Centre Unity Group of Unions (CUGA). It turned out to be a failure partly because the then Premier Wran appointed Peter (as NTHC rep) to a range of tripartite organisations instead of CUGA people, and also because Peter and the NTHC recruited experienced union organiser Serge Zorino as the NTHC negotiator for regional industrial agreements. These two things, plus the tenacity of the left-wing, resulted in CUGA itself becoming the redundant organisation.

For most of the 1980s Peter was simultaneously: Secretary of NTHC; President of the CPA; and President of the Newcastle Workers Club – one of the largest clubs in the Hunter Valley. As a result of his contribution to unionism and industrial relations in general he was awarded an OAM in 1994. His extensive ASIO files attest to the fact that the establishment considered him a dangerous ‘person of interest’.

After he retired in 2000 Peter remained politically active, leading to his role representing the Search Foundation on the committee of 12 that organises the successful Hunter Valley Broad Left. He was one of the most active on that committee, always advocating civil rights, the need for peace, an independent foreign policy and an end to the Australian-US military alliance. He was the recipient of an Outstanding Service Award from the Broad Left in 2015. His enthusiastic involvement continued up until a few months before his death.

Peter Barrack was fighter for workers’ rights, residents’ rights, public ownership, peace, and the environment. He will be greatly missed.

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1*This tribute is based on several interviews and unpublished material held by the author and also refers to Rod Noble, Of Human Right and Human Gain: a history of peak labour organisation in the Hunter Valley, Hunter Workers Research Co-Operative, Hamilton NSW, 2008, pp. 182-206. 1*