On the evening of 21 November 1991 over 400 people gathered at a Sydney testimonial dinner for the retiring Federal Secretary of the Seamen’s Union of Australia (SUA), Patrick Geraghty.
Amongst the numerous speakers, including the then Prime Minister Bob Hawke, it was ACTU Secretary Bill Kelty who claimed for Geraghty an important place in Australian union history, referring to him as a trade union hero and identifying him as one who pioneered modem union concepts like retraining and superannuation, very much a forward thinking trail blazer.
Born in Sydney in 1928, Geraghty was raised in Balmain, shipped out as a deckboy in 1947, and like many seamen in the post-war years was employed on British and Scandinavian ships, seeing much of the world in the process, even to the extent of being whipped by a South African policeman during an anti racist protest. Involved in shipboard rank and me politics, and a communist, Geraghty had the benefits of learning from seamen who were products of the Depression and World War 2, experienced the turbulence of the Cold War, and had the youth, intelligence and nous to forge these into a vision capable of reshaping unionism to face the challenges of the 21st century. Geraghty entered the federal sphere of SUA politics in 1961-62 when he acted as federal returning officer in the union’s elections, and organised the first Committee of Management-Representatives conference, an important ongoing initiative involving the SUA rank and me more closely in the development of broad policy guidelines for the future.
In 1967 he ceased being bosun on the Calla Liverpool (sometimes referred to as Calta Moscow) and took office as Assistant Federal Secretary of the SUA, to work closely with the maritime legend, Federal Secretary E.V. Elliott. In this important partnership the past and future met.
Geraghty quickly established a reputation as a self trained intuitive, possibly brilliant, industrial advocate and tactician within the legal system. He skilfully represented the SUA in the 1969 Work Value Inquiry before Judge Gallagher which helped create the historic aggregate wage for seafarers. He was also the driving force behind the creation of the Seafarers’ Retirement Fund which delivered to seafarers the financial security and dignity traditionally denied to them in their advancing years.
Following the retirement of Elliott in 1979, Geraghty took over the helm as Federal Secretary. During his period in office the SUA was involved in the introduction of training and retraining programs for seafarers, and amalgamations with other seafaring unions, transformations that were achieved quietly and without much attendant drama, but were radical all the same. As Kelty pointed out in his tribute to Geraghty, the SUA has been the organisation other unions consulted when facing the amalgamation process, or establishing retraining or superannuation schemes.
Internationally Geraghty gained a reputation, and respect, as a leader of seafarers. He had high profile roles in the International Labour Organisation, the World Federation of Trade Unions, the Trade Union International, and Maritime Unions Against Apartheid. A significant aspect of his work internationally was to draw attention to Flag of Convenience shipping, a menace which helps destroy national shipping fleets, often contravenes international safety standard§, erodes hard won working conditions generally, and goes hand in with massive tax avoidance, insurance scams, and death.
A characteristic of Geraghty’s personality has been his modesty, a reluctance to accept the accolade of greatness others put upon him. Rather he insists on seeing himself as part of a team, as one who fronted for the collective efforts of many people. This is not a false modesty, but very much a seafarer’s attitude; a well found ship, after all, is only as good as its crew.