During November 1984 Eliot Valens Elliott, Federal Secretary of the Seamen’s Union of Australia (SUA) for 37 years (1941-1978), died in Sydney’s Hornsby Hospital. In the weeks that followed his death I tracked down and read an old novel he had once recommended to me: The Harbor(19l5) by American author Ernest Poole. In its central character Joe Kramer, knockabout socialist militant, I recognised many of the qualities I’d loved in the SUA leader — courage, commitment, faith, blunt honesty, integrity, love for the working class, hatred of war, a socialist vision of a better human future; and grit. And like Kramer, when Elliott spoke about socialism his words came to life; and personally, I knew I wasn’t listening to a dream. I felt close to the man again, and recalled the way an anti-union publications had once described him; as “a communist Robin Hood”. There was something in that too.
Eliot was born in New Zealand in 1902, the son of Helen Grey and James Elliott, wheelwright. His father died when the boy was 3, and his stepfather 12 years later in a mining accident. Leaving school in his midteens to support the family, Eliot worked on the railways before going to sea at the age of 17. He sailed on British ships on the Atlantic run; was ashore for a while in the united States, unemployed, and experienced the doss-house life of the unemployed; then in 1919 joined the Federated Seamen’s Union of Australasia (then covering seamen in New Zealand and Australia).
Transferring to the Australian coast in 1922 as a fireman, Eliot became union delegate on most ships he sailed in, knocked up a reputation as a tough and cocky unionist, and in 1924 was sacked from a ship for being “a bolshevik”. In those days to be a shipboard delegate meant to court physical injury, and victimisation in employment. Eliot experienced the lot.
By 1935 the New Zealander had become recognised as a leader of Australian, seamen, and was prominent in the long, bitter, ill-fated strike that year against an unsatisfactory Award and poor working conditions. The strike failed, and left the union divided and crippled.
In 1936 Eliot was elected Queensland Branch Secretary, and became a member of the Communist Party of Australia an organisation in which he became a lynchpin until 1971 when, following ideological differences, he became a foundation member of the Socialist Party of Australia.
From Queensland Eliot took upon himself the task of rebuilding the union. To facilitate this he personally adopted a policy of as much face-to-face contact with the rank and rule as possible, and created a journal, The Seamen’s Voice, in which he hammered the themes of unity and solidarity amongst seamen and maritime workers generally, rank and file participation, organisation, and internationalism.
Following his election in 1941 as Federal Secretary of the SUA, Eliot quit Queensland and took office in Sydney. Together with fellow officials Bill Bird, Barney Smith, Ron Hurd, and Reg Franklin, he guided the union through the difficult war years and forged in the process a strong, united, militant outfit.
The 37 years of Eliot’s leadership of the SUA cannot, with justice, be summed in a few words. It suffices to say that with E.V. at the helm the union successfully improved the wages and conditions of Australian seamen and gave their job a security and dignity it had never had before. During the Cold War the union battled assorted reactionary forces with courage. Internationally it combatted imperialist aggression, notably during the Vietnam conflict, with distinction. And at every opportunity the union sought to assist in improving the wages and conditions of foreign sea going workers.
Recognition of Eliot’s role as an international trade union figure came in 1949 when he was elected Vice President of the Seamen’s and Dockers Trade Department of the World Federation of Trade Unions. President was fellow ex-New Zealander, American longshoreman Harry Bridges.
Throughout much of his time as national leader of Australian seamen, Eliot had the support and help of a remarkable person, his wife Della, who in the annals of labour history warrants an entry of her own.
As a human being E.V. was a man of exceptional character, strength, and charm; he had the innate qualities of a leader. He was witty, and a raconteur worth listening to. I~ times of crisis he remained outwardly unperturbed; he was gifted with the inability to panic. Life he regarded as one long learning process.
Self effacing, Eliot never sang his own praises. It was always “my colleagues and I”. Amongst seamen he was many things… patriarch, friend, adviser, mentor, surrogate father, and legend. He inspired love, and loyalty, and did not seem to harbour grudges. Commenting on seamen who scabbed during the 1935 strike he told me of the close relationship he had with some of them in later years; “You’ve got to understand what motivates people, and learn that people can change”, he said emphatically.
With the passing of Eliot, a chapter of Australian maritime history closed. For the old man had his roots in another time, when sail and steam. could be seen together on the waterfront, and the exploitation of maritime labour was crude and blatant – almost straight from the pages of Jack London and Herman Melville; an age of crowded harbourside pubs and cheap rooming houses; an era when the term’ wobbly’ still meant something, and the Russian Revolution was new and offered hope for the future; an era when industrial and union issues could be settled with fists, knuckle dusters, even pistols.
True though this be, and although Australian seamen now enjoy wages and conditions that are the envy of workes allover the world, E.V. would be the first to point out I this is no reason to be complacent, and that while times change, the forces that led in the past to exploitation and war and human suffering are still with us.
So the struggle must go on, and socialists must, to use his term, remain “on course”. Part of the struggle takes place in the memory, a struggle against forgetting the past. For those of us who were pri.vileged to know Eliot with a degree of closeness, to the many living thousands who were touched by his life, there will be no forgetting either the struggle, or the man. For me and many others, E.V. will remain an inspiration.
Copies of the book The Seamen’s Union of Australia, 1872 – 1972: A History by Brian Fitzpatrick and Rowan J. Cahill, 1981, are available from the Seamen’s Union, 289 Sussex Street, Sydney.