Passing the Baton: Clarrie Fallon, Tom Dougherty and the struggle for control of the Australian Workers Union during the 1940s

Harry Knowles

Union leaders well into their incumbency will often turn their thoughts to their successors. It is well documented that the longer someone heads an organisation, the harder it becomes for them to relinquish the chair to someone else. They find it difficult to give up power and often seek to continue to influence the direction of the organisation they helped to build even after they have no formal position of legitimate power.

Whilst still in power, they will often identify with a potential successor who seems to embody similar personal characteristics to theirs and who tends to embrace similar attitudes and beliefs. They will then ‘select out’ and mentor this potential successor in readiness for the day when they hand over the baton. In a sense they seek a ‘re-creation of self’ ­someone who will ensure an almost seamless transition that takes the organisation in the same direction  even after they have gone.

In their early days together in Queensland, Clarrie Fallon (1890-1950), President of the Queensland branch of the Australian Workers Union (and for a time General Secretary of its national body), I think, saw in fellow AWU powerbroker Tom Dougherty (1902-72), just such a person. As it played out, Fallon had to step down as the AWU’s General Secretary so as to meet regulatory conditions, not because his time had come. Nevertheless, when the time came, he was prepared and readily anointed Dougherty as his successor.

What I want to discuss in this brief essay, is how the relationship between the two men developed then deteriorated as the ambitious Dougherty became to be seen by Fallon as a threat to his status as the enforcer and ring-leader of the AWU. Their friendship ended when they engaged in a power struggle for the control of the union, a battle which Dougherty eventually won.

Clarence George Fallon

Clarence  George Fallon was born at Rookwood, near Tangorin in Central Queensland, in 1887.  He was born into a unionist family as both his parents  had taken part in the 1891 shearers strike.

As a  youth, Fallon worked in the transport, mining and pastoral industries. He joined the Trolley, Draymen and Carters’ Union in 1908, helped establish a sugar-workers’ union in the Bundaberg district and was also active in the Gladstone branch of the Railway Workers’ Union and in the General Labourers’ Union. 1

In September 1916, Fallon enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force but was discharged two months later on the grounds of defective vision.  In 1917, he began employment as a municipal worker and joined the AWU. Within four years, Fallon had been appointed a temporary organiser for the union, covering the Bundaberg district.

By 1923, he was in charge of the AWU office in Rockhampton and in the following year, transferred to Mackay where he became friendly with William Forgan Smith, a future Labor premier of Queensland.

Fallon rose rapidly through the Queensland Branch hierarchy becoming northern district secretary at Townsville in 1928, then winning the Queensland Branch presidency in a close contest the following year.

In 1932, Fallon was elected Queensland Branch secretary, a position he  was to hold until his death in 1950. 2 .

Dominance of the Qld Branch

During the 1930s and 1940s Queensland Branch consolidated its position as the powerbroker AWU state branch. In the course of these two decades, the national union developed into the most powerful union in Australia controlling the state Labor Party branches in New South Wales, South Australia and Queensland at various times.

In Queensland itself, between 1920 and 1950, five out of its six Labor Premiers came from AWU ranks – E.G. Theodore, Bill McCormack, Frank Cooper, Bill Forgan Smith and Ned Hanlon and in the first Forgan Smith Government in 1932, the caucus-elected nine man ministry comprised six members with a strong AWU background. Despite the Great Depression’s deleterious impact on union density, Queensland branch membership had actually increased by 136% between 1932 and 1935.3

The Branch was thus eligible to send 13 delegates to the 1936 Annual AWU Convention.  On the other hand, New South Wales membership was a paltry  6,600 entitling the branch to only two delegates.

Queensland’s thirteen delegates easily outnumbered the combined total of nine from all other branches and thus dominated the politics and direction of the national union.

Fallon’s accession to the Queensland branch leadership coincided with the emergence of the branch’s increased power and influence within the AWU. This allowed Queensland branch candidates to secure positions of influence within the union and paved the way for the emergence of a new breed of Queensland-based AWU powerbrokers. Fallon was undoubtedly the powerhouse in the union from the mid-1930s until his death in January 1950.

Fallon’s Leadership

In terms of his leadership style, Clyde Cameron once said of Fallon: “I have never seen a man of such an electrifying presence”. 4 He was a man who had been blooded industrially and politically in the canefields in northern Queensland. He was a tough and astute operator and his control of the AWU was described in a character sketch written on the occasion of his death as “complete and unchallengeable”.5 In the bear-pit of union politics, Fallon:

… manipulated the game like a champion chess player, moving piece against piece with ruthless precision to the final checkmate. If some rival union was broken in the process, if some weaker union leader was callously brushed aside, that was the way Fallon fought and no­one could do much about it.6

To secure obedience, Fallon would often put the loyalty of others to the test. Fallon would frequently move unexpected resolutions which were patently ridiculous at Queensland Executive meetings and closely observe those assembled to see whether they would all support the motion. If they did he would be satisfied and later move its rescission. Fallon appeared to believe that the true test of loyalty to leadership was not to have someone support you when they believed you were right but to have someone support you when they believed you were wrong.7

By 1941 Fallon had become acting General Secretary of the AWU at a national level as well as remaining Queensland branch secretary. He had taken on the position as a consequence of the illness of the incumbent General Secretary Edward Grayndler, but had refused the salary which amounted to £1000 per annum.

Fallon was perceptive and cunning enough to recognise an opportunity here to foster his leadership ambitions. He had assumed the position in July 1940  however by the end of that year Grayndler had indicated to the  AWU Executive Council that he was well enough to resume duty. It was quite clear that Grayndler was far from well and despite approaches to him to resign on the grounds of his health in favour of Fallon, Grayndler refused.

On the first morning of the 1941 AWU Annual Convention, proceedings were postponed until after lunch while the Executive Council discussed the impasse caused by Grayndler’s refusal to resign: On resumption, Fallon called on the General Secretary to present his report. Grayndler explained that he did not have it ready because of his illness. Fallon then moved successfully that Grayndler be directed to prepare the report and to deliver it to Convention on the following day.

Unsurprisingly the report proved to be totally inadequate, a fact Fallon seized upon to convince Convention to recommend Grayndler stand down. After initially refusing, Grayndler was eventually convinced to comply after Fallon conscripted Henry Boote to offer him his salary for life while he wrote the ‘history of the AWU. Grayndler never attempted the task and died two years later in 1943. Fallon’s control of the proceedings was absolute. Boote’s diary entry for that day described the Convention as a “one man show” to the extent that “Fallon absolutely dominates it; delegates are nauseatingly subservient to him.” 8

Fallon’s Dilemma

Fallon then had to face a contested ballot for the position of General secretary for the 1942/43 year. He won easily gaining over 17,000 votes 10 the 5000 polled by his nearest rival. While remaining Queensland Branch secretary, Fallon again contested and won the ballot for General Secretary for the following year. However, at the 1943 AWU Annual Convention, he tendered his resignation from the latter position. In peaking to his letter of resignation, Fallon insisted that he had accepted the position of his own free will and was leaving it of his own accord, taking pains to point out that no pressure had been brought to bear on him to leave.

This was not  quite the full story. As it transpired, the AWU Executive Council had resolved the previous year that the General Secretary must take up residence In Sydney. This would have made it impossible for  Fallon to remain Queensland Branch secretary. Speaking of his reluctance to leave Queensland “where all his interests lay”, Fallon said he had concluded that” … he could not tear himself away from his old associations and ties.” But the decision must have been clear to Fallon.  Queensland was his power-base and whoever controlled Queensland controlled the AWU.9

Clarrie Fallon was presented with a dilemma. The two obvious candidates for General Secretary were his rival, Beecher Hay, who had been Queensland Branch president since 1938, and Tom Dougherty, his ambitious sidekick and Queensland AWU Northern District secretary. Fallon had decided he did not want Hay in the job – he thought him “a good lieutenant” but someone who would be “a weak and pliable leader” and perhaps one who would be difficult to control.10

Fallon was keen to see his deputy and protégé, Dougherty, succeed him as AWU General Secretary.

Tom Dougherty: like father, like son?

Thomas Nicholson Pierce Dougherty was born in Bollen, Queensland, in 1902. One of eight children, he left school at the age of thirteen and worked on a combined dairy/cattle property at Lake Cootharaba. A number of other bush jobs followed including a sojourn on a rubber plantation in New Guinea. At the age of 19, he commenced work in the canefields as a cane-cutter.

At the age of 30, he was appointed Northern District organiser with the AWU. Over a decade or so, Dougherty worked his way through AWU  Queensland Branch ranks to become Branch president in 1943.11

Hay had made no secret of the fact that he coveted the job of AWU general secretary and had attempted to force the decision on Fallon to relinquish either the Sydney or Brisbane position at the 1941 AWU Annual Convention but lacked the numbers to see it through.

Hay correctly assumed Fallon would choose to retain the Queensland Branch leadership where the real power in the AWU resided. Hay resurrected the proposal the following year and confidently proposed it to the AWU Executive Council assured of Tom Dougherty’s support.12

Fallon nobbles Beecher Hay

The contest between Hay and Dougherty for the vacant position of AWU general secretary at the 1943 AWU Annual Convention resulted in a tied vote. Convention authorised the appointment of a candidate by the Executive Council, which selected Hay by a 6 to 3 vote.

This was a significant moment for both Fallon and Dougherty as Fallon’s failure to control the numbers at the AWU Executive Council was a signal that his authority within the AWU was diminishing.

Undeterred at his apparent loss of influence, Dougherty renominated for the position for the 1944-45 year. This time Dougherty was successful in the ballot, polling some 4500 votes more than Hay. Queensland delivered the result for Dougherty, accounting for almost half of the aggregate national vote. 13

Hay challenged Dougherty’s election on the grounds that a number of votes should have been declared invalid and foreshadowed legal action against the union in terms of the validity of the nominations and the conduct of the ballot “However Hay had compounded his now tenuous hold on authority within the union by neglecting to produce a General Secretary’s report to Convention, presumably because of his pre­occupation with the Dougherty challenge.

The AWU Executive Council met immediately and endorsed the AWU president’s ruling at Convention that as Hay had failed to comply with AWU rules he could no longer occupy the position of General Secretary and that the position was now vacant. Council then further resolved that “Mr T Dougherty be appointed General Secretary”.14

Hay look the matters of Dougherty’s appointment and of the ballot irregularities to Court. The case ran from July to August 1944 whereupon , Judge O’Mara in the Federal Arbitration Court refused Hay’s applications  and entered judgement for the Union.

By the end of November 1944,  Hay had been expelled from the AWU after being found guilty  of charges that while General Secretary he had withheld from the executive council complaints concerning alleged  malpractices in regard to  the 1943 New South Wales Branch ballot.

So Dougherty became General Secretary of the union in 1944.15 Beecher Hay did not fit Fallon’s plans for the restructuring the AWU leadership so  Fallon removed him. Hay himself attributed his demise to ‘Fallonism’ .16

The Pupil foils the Master

Dougherty  had learned well from Fallon and moved quickly to assert his  authority in the AWU.  Although obviously aware of his pupil’s driving ambition, Fallon may have overestimated his own ability to constrain it. Former Queensland AWU Far Northern District Secretary, George Pont, who knew both Fallon and Dougherty well thought that the reason the two fought on so many occasions was because Fallon believed Dougherty “might try and take his job”.17

Dougherty had his own supporters in the Queensland Branch and, over the next foul’ years set out to contest Fallon’s authority both here and within the federal executive of the union.

Dougherty achieved early success in stamping his authority on the union by pulling Con Bowen’s recalcitrant New South Wales Branch into line.  However, Bowen was succeeded as branch secretary by Bill Wilson who proved no more amenable than his predecessor to submit to Dougherty’s  domination.

Fallon saw an opportunity to play Wilson and Dougherty against each other and encouraged Wilson’s independent streak. In 1949, Fallon induced Wilson to oppose Dougherty in the ballot for general secretary. While Wilson polled well in Fallon’s constituency, the north Queensland canefields, he lost to Dougherty by 3000 votes. Defeat signalled the end for Wilson when, in September 1949, the AWU Executive Council intervened in the New South Wales Branch and took over its affairs following allegations of ballot irregularities. 18

The pupil had outmanoeuvred the master.  Fallon’s authority and influence as a leader within the AWU was fast diminishing and there was little he could do to remedy the situation.  The years of driving himself “day and night, week in-week out” to first achieve and then retain power were beginning to tell. Fallon had also been a heavy drinker, a habit which had now begun to get the better of him.19 He was sixty-three  years of age but had not worn the years well. Within a few months he was dead. Fallon suffered a stroke and collapsed in the early hours of the morning of the third day of a meeting of the AWU’s Executive Council in Sydney on 11 January 1950. He failed to regain consciousness and died in hospital late that afternoon, Dougherty’s response was limited to a description of his former mentor as one of the hardest workers the union had known.”20


Dougherty went on to lead the AWU in the same fashion and style as had his predecessor albeit with even a harder edge.  He would not tolerate any dissent from either his leadership team or from the rank and me as ills fierce battles with Clyde Cameron during the 1960s amply illustrate.

Fallon might have stepped down from the key position in the AWU but he never intended to concede any power. He was able to maintain a position of power and influence through his leadership in Queensland. This meant that there could not be a seamless transition from Fallon to Dougherty. Dougherty was never the successor but the rival. Fallon’s failing health eventually intervened and made Dougherty’s ascendancy easier to achieve than it might have otherwise been.

Dougherty was less subtle in exercising his authority and influence than Fallon but was equally successful, dying undefeated in office in 1972.

The AWU under Fallon and Dougherty was ruled rather than led.  The union had been strongly led in the past but never as ruthlessly as it was during that thirty year period.

Dr Harry Knowles is the co-author of One Big Union: a History of the Australian Workers’ Union (Cambridge University Press, 1996).



  1. Lynette A. Bergstrum, ‘Clarence George Fallon’ .Australian Dictionary of Biography, 1940·1980, v. 14, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1996, pp. 134-136.
  2. Bergstrum, ADB, p.135; Mark Hearn and Harry Knowles, One Big Union: a History of the Australian WorkersUnion, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1996, p. 18l.
  3. D.J. Costar, ‘Labor and the Depression’ in Murphy, D.J. , Joyce, R.B., and Hughes Colin A. (eds), Labor in Power: The Labor Party and Governments in Queensland 1915-57, University of Queensland Press, St. Lucia,1980, pp. 420-42l.
  4. Quoted in Dill Guy, A Life On The Left. A biography of Clyde Cameron, Wakefield Press, South Australia, 1999, p. 79.
  5. Sydney Morning Herald, 12 January 1950.
  6. ibid.
  7. ibid, p. 38.
  8. Boote Diary, 28 January 1941.
  9. 1942 Australian Workers Union Annual Convention Report, p. 20.
  10. Diary of Henry Boote, H.E. Boote Papers, National Library of Australia, 21 April 1941; Hearn and Knowles, One Big Union,p.197.
  11. Hearn and Knowles, One Big Union, p. 200.
  12. Daniel Connell, The Confessions of Clyde Cameron, 1913-1990,ABC Enterprises, Crows Nest, 1990, pp. 41- 42; Hearn and Knowles, One Big Union, p. 197.
  13. 1944 Australian Workers Union Annual Convention Report, pp. 17 and 50; Sydney Morning Herald, 5 July 1944.
  14. Minute Book, Australian Workers Union Executive Council Meeting, 19,21 and 26 January 1944.
  15. Beecher Hay initially won the position by ballot of the AWU Executive Council in 1943. Dougherty ran against Hay in the following year and won the position in a membership ballot. Hay mounted a court challenge alleging ballot irregularities however this was unsuccessful. Hay was shortly thereafter expelled from the AWU for malpractices alleged to have occurred during his brief period of tenure as General Secretary. See Hearn and Knowles, pp. 199-200.
  16. Quote from Beecher Hay in Pamphlet ‘AWU Ballot Racketeers Exposed’, [n.d.], Mitchell Library, Sydney.
  17. Interview between author and George Pont, 26 February’ 1992.
  18. Hearn and Knowles, One Big Union, pp. 210-211.
  19. Connell, Confessions of Clyde Cameron, pp. 47
  20. Sydney Morning Herald, 12 January, 1950.