Senate debates

Thursday, 11 May 2006


Mr Harry David Krantz OAM

9:10 pm

Photo of Anne McEwenAnne McEwen (SA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise tonight to bring to the attention of the Senate the life and legacy of an important South Australian: a man who dedicated his life and talents to the welfare of working people and their families. Harry David Krantz was born on 24 November 1919 and died after a brief illness on 30 March 2006. He was 86 years old.

He was a trade union leader: a warrior for the workers. He was also a family man, a proud father and grandfather, a veteran of World War II, a man of strong religious faith, a lifelong Labor Party man and a passionate advocate and fighter for people who are disadvantaged or discriminated against. He grew up in the Depression, with three unemployed elder brothers, and learned where his political allegiances lay by listening to labour movement identities speaking ‘on the stump’ in Adelaide Botanic Park.

Harry became Secretary of the FCU—the Federated Clerks Union—when he was just 21 years old and the union was struggling to recover from the effects of the Depression. His ascendancy at such a young age came about when the incumbent union secretary was unfortunately killed in a bicycle accident and, in Harry’s words, ‘Nobody else really wanted the job’. At that time the union had around 20 members. It was a time when white-collar workers in clerical and administrative areas were typically very badly paid, were often treated appallingly by employers and were industrially timid. They were often paid less than the basic wage and had no industrial award cover.

Harry took on the job of union secretary with his usual enthusiasm and a clear vision of what needed to be done for the union and its members. Harry knew that his white-collar union membership would never be comfortable with militant action in support of industrial claims. Instead he would have to rely on advocacy and excellent research skills to win favourable judgments in the Industrial Court and, later, in the Industrial Commission. He became renowned as one of the best industrial advocates ever to appear before the bench. When I first started working for the Federated Clerks Union, the industrial commissioners often advised me that I would do well for myself to read the transcripts of Harry arguing the significant cases he took to arbitration. He was indeed an eloquent and persuasive speaker with an extraordinary memory for detail and informative facts.

Shortly after Harry became the secretary, the union secured the South Australian clerks award. This award established for the first time a minimum rate of pay for clerical workers in South Australia. The immediate result of the new award was a pay increase for many impoverished workers who had been without a pay increase for 30 years. For example, a clerk at the South Australian Gas Company saw his wages increase from three pounds, twelve shillings and nine pence to five pounds, three shillings and sixpence. That momentous achievement occurred some 44 years ago, on 3 May 1942, and it occurred despite the vehement opposition of employers. Since that date, the clerks award has been used as the vehicle to introduce other minimum standards of employment conditions for the clerical sector and for extrapolation to other industries.

The clerks award was incrementally improved through successive cases and eventually came to encapsulate all of the working conditions that unions like Harry’s FCU have fought for and won: annual leave, sick leave, parental leave, casual loadings, redundancy pay, a classification structure, superannuation and others. This award set the basic minimum conditions for clerical and administrative workers in South Australia, whether or not they were members of a trade union. It is an award that unfortunately the Howard government now wants to decimate so that those white-collar workers, who are predominantly women working in small to medium sized businesses, will once again be at the mercy of unscrupulous employers.

In 1942, Harry Krantz joined the AIF and served with the Royal Australian Engineers until 1946. During his absence overseas serving his nation, leadership of the FCU was in the hands of Elizabeth Teesdale-Smith, later Elizabeth Johnston. She was the first woman secretary of a South Australian trade union and the first woman on the executive of the South Australian United Trades and Labor Council. Harry’s support for Elizabeth was indicative of the respect that he had for women in the trade union movement and of his determination to ensure that women were not left behind in the pursuit of improved working conditions. Harry was instrumental in setting up the South Australian equal pay council, and the legacy of his interest in the welfare of women workers continued to be a priority for the Federated Clerks Union and its later incarnation, the Australian Services Union.

Apart from battling employers and conservative governments, Harry Krantz famously battled the conservative forces in his own union. The groupers had gained control of the FCU in every state and federally during the 1940s and 1950s but had failed to seize the South Australian branch from the progressive Harry Krantz. Harry had no time at all for the groupers, and when BA Santamaria died in 1998 Harry made a triumphant visit to his union office to let us know that he had outlived his old foe. When Harry retired from the FCU in 1984, the union had grown to more than 6,000 members. It was an extraordinary four decades of service to South Australian workers.

From a tough economic base Harry built a strong, viable and democratic union that was always fiscally responsible. He made sure that union staff knew it was the members’ money that paid their wages and that staff should see their employment with the union as a great privilege and an opportunity to serve the membership. Most of all, he managed his union with the utmost respect for the members of the union, whom he never took for granted, never tried to second-guess and never tried to deceive.

During World War II, Harry was given leave from the Army to contest the federal seat of Barker for the Australian Labor Party. He was unsuccessful but achieved a swing of 15 per cent for Labor and nearly defeated the Country Party candidate, Archie Cameron. He contested Barker again in 1946 but thereafter devoted himself to the union while always being a Labor true believer.

Harry was a man of forthright opinions who was unafraid to share his views on any topic. I well remember being at an ALP conference dinner where the guest speaker, who was then a leader of our noble party, had been speaking for some considerable time, and it would be fair to say that the tone and content of his delivery had lost most of the audience, who were out for a good time and not a sermon. Harry, who would have been about 83 years old at that stage and blessed with the license to be frank that age and seniority in the party bring, moaned loudly and to the great amusement of everyone at the conference dinner, except the guest speaker, that, ‘This is the most boring speech I have ever heard in all my life.’

Apart from his union work, Harry contributed to South Australian business and community affairs through his membership of many boards and organisations. He was, amongst other things, chairman of the Remuneration Tribunal, chairman of the South Australian Trotting Control Board, a member of the board of the State Government Insurance Commission, president of the Industrial Relations Society of Australia and a board member of the Workers Educational Association. He was awarded the Order of Australia Medal in 1981, and he was a justice of the peace.

In the last years of his life Harry was concerned that the federal government’s attacks on unions and working people were undoing the work of union members who had fought for more than 100 years, striving for a fair go at work. He knew it would be the industrially weak and unorganised non-union workplaces that would be hardest hit, and he was scathing about the government’s extreme industrial agenda. But Harry was always optimistic. He believed that working Australians and their families would not take what Howard was going to dish up to them lying down.

Photo of Eric AbetzEric Abetz (Tasmania, Liberal Party, Minister for Fisheries, Forestry and Conservation) Share this | | Hansard source

Mr Howard to you.

Photo of Anne McEwenAnne McEwen (SA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Mr Howard. Harry knew Australians would fight to preserve what he and the other old warriors of the trade union movement had fought so hard to secure.

It was a testament to Harry’s contribution to the history of South Australia that his funeral service, which was held in the same church that he had been married in nearly 50 years before, was attended by a diverse range of people, including other veterans of World War II, lawyers, politicians and past and current members of the South Australian and Australian industrial commissions, including those who came from the employer side of the industrial system. There were businesspeople and members of his parish there as well. Harry was described by the many who spoke about him at his funeral as a mentor, a visionary and a tough but pragmatic negotiator who earned the respect of the union members and business and government identities with whom he worked. His funeral card noted that his was a life lived with courage, compassion and integrity. It is fitting that the Senate note the life and legacy of Harry Krantz.