June 6, 2023
In May we farewelled Vic Fitzgerald, a giant of the trade union movement who lived and breathed his values.
As a leader of the Federated Engine Drivers and Fireman’s Association (FEDFA) and the Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU), Vic was a fierce champion for working people in Australia.
Vic started his working life and union career at the Leichhardt depot of the Commonwealth Hiring Equipment Pool (CHEP), which was set up by the Australian Government after World War II with equipment including cranes, excavators and forklifts. Vic worked as first as a forklift then mobile crane operator at CHEP, which was later sold Brambles.
Vic was elected as union delegate after seven years on the job. He took his obligations seriously and ensured that union rules – especially regarding the safe use of equipment – were rigorously adhered to. Some of the equipment in use by Brambles was old Second World War equipment, with no headlights or handbrakes.
The mobile crane industry grew rapidly in the post-war building boom and Vic focused on fostering solidarity between workers of the companies that had carved up the industry.
Vic found himself in the eye of an industrial storm when his manager at Brambles sent him on a job in the city. He turned up to find a Marrs crane on site and discovered Marrs workers had been doing the job but were on strike.
On their return to the Brambles yard, Vic along with the riggers’ delegate were sacked on the spot for refusing to do the job. Members demanded their reinstatement but the company refused, leading to a 14-week strike. Vic set about fundraising to ‘keep the wolves from the door’ for his comrades and their families, regularly addressing lunchtime meetings of different groups of workers to raise money.
FEDFA official Jack Cambourn eventually negotiated a return to work, but Vic’s future path as a full-time unionist was set.
FEDFA offered Vic a three-month secondment as a temporary organiser, at the end of which he was approached to run as a full-time official. Vic was successfully elected and his new career began. He set about getting to know about the lives and livelihoods of FEDFA members who included operators of cranes and other mechanical equipment on building sites but also boilermakers in factories and power station operators.
Not long after starting out as a full-time organiser, Sydney’s Green Bans commenced. While the BLF are widely recognised for leading the Green Bans campaign, Vic Fitzgerald and FEDFA played a major role in protecting many of the areas of dispute in the 1970’s including Kelly’s Bush – the now heritage-listed bushland at Hunters Hill, which was slated for high-density housing development; and working class housing in Woolloomooloo and Victoria Street Darlinghurst which faced demolition.
After several years in the state branch, Vic was seconded into FEDFA National Office, serving as Assistant Secretary Jack Cambourn.
Jack and Vic worked together to build the resources of the FEDFA National Office and were able to employ several young industrial officers, including Tony Maher, now General President of the Mining and Energy Union.
Vic dedicated much of his energy as a national official to improving workers’ position through negotiating improved national Awards and was especially proud of his instrumental role in establishing the Mobile Crane Hiring Award. He was also instrumental in the union campaign to secure superannuation for working people.
On Jack Cambourn’s retirement, Vic became National Secretary of the FEDFA. He oversaw the negotiations that saw FEDFA join forces with the Building Workers Industrial Union (BWIU) and then amalgamate with the miners and timber workers to form the CFMEU in the early 1990s.
After amalgamation he served as joint National Secretary of the CFMEU with Stan Sharkey, however he resigned position at the first executive meeting as he believed a single secretary was a better arrangement. He then served as National President of the CFMEU Construction and General Division.
Tony Maher described Vic as a close mentor and said that he was “an incredible figure in the union movement who was steadfastly committed to protecting and advancing the rights of working people.
“Vic was a humble man, but he was very significant in my life and many others. His passing leaves a huge hole in our movement and in our hearts, but we carry his legacy with a generous spirit and an outstretched hand in his honour.”
We offer Vic’s family and loved ones our deepest condolences.
A memorial event was held at the Mining and Energy Union’s Nymboida House on Friday 2 June to celebrate Vic’s life.