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Remembering John Coombs

01 Sep 2021

Paddy Crumlin

ITF President, MUA National Secretary

On behalf of the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) and the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) and with great sadness, it is my responsibility to inform you that John Coombs, retired National Secretary of the Maritime Union of Australia has passed away this morning after a long illness.

On behalf of our membership, officers and staff here and around the world in the wider transport industry, we pass on our deepest sympathies and condolences to John’s wife Gwen, children Jenny and Stephen, and their extended family.

A wide legacy

John was a giant of the trade union movement both here in Australia and internationally. His small and wiry stature belied the size of his courage, determination, vision, and leadership that followed similarly in the traditions and great substance of maritime union leaders such as Jim Healy, Eliot V Elliott, Charlie Fitzgibbons, Pat Geraghty and Tas Bull. 

John was a waterside worker in the port of Sydney and went on to become a national official under the leadership of Norm Docker and Tas Bull, with John taking over from him on Tas’ retirement. 

John’s leadership was critical to the successful establishment and consolidation of key social and transformative national infrastructure initiatives, such as superannuation, universal health care, and also to the maritime reforms under the Hawke and Keating Labor governments.

John worked very closely with ACTU Secretary Bill Kelty and his successor Greg Combet when Greg was an industrial officer at the peak body, and subsequently when Greg served as ACTU Secretary.

John Coombs’ legacy of leadership goes well beyond benefiting only the members of the MUA and their families. As national secretary of an influential industrial union, he served a national leadership role within the wider movement that was critical to the nation-building initiatives of the Hawke and Keating governments.  Through the ACTU, John helped establish with the then-government the social compacts in superannuation, universal health care and other areas. These contributions helped build the pillars which uphold the decency and quality of life enjoyed by all Australian working women and men today.

John’s legacy in superannuation was important. The union under Charlie Fitzgibbons negotiated the first industry superannuation arrangements for maritime workers in 1967, which led on to the introduction of the wider industry superannuation schemes under the Hawke government in the late 1980s.

John was a long-time board member and chair of the Stevedoring Employees Retirement Fund and, subsequently, Maritime Super.  He was also instrumental in the consolidation of community banking that was first established by the union in the late 1960s.  John was long-time chair of the Waterside Workers Credit Union, now Unity Bank, that has consistently provided maritime workers affordable loans and mortgages.

Giant of the Patrick dispute

John spent his last years of leadership on the front line, combating the attempts of the Federal Government under John Howard and Peter Reith in undermining the Hawke/Keating reforms and attempting to sever the relationship between unions, employers and government that was then, and remains now, critical to their ongoing success.

The formation and consolidation of the Maritime Union of Australia as the merger between the Seamen’s Union of Australia and the Waterside Workers Federation was one of John’s greatest achievements as a leader. The importance of that leadership was most clearly manifested in the Patrick dispute. In this dispute, the Australian Federal Government and Patrick Corporation entered into what the High Court later found was a probable conspiracy against the Patrick workforce – John’s members. In 1998, the workforce was sacked on the one evening, all over the country, and replaced with carefully-selected non-union labour. These replacement workers were trained to break unionism on the Australian waterfront, Cabinet-in-Confidence documents show, as part of a wider attempt to undermine trade unionism in the Australian workplace under the Howard government.

Regardless of the ‘fake news’ and political spin of the time, John Coombs’ contribution effectively identified the political and ideological nature of the attack in a way that resonates in Australia and around the world today. The Australian public and working community mobilised into one of the most extraordinary fightbacks in the face of the Patrick sackings ever seen in this country or indeed internationally.

The widespread community picket lines and international support, in an industry that is critical to the national interest, continues to stand as a great tribute to his and the trade union movement ongoing importance to Australian values.

An international giant

Internationally, John was also renowned for his work on the Executive Board of the International Transport Workers’ Federation. He was known for his determined advocacy for workers’ rights, trade union rights in all sectors of the transport industry and in the wider trade union movement. 

His leadership and the prior leadership of the MUA helped lay the groundwork for other Australian trade union leaders to become internationally recognised, such as Sharan Burrow who has been elected both President and General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation.

A person of courage and character

John will be greatly missed. A person of courage and character, he enjoyed the great wit and sense of humour of the Australian waterfront.  He was tough and courageous in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, and was a lightning rod for galvanizing actions against injustice and elitism.  He was also aspirational in working towards a genuine vision for political, social, economic and industrial rights based on access and true process.

John came from the deep traditions of political and industrial activism within our union and Australian trade unions.  He was an inspiration to a whole new generation of young new trade union leaders who cut their teeth on the extraordinary and cynical circumstances of the Patrick dispute. That generation is now at the forefront of trade union leadership today.

John was a person of deep family values, totally reliable in his friendship and comradeship. He will be greatly missed because of the qualities of his character, but also greatly appreciated for the work of his life on behalf of working women and men, particularly in reconciliation and justice for First Nations Peoples over his lifetime on the job, in office, and in retirement.

John retired to care for his eldest son Gary after he developed multiple sclerosis. John became a significant advocate on behalf of all MS sufferers and a voice for the disability sector generally.

Mildly spoken, formally or semi-formally dressed in the style of trade union officers of that time; humble in his aspirations, but strong and courageous; John was a trade union leader in the tough and demanding trade unionism of the waterfront. He has left an indelible mark on both our union and the Australian aspirational way of life for a fairer, more just, and economically effective nation.

The giant now at rest

Again, from the MUA and ITF, our deepest sympathies and condolences to Gwen and the extended Coombs family and all of his brothers and sisters, comrades and friends who will sorely miss him in Australia and around the world.

Arrangements for his funeral service will be made available after determination.

Vale John Coombs: a long life well lived. Rich in achievement and leaving an ongoing legacy of inspiration and determination in the face of any circumstance. Now at rest.


Stephen Cotton

ITF General Secretary

Today we mourn the loss of John Coombs, who, with great distinction served not only the maritime workers of Australia – but of the world. As an ITF Executive Board member, John was a giant of the international union movement and an important part of the ITF global union family.

John connected the local struggles being fought by his members to the fate and fortunes of the international working class. He knew that an attack on one meant an attack on all. That that truth was abundantly clear to him in maritime, with power to be reclaimed for working people in the space between the docks and the ships. Seeing the power and promise in unity of working people, John brought together two ITF unions into one of our strongest.

John knew that successful attacks of the rights and conditions of workers overseas would always be followed by an assault on working people closer to home. And sure enough, that day came. It was because of his practical internationalism and the unfailing solidarity of the  MUA, that the world rushed to support this mighty fighting union in the totemic Patrick dispute of 1998. Quantifying the impact of the victory in defeating Patrick and their conservative allies is difficult to overstate. Success in ‘98 held the line for working people not only in Australia, but for the world over. John was at the front of that.

A mild-mannered lion, a gentleman, a special friend. We will miss him.


Enrico Tortalano

ITF Dockers’ Section Coordinator

Trade unionists across the world are today mourning the loss of one of our greats with the passing of John Coombs.

John was a dignified man with a passion for justice, a fierce intellect, a relentless fighter for the working class. Perhaps his greatest moment was leading the MUA through the Patricks dispute where he showed courage, vision, tenacity and strategic and tactical brilliance - all in the face of a hostile employer, media, and the state. His ability to bring workers together and speak with one voice was sometimes understated, but those who worked with him or observed from afar the workings of leadership, know he benefited our movement enormously.

The ITF Dockers’ Section owe a debt to John's dedication to internationalism and to his commitment to the welfare of dockers everywhere - not just in his native Australia. The ITF Dockers family express our deepest condolences to John’s family and the MUA.

While the MUA are certainly “here to stay”, John will never be far from our thoughts, either.

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