Jim O’Neill

Jim O’Neill was born in England in 1927. Even as a young apprentice, Jim showed the characteristics of a good union official by organising an apprentice strike. Following this, he was given an ultimatum of either losing his job, or going to sea during the war. Jim chose the latter and was assigned the most dangerous job of all – sailing on the minesweepers.

Jim joined the Boilermakers’ Union in Australia in 1950 and was an activist on many jobs, including workplaces in Tasmania. In 1958, Jim became a Shop Steward for Fluor during the building of the Altona Petro-chemical complex.

Jim became an organiser with the Boilermakers’ in 1963. Jim was responsible for many of the large boilermaking shops, including Vickers Ruwolt, Fleet Forge, Challingworth and for the ship repair industries. During the late sixties the Boilermakers amalgamated with the Blacksmiths’ Society. He was a strong campaigner, along with Jim Roulston, Secretary of the Boilermakers’ and Blacksmiths’ Union, in the further amalgamation of the Boilermakers and Blacksmiths with the AMWU which was completed in 1972.

In the newly amalgamated Union, Jim also took responsibility for the construction industry and the emerging labour hire industry, as well as a number of workshops in the north and north-east of Melbourne. Jim was instrumental in many campaigns which produced long-term benefits for workers.

Jim was actively involved in campaigns including: 

  • Shorter working hours – this was a long and hard fought campaign. 
  • Health and safety – Along with Stan Willis, Jim led the campaign for increased awareness of health and safety issues within the Union and in the workplace. Jim was especially concerned about industrial deafness, an issue which up until then had been largely ignored. 
  • Portable long service leave in the construction industry – an issue which the union is now pursuing vigorously for all workers in all industries through Manusafe. 
  • Workers’ superannuation – Jim was a pioneer in the push for universal superannuation with employer contributions. He also represented the union on the board of the construction industry’s superannuation fund, BUS (now Cbus Superannuation).

Jim was an Organiser for more than 28 years. He also represented the Union for a long period as a Delegate to State Conference, State Council, State Administrative Committee, National Conference, National Council and the Victorian Trades Hall Council.

Jim was the organiser responsible for workers on the West Gate Bridge. The collapse of the bridge with the loss of so many workers’ lives had a profound effect on him. Jim requested, and was granted, special leave from his organising duties to go back on the tools and work as a boilermaker/welder on the bridge after the disaster so that he could help the workers and their families deal with their loss. He led the struggle for proper memorials to the workers. Jim participated in memorial events every year, including in 2000 when he was very ill.

As an internationalist and supporter of union struggles around the world, Jim was motivated not only by his strong social justice beliefs, but also by his personal experiences as a sailor on minesweepers during the war.

This also led to his involvement in the movement against the Vietnam War as a marshall at the Vietnam Moratoriums. He was also involved in the peace movement and campaigned enthusiastically against uranium mining and nuclear production.

He was prominent in the struggle for environmental protection and played a key role in the successful campaign to stop the building of an oil pipeline across Port Phillip Bay. It was during this campaign he was assaulted and arrested.

Along with Alan Ritter, Jim was an AMWU rep on the May Day Committee.

On a local level, Jim was a long standing member of the Fitzroy branch of the ALP, and was actively involved in a lot of local Fitzroy issues.

He is survived by his wife Gwen, three children, John, Kathleen and Peter, and seven grandchildren.

Vale Jim.

See Jim’s 1995 speech on the 25th anniversary of the bridge collapse.