Vale Della Elliott: Unionist, Socialist, Feminist

The Maritime Union of Australia expresses its deepest condolences for the passing of Della (Kondelea) Elliott, 1917 - 2011. A militant progressive, feminist, and unionist, Della Elliott will be greatly missed.

In the words of author Rowan Cahill, Kondelea, known as Della, was a charming, perceptive person - one of those people who have contributed a great deal to the history of this nation in her capacity as an organiser, worker, and confidante to some major Left figures over the years.

Della was the partner of former Seaman's Union Leader Eliot V. Elliott.

However, because she was a woman and tended to work behind the scenes out of the limelight, has become one of "the legion of the overlooked", part of the forgotten tapestry of our social history.

The Eliot-Della partnership began in May 1951 during the New Zealand wharf strike when they worked together coordinating and distributing union donations in support of the New Zealand strikers; some of this money was smuggled across the Tasman via the motor vessel Wanganella.

At the time, Della was secretary to Waterside Workers' Federation (WWF) Secretary Jim Healy. In solidarity during the 151 day strike, Australian wharfies refused to handle cargoes from New Zealand. The Sydney and Melbourne offices of the WWF and the SUA were raided by police, and Healy was charged under the Crimes Act for hindering trade.

The Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) believed the New Zealand strike was part of a Moscow orchestrated campaign to disrupt waterfront activity in Australia, New Zealand, and on the American West Coast.

This was the second time Della had been involved in a clandestine funding operation; in defiance of Commonwealth legislation that froze union bank assets, she was responsible for the safety of 8000 pounds worth of donations to coal field strikers during the 1949 Coal Strike.

Della's family name was Xenodohos (changed for Australian usage to Nicholas, based on the father's first name); and she was one of four children born to a Greek migrant father from Queensland and an Australian-born mother.

Born not long before the demise of Russian Tsarism, Della left school at 14, trained as a shorthand typist and joined the workforce in 1932.

Active in communist youth activities, she joined the Communist Party during late adolescence.

Due to limited opportunities for office employment Della found work cleaning, washing, and cooking; she also obtained some waitressing work. When office work was eventually secured it was with a succession of Left organisations - the International Labour Defence, Friends of the Soviet Union, the Militant Minority Movement.

Active in the NSW Branch of the Federated Clerks' Union since joining in 1936, Della was elected to the Central Council (1940), elected as an organiser (1942), and in 1943 became Assistant Secretary, the first woman in the union's history to hold high office.

She held this position until resigning in 1948 for reasons of 'ill-health', in reality internecine left wing union politics. Commenting at the time upon Della's career, the union's journal The Clerk noted that "since her election ... she has become recognised as one of the leading personalities of the Trade Union Movement".

A great friend of Jessie Street, Della's special interests throughout her life were the status of women and the issue of equal pay for women, both of which she pursued tenaciously as a delegate to the NSW Labor Council during the 1940s, and as an ACTU delegate in 1945 and 1947. She was successful on Labor Council in having policy on equal pay laid down. In September 1947 at the ACTU Congress she was successful in moving the first resolution to set forth a positive action programme for the equal pay campaign, giving life to paper decisions.

Having relinquished her executive position with the Clerks' Union, Della maintained her association with the union and remained a delegate to the NSW Labor Council. She was also prominently involved with the Trade Union Equal Pay Committee, established in 1946 with Jessie Street as Chairperson. Della served on the executive of this active outfit from its outset - Committee Member 1946; Acting Joint Chair January 1947 in the absence of Jessie Street; Joint Secretary from October 1948; Secretary 1949-50.

Along with union involvement Della was prominently involved throughout the period, and subsequently, in progressive campaigns and organisations, for example Sheepskins for Russia, the League for Democracy in Greece, the Union of Australian Women.

During the Cold War period Delia commenced working for the WWF, and was in charge of its office for many years when Jim Healy was General Secretary. In 1955 she moved to the SUA, working on the Seamen's Journal as a journalist, and later organising the Federal Office. She worked in these capacities until her retirement in 1988. During this period the Journal became an important and indispensable membership forum, each monthly issue publishing a wide range of rank and file letters, articles, and discussion pieces.

In 2000 she was awarded a Premier's Award for Community Service in recognition of her work on the MV Noongah Trust Fund, established after the ship's sinking in 1969. Her work assisting the dependents of the men who perished carried on for many years, and she was recognised for this service.

Mrs Capare, formerly Mrs Hopkins, who lost her first husband in that tragedy wrote at the time:

Mrs Elliott is ... an outstanding citizen, and is truly deserving of an award which recognises her contribution and achievements especially those on behalf of the families whose husbands, sons, brothers or fathers were lost on the Noongah. Her support and the assistance which she maintained so promptly and effectively greatly assisted my children's development.

In later life Della was recognised and contributed to a variety of causes she felt strongly about, including establishing the Della Elliott Indigenous Scholarship for Women at the University of Sydney's Women's College.

National Secretary of the MUA Paddy Crumlin said "The Maritime Union of Australia expresses its deepest sympathies with the family and friends of Della Elliott, and acknowledges the many years of great work and service she contributed not just to the SUA and the MUA, but to the union movement and other progressive political movements

"Throughout her life she was greatly respected and loved particularly by seafarers. She was held in the highest of regard. She remained politically active right up until her last years and would send out on a regular basis her political analysis of both national and international developments. 

"She was particularly involved in identifying the important legacy of her husband and partner in all things - Federal Secretary of the SUA, Eliot V. Elliott. She was as important a contributor and as much a part of the fabric of the union as any other person in our long history. 

"On her passing, many in this country and around the world are reflecting on a life of activity that was a celebration of working class values."

There will be a memorial service to celebrate Della's life. All are welcome.

31st October 2011 - 12 noon

Australian National Maritime Museum.

Thank you to author Rowan Cahill for many of the details of Della's life expressed here.