Vale Pat Geraghty 06.08.1928 – 23.03.2016

Published: 29 Mar 2016

The national and international trade union movement is in mourning following the passing of one of its great leaders and visionaries, former Seamens’ Union of Australia federal secretary Pat Geraghty.

Pat passed away in Sydney last week at the age of 87. He was born in Sydney in 1928 and went to sea in 1947, where he witnessed injustice, the power of solidarity, and the threat to seafarers posed by the growing number of flags of convenience.

He went on to become a powerhouse of the SUA and of the fights not just for seafarers – through his work to defend cabotage and against FOCs and to secure International Labour Organisation conventions – but also in vital worldwide campaigns including those against apartheid and the invasion of East Timor, and the boycott of Pinochet’s Chile after the military takeover in 1973.

He succeeded Eliot V Elliott as leader of the SUA on his retirement in 1978, but had come ashore from his job as bosun on the Caltex Liverpool a decade earlier to become an official.

Recognising Pat's leadership potential and bringing him on as an official is said by many to be among the smartest moves Elliott ever made. 

They shared a vision for stabilising the industry and giving seafarers conditions of a career with a future, having steady employment and economic security.

In those years Pat worked with Elliott to transform the lives of ordinary seafarers - winning for them for the first time a guaranteed annual wage, severance pay and long service leave entitlements, and a rotating leave system which gave everyone regular time off.  

Geraghty was responsible for the successful strategy the SUA employed in the 1969 Work Value Inquiry which had ordinary seafarers talking directly to a judge about their conditions because he knew and trusted their ability to speak effectively.

Geraghty was also the prime mover in steering the introduction of a superannuation scheme for retired seafarers - the first time that superannuation was made available to Australian workers and not just management.

He was committed to giving seafarers dignity, rights, health and safety at work, and conditions for a more normal family life. 

As a leader he was very good at recognising changes and trends and devising strategies for opportunities for members against the opposition from shipowners. This included implementing training schemes, and a school for unionists opened in 1986.  

During the 1980s, Geraghty led the SUA through a process of restructuring and work reform that was possibly the most challenging the union had faced.

He had to sell some very hard issues to the membership in an increasingly tough economic environment but the SUA succeeded in keeping itself afloat and relevant as it moved towards amalgamation with other seagoing unions and the WWF. 

In 1985, the Hawke Government established the Maritime Industry Development Committee (MIDC), which recommended the acquisition of new generation ships, multi-skilling of crews, and the abolition of various labour demarcations.  

The Government accepted these recommendations and provided capital assistance for the purchase of vessels and the resulting investment reduced the average age of the Australian shipping fleet to below the average age of the world fleet. 

Crew numbers were reduced to the levels on most OECD ships. The abolition of demarcation problems was reflected in a fall in the number of ship days lost through crew disputes; in 1992/93, this number was the lowest in over a decade.

Geraghty was also a noted activist and progressive. He was at the helm of the SUA when women started taking up jobs as deck crew. He led the SUA in its support of Australian athletes who were banned by the Fraser government from attending the Moscow Olympics in 1980.

The Australian Olympic Committee this week paid tribute to Geraghty’s role in raising $50,000 to send the Australian Olympic Team to Moscow.

He was a key participant in forming the Organisation of Maritime Unions Against Apartheid in 1985 to enforce the oil embargo against the racist government in South Africa.

In the 1970s he served a term on the ILO's Joint Maritime Commission and led the SUA in joining the ITF's international campaign against FOC shipping.

Those SUA members who knew him as their leader call him 'brilliant', 'exceptional', 'thoughtful and caring' and 'a genius'.  He retired from the union in 1993 with the formation of the MUA. 

Domestically, he was a long time supporter of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s struggle for self-determination. 

Among the many tributes received over the past week, Maritime Union of Australia National Secretary Paddy Crumlin said Pat lived a life that brought hope, opportunity, peace, support and decency to maritime and other workers in this country and across the world. 

He said Pat worked for the common good with his inimitable and indomitable humour, wisdom, compassion, humility and persistent courage and raw toughness in the face of many adversities.

Pat earned, without expectation, the respect and admiration of national and international political, human rights, corporate and trade union leaders at the highest level while holding other’s belief and faith in him and his work from the working women and men that he unerringly and uncompromisingly represented. 

At a time of deep and adversarial division nationally and internationally Pat's constant commitment to peace, justice and opportunity and support for all - regardless of person, place and circumstance - will continue to stand as a beacon for hope and focused action for those that wish to tread the same pathway and also those that are in such dire need of that leadership that delivers on that hope to so many. 

Vale Patrick Geraghty, family man, seafarer, trade unionist and leader, socialist and man of peace, Crumlin said.

He is survived by his wife Tess and sons Mathew and Christopher, their families and the family of his deceased son Brian.

ITF General Secretary Steve Cotton said Pat was a leader of maritime workers through some incredibly tough times.

The issues of the day, national and global, could only be dealt with by people promoting unity, dignity and respect.

Cotton said the trade union movement has lost a brother but we have not lost the impact of his life.

We will ensure that his legacy of bringing hope, compassion and courage in representing the working women and men of Australia, the region and beyond, lives on.

Messages of condolence can be left here at the bottom of the page.

The funeral will be held at Sydney Trades Hall on April 1 from 10.30 am. More details here.


Authorised by P Crumlin, Maritime Union of Australia, Sydney