HELEN VERONICA DAVIS
LABOUR MOVEMENT ACTIVIST
By KIM CARR
HELEN Davis, who overcame huge setbacks in her early personal life to become the first female organiser for the Amalgamated Metal Workers Union in Victoria, among other achievements, has died of breast cancer at St Vincent's Hospital. She was 73.
A committed activist at the industrial, political and community levels, she was the first female councillor in the City of Preston, and the first female mayor in that municipality.
One of five daughters, she was born at Port Kembla (Wollongong), and at a young age moved with her family to Captain's Flat, near Canberra. There she helped establish the town's first Australian Labor Party branch no mean feat in a community of just 300 people.
Davis' first marriage proved a nightmare. Her staunchly Catholic family was against the inter-faith union and disowned her, while she went on to suffer physical abuse from her husband. At the same time, she had to care for a severely disabled son. The marriage came to an end when her husband's employer discovered he was a bigamist and he was placed in Goulburn jail. She had no idea he was already married.
Her luck was to change when she married Chick Davis in 1978 he cared for her and her children until his death in the late 1980s. She was also overjoyed when, after 20 years of estrangement, her sister Anne travelled from Sydney to find her in Melbourne. They immediately formed a strong bond.
She had earlier moved to Preston in the 1960s and got a job at Mistral Fans, joined the AMWU, and was elected shop steward a position she held for more than 11 years.
Davis became a forthright advocate for women within the union, campaigning strongly for the appointment of female organisers. She had the courage to stand up and move a resolution to institute the position of a female organiser at a heavily male-dominated union conference, and despite the initial hostility, succeeded in having the motion carried almost unanimously. Her fight for union members was not limited to women, and she was instrumental in the fight for improved working conditions, including rostered days off, and superannuation entitlements.
In 1981, she became the first female organiser for the union, earning widespread respect for her ability to take on one of the branch's toughest organising jobs through many large heavy engineering workshops in Melbourne's northern suburbs.
Davis represented the union at various conferences and committees, including serving as a foundation member of the Engineering Skilled Trade Board (now the Manufacturing Engineering Skilled Board). She also represented the union at international conferences in Hungary and Singapore.
Davis was also a dedicated community activist, getting involved in state school parents' organisations, and championing the rights of women to safe and affordable contraception, and freedom from domestic violence. This activism led to her endorsement as an ALP candidate for Preston Council, where, as the first female councillor in that municipality, she served with distinction for more than 16 years, including two terms as mayor (1985-87 see picture).
Davis recognised that the fight for working people was important at both the industrial and the political levels, and remained highly active with the ALP and the Socialist Left. She served as both secretary and treasurer of the Preston branch, represented her union at ALP state conferences for about 19 years, and was awarded ALP life membership by then premier, Steve Bracks.
She never neglected her responsibilities as a rank-and-file party member doing large letterbox drops with her family, and always looking after the local polling booth on election day. A woman of strength, principle and political integrity, she consistently demonstrated courage, and maintained discipline and commitment. She had the confidence and grace to go toe to toe with party leaders, ministers, union secretaries and the cardinals of the ACTU.
She was a comrade strong, independent and forthright, yet staunchly loyal to the collective. Throughout its 120 year history, the ALP has seen many extraordinary activists and Davis was among the finest.
Tragedy struck again near the end of her life when the Housing Commission home she had acquired in 1978 and had almost paid off burnt.
Davis saw a certain irony in the fact that she was first diagnosed with cancer about 18 months ago at the Darebin Health Clinic, one of the civic projects that she helped give life to when she was a councillor.
She is survived by her partner of about 20 years, John Speight, four sons from her first marriage, Terry, Gary, Arthur and Mark, and their partners, two stepdaughters, seven grandchildren, two step-grandchildren, two great-grandchildren, and her sisters Anne and Margaret.