Vale Jim Dombroski

Dave Beswick

Jim Dombroski had a cheeky sense of humour and lightened many a meeting with his wit and warmth.

Federation Life Member Jim Dombroski passed away on March 5, aged 96. He was also a life member of Illawarra Teachers Association.

Jim was a very fine teacher who taught many and he was also a very good unionist. More often than not, the two go together.

He had an outstanding record of service to education and Federation. After gaining a science degree he began teacher training in 1938 and was the first President of the Trainee Teacher Association. He was an office-bearer in every school and association throughout his 40 years of teaching.

Jim studied Marxism and was a firm advocate of Marx’s dictum that “the philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it”. In his own way he sought to do this by continually working to champion public education.

Jim started teaching at Yanco Agricultural High School and met his future wife Lillian Thompson. They had a loving relationship until her death in 2001. Yanco was followed by appointments to Randwick Intermediate High and Portland where many locals worked in the surrounding coal mines, cement works and Lithgow Small Arms factory. Trade unionism was part of the local culture and Jim was comfortable in this political environment.

He also met Ivor Lancaster who was then Secretary of the Lithgow Trades and Labour Council. Ivor later became an important leader in Federation the 1960s and '70s, including as General Secretary.

In 1946 Jim was transferred to Nowra Central and with the generous help of locals he built a home. He was always ready to have a go at maintenance work from plumbing to fixing a leaking roof. I recall being alarmed when he climbed a ladder in his 80s to fix a gutter.

Jim was transferred to Wollongong High School in 1954 and in that year was elected as a delegate to Annual Conference.

He was president of the Illawarra Association from 1966 until 1972. These were turbulent times in the history of the union and the Illawarra associations were to the fore in militancy and activism. Jim was in the thick of organising, developing strategies and campaigning with a very strong group of activists. These included his close friend and colleague Max Graham and such stalwarts as Laurie Constantine, George Parker, Winifred Mitchell and Horrie Ford.

During Jim’s presidency teachers became increasingly militant. The Association took the lead in campaigns around class sizes, refusing to take extra classes when a teacher was absent and opposing Public Service Board regulations that stopped teachers writing or speaking out about teaching conditions.

In 1966 when Federation Representatives from Berkeley and Port Kembla high schools were called into the area office, given a cup of tea and then asked to read regulations 17 and 23, “Thou shall not ..”. These reps had written to the editor of the Illawarra Mercury advising readers that the schools had over-large classes and were in need of urgent maintenance. After conferring with members the response from the Associations was to organise all schools to write letters to the newspaper. It wasn’t feasible to have all the letters appear in “Letters to the Editor” so Federation purchased two-and-a-half pages of the paper as an advertisement with 42 schools and 850 teachers outlining their needs. Jim, with his quirky sense of humour, said: “I wonder if the Area Director will invite 850 teachers in for a cup of tea.” This dispute had the support of the South Coast Labour Council with its secretary Ted Harvey stating: “Teachers deserve the highest commendation from South Coast parents and trade unionists for the action they have taken to publicise conditions in our schools.”

Early in 1968, Illawarra associations initiated what was to become a protracted campaign against extras by deciding to refuse extras on the fifth day of a teacher’s absence. At the time Departmental policy was to provide relief only after a teacher had been away for five days. 1968 also saw the Federation’s first statewide strike on a range of issues including extras and class sizes.

In 1970 the Illawarra associations again took the lead on class sizes. According to Jim: “Black Friday was a day on which teachers would only attend school but not teach. On that day they would do clerical work — they would go to classes but not teach. If I remember rightly the kids stayed away in droves.”

In Portland Jim had developed strong links with local trade unions. There was an even stronger culture of trade unionism in the Illawarra. Under Jim’s presidency, the bonds became stronger.

John O’Brien’s book A Divided Unity!: politics of NSW teacher militancy since 1945 states: “The leadership of the Illawarra Teachers Association saw itself as part of the working class movement, not members of a professional association removed from the struggles of the mainstream of that movement.”

Federation Life Member Bob Phillips wrote Max Graham and Jim Dombroski: Teachers Federation activists in the Illawarra. The book is available from Federation’s library.

Jim was a radical. He joined the Communist Party in 1938 and remained a member until the early ‘70s. Reg Wilding, who was the party organiser in Wollongong fondly remembers Jim calling into his office to pick up a copy of Tribune on his way to Warrawong High School where he was principal.

Jim was always ready for a stoush with the Department or politicians in defence of public education. As a campaigner he was tough, clever and an innovator but always quiet and calm. He had a cheeky sense of humour and lightened many a meeting with his wit and warmth.

The Illawarra associations have a history of militancy and activism in defence of public education and Jim Dombroski was a very important and significant leader in this proud history.