Michael Easson


James Denis Kenny, 1906 – 1967

Published in the Australian Dictionary of Biography, Vol 15, 2000
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James Denis Kenny (1906-1967), glassworker and trade union official, was born on 27 November 1906 at Waterloo, Sydney, fourth child of native-born parents James Kenny, wagon driver, and his wife Margaret, née Rowley.

Educated at the Patrician Brothers’ School, Glebe, 14-year-old James started work in a felt-hat enterprise. At the Church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Waterloo, on 8 November 1926 he married 19-year-old Bessy May Kenny with Catholic rites. About 1928 he joined the Australian Glass Workers’ Union; he was successively State secretary (1936-47), treasurer, federal secretary and State president (1950-67).

A delegate to the Labor Council of New South Wales in the 1930s, he aligned himself to the group centred on R. A. King. Kenny was elected vice-president (1945), president (1946) and, a few months later, assistant-secretary (re-elected until 1958). He began to wield significant influence and was credited by B. A. Santamaria in his autobiography, Against The Tide (Melbourne, 1981), with being a major force supporting the industrial groups in the mid-1940s. Kenny ensured that no union affiliated with the Australian Labor Party in New South Wales switched its allegiance to the Democratic Labor Party—unlike in Victoria.

Despite his anti-communist beliefs—he had denounced the miners’ leadership for the 1949 coal strikes—Kenny opposed the Menzies government’s proposal to ban the Communist Party of Australia. Although he regularly broadcast on radio-station 2KY, he gained most of his popularity from industrial campaigns and from his involvement in disputes in the metal, steel, building, construction and coal industries. In the early 1950s he cautiously advocated incentive payments in Australian industry, a measure fiercely opposed by many sections of the labour movement.

Kenny was a member (from 1948) of the Legislative Council, an executive-member (1951-57) and vice-president (1957-67) of the Australasian Council of Trade Unions, and junior vice-president (c.1952-57) of the federal executive of the A.L.P. He served on the Commonwealth Immigration Advisory Council, the council of the University of New South Wales, the Technical Education Advisory Council, the Sydney Opera House and Sydney Cricket Ground trusts, and the Commonwealth Ministry of Labour Advisory Council. Widely travelled, he was a delegate to conferences of the International Labor Organization, held in Geneva (1954 and 1964), the New Zealand Federation of Labour (1956 and 1962) and, controversially, the All-China Federation of Trade Unions, Peking (Beijing, 1957).

In 1958 Kenny succeeded King as secretary of the Labor Council. His main achievement was to promote better industrial conditions, including long-service leave, workers’ compensation and associated benefits. He was involved in public protests against the régime in South Africa, campaigns for higher wages for Aboriginal workers, and peace and disarmament rallies. The American vice-president Richard Nixon had visited him in October 1953 at his cramped offices in the Trades Hall. In the 1960s Kenny commissioned the purchase of land and raised funds for the development of a new Labor Council building in Sussex Street. He was general manager (from 1960) of 2KY, and a director of Television Corporation Ltd (forging close relationships with the Packer family) and of Air Sales Broadcasting Co. Pty Ltd (radio 2HD, Newcastle).

An appealing leader, Kenny had the common touch and won grudging respect from his most bitter opponents. He died of coronary vascular disease on 12 October 1967 at his Maroubra home and was buried in Waverley cemetery. His wife survived him, as did their son Alan who worked (1962-88) at the Labor Council as a property manager.