Profile - Ernie Thornton (1907-1969)
Ernie Thornton was born in Yorkshire, England and was raised by his father after his mother left the family when he was aged just 2. He was brought to Australia by the Dreadnought Trust in 1924 and was sent to the Government Training Farm near Windsor, NSW. Soon afterwards, he left to work in the construction industry.
Like so many others, Ernie struggled to find work during the Depression and at this time he became involved with the Militant Minority Movement (MMM) and then the Communist Party of Australia (CPA). He led the push of communists into the Federated Ironworkers’ Association of Australia (FIA) in the 1930s and was elected an organiser in 1935 based in Melbourne.
In 1937 Ernie became a member of the CPA’s Central Committee and he started working full-time for the Party in the Sydney Office in 1939.
He was a prolific writer and published many communist pamphlets. He travelled frequently for the CPA and maintained an allegiance to the Soviet Union and admiration of Stalin.
In the 1940s Ernie’s control of the FIA was challenged by a dissident group led by Laurie Short. Short and his supporters ran against Thornton and his supporters at the 1949 FIA elections. Although the ballots gave the win to Ernie, this was challenged by Laurie and following a drawn-out inquiry in the Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration, the judge ruled that the ballot had been rigged and awarded the election to Laurie, who then became National Secretary an proceeded to cement his influence over the union.
In 1950 Ernie resigned from the FIA to become Australasian Representative at the Liaison Bureau of the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU) in China. However, he was forced to return to Australian when the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) withdrew its support for the WFTU in 1953.
Ernie worked full-time for the CPA from 1957-1967 but he was also forced to return to manual work due to the declining state of the Party’s finances. The FIA refused to re-admit him, but he was made the honorary president of the Sydney Branch of the Federated Engine Drivers’ and Firemen’s Association.
Ernie Thornton died of myocardial infarction on 29 June 1969, survived by his wife Lila and two stepsons.
Murray, R 2002, Ernest Thornton (1907-1969), Australian Dictionary of Biography, volume 16, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, accessed <http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/thornton-ernest-11854>