1877-1968 | Victoria | Journalist & industrial advocate
Cook was the father of the Australian Journalists Association. He began work, aged 12, as a copy boy on the Melbourne Herald. After 10 years he was a reporter earning £3 for a 70-hour week. Concerned by journalists' working conditions, he joined with colleagues in several abortive attempts to form an effective industrial association. In December 1910, he convened a meeting at which the AJA was formed. It was registered as Australia's first professional industrial association six months later. Cook, as its general secretary, helped argue the AJA's case that led to its first industrial award in 1917, which was effectively the first to grant equal pay to women.
Bertie Cook, with his neatly trimmed Van Dyke beard, starched collar and well-cut three-piece suit, looks the epitome of an Edwardian ‘Gentleman of the Press’.
Looks deceive. Bertie Cook was a wily and tenacious fighter for the right of working journalists to a fair wage and working conditions. It was he who engineered the establishment of the Australian Journalists’ Association and steered the fledgling association through stormy waters to become the country’s first professional industrial union.
Born in Prahran of English parents, Cook was 12 when he joined the Melbourne Herald as a copy boy, earning five shillings for a six-day week. At 22 he was a reporter, working 70 hours for £3. The poor pay and conditions, and lack of a secure career structure, concerned him. Some of his colleagues shared his concern but several attempts to bring cohesion to a disparate group of penny-a-liner contributors and salaried reporters failed. When the Melbourne Press Bond that Cook had helped set up in 1906 failed after two years, he determined that the country’s new industrial legislation regulating conditions for manual workers could, and should, apply to journalists.
The Herald’s Federal Parliamentary correspondent since federation, Cook looked to the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Act of 1904. For some time he lobbied former journalist and then Prime Minister Alfred Deakin to allow journalists to be covered by the law.
Deakin rejected the idea. Undeterred by pressure from many quarters to abandon his plan, Cook convened a meeting of some 100 journalists in the basement cafe of the Empire Building in Flinders Street on 10 December 1910 with the purpose of considering the formation of an organisation to secure registration under the Act.
Cook’s initiative was not universally welcomed. The newspaper owners disapproved. Some journalists feared that their professional status and independence would be jeopardised by involvement in collective bargaining; others feared proprietorial intimidation and even loss of their jobs. But three women journalists had the courage to be numbered in the original 143 foundation AJA members.
The canny Cook was aware that the organisation had to be a federal one to qualify for registration. His drafted constitution aimed to "combine the journalists and allied Press workers of Australia". Membership would be restricted to those whose journalism was their main source of income.
With a constitution and rules, the AJA could apply for registration, which it did less than a fortnight after the first meeting. Despite protests from proprietors and some senior journalists, registration was granted in May 1911. By September – despite considerable opposition, often from journalists themselves – AJA districts were set up in all states.
The disruption of the First World War delayed legal endorsement of journalists’ industrial rights although continuing negotiation between proprietors and the AJA had conceded some matters. However – after a lengthy and hotly contested hearing in which Cook, as AJA general secretary, was one of those who presented the association’s case – Mr Justice Isaac Issacs handed down his decision in April 1917. Among other things, Isaacs awarded pay increases, holiday pay and sick leave, and ratified a system of grading of journalists. Because women were AJA members, the ruling effectively granted equal pay to females for work of equal value although newsroom staffing conventions denied females pay true equality for years to come.
A year after the historic Isaacs judgement, Bertie Cook took up an offer from Prime Minister W.M.Hughes to set up the first press office in the Prime Minister’s department. The following year, he resigned to become an industrial officer in the volatile industrial climate of Broken Hill. As an assistant to journalist and industrial adviser Gerald Mussen, who had been appointed to quell the town’s industrial unrest, Cook was involved in administering relief programs for needy miners. When the 1919-20 strike scuttled attempts at conciliation, Cook moved on. In 1920 he helped Mussen set up the Victorian Central Citrus Association and became its secretary and general manager.
In 1929, however, he returned to daily journalism as finance editor of The Argus, just in time to report the financial turmoil of the Great Depression. Six years on, he opted for a quieter life. He became publicity officer for the Royal Automobile Association of Victoria where he remained until retirement in 1939.
Despite his retirement, Cook remained active in AJA affairs. In recognition of his seminal role in the formation of Australia’s first industrial association of professional workers, he was awarded an MBE in 1960, the diamond jubilee of the organisation he had the vision and the persistence to bring into being.
Sally White is a former Federal Vice-President of the AJA, the first woman to be popularly elected as a federal officer, and a former President of the Melbourne Press Club.
Front cover of The Australasian Journalist, December 15, 1924. Courtesy of State Library Victoria Australian Manuscripts Collection.
The Australian Journalists' Association annual council, A.N. Smith (front centre) – Sydney, February 1912.
The federal council of the AJA at its inaugural conference in Melbourne, March 1911.
'B.S.B. Cook. "Herald." COM.1906-7. Hon. Sec. 1907.8.' Courtesy of State Library Victoria Pictures Collection.
'Bertie Stuart Cook (1877-1968)', Robert Milliken, Australian Dictionary of Biography, Vol 8, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1981.