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Vale Ferdinando “Nando” Lelli

November 6, 2022

 A tribute by Andrew Whiley | Former President, Retired Member, FIA/AWU Port Kembla, South Coast and Southern Highlands Branch.

The passing of Ferdinando (Nando) Lelli is a day of great sadness, closing a chapter on one of Illawarra’s greatest labor leaders of modern times. A participant from Italy in Australia’s post war migration program, Nando’s rise from a laboring role in the Shipping Department at Australian Iron and Steel (AIS) to lead the biggest union on the South Coast, the Port Kembla Branch of the Federated Ironworkers Union (FIA). Nando’s election in 1972 triggered multiple, turbulent transformations, within the branch and its industrial philosophies, particularly with major employers like BHP and the regional labour movement itself.

Nando believed very strongly in rank-and-file democracy, workers determining their own future as well as social democracy, workers having an active voice in the shaping of their lives and wider society outside the workplace. This personal and political commitment was the foundation of how he led the union, advocating and advancing the industrial and wider collective interests of its members.

No members’ problem was too small, no political or industrial matter was too big in demanding his energy and acuity and the support of the union.

His vitality, integrity, unshakeable belief in a ‘fair go’ and sheer force of personality engendered trust and support amongst unionists everywhere. He was an unmissable and commanding presence in any forum, court, job or worksite, or when addressing thousands of steelworkers at mass stop work meetings at the old Wollongong Showgrounds and other outdoor venues.

Nando was a subtle industrial strategist and formidable negotiator, seeking always to find solutions but never compromising on basic values. Amongst employers large and small, at industrial courts and tribunals these attributes, allied with his compelling advocacy, built deep reservoirs of acknowledgment and respect despite the turbulence of the many industrial disputes in the 1970’s and 1980s. Notwithstanding the then ideological divides between the Branch, national FIA and amongst different unions and within the ALP, Nando was a presence that was impossible to ignore and difficult to dislike.

In 1982-83 together with branch President Graham Roberts and close comrade Steve Quinn, local leader of the AMWU, Nando was responsible for the genesis, tumultuous campaign and political lobbying that led to the newly elected ALP Governments’ tripartite Steel Industry Plan and the subsequent Steel Industry Development Agreement (SIDA). In combination these initiatives formed the basis of the restructuring of Australia’s domestic steel production and several waves of capital investment that ,three decades later stills anchors the technological and competitive position of both Port Kembla and Whyalla steel plants, sustaining regional income and employment, albeit in smaller proportions today than the past.

Of his time, yet at times ahead of it, Nando always had an eye to the future, believing that a union policy today, could be turned into a political reality tomorrow. A long-standing supporter and ultimately President of the South Coast Labour Council (SCLC), Nando was committed to collective union actions and solidarity. He had led the union from a somewhat isolationist position towards a deeper, enduring relationship with the SCLC, seeing a united union voice in the region as a source of strength and an avenue to advance not only industrial but also community and social concerns.

Few of his earliest comrades now remain from the ironworkers rank and file movement of the late 1960’s and early 1970s that propelled him from over twenty thousand local FIA members into elected office and remained a bulwark of member support through the following decades for an industrially and politically activist branch and leadership.

Many of his fellow branch officials and contemporaries from other unions have also, regrettably, passed on. Some remain in happy retirement. Ferdinando Lelli left his mark on all. We now mark his passing with respect and condolences to his surviving family and all who knew him.


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