JOHN Coombs, former national secretary of the Maritime Union of Australia and an instrumental figure in the broader union movement, has died at the age of 81 after a long illness.

Mr Coombs joined the Waterside Workers Federation in 1968 and became the WWF delegate for Consolidated Cargo Care in 1972, but it was his leadership role in the 1998 Patrick waterfront dispute for which he would become most widely recognised remembered.

Paying tribute to Mr Coombs in a statement, MUA national secretary and ITF president Paddy Crumlin described the former MUA leader as an inspiration to a generation of young trade unionists who are now at the forefront of trade union leadership today.

“John will be greatly missed, a person of courage and character enjoying the great wit and sense of humour of the Australian waterfront,” he said.

“He was tough and courageous in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds and was a lightning rod for galvanising actions against injustice and elitism, but also for aspirations of a genuine vision for Australian political, social, economic and industrial rights based on access and true process.”

Former Australian Council of Trade Unions secretary Bill Kelty remembered Mr Coombs as a “giant” of the union movement as he led his union in the one of the most significant disputes of last century, and in the greatest reforms.

“John fought for and defended his members and the members of all unions. His contributions to the union movement and the rights of ordinary workers across the country was immeasurable,” he said.

“John was a great friend and warrior who loved his union and who was so loved by his union in return. We owe John Coombs a great debt.”

Retired national president of the MUA Jim Donovan described Mr Coombs as one of the few self-taught people who could grasp every position he held.

“He took the job to heart and knew it was a big job, but he gave it all he had,” he said.

“He was a great unifier, and his leadership during the 1998 dispute was outstanding.”

ACTU secretary Sally McManus described Mr Coombs as humble, strategic, and a man of great integrity who was beloved by those in the movement. 

“For generations of trade unionists, John was the dragon slayer who led his union when they won against all the odds and all the might and power of the government and employers,” she said.

“Twenty-three years later, unionists still shout out the defiant ‘MUA – Here to Stay!’ as under his leadership the MUA prevailed. This can never be forgotten.”