From village life to admired unionist


In 1955, he returned to Cyprus to marry Eleni Georgiou from the Cypriot village of Pano Lefkara. The village is famous for its lace embroidery. It is known that Leonardo da Vinci visited Cyprus and took with him embroidery to the Milan Cathedral for the high altar.

Louis and Eleni’s first child, a daughter, Kyriaki, was born at sea on the migrant ship Junmouriet en route to Australia in 1956. On its return journey, the Junmouriet was caught up in the Suez crisis and was sunk in the canal along with any records of Kyriaki’s birth. The three of them settled in South Melbourne.

Eleni enrolled Kyriaki at Dorcas Street Primary School when she turned five. The teacher was unable to pronounce Kyriaki and deemed she was to be known as Julie. That is the name she became known by outside their home. Brother George was born three years later.

As a youth in Cyprus, Louis had always wanted to be a carpenter, but his father pushed him into an apprenticeship as a tailor. He did not pursue tailoring in Australia.

In Melbourne during the 1960s, Louis started working for furniture manufacturer Gainsborough as a cabinetmaker, learning on the job. He was a union activist and became a shop steward for the Federated Furnishing Trades Society (FFTS). He initiated and led several successful campaigns, including equal pay for women at his factory. This was the first such campaign by a Victorian union.

The next major campaign he initiated and led was the fight for redundancy packages decided sacked employees. The strike lasted several weeks, and the negotiated package was for payment of three weeks’ wages for every year of service; employees who had been there for many years walked away with significant settlements.

In the mid-1970s, Louis was invited to become an industrial organiser with the Victorian branch of FFTS following his successful campaigns in the factory where he worked. He was elected state secretary of FFTU a few years later.

Louis significantly increased membership of the union in the 1970s and, through his hard work and campaigning, raised the FFTS out of debt and into the black. There were reforms in the management and administration of the organisation, which led it to achieve a much higher profile in the broader Australian union movement.

More industrial strikes and campaigns led to improvements for union members. These were unprecedented and led the way for things such as a 35-hour week at Pilkington Glass where process workers were able to earn up to $800 a week. This was unheard of at that time and was very much above what was the minimum wage of workers in other industries.

In the 1980s Louis decided to focus on the glass industry and employment conditions of workers who had few health and safety regulations. A push to enhance the award conditions and workers on building sites was led by a 36-hour week. The same conditions were applied to those working on the factory floor. Sub-contracting, and the use of cheap labour through this loophole, was finally closed after a long dispute between employers and unionists.

FFTS introduced technological-change seminars in anticipation of global industrial change.

At this time, Louis took on extra responsibilities after being elected federal secretary of the FFTS. Then, the union was in the process of being incorporated into the broader Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU).

More changes were underway. Louis was determined to ensure all FFTS workers in Australia were covered by the same conditions as those of members in Victoria. New awards were made in the ACT and improvements made to awards in NSW, Queensland, Tasmania and South Australia.

A new campaign was run in the Federal Court to ensure the use of cheap labour through sub-contractors in the carpet industry came to an end. This took several years. Lawyers briefed by Louis were impressed with his strategic thinking, which resulted in the court handing down a historic decision to end this practice.

Louis retired in 1988 and handed over the reins to a younger generation of officials. From the rented office accommodation and debt when he first became an FFTS official, Louis left the union in a building it owned with state-of-the-art computer fit-out and IT systems and enviable financial resources.

Louis and Eleni went on enjoy a quiet retirement between their Melbourne home and a holiday house on the Mornington Peninsula. For many years, Louis continued an active interest in woodworking and enjoyed gardening right up to his passing. He was a wonderful parent who worked hard to give his wife and children a good life.

Louis was a rough diamond with a heart of gold. Always an independent thinker, living life to the full and on his own terms. A fighter for social justice until the end, without any regrets.

He will be greatly missed and loved always by wife Eleni, children Julie and George, and by other family, and his many close friends.

Julie Pagonis is Louis Kyriacou’s daughter.

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