Elijah Carey was born in the goldmining town of Gympie, Queensland, Australia, on 20 August 1876, a twin son of Catherine Newman and her husband, Elijah Carey, a miner. Elijah junior, who later added the name John and was usually known as Jack, was apprenticed to a local printer but left to seek adventure overseas. Working as a steward on steamships and as a waiter in hotels, he travelled through Europe, the United States and South America. In the early 1890s, still a teenager, he returned to Australia; he may have worked in the Gympie mines before joining the rush to the booming Western Australian goldfields. He had little success as a miner, but became involved in trade unionism, and served on the Coolgardie Trades Council. By 1902 he was working as a waiter in Sydney and was active in Australian labour politics; he is said to have been a personal friend of Andrew Fisher and William Morris Hughes. Probably in 1904 Carey arrived in Wellington, New Zealand, and found work as a waiter. On 9 January 1905 he married Ellen Goss.
Carey campaigned tirelessly in the Court of Arbitration and in Parliament's committee rooms to regulate hours of work, improve wages, secure one full day off each week, and obtain equal conditions for women workers. By the end of 1907 the union's membership had soared to over 800. In 1908 Carey helped to revive hotel and restaurant workers' unions in Auckland, Christchurch and Dunedin, and established a branch of the Wellington union in Palmerston North. The following year these unions formed the New Zealand Federated Hotel and Restaurant Employees' Association, with Carey as national secretary.
As the strength of the cooks and waiters' union grew, so did Carey's influence in the labour movement. By 1909 he was secretary of the Wellington Grocers' Union and vice president of the Wellington Trades and Labour Council; he was president of the council from March 1910 to March 1911. He helped publish the Trades and Labour Councils' newspaper, the Weekly Herald, and wrote a weekly labour column in the Evening Post. An advocate of state socialism, arbitration and reformist political action, Carey sought only 'a little Socialism in our time' and urged workers to 'strike with pencil and paper through the ballot-box'. He favoured the creation of a broad, centrist labour party, as in Australia where Fisher was Labor prime minister. Carey was a candidate in several Wellington municipal elections, and at the 1911 general election unsuccessfully contested Wellington North for the first New Zealand Labour Party. In 1912 he played a leading role in establishing the United Labour Party of New Zealand (ULP), and served on its executive.
Closely associated with other moderate unionists such as J. T. Paul, David McLaren and Jack McCullough, Jack Carey was a powerful opponent of the New Zealand Federation of Labour (the 'Red Feds') and the New Zealand Socialist Party. He distrusted their leaders, and denounced 'American' methods of class warfare. In November 1910 he won a bitter libel case against Auckland journalist W. P. Black, who had branded Carey a 'lying, contemptible traitor' for criticising the Federation of Labour. In June 1912 the Wellington Trades and Labour Council, firmly controlled by Carey and Michael Reardon, refused to support the striking Waihi miners. At the Unity Congress in July 1913 Carey fought for the ULP ideal of one political and industrial organisation, and tried to limit national control over strikes. When both motions were heavily defeated, he sided with the ULP rump and repudiated the new Social Democratic Party. He confirmed his commitment to the arbitration system in February 1914 when he became deputy workers' representative on the Court of Arbitration.
Carey supported New Zealand's involvement in the First World War, and in December 1915, at the age of 39, volunteered for active service. He edited a soldiers' newsletter aboard his troopship, and in September 1916 joined the 2nd Battalion, Wellington Infantry Regiment in France. On 14 October 1916 Carey died from wounds received in action during the battle of the Somme. He was survived by Ellen and an adopted daughter. Carey Street in Mitchelltown, Wellington, was named after him.
Energetic and genial, with a keen sense of humour, Jack Carey was a small man (he stood just over five feet tall), smartly moustached and bald by his early 30s. An influential figure in Wellington labour circles and an important critic of the 'Red Feds', Carey made an outstanding contribution to the industrial organisation of hotel and restaurant workers in New Zealand.