Dolan was born in Grafton, New South Wales, and raised in the Sydney suburb of Meadowbank. His father was a council gardener. He attended West Ryde Primary School and Sydney Technical High School. He became an electrician, and rose to become a full-time official of the Electrical Trades Union by 1949; he was elected Federal Secretary in 1960.
He was Senior Vice-President of the Australian Council of Trade Unions 1973-80, and then succeeded Bob Hawke as President after Hawke went into politics. He remained President until 1985, and was succeeded by Simon Crean.
- Vale Cliff Dolan: A Lifelong Commitment, Workers Online, 8 December 2000. Retrieved 19 December 2017
- Dani Cooper, Livelihoods and Liberation Struggles: 30 Years of Australian Worker Solidarity. Retrieved 19 December 2017
- It's an Honour, Retrieved 19 December 2017