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  Issue No 6 Official Organ of LaborNet 26 March 1999  

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History

A History of Struggle on the Wharves

By Margo Beasley

As the first anniversary of the Reith-Corrigan assault on the waterfront approaches, we remember that it was only the latest in a long line of attacks on the union.

Control of labour supply was central to the recent dispute between the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) and Patrick Stevedoring. It is an issue that has long concerned maritime workers in Australia mainly because it is closely connected to continuing efforts by governments and employers to reduce wages and conditions. The 1998 struggle over the introduction of non-union labour on the wharves has a history that predates the amalgamation of the Waterside Workers' Federation and the Seamens' Union in 1992, which led to the formation of the MUA. The WWF's history is replete with passionate incidents resulting from efforts to weaken or break the union.

Lessons of the Past

Australian wharf labouring unions were established in the late nineteenth century in response to appallingly dangerous working conditions which included twenty-four and sometimes forty-eight hour continuous shifts in the peak wool and wheat seasons, when turnaround time (unloading and loading) was at a premium for international trade.

Wharfies were employed under the notorious `bull' system, where they assembled at a particular point to be chosen for work on the basis of brute strength, and, sometimes, compliance. The bull system forced wharf labourers to compete against each other for work, even at the expense of their own health. It existed until the Second World War.

The WWF was formed in 1902 under the leadership of (later Prime Minister) Billy Hughes, in part because of the use of non-union labour during the 1890s depression which saw many wharf labourers' families on the brink of starvation.

In the General Strike of 1917 wharfies and thousands of other unionists in several states struck in support of striking NSW railway and tramway workers. As a result, a National Service Bureau was established to recruit strike-breaking wharf labour from farms and country towns. Such recruits included clerks, students and returned soldiers as well as unemployed labourers, criminals and drifters. Loss of livelihood and the threat of starvation often prompts violent response and although non-union labour had police escorts to and from the wharves, they were hooted, jeered at and pelted with potatoes and bluemetal, and subjected to sporadic violence.

The most serious consequence of 1917 for the WWF was the formation of so-called `scab' unions (i.e. employer sponsored and strike-breaking), one of which, the Permanent and Casuals (known as the P and C's, ironically also the acronym for one of the National Farmers' Federation companies in the recent dispute) dogged the WWF until the 1950s. Many WWF members were denied the opportunity to work for several years to come.

Fremantle in 1919 was the scene of an extraordinarily violent riot. Western Australia was isolated by a seamen's strike and an outbreak of the deadly influenza virus. There was insufficient work for everyone and when the Dimboola arrived with urgently-needed medical supplies and foodstuffs it was unloaded by non-union labour, (brought onto the wharves in the 1917 strike) before the quarantine period expired. The wharf was picketed by WWF members and they and their wives assembled daily to prevent non-union labour getting to the wharves. Thousands of people joined them, including returned soldiers carrying revolvers. When barricades were erected on 4 May, (known subsequently as `Bloody Sunday') indicating a renewed effort to bring in non-union labour, bellmen ran through the streets calling out the populace, priests alerted their congregations and townspeople, women, children and other workers streamed down to the wharves.

Non-union labour arrived in launches, accompanied by the West Australian Premier, Hal Colebatch, and were greeted with a barrage of scrap iron and stone missiles from the bridge above. In what became a head on confrontation between the two groups WWF member Thomas Edwards fell, fatally wounded, and died a few days later, giving his union its first martyr. A truce was declared, the non-union labour left the wharves and wharfies and their supporters were persuaded to disperse, but high feeling continued for several days and there were isolated attacks on police. Most of the non-union labour left Fremantle in the face of ongoing hostility.

In 1928, as the great depression was just beginning, the non-union labour fallout from a disastrous national strike all but killed off the WWF. Conditions on the wharves remained appalling. Wheat, cement and potatos weighing up to 92 kilos were shifted mainly on wharfies' backs, sulphur caught fire and turned holds into poisonous pits, carbon black stained the skin for weeks, and hides arrived from South America rotten and oozing with maggots. Wharf labourers often died on the job when loads fell into the holds, landing on them, and they were sometimes speared to cargo by steel rails which slipped from their slings. They worked unprotected in freezer holds, and bare chested in north Queensland summers where they were paid bee money for stings endured when loading sugar.

In 1928 the WWF sought a new award which would include the abolition of the twice daily pickup, enforcement of their preference for wharf labouring work (i.e. WWF members to be hired before others) and increased overtime rates. But the new award that was handed down in January 1928 was worse than the old. It continued the double pickup, cancelled the single pickup in those ports where it existed and removed restrictions on overlong shifts because they slowed ship turnaround times.

Wharf labourers were now to be paid less for evening and night shifts than they would for the horror shifts - making them dangerously attractive. All appeals for safeguards against excessive strain and over- work were rejected, as were claims for improved safety. Spontaneous strikes broke out in ports around the country. The Federal WWF leadership was confused by the vehemence of its members' reaction and was unable to lead or coordinate. Shipowners brought in non-union labour and bitterness was particularly rife in Melbourne. There were riots, assaults and arrests. Alan Whittaker, a Gallipoli veteran, was shot from behind. Dying a short time later, he gave his union another martyr.

Late in 1928 the Transport Workers Act was introduced federally. It controlled the engagement, service and discharge of wharfies who now had to have a license, known as a `dog collar', to work. The Act was a grave threat to the existence of the WWF, many of whose members could not gain licenses. When the remnants of WWF branches returned to work defeated it was too late - most of the jobs had been taken by the growing bands of unemployed. The P and C's re-emerged in Melbourne and became an alternative federal union, providing work for its strike-breaking members. The WWF's circumstances worsened during the depression and the union almost died because of the general destitution of its declining membership.

The turning point for the WWF's fortunes was WWII. Well-known Communist Jim Healy, admired by friend and foe, became general secretary in 1937. During the war wharf labour was in demand for the first time in decades, and the WWF capitalised on its new strength. The Stevedoring Industry Commission was established by the Curtin government to improve efficiency on the wharves and new working arrangements were implemented. They included abolition of the bull system and, significantly, the WWF gained the right to recruit wharf labour.

The WWF emerged from the war with renewed vigour and became a leading union in the labour movement as well as a significant and effective presence in peace and civil rights matters. During the Cold War, as a result of the Communist presence in the WWF, and its industrial strength, the union was much demonised by the Menzies government and employers.

Early in the 1950s the WWF absorbed the P and C's, thus emasculating it as a rival labour force and in a major dispute in 1954 the WWF demonstrated that it could at last fend off the threat of an alternative non-union labour supply.

The Federal Government announced proposed amendments to the Stevedoring Industry Act which, among other measures, would give employers the right to recruit wharf labour independent of the WWF, that is non-union labour. This revived the old fears of an alternative strikebreaking labour force and the union struck nationally for a fortnight in November, perceiving the issue as one of survival. The 1954 strike was a period of great solidarity and is still remembered as a high point in the WWF's history. The Stevedoring Act amendments were passed and even though the strike ended soon after, the unions worked to make the new legislation unworkable. In fact, the government never used the recruitment amendments. At a conference held by Minister for Labour and National Service (later Prime Minister) Harold Holt in early 1955, a new recruiting agreement was drawn up protecting the WWF's right to recruit labour, effectively an admission of defeat by the government.

In the period since 1954, the waterfront and its unions have undergone profound changes. Where once there were about 25,000 wharfies in Australia, today there are less than 4,000, largely due to the automation of the late 1960s. Because of the industrial strength developed under the leadership of Healy and his successor Charlie Fitzgibbon, there was no further attempt to introduce non-union labour on the Australian wharves until last year. In sheer organisational scale the Patrick Stevedoring's non-union enterprise far outflanks anything which has come before.

Margo Beasley is a professional historian who is currently completing a PhD at Wollongong University


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In this issue
Features
*  Interview: Jeff Shaw - Keeping the Peace in NSW
We talk to the Carr Government's best minister about his plans and aspirations for a second term.
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*  Unions: Labor's IR Promises
Read the full ALP Industrial Relations policy. Only on Workers Online!
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*  History: A History of Struggle on the Wharves
As the first anniversary of the Reith-Corrigan assault on the waterfront approaches, we remember that it was only the latest in a long line of attacks on the union.
*
*  Review: Rats in the Ranks
This Australian political masterpiece about the battle for power in an inner-city council is well worth going back to.
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*  Campaign Diary: It's Time For a Real Labor Government
A returned Carr Government must use its increased majority to promote a genuine Labor agenda rather than just clinging to power for another four years.
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»  Guest Report
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»  Sport
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»  Trades Hall
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»  Piers Watch
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Letters to the editor
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»  Independent Performers Register
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»  Give Gen X a Job Share
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»  Help a Law Student Pass
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