Rupert Lockwood, War on the Waterfront: Menzies Japan and the Pig-Iron Dispute

Hale and Iremonger, Sydney 1987

Drew Cottle

Despite its virtual ‘D’ Notice reception in the corporate media, Rupert Lockwood’s War on the Waterfront is a major work in Australian history. When, to borrow Bob Gollan’s phrase, ‘more and more is being written about less and less,’ Lockwood has examined a crucial episode in the class struggles of the 1930s: the Port Kembla Pig-Iron Strike, in all of its ramifications.

Because Lockwood, like Brian Fitzpatrick before him, is beyond the bounds of academe his history writing is refreshingly free of the infantile disorder of ‘compartmentalisation’ of which ‘labour history’ is a product and much of the ‘new social history’ is its continuation. In War on the Waterfront Lockwood studies the material life of the Port Kembla working class and the supine appeasement of Japanese militarism by the Lyons Government, B.H.P. and the Wool lobby; the police and psychiatric terror used against an anti-fascist Arab stoker on the Dalfram and the environmental devastation wreaked by B.H.P. on the Illawarra region; the Zaibatsu’s infamous labour laws and the pecuniary interests and collaborationist intent of many Australian members of the Japan-Australia Society. No boundary holds back Lockwood’s investigating eye. Throughout War on the Waterfront Lockwood explores the widening complexities and contradictions evident in the Pig Iron Strike. We are shown how and why R G Menzies, Lyon’s Attorney General, was given the epithet ‘Pig Iron Bob’. A frank portrait is drawn of Hawke’s ‘near hero’, John Curtin. When Healy and Roach (of the W.W.F.), and other union representatives sought the Labor Opposition leaders support in the struggle, Curtin ‘lay back on a divan… hands behind his head ….looked at the ceiling” and told them, “You must carry out Government policy. If Labor was in power in Canberra you would carry out our policy and load the pig-iron.” (p. 40) And unlike many labour historians whose work characterises the working class as an abstraction or in “the sad role of caryatids supporting the floor for others some day to dance on” (Alexander Herzen, From the Other Shore), Lockwood masterfully illustrates the dignity, humanity and class solidarity of those ‘180 men in sweaty work singlets and hobnailed boots’ who refused to load the Dalfram. Like members of the contemporary de-registered B.L.F., the striking Port Kembla wharflabourers were not passive victims of a government decree. They were in the more winning support, organising, struggling, never admitting defeat.

As the first Australian Born Governor General, Sir Isaac Isaacs likened their display of conscience above Government policy to the stand of the Eureka rebels, Lockwood reminds us of ‘the consequences of their decision; the denial of waged work, the vilification of the kept press, the near starvation of their families. Their ‘crime’ of conscience was punished with ruling class savagery.

Although the scrap-iron cargo of the Dalfram eventually reached Kube, significant long-term victories were won by the boycott of the Port Kembla waterside workers. Their determined action finally led to the dismantling of the hated Transport Worker’s (Dog Collar) Act and was the inspiration behind the practical assistance given by the Australian working class to the Indonesian independence struggle against the re-imposition of Dutch imperialism in the early post-war years. Lockwood is clear in his conclusions on these vital class issues even as Australia’s ruling class seeks to bury its history in celebration and moves to that closer relationship with Tokyo which many of its class brethren actively pursued in the late 1930’s, early 1940’s. Menzies ghosts smile knowingly on corporate Japan’s present ‘Brisbane Line.”