The Movement that Sings (Will Never Die)

A regular section curated by Danny Blackman

Last year the Maritime Union of Australia (the MUA) celebrated its 150th anniversary, and our songs for this issue (delayed from 2022) were selected to mark the occasion.  

A union whose industrial strength is legendary, the MUA we know today is the result of the 1993 amalgamation of the Seamen’s Union (SUA), whose origins stretch back to the 1870s, and the Waterside Workers Federation (WWF, “the Wharfies”), formed in 1902 from the amalgamation of local unions of wharf labourers across the country.

The SUA and the WWF, both Communist-led for decades, are famed for their active defence of workers’ rights, in Australia and overseas; both have been distinguished for most of their existence by their internationalist outlook and in particular their firm stand that ‘Peace is union business’. Accordingly, they were amongst the first in the firing line whenever conservative governments and militant employers sought to reduce union power.

Given their role in Australia’s industrial and political history, it’s not surprising that when you look on the website, that invaluable online ‘bible’ of union songs and poems collected by Mark Gregory since 1997, you’ll find many more songs about the SUA, the WWF and more recently the MUA than about any other Australian union.  There are so many about significant episodes in the union’s long history that I’ll include some short excerpts, with links to the full lyrics and where possible the sound file of a number of songs in addition to those whose lyrics appear in full in this piece. (As always, I’m deeply grateful to Mark Gregory for the wealth of material on his website.) 

Australian maritime unions have certainly had their share of legendary leaders, but Australian songwriters have tended to focus on the industrial and political struggles rather than heroes. In contrast, US songwriters 1 celebrated the legendary status of Australian-born Harry Bridges, founder of the  International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) and leader of industrial struggles on the US west coast waterfront for four decades: 

So here’s to you Harry, may your name forever stand
For integrity and justice for every working man
Working women are beside them, as the bosses plan to goad

And your spirit sails on every ship we load 2

The only comparable Australian song about leaders of the maritime unions that I’ve found is an unpublished tribute to the late Tas Bull, General Secretary of the WWF 1984-1993, by Tasmanian Grass Roots Union Choir member and former TTLC secretary, Simon Cocker. This song, which has been performed by the Grassroots Choir, begins with the memorable line “Tasnor Bull has finally slung his hook” and goes on to laud Bull’s achievements, including in a chorus:

Tasnor Bull stands tall; he struggled for us all.
He led the mighty MUA; organising unity – won the day. 3

Integral to the militancy of the Sydney WWF was a fierce determination never to return to the days of the 1930s Depression when, as described so poignantly in Ernest Anthony’s 1930 poem (see, wharfies were forced to tramp the Hungry Mile in Sydney’s Darling Harbour dockside in search of work. Geoff Francis and Peter Hicks’ 1993 song “The Hungry Mile” (see for lyrics and sound recording), revisits this theme. The centrality of the Hungry Mile to the WWF ethos cannot be underestimated; when former General Secretary Tas Bull died in 2003, the huge cavalcade of mourners walked the Hungry Mile in his honour before the funeral service. 

With WWll approaching, the NSW South Coast, always a cradle of militancy, exploded into the national consciousness in 1938 when Port Kembla wharfies under the leadership of Ted Roach refused to load the SS Dalfram with pig iron for Japan to be used for the production of military materials during Japan’s undeclared war on China. Federal Attorney General Bob Menzies brought in the Transport Workers’ Act (the ‘Dog Collar Act’) in an attempt to break the wharfies – an action that branded him forever in popular history as ‘Pig-Iron Bob’. Clem Parkinson’s 1964“Pig-Iron Song”(full lyrics and sound files at tells the story:   

Did you ever stop to wonder why the fellows on the job
Refer to Robert Menzies by the nickname Pig-Iron Bob?
It’s a fascinating tale though it happened long ago
It’s a part of our tradition every worker ought to know.

We wouldn’t load pig-iron for the fascists of Japan
Despite intimidation we refused to lift the ban
With democracy at stake the struggle must be won
We had to beat the menace of the fascist Rising Sun.

When Australia became involved in the Vietnam War in the 1960s, the maritime unions maintained their anti-war stance. The SUA’s 1966 refusal to sail the Boonaroo carrying military supplies to Vietnam was the inspiration for Don Henderson’s 1968 song, “The Boonaroo”( Then Sydney wharfies refused to load the Jeparit with military supplies, and eventually the government was forced to recommission both ships as naval ships, so they could be loaded by service personnel. 

The union has campaigned for decades against flag of convenience ships, the ‘ships of shame’; John Hospodaryk’s “Bucket O’ Rust” 5 expresses this eloquently.

But by far the largest number of MUA songs date from 1998, the year that the union was to face one of its greatest challenges when major waterfront employer the Patrick Corporation launched a fierce attack on the MUA’s power on the waterfront. With the support of the Coalition government, Patrick set about ‘restructuring’ its operations, sacking the unionised workforce and replacing them with non-union labour trained in Dubai. On 8 April 1998 the company imposed a complete lockout on the docks in Melbourne, Brisbane, Fremantle and Sydney. 

The rapidly established picket lines were supported by the whole labour movement. While the union’s lawyers challenged the legality of Patricks’ actions in the courts, the ACTU swung into action and the popular campaign led by then President Jennie George and others such as Human Rights advocate Julian Burnside, the MUA’s lawyer, resulted in a huge outburst of community support.  

The songs of the time are many, ranging from the lyrical descriptions of Sydney’s Port Botany picket in John Warner’s “Penrhyn Road Picket” 6 

The bitter wind hurls veils of rain
Through the spotlight over the scarlet crane,
A police car spins out a wall of spray
By the picket tents at Botany Bay,
Canvas roofs and plastic walls
Crackle and heave in the icy squalls,
Red and yellow rainsuits shine
On that determined picket line.

MUA (echo)
Here to stay (echo)
At Webb Dock, Swanson Dock,
And windy Botany Bay,
And watch out you fools and liars who say we’ve had our day,
Here to stay!

.. to the cheerful larrikinism of Geoff Francis and Peter Hicks’ condemnation of the non-union workforce, “The Slimy Patrick’s Scab” 7
There’s vampire bats and sewer rats, there’s pubic lice and crabs,
But the lowest form of life on Earth is the slimy Patrick’s scab.

As community support swelled with whole families joining the picket, the MUA and the labour movement generally were fiercely attacked by the hostile media for the presence of children on the picket lines. The following song by John Warner responds to these attacks:

MUA. Here to Stay!

John Warner 1998. (Sung to the tune “Lincolnshire Poacher”)


Here to stay!
There’s mums and dads and kids all here,
And we won’t go away,
Till wharfies march back in the gate
And earn their proper pay.
Here to stay!

Now I’m in Junior Rugby League, Dad comes along to cheer,
The family cheers for Grandad in the Anzac march each year,
Mum’s in the Union chorus, we all go to hear her sing,
And we’re with Dad on the picket line, ‘cos that’s the proper thing.

You say we kids should not be here, well you’re on the wrong track,
You didn’t hear my mother weep, the day Dad got the sack,
They sent men in with clubs and dogs, and mate, that’s really bad,
And that’s why me and sister Sue stand in the line with Dad.

Now we have seen the wharfies trying hard to keep the peace,
We went and had a chat with that nice lady from the police,
And we think Mr Corrigan should shut his big, fat gob,
And open up the dockyard gates and give Dad back his job.

The 150-year history of the MUA (and its forerunners the SUA and the WWF) is marked by struggle, as Maurie Mulheron sums up in our last song: 

Right That Time

Maurie Mulheron © 1998

They speak about it proudly, it’s now union folklore
How wharfies wouldn’t load any pig-iron for war
Japan was a threat so they walked off the job
They wouldn’t help the fascists for old Pig-iron Bob.

They were right that time and they’re right again now
But the strength of one isn’t much of a power
So united they stand against all odds
Fighting for us all against the little tin gods.

Indonesia’s young and fighting to be free
But the Dutch had different plans for their former colony
When the people rose up with freedom on their lips
The wharfies stopped loading any Dutch bound ships.

Korea was in trouble, overrun by the Yanks
Wharfies told to load rifles, guns and tanks
Why get involved in this bloody civil war?
We’re not gonna ship any weapons anymore!

Pig-iron Bob’s back, says we’re off to Vietnam
Tugging his forelocks for good old Uncle Sam
The seamen wouldn’t work on the war ship ‘Boonaroo’
And the wharfies held the line when they sacked the ship’s crew.

The struggle’s moved on, mass sackings overnight
The union’s survival is the heart of the fight
We’ll defy your threats, your thugs and court
We’re standing united, no wharfie can be bought!

History’s on our side, we’ll see this battle through
There’s too much at stake for the profits of the few
Our fathers, before us, stood on every picket line
Keep their mem’ries alive and we’ll win every time.

Last Chorus:
They’ve been right ev’ry time and they’re right again now
But the strength of one isn’t much of a power
So united they stand against all odds
Fighting for us all against the little tin gods.


  1. Lee Hays, Millard Lampell and Pete Seeger, “The Ballad of Harry Bridges” (1966) and also longshoreman, artist and songwriter Harry Stamper, who performed his tribute, “Harry Bridges”, at Bridges’ memorial held at ILWU Local 10 in San Francisco. Full song lyrics are available at, respectively, (Hays et al) and (Stamper); sound files are also available for the Harry Stamper song.
  2. Chorus of “Harry Bridges”, by Harry Stamper,
  3. Chorus of “Tas Bull”, by Simon Cocker. (Copy of song lyrics held by the author.)
  4. “The Boonaroo”, by Don Henderson, 1968.  The full lyrics and a sound recording are available at; it is also on the MUA Centenary CD With These Arms. “The Boonaroo” was one of eight Australian songs in The Vietnam Songbook“, compiled and originally published in 1969 by Barbara Dane and Irwin Silber.
  5. Bucket O’ Rust” lyrics and sound files are available at
  6. “Penrhyn Road Picket” (©John Warner 1998); see for full lyrics.
  7. “The Slimy Patrick’s Scab” (© Geoff Francis and Peter Hicks, 1998); see  for full lyrics and sound files.