Wars on the Waterfront

Rowan Cahill

This is the text of an address delivered to a Maritime Union of Australia stop-work meeting, Trades Hall, Sydney, 24 February, 1998, in the context of the Webb Dock events.

In 1969 I was privileged to meet journalist Rupert Lockwood, then editing the Maritime Worker for the Wharfies. He became a friend and last year I delivered his funeral eulogy. In 1970 I met E. V. Elliott, legendary leader of the Seamen’s Union, and began a two year stint with the SUA as a historian.

In their own ways these two men taught me a great deal about Australia, and about maritime labour. One of the things 1 came to understand was that if you go to the waterftont and look back into the city and beyond, there is a very real sense in which the obvious wealth you see is in a major way due to maritime workers. This is so because we live in an island nation, and most of what comes into and goes out of Australia does so on ships and across the wharves.

I also learned that the contribution of seafarers and shore based maritime workers to the development of this nation and its wealth was, and is, not generally recognised. It is not an historic perception, nor is it II public perception. Indeed for much of this century Australian maritime workers suffered hiring indignities and laboured under horrendous conditions that in many cases played havoc with their health. The only outfits that worked to protect these workers, that took Iheir interests to heart, that struggled, successfully as it turned out, for the betterment of their working lives and the lives of their families, were the unique trade unions these workers developed, some of which came together in 1993 to form the Maritime Union of Australia

And how were these maritime unions treated since their development in the 1870s? In this present century alone the armed forces were called in five times to break their boycotts and strikes; union funds were frozen; union leaders were imprisoned; special and pernicious laws were enacted to smash their organisations; Royal Commissions intruded vindictively; there was deregistration; scab unions were legitimised; various police forces raided branch and federal offices and records were seized. And of course the ubiquitous ASIO spied viatelephone taps – if you want to know about love lives in the wharfies’ office during the 1950s, and what Jim Healy had for breakfast, then it’s all in the National Archives in Canberra!

Comrades, in spite of all this we are still here. Cairns, Dubai, industrial mercenaries, sophisticated riot gear on Webb Dock are nothing new. In one form or another we’ve seen it all before. We have something industrial fascists like Reith, Corrigan, and the National Farmers Federation and its wealthy backers cannot destroy with creative manipulation of the law, duplicity and subterfuge. We are what we are because we made ourselves. We have a proud relationship with our past, and a determination about the future. Trade unionism is more than buildings and bank assets. Trade unionism is an attitude of mind; it is about people standing together, and it is about a fire that burns within.