The Conditions Which Gave Rise to the art and Culture of the Wharfies in the 1950 and 1960s

Allan Ashbolt*

Discussing those conditions which gave rise to the art and culture of the wharfies in the 1950s and 1960s really calls for an examination, firstly of the working and living conditions which prevlJiled on the watemont during much of this century, and secondly, (though just as important), of those objective political conditions which put waterside workers in the vanguard of social protest and the struggle for economic justice. Now in terms of personal experience, it is not for me to speak with any authority about the ongoing struggle against the ship-owners for fair and rational ways of hiring labour, for reliable safety measures, and for wages that recognised properly recognised – both skill and effort. So for a start I think it worth going to Tom Nelson’s history of the union, The Hungry Mile, to get some insight into this matter. Let me take two examples out of many.

In April 1914, Mr Justice Higgins, then president of the Commonwealth Arbitration Court, awarded the WWF l/9d per hour and made these comments on the bull system – sometimes politely called the casual hiring system. ‘In this case’, said Higgins, ‘the employers admitted that the industry can bear any rates that may be imposed within the limits of the log, and did not bring any evidence to show that treights must be raised as a consequence of this Award. It is lamentable that so many lusty men, mostly in the prime offife, should have to stand about idle, waiting for a job at the usual place of hiring – earning nothing some days, nothing even some weeks and earning high wages some weeks, by excessive hours of toil… There is a tremendous waste of potential human energy involved.’

‘They are entitled’ said Higgins, ‘at least to food, clothes and shelter for themselves and their dependents during the whole term of this service. If a man keeps a horse, he has to feed the horse on days when he does not use him, as well as days when he does. If he keeps two or more horses and uses them in rotation they must be fed all the time.

‘If people expect cabmen to be ready for a call at a stand they must pay an extra rate to cover the time lost in waiting. It would be absurd to say, as has been urged here, that the obligation of the master ceases with the actual physical exertion. They also serve who only stand and wait.’

Higgins was, of course, an enlightened judge, the so-called father of the basic wage, and he was obviously appalled by labour conditions on the wharves. Over the years, not all arbitration judges in this domain managed to show such a degree of compassion and understanding. And not all wharfies, it must be said, were prepared to battle for reform of the bull system. Indeed, it was 1943 before the Gang Rotary Scheme was introduced. Let me stay in 1943 for a few moments, so as to look at working conditions trom the viewpoint of a Macquarie Street specialist who was called upon to examine a large number of wharfies for the Stevedoring Industry Commission. In this case, I must say the doctor showed a degree of awareness and understanding not usually associated with what was then generally regarded as a conservative profession.

‘I was under the impression when commencing this survey’, he wrote, ‘that its object was the detection of malingerers. Having encountered only one of those crafty undesirables among the first 130 cases I examined, I realised that I was dealing with a quite unique collection of genuine and serious disabilities. I was forced into a real and surprised admiration for a body of men earning a more or less arduous living handicapped by gross and serious physical abnormalities.

‘Most of the individuals I examined were over the age of 40 and under 60. My chief impression of these men was that all of them were prematurely aged. It was rare to fmd any man who did not look at least 10 years older than his stated age… The majority of them showed the usual stigma of pressure, thickened and calcified arteries, and degenerative disease of the heart muscles. There was little clinical evidence that the process had been hastened by alcohol.’

And in his final comments the Macquarie Street specialist said: ‘I had examined men who in the main had been ruined physically by the intolerable anxieties of the depression years. The endless search for the infrequent job which would keep them and their families from the precarious borderline of malnutrition had taken its devastating toll. The feverish high tension work performed when the job is secured in order to ensure its repetition had been paid for at the shocking price of premature old age and physical calamity.’

Now what I have tried to present, rather briefly, is a picture of the sort of
industrial conditions which wharfiea faced and which, to some extent, led to the militancy of the 50s. But I also want to look at the political conditions which in those years – the 50s and 60s – bore down on the union. What we have to remember is that amongst the wharfies there was a long tradition of international solidarity, going back at least to 1889 – the year of the dockers’ strike in London, when the money raised in Australia, fmt in Brisbane, then
in the other ports, enabled that strike to continue and ultimately to succeed. It was the wharfies, too, who amongst other workers in the 1930s were far
sighted enough to raise the alarm about Japan’s militarism and who helped to bestow on R. G Menzies the well-deserved appellation of ‘Pig-Iron Bob’ in acknowledgment of his contribution to the Japanese armaments industry. And I well remember how, in 1946, the Dutch film-maker, Joris Ivens, broke his contract with the Dutch Government in order to make Indonesia Calling for the Waterside Workers, who had refused to load arms for Dutch forces trying to re-establish control over Holland’s erstwhile colony of Indonesia. And when you look around this exhibition, you can see another
example of the extent to which wharfies anticipated later events – it is a call for No Bombs to Indo-china 1954. Not 1964, when awareness of the Vietnam situation was more general, but 1954.

However, I want to dwell for a few moments on 1951, not only because it was a year of significant social and political upheaval for Australia. It was the year in which Chiftey died and the Labor Party began to split over the issue of communism, yet also the year in which Chiftey’s successor as leader, Dr H.V. Evatt, gained a great victory by persuading 50.6% of the electorate to reject the Menzies government’s proposal that it should be given power to dissolve the Communist Party and outlaw all Communist activities, especially in the trade unions. Legislation which the government introduced to this effect had been, in October 1950, declared constitutionally invalid by the High Court. So Menzies decided to go to the people. As a flfst step, he tested his popularity by caIling a general election for May 1951, only seventeen months after taking office. He won that election, but in September narrowly lost the referendum. Evatt’s victory preserved freedom of speech and political action for Australians; Menzies eventually achieved a different kind of victory, by using Cold War propaganda techniques to push a very large segment of the middle class towards political passivity.

There was one middle-class phenomenon which became quite noticeable around 1951 – the steady retreat of young marrieds to outer suburbia, where the ten-square house, the quarter-acre block. the motor mower, the rotary hoist and the General Motors Holden car were emerging as dominant symbols of social stability and well-being. I call it a retreat because there was a sense in which this migration, with its emphasis on domestic concerns, on family pleasures and problems, led not only to a turning away from politics, but drained the life out of our capital cities. During the war, both Melbourne and Sydney had shown signs of developing a genuine metropolitan culture – by which I mean a culture based not only on the arts but on the exchange of ideas. But by 1951, the suburbs – and particularly the outer suburbs – were beginning to function as a sort of refuge from the arts and ideas, particularly political ideas. And this is where the waterside workers became very important in helping to keep Sydney alive as a city. For a city it is not a city without the arts and without political ideas. It is significant that almost the only political demonstrations or protest marches in Sydney during the 50s were those organised by or with the help of the wharfies. Remember, too, that most wharfies and their families lived either in the city (at the Rocks) or on the edges of the city. they were part of the city in a creative way that the daily commuters were not.

Very often, suburbia is not so much a geographical space as a state of mind, and during the Menzies era our suburbs embodied an attitude of withdrawal
and even complacency which began to break up only under the impact of
the armed struggle in Vietnam. More than anything else perhaps, conscription ballots for 20-year-olds destroyed the suburban middle-class myth of freedom from political involvement The definitive reaction against this sort of blandness occurred from the middle to the late 1960s, when children born between, say, 1946 and 1951, formed a key element in student protests against the war. Because young people, along with trade unionists and so-called ordinary people, occupied city streets to denounce that war and challenge the national government, it re-defmed both our urban space and our capacity for socio-political engagement. Only then did our cities, and particularly Sydney, begin to revive as centres of intellectual and cultural exchange – not merely busiriess and financial exchange. Only then did it become possible for us to understand the cry of the serfs when they escaped from land slavery into the growing cities of medieval Europe – the cry of ‘city air makes free.’

During the 50s and 60s, wharfies maintained their own long tradition of socio-political engagement, despite harassment from shipowners, the police, and in a slightly more subtle way, the press. In 1954, when ship owners persuaded the Federal government to pass legislation taking away from the union its traditional right to recruit its members, the entire Australian waterfront was tied up from November 2 to November 14. Not only thatthe Communist Party, the Labor Party, the ACTU, the Maritime Council and other sections of the populace made a united front which forced the shipowne.s and Menzies to back down. In February the following year, the rights taken away by the November 1954 Stevedoring legislation were returned to the union. For anyone who lived through that era of the 50s and
60s, particularly when the waterside workers were at the forefront of the anti-war movement, it is a great pleasure to see so much of it recaptured in
this exhibition and so many fme talents decently recognised – Rod Shaw in painting and design, Margaret Barr in dance theatre, Dick Diamond’s Reedy River, Norma Disher, Keith Crow and Jock Levy in the film unit. I think we should remember too that, while the union was at the heart of the waterfront community, the women – some of them wives, some of then workers in their own right – were in a crucial sense at the heart of the union, generous, active, uncomplaining and, it must be emphasised, bravely militant. A city like Sydney is not made merely by town planners, architects and builders or merely by big money; essentially, it is made by
its inhabitants and the people who use it. Waterside workers have been an
integral part of Sydney for a century or more, and the value of this exhibition is that it helps to confirm the importance of what might be called
the wharfie tradition in politics, the arts and the making of a great city.

* The Hummer wishes to thank Dr. Drew Cottle for soliciting this piece for publication. The text is from an address delivered by Mr.
Ashbolt in November 1993 at the exhibition on working life on Sydney’s waterfront organised by the Australian National Maritime Museum.