Ted Roach (1909-1997): Militant Wharfie, Leader of the ‘Pig Iron Bob’ Dispute

Greg Mallory

Long-time waterfront union activist Ted Roach died in Sydney on 25 February this year, just three weeks after his wife, Wyck. A steelworker, canecutter,wharfie and Communist Party Activist Ted is best remembered for his leadmg role in the ‘Dalfram or ‘Pig Iron Bob’ dispute of 1938 in which he and his fellow workers successfully blocked shipments of Australian pig iron to Japan. Another cause with which he was proud to have been associated was that of Indonesian independence from Dutch colonial rule after World War Two. Brisbane labour historian, Greg Mallory, has written the following tribute to this remarkable unionist. Greg is a lecturer and, doctoral student in the History Department at the University of Queensland.

Ted Roach, Secretary of the South Coast Branch of the Waterside Workers’ Federation during the Pig-iron dispute in 1938, passed away on February 25. Ted lived an active industrial and political life for most of his 87 years, Born in Coledale, NSW, in 1909, Ted learnt industrial militancy early in life from his militant coal-mining father. He left school at 13 and worked in many jobs in NSW and Queensland. As the effects of the Great Depression hit workers, Ted ‘carried his swag’ through Queensland’ending up in the canefields of North Queensland. In Mackay he joined the Communist Party and was involved. with the unemployed and became Secretary of the Shelter Shed Committee and the Unemployed Workers Movement.

Returning to Newcastle in 1931, Ted resumed his political and industrial activism by becoming district secretary of Unemployed Workers Movement, Secretary of the Party organisation for trade union work, and district secretary of the Militant Minority Movement. This activism led to a strike at Lysaght’s Newcastle works in 1934 after Ted had started work as a wharfie.

At the end of 1936 Ted transferred to Port Kembla. The conditions for wharfies were harsh and Ted and his fellow militants began organising to improve these. This involved agitating for a unioncontrolled roster system to replace the ‘bull’ system. Under the Ted’s leadership, wharfles involved themselves in a range of activities in the local community including helping out in emergency situations such as bushfires. Ted was elected Secretary of the South Coast Branch of the Waterside Workers Federation in March 1938 and he immediately agitated for the implementation of a roster system. This was one of the first steps in getting rid of the ‘bull’ system nationally.

In November, the wharfies at Port Kembla refused to load pig-iron on to the ship the ‘Dalfram’ which was heading for Japan. This created an international incident and the Menzies Government was forced to stop this practice after a compromise was reached with the local branch.

In 1942, Ted was elected to Assistant-Secretary of the Federal branch of the union and was continually re-elected to this position until his retirement in 1967. During this time he was involved in the Dutch shipping ban which tied up Dutch ships in Australian ports while the Indonesians were fighting for their independence. In 1946 he attended the inaugural Indonesian Trade Union Conference. He was gaoled twice during his years as Assistant General-Secretary, first in 1949 for six weeks during the coal strike, and secondly in 1951, for 38 weeks for publishing a cartoon in the Maritime Worker which was critical of a Federal Industrial Court judge’s ruling. Ted felt that he did not receive adequate support from the union or the Communist Party and often would recall the story of being visited by Jim Healy and Lance Sharkey and ‘tearing strips’ off them on more than one occasion. Both Healy and Sharkey were perplexed as to how Ted was getting his information from the outside. Ted recalled that visitors were bringing in eggs wrapped in the Tribune and the Maritime Worker and thus keeping him informed of every development in his case.

Ted was also responsible for organising the branches nationally and built up good relationships with all the branches around the country. He had particular affection for the Brisbane Branch and, of course, the South Coast Branch. In Western Australia he came into conflict with A WU officials over the question of Aboriginal rights and nearly led him to be ‘run out of town’ on a number of occasions. In 1954 Ted was give~ the job of improving safety, health and hygiene nationally. He remembered the struggle in Geelong where men were dying of what appeared to be heart attacks in the holds of ships when loading wheat. Storemen and Packers were also dying in the silos. Ted did some research and found that the symptoms of a heart attack were the same as those associated with phostoxin poisoning, which was the chemical released from the wheat and inhaled into the men’s lungs. Ted met with the Wheat Board and proceeded to get the conditions changed.

When Jim Healy died in 1961 Ted was overruled by the Party in running for the General-Secretary’s job and the Party put forward Tom Nelson. The right-wing put up Charlie Fitzgibbon who defeated Nelson. Ted appeared to be hurt by this situation as he felt he had the grass-roots support of the membership and would have defeated Fitzgibbon.

In 1967 Ted left his Assistant-Secretary’s job and returned to work on the Sydney waterfront. He organised a ‘rank and file ticket’ against the Sydney branch officials during branch elections. This action led to the development of a worsening relationship with Sydney Branch .officials which had developed over the years as Assistant-Secretary. When Ted left the waterfront he worked at the Revesby Workers’ Club and led a strike there over wages and conditions.

In the latter period of his life Ted worked on his memoirs which are currently being written up into his biography. He addressed a number of Labour History Conferences and meetings giving a paper on the pig iron dispute at the Biennial Conference of the Australian Society for the Study Labour History in Newcastle in June, 1993. He also addressed a number of political conferences during this time.

Ted worked with Jim Healy for over 20 years but his opinion of Healy differed from that of many others on the ‘Left’. Ted clashed with Healy on a number of occasions and felt Healy was given accolades that others in the organisation should have received.

Ted is remembered with affection, a generous man who brewed his own beer (30 dozen in September, 1996!), a former boxer in his youth, a keen gardener, a crack billiards player, a loving husband, father and grandfather. He is survived by two daughters and two grand-children. His wife, Wyck, predeceased him by three weeks.