Margo Beasley, Wharfies: The History of the Waterside Workers’ Federation

Greg Mallory

Margo Beasley: Wharfies: The History of the Waterside Workers’ Federation, Halstead Press/Australian National Maritime Museum, 1996. pp. x + 222. $49.95 (hardback).

When Justice Higgins handed down the Waterside Workers’ Federation’s (WWF) first Award in 1914 he commented that if a man kept a horse he had to feed him on days when he did not use him. He argued that wharfies were entitled to be ‘fed’ (i.e. paid) while they were left idle when no ships were .in port. The obvious implication was that horses were treated better than human beings under the then existing industrial system and it was thus necessary to change this situation. This story illustrates the harsh conditions that wharfies had to endure and a history of the WWF should reflect these conditions. Margo Beasley has indeed done this by writing a detailed and informative history of the Federation spanning over 100 years of waterfront activity. It begins by examining the creation of individual wharf labourers’ unions in ports around Australia and takes us up to the formation of the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) in 1993. The book covers chronologically and thematically the important industrial and political struggles of the union over this period and clearly shows how determined the employers and the Federal Government were to ‘break’ the union by using or threatening to use ‘scab’ labour. When this did not work an enquiry was inevitably set up which resulted in legislation being passed setting up various authorities to administer the affairs on the waterfront.

The strength of Beasley’s work lies in its thematic approach to each chapter. In adopting this approach great issues are raised and commented upon. For example, the period up to World War Two saw the Federation being involved in a turbulent relationship with its founder, Billy Hughes. It also had to face a ‘scab’ union (the ‘Po and C.s’) being formed in 1917 as well as the Transport Workers’ Act the infamous ‘Dog Collar Act’ – being used against it throughout the late I920s and the 1930s. This struggle ended up with that great act of organised defiance, the Pig Iron dispute of 1938. After the War the union played a major role in the Dutch shipping ban. Leading Federation officials Jim Healy and Ted Roach were gaoled during the coal strike in 1949 and Roach was gaoled again in 1951. The Federation supported the Communist Party when the Federal Government attempted to ban it in 1951. During the 1954 and 1956 strikes the union was able to muster mass support for its campaigns through extensive organisational work. In 1961 Jim Healy died suddenly and this had an effect upon the politics of the Federation both internally and externally with the election of Charlie Fitzgibbon – to General Secretary. The period of the I970s to the 1990s has seen the introduction of new technology, such as containerisation and mechanisation, with its inevitable effect on jobs. A ‘reform’ process has been initiated by the Federal Government and one of these, union amalgamations, has directly affected the Federation. Beasley discusses these issues and others in a detailed way and the reader is made aware of the Federation’s rich history.

The book highlights some of the atrocious physical and social working conditions within the industry. For example, just after the turn of the century wharfies would be expected to carry loads in excess of 350 pounds on their backs for up to 20 to 30 yards. They often did this work for 24 hours straight. Their social conditions were just as bad. Up until the Second World War men were hired under the infamous ‘bull’ system which meant that wharfies were simply chosen for wor~ by a foremen from a ‘pick-up’ and could be rejected for work for ~ny reason. Given these conditions, the Federation’s struggle was primarily for better working conditions for its members. A ‘culture’ of fairness developed on the waterfront and this lVas reflected in the struggle to get rid of the ‘bull’ system and replace it with a system based on gangs and rosters. The -union also displayed an internationalist perspective by attempting to give support to other movements in struggles for a better way of life and is clearly depicted as displaying a ‘social conscience’ when it placed a ban on pig iron to Japan or tied up Dutch ships in ports around Australia in support . of the Indonesian struggle for independence. It was also involved in supporting indigenous people, opposing the Vietnam War and the mining of uranium. Various sporting and cultural activities were pursued, for example, each branch organising various football, cricket and golf teams. In 1959, the famous American singer and political activist, Paul Robeson, sang at various stop-work meetings in Sydney and Melbourne. In discussing the contribution made by Jim Healy, Beasley does not adopt the ‘great man’ approach which has recently crept back into some trade union histories. Healy is not necessarily depicted as a working class ‘saint’ as is often found in ‘wharfie culture’. This by no means denigrates the great contribution Healy made to the Federation, but other leaders within the organisation are also given prominence. These included Arthur Turley, Ted Roach, Charlie Fitzgibbon, Norm Docker, Tas Bull, John Coombs, Tom Nelson, Stan Moran, Dutchy Young and Ted Bull.

The work is well researched, has an extensive bibliography and is easy to read. It is interspersed with ‘potted histories’ depicting a variety of Federation activities throughout the years. Beasley’s work raises a number of fundamental questions. Several of these spring to mind. What was the Federation’s long term relationship with the Communist Party of Australia and the Australian Labor Party? What effect did these relationships have on the leadership and the rank and file? Did technological change and declining membership alone affect the political and social ‘culture’ within the Federation or were other factors also involved?

Overall, the book depicts the Federation as a union that was militant both industrially and politically. It cared for its members and fought numerous battles to win better conditions for them as well as fighting wider political battles for the working class on an international scale. With the Federation’s amalgamation with the Seaman’s Union of Australia, the future of the new union, the Maritime Union of Australia, is by no means certain. Factors that will contribute to this uncertainty are further developments in technological change and the New Right’s ‘economic rationalist’ push for contract labour in the industry. However, given wharfies’ proud militant record, these changes could only come about with the employers conducting a long and bloody fight with one of Australia’s most militant unions.