Tas Bull, 1932-2003

Rowan Cahill

This obituary was originally published in the Melbourne Age on Friday June 13, 2003.

Tas Bull, union leader, internationalist, socialist, seafarer, waterside worker, and writer, died in his Sydney home on Thursday, May 29, aged 71.

Five days later, on an unusually warm, sunny winter morning, 1000 mourners gathered to farewell Bull. Preceded by the banner of the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA), they followed the hearse along the legendary section of the Sydney waterfront known as the Hungry Mile. At midday work on wharves nationwide stopped for a minute’s silence as a mark of respect.

Until the 1940s, before job permanency, the Hungry Mile was well known to maritime workers, seamen and wharfies alike, who scoured its length seeking work. It was also the scene of many bitter industrial struggles.

These hardships and struggles became part of Bull’s awareness, dovetailing with family stories about the Depression, forming an historical backdrop as he worked alongside Hungry Mile graduates in the tough maritime world after World War 2.

Tasnor Ivan Bull was born in Sydney in 1932, his first name a combination of Tasmania and Norway, the respective birth places of his mother and father. In retrospect the name was apt, symbolically prefiguring the internationalism of his adult life.

The future trade union leader grew up in a caring household in Tasmania that brought together positive attitudes towards work, some sketchy working-class political concepts, books, reading, ideas, and a sense of informal learning. Bull’s father, an electrical contractor, had been a seaman, and seafaring was a Bull family tradition. His mother came from a Salvation Army background, the culture of which pervaded Bull’s childhood, possibly endowing him with the senses of purpose and organisation he later brought to the trade union movement.

Following the death of his father and the completion of a lack lustre school career, Bull lied about his age and went to sea in 1946. His mother was upset, but hoped one voyage might get it out of his system.

For three years adolescent Bull roamed the world–a catalogue of ships, ports, seafarers, and temporary accommodations; hard times, excitement, brawls; hitch-hiking and riding the rails adventures in the US, the odd overnight stint in a jail bed; strikes, and solidarity actions. With these experiences came an increasing awareness of economic and social injustices, the remedial potentials of trade unionism and militancy, and membership of the Swedish Seamen’s Union.

Returning to Australia in late 1949, Bull worked on the coast until early 1956. During this period he was influenced politically and industrially by his membership of the Seamen’s Union of Australia (SUA), and by the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) which he joined in 1951. Seamen read and discussed a great deal in those pre-television days of slow port turn-arounds, and Bull credited John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath as having had a significant political impact upon him.

Initially an enthusiastic communist, Bull threw himself into party work and underwent theoretical and practical training at the party’s school in Sydney, his first systematic education since leaving school. Bull quit the CPA without much fuss in 1959 after a period of introspection following the exposure of Stalin and events in Hungary.

He came ashore for family reasons and became a Hobart wharfie, joined the Waterside Workers’ Federation (WWF), and was elected a job delegate. Increasingly he became a public figure, beginning with his involvement in the long running Hursey Case (1956-59), a significant industrial and legal struggle that began on the Hobart waterfront, made national headlines and ended in the High Court as conservative forces challenged trade union financial support of political parties. Bull later wrote a book on the struggle, Politics in a Union: the Hursey Case (1977).

From Hobart, to Melbourne, then Sydney, Bull worked on the wharves and learned the fundamentals of union organising as a job delegate. He became respected as an articulate, forceful, talented negotiator, and gained a rank-and-file following as he engaged in the wider politics of the WWF.

In Melbourne Bull developed social contacts beyond the wharves and the maritime community, and enjoyed the exchange of ideas with what he later termed ‘artistic types’, artist John Perceval amongst them. In Sydney he undertook an industrial law course at Sydney University Law School, the only course of its kind in Australia without a minimum education requirement, and read and researched in the State Library in Macquarie Street. Fellow law students included Electrical Trades Union officials Rupert Sweeney and Barrie Unsworth, later an Industrial Relations Commissioner and Premier of NSW respectively.

Bull was a natural leader. His surname was appropriately tough in a tough industry, and he appealed to maritime workers as the sort of character they could invest with both their trust and allegiance. His steely ‘don’t mess with me’ demeanour mixed with personal charm, confidence, and a dry wit; he kept his temper under control, and got things done. In 1967 he was elected a Vigilance Officer (Sydney); in 1971 he was elected Federal Organiser, and later Assistant General Secretary, then General Secretary (1984-92). He also became prominent in the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) and was elected Vice President in 1987, and Senior Vice President in 1991.

As General Secretary, Bull guided the WWF through the shoals of waterfront reform initiated by the Hawke Government, a process that threatened the viability of the union. The problem was twofold; technological change was drastically reducing the size of the waterfront workforce, while at the same time there was political pressure to change traditional waterfront culture and practice to make the Australian economy internationally competitive. One response, which Bull helped create, was the MUA, formed in 1993 when the WWF amalgamated with another union facing the same pressures, the SUA.

Trade unionism for Bull did not end at the Australian coastline. Maritime workers link producers and consumers internationally, and their unions tend to have strong internationalist traditions.Throughout his career Bull was an internationalist; he was prominent in opposing the Vietnam War and apartheid in South Africa, and put a great deal of effort into establishing and developing links with, and between, maritime unions internationally. From 1972 onwards he worked closely with the powerful International Transport Workers’ Federation, and for ten years until 1993 represented the Asia/Pacific region on its executive board, also playing a role in the Federation’s campaign against Flag of Convenience shipping.

The oppression and exploitation of Third World crews on board ships flagged in tax havens such as Panama and Liberia echoed his seagoing experience as a youth. He was a determined advocate and agitator for regulated, accountable shipping standards.

In retirement from union office Bull distinguished himself as Chairman of the ACTU Organising Works union training program and the ACTU overseas aid program APHEDA. He helped with the research for Margo Beasley’s Wharfies: The History of the Waterside Workers’ Federation (1996), and wrote his autobiography Life on the Waterfront (1998). Bull dedicated his autobiography “To all those struggling for social justice”; it was the cause to which he dedicated his life.

He is survived by his wife Carmen, and two sons Peder and Anders and their families.