Internationalism and the Seamen’s Union of Australia

Rowan Cahill

(This article is an edited version of a paper presented to ‘On the Waterfront: Union Gains and Struggles 1890-1998’, a conference organised by the Sydney Branch of the Australian Society for the Study of Labour History, Sydney University, 20 February, 1999.)

When the forces of darkness mobilised against the Maritime Union of Australian (MUA) last year, they stirred up global support for the union. Messages of support and solidarity for the MUA flooded in from an atlas of nations – from a staggering array of unions and peak union bodies, from political parties and organisations, and from a Who’s Who of individuals. Noam Chomsky and 1000 academics rubbed shoulders with Desmond Tutu and Gerry Adams.

As the struggle escalated, and major newspapers, CNN and the Internet kept the world informed, international moral support translated into action: an Australian scab cargo was picketed in Los Angeles; US Pacific Coast unions announced readiness to ban scab cargoes generally; the Australian Consulate in San Francisco was picketed and eight prominent American trade union leaders arrested; US unions threatened to boycott Australian produce to the tune of $1 billion; in Japan, India, Indonesia other solidarity actions took place or were planned as scab loaded ships reached, or nearly reached, their destinations. Internationally a Pandora’s Box was opening.

Response to the international solidarity was mixed. The Australian press was variously confused, incensed, or interested; for the electronic media there were photo opportunities; and the forces of darkness were angry that the MUA had international leverage. It was okay for Darth Vader to go to Dubai, but not okay for the MUA to go offshore. Prosecuting authorities looked forward to dishing out punishment; there had to be an MUA Richelieu somewhere leaving some sort of paper or electronic trail, proof that industrial law had been transgressed.

Explaining this international support is complex. In part it was due to the fact similar struggles have been, or will be, part of international industrial experience. Waterfront unionism was variously savaged during the 1980s and early ‘90s in Britain, New Zealand, and Mexico. Port worker unions affiliated to the International Transport Workers’ Federation (which includes the MUA) signed a solidarity contract in June 1997 to support any affiliate facing port privatisation reforms and/or attempts to replace union labour with non-unionists. Last year American longshoremen expected to face such ‘reforms’, while Japanese, Italian and Brazilian longshoremen were already struggling against them.

The fact is that maritime workers – that is all those workers involved in the loading and unloading of ships, and the seamen who sail them – pioneered internationalism. One of the general realisations by dockers and seamen during the late nineteenth century was that effective local agitation sometimes required international links; hence the origins in 1896 of moves to create the International Transport Workers’ Federation. Australia was no slouch in this direction; the great London Dock Strike of 1889, which had a significant impact upon the development of British trade unionism, was to a great extent sustained by Australian trade union funds.

So far as maritime labour is concerned, especially the seagoing sector, internationalism is rooted in the job. Shipowners, charterers, and stevedoring companies all operate in a variety of international contexts; the waterfront and ships automatically involve the mix of cultures, races and experiences. Granted there are differences, but there are also commonalities. I think the point Frank Broeze made about pre-1914 maritime labour still holds: ‘despite the manyfold fissures [in] the socio-industrial fabric of maritime workers’, as a whole they share ‘a clearly distinct socio-industrial and sub-cultural identity’. The sea, ships and the waterfront bring it all together. One of the interesting aspects of Tas Bull’s recent autobiography (Life on the Waterfront) is that it enables the reader to witness the evolution of a relatively contemporary international leader of maritime labour, from his beginnings in Hobart as a 14 year old seaman in 1946. It is a complex process, an infusion of family background, travel, comrades, reading, thinking, and the workplace with its industrial and political experiences.

Of course, the sort of support the MUA received last year does not come out of the blue. Such support has to be developed, built, earned. It was there, in a sense, waiting for the MUA in 1998, courtesy of the leg work done by its parent unions the Waterside Workers’ Federation (WWF) and the Seamen’s Union of Australia (SUA) which amalgamated in 1993 to form the MUA. A brief look at the internationalist record of the SUA helps us understand the process.

Internationalism – that is, the recognition that there are international responsibilities, possibilities, and scope for action – did not develop as an SUA tenet until World War Two. Aspects of internationalism were present before then. Founded in 1872, the SUA organised New Zealand seamen until 1901, and had an ongoing close relationship with NZ thereafter. There were significant involvements in the 1889 London Dock Strike and the 1925 British Seamen’s Strike; there had been post-1917 internationalist euphoria courtesy of the Russian Revolution; and SUA personnel had a significant impact upon the development of American West Coast unionism during the first two decades of this century.

For the most part, however, energies were directed towards ameliorating the primitive local conditions of sail and steam, and combating creatively pernicious uses of the Immigration, Crimes, and Transport Workers Acts. Deregistration, destructive leadership struggles, and faction fighting were also inhibiting factors.

Then, during the late 1930s, communists consolidated leadership of the SUA, and rebuilt the union. Internationalism developed as a corner stone of the union’s policy. In part this reflected the internationalism of the Communist Party, and the inherent qualities of the maritime industry referred to earlier. Historically, however, the circumstances created by World War Two, and the experience of war itself, were crucial.

The war brought to Australia allied ships and thousands of merchant seamen; there was a huge influx from Asia as Japan pushed South through the Netherlands East Indies. Their presence in Australia caught everyone off guard. They were on ships needed for the war effort; their labour was needed; they came with a variety of working conditions; there were logistical, language and cultural problems; and there was ‘White Australia’. The relationship between the Indonesian seamen and Dutch authorities was increasingly troubled; in 1942 2,000 were interned for refusing to work any longer for the colonial overlords.

From the beginning, allied seamen looked to the SUA for help and support. When in trouble abroad, it was par for the course for maritime workers; to seek out the local maritime union or the waterfront mission outfits. The SUA gave whatever support it could, in the case of the Indonesians helping secure both their release from internment and an upgrade of their working conditions. Close links were forged between the SUA and Indonesian, Indian, Chinese and Greek seamen, the union helping each of these form union organisations of their own in Australia.

Amongst these, relationships between the SUA and the Indonesians and Greeks were very close. The Indonesian bonds were crucial in the Australian union boycott of 1945-49 that contributed to the creation of the Indonesian Republic. They lasted into the 1960s until shattered by the purge of 1965. The Greek relationship remained over the decades, the SUA mounting a strong political and industrial campaign, including actions against Greek shipping in Australia waters, during the years of the Greek Junta.

The union’s own contribution to the war effort was immediate. Germany mined Australian waters East, South and West in 194O, Japan took care of Northern waters in 1942. December 1940 saw the first Australian merchant seamen killed in local waters, when the Nimbin was mined and sank with the loss of 7 lives off Sydney’s North Head. By the time the war was over, 386 Australian merchant mariners had been killed; a proportional toll higher than that of any of the armed services.

Recognition for this wartime effort was slow in coming. Full repatriation entitlements and public memorials waited until the early 1990s; the Australian War Memorial is currently organising a tribute. So well known is the contribution of the wartime union that last year Reith, and Bruce Ruxton, both publicly and confidently derided it!

The legacy of war for the union was pride, bitterness, and a commitment to peace. In 1948 the SUA declared itself in ‘favour of a peace offensive against war’. Using this declaration as a policy constant, the union attempted to mount boycotts of subsequent Australian military involvements in Korea, Malaya and Vietnam, with varying degrees of success. The analysis was always anti-imperialist.

Of these actions, those of the Vietnam period were the most successful, beginning with the 1965 boycott by Melbourne tugs of visiting American warships, through to the Boonaroo and Jeparit actions (1966-67), climaxing in the 1972 nation-wide blockade of ports against US owned shipping. After the war, SUA donations bankrolled a kindergarten in Hai Phong port.

It is easy to analyse these actions in terms of communist policy but, as I have shown elsewhere, the SUA was often isolated by these actions within the union movement, and did not necessarily have the full support of the Communist Party of Australia at all times either. Elsewhere too, I have argued that essential to understanding the union’s politics is the experience of World War Two- a lingering, painful, and transformative experience and memory. Old hands from the war and post-war years still gather each year for a moving ceremony for dead wartime comrades.

All this detail to make a simple point. During World War Two the SUA began to forge a variety of international links – and a huge reservoir of international gratitude. An Australian union, yes; headquartered in Sydney, yes. But increasingly known throughout the world’s maritime industry as an outfit ready to place itself on the line; a national outfit with an active international perspective.

There is much more to this record, and I can only skim some of it:

  • Assistance to the infant trade union movement in Nauru, a force that played a key role in the emergence of the Republic in 1968.
  • A leading role in the World Federation of Trade Unions, 1949-52, where SUA leader E.V. Elliott was an executive member. Later another SUA leader, Patrick Geraghty, developed as an international figure in the maritime industry, with a 20 year record of involvements in WFTU, the ILO, and Maritime Unions Against Apartheid.
  • Following the 1960 Sharpeville massacre the SUA began a long campaign of political and, increasingly, industrial action against South African apartheid; it was a founding member of the international Maritime Unions Against Apartheid, and helped put together the international oil ban on South Africa.
  • The long campaign against sub-standard foreign shipping working on the Australian coast under the permit system. From the 1970s on the SUA waged an energetic campaign helping foreign seamen upgrade pay and conditions; it was a guerrilla campaign that brought the union close to the wind during the 1974 Sweeney Royal Commission.The MUA, in association with the ITF, continues this campaign today; 450 detentions of unsafe foreign ships by Australian port authorities, 1996-98; an average of $US 2 million backpay per year gained for ripped off foreign seafarers.For those interested in understanding how a small outfit like the SUA had so much muscle over the years, especially when in cases involving foreign ships its own members were not involved, the key is the tug crews, either members of the union, or organised in the NSW Firemen and Deckhands’ Union. In many actions this small outfit was the only ally of the SUA. A little acknowledged fact is the vanguard role of tug crews in many maritime political and industrial struggles.

    A similar record of involvement in international contexts can be drawn up for the WWF. Bring the two records together via amalgamation in 1993, and collectively there is something quite extraordinary.

    When the MUA was attacked in 1998, from the arrogant perspective of Reith and his cronies it must have looked as though they were taking on something small and vulnerable. On paper, and statistically, maybe; that tends to be the way with statisticians. The reality was, however, something else; and the nature of that reality I have tried to describe and explain.

    In our thinking about the future of trade unionism, let us not neglect the international dimensions; increasingly unions will have to develop international strategies to counter global corporations.


The basic source is Brian Fitzpatrick and Rowan J. Cahill, The Seamen’s Union of Australia 1872-1972: A History (Sydney, 1981). Selected issues of The Seamen’s Journal were consulted. The article by Frank Broeze, ‘Militancy and Pragmatism. An International Perspective on Maritime Labour, 1870-1914’, International Review of Social History, 33 (1991) helped with the roots of internationalism. Lively articles in the Maritime Workers’ Journal (MUA) debating the history of maritime labour’s actions against the Vietnam War, were also useful- see issues of the journal for May/June 1995 and November 1995. The ongoing campaign against substandard foreign shipping is detailed on the MUA web site at http://mua.