Paddy Kenneally, A ‘Foot Soldier’ from Miller’s Point

Tom Sheridan

J.P. or ‘Paddy’ Kenneally was born in Cork, Ireland in 1916. When he was three his father emigrated alone to work as a seaman in the Australian coastal trade. Not until 1927 was Mr Kenneally able to bring out his family to join him in Miller’s Point. Paddy, one of five children, was educated in the Rocks and by the Marist Brothers at Mittagong but left school in the depths of the Depression. After sundry work in Sydney and the bush his big chance came in 1937 when Mrs Ryan, an old Tipperary woman, secured him two wharfie nominators in the first induction into the Sydney Branch of the Waterside Workers’ Federation (WWF) in a decade. Like the majority of post-war wharfies Paddy also served his country in the armed forces – in his case a five-year spell in the commandos. He left the waterfront in 1958.

I met Paddy in April 2001. Nearing the end of a book manuscript on waterfront industrial relations in the tumultuous Menzies years, I remained anxious to interview people on the Grouper/Movement side of the debate in the Sydney Branch of the WWF. Upon contacting Jim Macken he recommended that I speak to Paddy who had been that rare creature, a wharfie member of the Movement. In addition, Jim spoke glowingly of Paddy’s role in the East Timorese independence campaign including trips there during the Indonesian occupation.

Subsequently, I spent five hours with Paddy and his wife, Nora, recording a lengthy interview. Each completely belied their age. Over the last 30 years I have interviewed scores of participants in mid-twentieth century politics and industrial relations, from the rank of Governor General downwards. Few proved as impressive as Paddy Kenneally. When I left his Yagoona home I knew I had met someone quite special. A few days later he wrote me the following letter which, I feel, conveys something both of Paddy’s personality and of the experience of this self-described ‘foot soldier’ among Australian workers whose political beliefs lay towards one of the unpopular ends of the labour movement spectrum.

My editing of the original letter has been minimal. Two paragraphs have been omitted. The opening one contained reference to my own knowledge of the waterfront. The third last referred to a 1999 article in the MUA’s journal containing material on Paddy and East Timor. What follows below touches on but a small part of Paddy’s life experience as recorded in my interview. I need expand only one aspect. Despite his fierce opposition to the CPA, Paddy expressed to me a personal admiration for a number of its wharfie members, particularly Jim Healy and Tom Nelson. When, in old age, Tom Nelson was forced to enter a nursing home Paddy was a constant visitor until Tom’s death. As Paddy records with regards to Stan Moran, there was little personal animosity in these wharfies’ political differences.

As to whether we will see their like again, well Paddy himself appears to offer two slightly differing opinions below.

Tom Sheridan May, 2001

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Dear Tom …

There is one matter on that tape which I think could be open to question. The Movement, I said that it probably was not as strong in Sydney by comparison with Melbourne. That may be correct, and it may be wrong. I frankly could not say. I had no idea of what power it wielded in other organizations, its numerical strength or its influence. I do know it was neither influential or strong in numbers in [the] Sydney Branch of the WWF. I certainly know that as I was one of its few members.

We allied ourselves with Labor men who were active in Union Politics, “Loshi” Baroni, Glen Fingleton, Secretary of the Mechanical Branch, Bill Brooks an ex Vice President of the Sydney branch and a disenchanted Unity card member.

We were pitted against men who held all the top positions within the Waterside Workers Federation. Jim Healy, Eddie Roach, Tom Nelson, Matt Munro, Stan Moran, men who had twenty five to thirty years experience behind them as members of the Communist Party, schooled in disruption, agitation, past masters at directing their fellow members into any organization that was prominent in industrial or social movements. As if that wasn’t enough, their fellow Party members controlled the Seamen’s Union, the Ironworkers, the coalminers Union. The Communist Party through its members controlled four of the most powerful Unions in Australia, and the party used them to full advantage.

Forget Child Endowment for the first child, the Coalminers Strike of 1949 was the prime reason that defeated the Chifley government in the election (Federal) of that year. Their unwitting allies [were] the Banks, campaigning against Bank nationalization, and the Doctors fighting against a Government medical system. Strange bedfellows, why be amazed about it? Hitler’s Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Communist Russia signed a non aggression pact in 1939, thus setting the stage for World War ll. They then divided the spoils of a defeated Poland between them.

The communists in the WWF had more to do with the loss of the Australian coastal shipping than any other factor. After the war, it was nothing but continual petty stoppages along the Sussex Street wharves. I told a young Scot party member “Scotty you, and your party mates will lose us the work on the coastal ships, I live out along the Hume Highway, and all I see is the thousands of tons of cargo going by road, because its taking weeks to get cargo to Melbourne, or Brisbane because of constant stoppages on any and every pretext by you people.” These days what’s left of the Communist party lament the loss of Australian bottoms on this coast. They achieved it on their own. I remember pre war and you could practically set your watch by the coastal ships moving in and out of Sydney on schedule.

Jim Healy became General Secretary of the WWF in 1937, a lineal descendant of Billy Hughes who banded various associations and Unions of Stevedores, Wharf Labourers, Lumpers, that represented the workers who loaded and unloaded ships. He defeated Turley in the Union elections of that year.

In 1937 the Sydney branch opened its books for new members. Few new members had been taken into the Union since 1925, the depression in 1929 threw not only Australia, but the world into chaos. There was not enough work for the then members of the WWF let alone for any new members so the books were closed. Because of natural wastage, and an improvement in shipping the Union decided to recruit new members, the new member had to be nominated and seconded by two financial members of the union. I was lucky enough to find a nominator and seconder through the influence of an old Irish woman, a friend of my mother and a fierce supporter of the Labor party to boot. 500 men were admitted right away. Then 20 per month until the quota was completed. I had a two year wait before my turn came. I was working on the wharves for over two years before I joined the army. A lot of changes came to the wharves whilst I was away including a change in the political beliefs [of those] who ran the Sydney branch. Barney Mullins and Hayes were gone, ‘Blue’ Frank Ferry was still there. Tom Nelson, Stan Moran, Matt Munro held union positions, all [Communist] party members. Jim Healy and Ted Roach ran the Federal Office. Jim Healy achieved much without doubt, he was a likeable man, with the ability to sway the members at stop work meetings. When assessing what Jim Healy achieved it is important to remember, firstly World War ll was being waged from 1939 to 1945. A sympathetic Labor Government was in power from October 1941 to 1949. The Communists on the waterfront were to a man opposed to the allied cause until June 22nd 1941 when the Germans invaded Russia. What had been an Imperialist war became a war of the working class fighting for freedom against the Nazi oppressors. Well it made no difference to me. I wasn’t marching off to fight for any British Empire, or Communist Empire either. My time to grab a gun didn’t come until December 7th 1941. The Japs bombed Pearl Harbor. I climbed out of the hatch of the New Hebrides, told the foreman, Tom Ryan “Get another man, I’m joining the Army.” Tom, whose brother had seconded me in the Union, tried to talk me out of it. I just went. Until the middle of 1946 all I knew about the waterfront from December 1941 was what I was told by wharfies I had known prior to enlisting. The [rostered] Gang System twice defeated in Sydney by ballot, narrowly succeeded in the third ballot. Ivo Barrett who post war was a dedicated Unity ticket member is reported to have said and I quote “If this Roster Gang system wins in Sydney you can fuck me on the steps of the GPO.” Well Ivo joined the strength later, not the party, he was still nominally a Labor member, as was Dutchy Young who became President of the Branch. I came back from the war to a Sydney waterfront dominated by communists and Labor fellow travellers. I didn’t like Communist Policy or the new generation of Communist members, who sat in a Block Stack at the stop work meetings at Leichhardt Stadium, they sat facing the Union Officers seated in the ring. They gave men like Dinny Gunning and Pat Cain (Groupers) hell. Three hundred card-carrying members of the party, backed up by fellow travellers calling themselves militants and running down the Bull system under which most of them had never worked. The card carriers were a well disciplined army, educated in the Eureka Youth League and Party schools and cadres willing to carry out any orders from the Party. We were anti, disorganized individuals. What the groups organization was like, I would not know, but wharfies like me voted for them, as did most of what was left of the old hands, and there were some tough hard men amongst us, and at that time there was damn all violence against either, no one wanted to tangle with the men off Millers Point, the Rocks, the ‘Loo (Woolloomooloo), Pyrmont. Tom Hills in Melbourne told the author of “Under the Hook” Wendy Lowenstein that the men from the Rocks and Millers Point were neither militant, or willing to fight for conditions. He was wrong. The old wharfies were the ones who kept the Union alive. I worked with men whose Grandfathers and Great Grandfathers had worked on the waterfront, defeated in 1872, 1875, 1890 strikes, crushed, and trampled into the ground, they passed the message on, unionism, band together fight the boss. In 1917 the Sydney Branch was smashed. Union men were last preference. The P & C scabs were first off. The “Bureau men” (returned soldiers from the 1914 war) were second preference, the union men last, apart from one company, the Austral Stevedoring Coy [which] defied the shipowners [and] the Government and would pick union men only. What these new found militants refused to admit, it was the old wharfies from the waterfront areas that kept a union in existence for them to join and the Bloody Communist Party had nothing to do with it—none of them—and that included Jim Healy, Tom Nelson, Matt Munro and Stan Moran, good and all as they were at fighting the boss.

1954 and 1956 were the only general waterfront strikes during my time on the wharves since the 1928 strike and Sydney only played a brief part in that.

As I look back on the strikes waged by waterside workers from 1872 to 1956 every strike was defeated except the 1954 strike which was brought about by the ship owners wanting to recruit labour for the waterfront. This was a traditional right of the Union from the time the first waterfront Union was formed in 1870s. We retained that right. I also think it was a test run for the 1956 strike, which was a protest against Judge Ashburner’s rejection of our claim for one shilling per hour increase in our margin for skill.

Throw in the army experience, or any other events which I experienced, I have never known or observed, anything approaching the skill, and superb organization the union displayed in its waging of the 1956 strike. They just put out pamphlets in various languages, giving their side of the strike and their linguists came from foreign born members of the union, and undoubtedly from kindred bodies. Union members went out to all main rural centres bringing our case to the rural communities, every main industry and factory was visited by able speakers getting the union’s message across. Wharfies spoke on the radio. There was a Yank Journalist visiting the country and he had a disparaging article in Packer’s “Daily Telegraph”. His name eludes me now. But the wharfies sent a delegation, and they bearded him in his hotel. The next article he wrote for Packer, his previous statements were retracted and he wrote of the standard of the political knowledge of the men he had met. They were not quite as laudatory, one of them told me “Irish, those blokes know bugger all about anything except Bullshit” I didn’t totally agree with him. However he wasn’t far short or out in his assessment. I was only a foot soldier (actually that’s all I’ve ever been). But I was the only wharfie to get aboard a ship to see the crew in that strike. I just walked up the gangway with shipping shore officials. It was an Italian Passenger Liner berthed at Woolloomooloo. I had a bundle of leaflets to distribute to the crew. When I got amongst the crew, they couldn’t understand or read a word of it. The leaflets were all in Maltese, a blunder back at HQ. Actually I hadn’t even looked at them, I took them from a fellow picket member, a comrade who didn’t have a clue on how he could get them to the crew.

Jim Healy always maintained that if you didn’t get a settlement of a strike in three weeks forget it; you won’t win. The three week deadline was approaching so Jim handed the strike over to the ACTU. Over the weekend Monk came to an agreement with Holt. There was uproar among the rank and file. The comrades were quick with their slogan “Monk the Skunk” loudly proclaiming he had sold us out. I for one didn’t believe that story. I’ll take a lot of convincing that a man with Monk’s industrial background would agree to a settlement without informing Jim Healy. The writing was on the wall, the strike was lost, but some gains came from it. Ashburner granted eight pence an hour increase on our margin, and four shillings increase on appearance money bringing it up to sixteen shillings a day. That of course was an interim award. He sat and pondered the rest of our log of claims for months, bringing down his judgement after the Union elections in July 1956. True or false, it was rumoured the postponement was at the behest of the Union. When his rulings were brought down the gain – payment for Public Holidays, and five days sick leave per year, not to be cumulative – [was] a mere bagatelle to what we lost. Gang sizes reduced from 15 men to 11, 6 men down below in the hatch instead of 8. That was of course for general cargo. Wool gangs, flour gangs, and wheat gangs had always been 12. I’m pretty certain we lost two men on those gangs as well. Sling loads were increased, the shipowner was given the right to transfer labour from ship to ship, extended day shifts were increased if the shipowner couldn’t get enough labour for the five o’clock shift. This only applied to an extension till 9pm on the day shift and it only applied for three days, not the full week.

The shipowner was the real gainer in the 1956 strike. We lost, and yet it was by far the best organised dispute ever witnessed on the waterfront. That of course is my personal opinion.

When it was all over, the men were furious. For a few weeks they refused to work to the award, so it was walk-off after walk-off and as far as Sydney was concerned all the leaders could say was “cop it sweet men, cop it sweet”. To us it was bloody sour.

It was also the thin end of the wedge for reductions in the labour force. By the time Jim Healy died in 1961 the Union membership was down over 4,000 from a peak of about 25,000. Mechanisation was coming to the waterfront, manual labour was on its way out.

I was out too, I took leave of absence early 1958. Six months later I went to the Union office in Sussex Street to ask for my clearance. Stan Moran was still treasurer, naturally he knew me, we were opponents politically, nothing personal. He said “You’ve been here a long time Jack, you’ll find it hard outside, you’re still a member here, why leave?” I just said I’m finished, I know outside is going to be bloody unfamiliar, I’ll survive. Once I left, I knew I would never go back. I never have, once I turned my back on anything, I never returned.

I’ve done many things, bush work, quarry work handling explosives, contract [timber] clearing, working in the engine room on ships as a greaser, construction road work, even two years in the printing industry. I met good men in all of them, and some right bastards too. The wharfies I place right up there with the best of them: hard tough men, but when it came to helping the weak, the unfortunate, the down and out, I’ve never met their equal Its just a part of their lore, their history. When Corrigan locked them out in 1998 when the Government with Reith, Howard, and McLachlan well and truly up to their eyebrows in the plot I went down to wharfs on the hungry mile (Hickson Road) and joined the picket line. Different generation, different issues, but listening to them, and watching them, the old bonds of mateship and determination was still there. I lived on the waterfront as a youngster, went to school at St Patrick’s on the Rocks, worked on the wharves, the waterfront and its people all part of my upbringing, and I expect among other influences it fashioned my character. I’ll never forget the waterfront as it then was.

John (Paddy) Kenneally
[PS] I joined the army in December 1941.

I was working at No2 Wharf Circular Quay East (not Pyrmont as the Maritime Workers’ Journal [May – June 1999] states). Tom Ryan was the Foreman, he put his head over the hatch and said “The Japs have bombed Pearl Harbor.” I just put my hook in my belt climbed the ladder and said “I’m off Tom, get yourself another man” and away I went to the recruiting office not to fight for Yanks, British or Russians [but] for Australia.

It took me three days to get in, all because of manpower restrictions. Wharf labourers were classified essential workers, in an essential industry. The day they attested me in the army, 10th December 1941, No2 Independent Company sailed from Darwin for Timor. They landed in Dili on December 17th 1941. I landed there one month later 20th January 1942. Six weeks after I had joined the army, and in that time I’d travelled 3000 miles by truck, train and ship. I had spent exactly one week on Wilson’s Promontory where the Independent Company training camp was situated and the unit I was sent to had done the full course, under the supervision of two English captains, Captain Calvert and Captain Spencer-Chapman. The company certainly got a raw recruit the day I arrived in Dili. The Japanese arrived exactly one month later on the night of 19/20th February. The second company (that reads ambiguously I refer to No2 Independent Coy), was dispersed in the mountains. Only one section [of] 20 men left in Dili to defend the ‘drome’. Over 86 percent of the unit was suffering from malaria. That’s why it had been moved into the mountains. When I joined them they were just skin and bone. In the mountains they started to pick up. No2 Independent Company was the only unit from Hong Kong, down through the Yanks in the Philippines, the British in Malaya, the Dutch in Java, and the elements of the 8th Australian division in Malaya, Ambon, Rabaul and Kupang in Dutch Timor. Ours was the only unit in all that vast area that didn’t surrender. Few medical supplies, no food supplies, riddled with malaria they kept fighting for another ten months before being pulled out of Timor on a Dutch destroyer on the night of the 16th December 1942. The only reason it survived, the Timorese and Portuguese fed us, sheltered us, guided us, carried our wounded and by their own actions saved the lives of three wounded men, who would have been most certainly captured and killed by the Japanese. Two official surrender demands were rejected in March and June 1942. An unofficial surrender demand was rejected in August.

The Company was completely cut off both by communication and supplies from February until April 23rd 1942. In fact as far as food supplies was concerned all we received was one supply of tea and sugar. One issue of tobacco and chocolate, medical supplies and ammunition was supplied.

In August 1942, the whole [Japanese] 228th Regiment moved into the mountains to eradicate us. 3000 men in a three pronged drive one from Dutch Timor, one from a landing on the south coast, the other drive out of Dili. 3000 men supported by aircraft, mountain guns, mortars and dogs to ferret out our ambushes. All the mountain towns were bombed and machine gunned from the air and shelled. Native villages destroyed, livestock destroyed as was also rice, corn and vegetable gardens.

They were determined to kill or drive us out the mountains by constant pressure or starvation. The Japanese were quite aware that it was Portuguese and Timorese help that was keeping us supplied. In September five of us passed through Mindelo. It was the worst death scène I witnessed in the war. Timorese corpses littered the track and down in the gullies, headless bodies throats cut men, women, children and for the first time it was driven home to me who were the real sufferers in Portuguese Timor. The innocent harmless people of a neutral country, to them we brought nothing but death, misery and destruction by our landing in East Timor.

Whitlam handed East Timor to Indonesia when he told Soeharto at Wonosobo Java in September 1974 – I quote his statement – “An independent East Timor would not be a viable state, and a cause of destablishment of the area, the best solution for East Timor was integration into Indonesia.” And that was how Australia under every Prime Minister from Whitlam to Howard repaid the people of East Timor for the help they gave Australian troops in World War ll. I hold the Labor Prime Ministers more culpable than their Liberal counterparts. The right to self determination for the people of East Timor was Labor Party policy completely ignored by our Labor Prime Ministers. To me it was the ultimate in betrayal.

60,000 Timorese died between 1942 and 1946. Reprisals by the Japanese, slave labour, malnutrition and starvation. We of No2 Independent Coy survived to go on and fight in New Guinea June 1943 – September 1944. I was wounded in New Guinea, bullet wound, grenade shrapnel, not large, its still floating round my body. We then went to New Britain in April 1945. The war finished on 15th August 1945. In all our campaign we were on our own. No support from other units. They changed our name from Independent Company to 2/2nd Commando Squadron towards the end of 1943 when we were in New Guinea.

My reasons for emphasising Timor was not to laud our campaign there. It was to reveal the enormous amount of assistance rendered to us by the Portuguese and Timorese, although there were three hundred men in our unit our fighting strength was somewhat only a little over two hundred, mainly ill health, being the cause – so the people of Timor knew quite well we were the far weaker force. What I have written about the waterfront, is as I remember the events at that time apart from referring to Wendy Lowenstein’s book Under the Hook to refresh my memory on what Tom Hills said about the people of the Rocks area in Sydney and to learn the year of Jim Healy’s death.

I also forgot to mention one ruling in Ashburner’s 1956 award. The Press and Radio pick up for Sydney. Our branch has opposed it for years, because it would deprive them of a huge audience in our pick up centres, for propaganda purposes. It had been used in Melbourne for a few years and as that branch had been controlled by the Industrial Groups, the communist leaders were against it as a matter of principle …

Its all past now, a new era, with a young population far, far better educated than my generation. I may be wrong, to me they are far less equipped to face problems of their age, let alone surmount them.

Time will tell, my generation had one great factor in our favour: we had no money, so there was nothing for the unscrupulous and the greedy to be made from us.

Good Luck
Paddy Kenneally