Wharfies presents the history of the Waterside Workers’ Federation, one of Australia’s most prominent labour unions.
As an island nation reliant on export markets situated in the northern hemisphere – Europe, North America and Japan, Australia’s economic development has been dependant on maritime trade. The importance of maritime activity in turn elevated wharf labour to a position of unrivalled prominence in the Australian industrial landscape, ensuring waterside labour relations have never remained far from the centre of national political and economic debate. With monopoly representation of wharf labour, the Waterside Workers’ Federation (WWF) possessed influence otherwise surprising for a trade union.
Beasley traces the evolution of the WWF from its founding in 1902 to its domination by Communists and adoption of a militancy that would come to typify public perception of the organisation. She demonstrates how, harnessing tight internal discipline, the WWF frequently exploited its control of waterfront labour to exert pressure over both domestic and external affairs – effectively leaning on the windpipe of the Australian economy in pursuit of members’ interests and broader philosophical objectives. Examples include famous blackbans on scrap or “pig” iron exports to Japan in 1938 and on Dutch shipping in 1945 (the first in response to Japanese aggression in China, the second Dutch ambitions to re-establish colonial rule over Indonesia following expulsion of the Japanese), and the refusal by Sydney members to work troop supply ships bound for Vietnam in the late 1960s.
Beasley presents the WWF as an entity thriving on conflict, none greater than that in which it engaged in the decade following the Second World War. The WWF’s continued agitation for wage rises in an environment of post-war restraint precipitated a broader ideological struggle that pitched the Communist-dominated union hard against RG Menzies’ ultra-conservative federal administration. This culminated in a twin assault by the government on the WWF, comprised of legislation banning the Communist Party – which eventually foundered in the High Court – and the promulgation of “Operation Alien”, a scheme to replace intransigent wharfies with soldiers. Prepared to show its steel, the government partially executed Operation Alien in 1953, despatching a military strikebreaking force to seize control of the Queensland port of Bowen.
As Beasley notes, the WWF was also visible in numerous other social protests of the post-war period, including those in support of the burgeoning Aboriginal land rights movement, and against French nuclear testing in the South Pacific. Yet she also portrays an organisation with a philosophy as enlightened as it was militant. Social, cultural and recreational auxiliaries catered to the general interests of members, while cheap housing credit and educational bursaries for the children of members provided practical assistance and in turn strengthened membership loyalty and solidarity.
The final two chapters outline the decline and eventual disappearance of the WWF. Containerisation and mechanisation of the maritime industry led to reduction in the stevedoring workforce, and a corresponding slide in WWF membership - technology achieving what legislators and troops could not. Industrial relations reform under the Hawke-Keating Labor governments eventually resulted in the 1993 merger of the WWF with the Seamen’s Union, creating today’s Maritime Union of Australia.
An unabashedly “partisan history” (Beasley recounts her memories as a child participant in art classes run by the Federation), Wharfies uses the WWF’s prominent role in political and social tumult to portray it as both bastion of industrial leadership within the labour movement, and moral example to the nation generally. Beasley handles potentially dry material – internecine wrangling between competing membership blocs and the protracted industriaal skirmishes with employers and government fought out in Australia’s traditionally centralised arbitration system – with lucidity and élan. The union is depicted heroically, a champion of worker’s rights and civilised society locked in mortal battle with the exploitative forces of capital. Although verging on hagiography, this approach nevertheless enlivens identities, events and policies that might otherwise struggle to arouse the interest of all but hardened economic and political historians.
Abundantly illustrated and peppered with anecdote, Wharfies is an accessible account of a unique institution, and serves well as an introduction to Australian unionism.