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The Guardian 28 January, 2009

End of an era



Warren Smith and Glen Wood*

An end of an era has been witnessed in Sydney Harbour with the final closure of operations in general stevedoring in Port Jackson. Both Patrick and POAGs stevedore companies have wound up their operations though POAGs will remain with a small operation to service passenger and bulk oil vessels that will continue to use the Harbour.


Sydney Harbour has seen stevedoring activity since colonisation and remains to this day one of the world’s most beautiful natural deep water ports. The fact that it has been closed due to political opportunism, not for reasons of trade or economic common sense, is a real concern and one the current state government will have to live with in the annals of history.

It makes no sense to have cargo that resides only 40 kilometres on average from the berths in Sydney shipped to Port Kembla and then trucked back up the highway. It shows no concern for the negative economic, environmental and traffic considerations that will flow from the decision. This is not withstanding the fact that Sydney Harbour has been dealt a blow to its heart with what amounts to in essence the destruction of the working harbour.

The history and culture of Sydney is based around its working harbour and while there will still be corners where industry will remain the nature of the harbour can now no longer be considered to be working. The work on the harbour is now secondary as the harbour becomes a playground for the rich. A maritime future has been abandoned and our rich maritime history and heritage and will now stake its claims in outcomes we have reached to preserve such traditions within the Hungry Mile development.

Sydney’s working berths have slowly been wound back and the maintenance of White Bay and Glebe Island as the last remaining common user berths is vital. Once vital infrastructure is removed it will not be replaced and there will be an inevitable need in future years for Sydney to have working berths in the harbour. Darling Harbour, Pyrmont, Walsh Bay, Woolloomooloo, Mort Bay plus other locations, once vibrant working berths, are now ugly developments or apartments for the rich and famous. This must not be allowed to happen to White Bay and Glebe Island. We must continue to campaign and work with the community to maintain these valuable pieces of public infrastructure for the future.

A rich history of struggle

So many battles took place on Sydney Harbour for improvements in wages and conditions. There is a great need to understand the conditions wharfies worked under for all those years and the legacy that has been left to us and how we should protect forever those conditions won for us by those older members.

Not long after the conclusion of World War II in 1945, Darling Harbour, Glebe Island, Pyrmont, White Bay and Woolloomooloo were the workplaces of some 6,226 waterside workers. Work even took place off Rose Bay where explosives were unloaded. Timber was also was worked on vessels at Birchgrove.

There were a large number of stevedoring companies in Port Jackson, that included Port Jackson Stevedores, Union Steamships, Patrick, Hogan’s, Darling Island Stevedores and Macquires, to name a few. As occurs in stevedoring and other areas, competition drove many of these companies out of business. This is a fact that flies in the face of the current "competition first" logic being applied at Port Botany by the state government.

For most of the workers throughout history on the harbour there were no such things as rosters. Many workers were forced to work 24-hour shifts. In 1945 members were paid 3 shillings 8 pence per hour, a big difference to the wages today even in relative terms.

Sydney Harbour and the workers on it lived and fought against the dreaded bull system. Wharfies under the leadership of the great Jim Healy fought to bring that dreaded bull system to an end. The bull system saw the biggest strongest and often least principled workers (bulls) suck up to the boss to get the best hatch and the overtime. It was the bulls who were rewarded for their company loyalty as the other workers were often forced to scramble like dogs for chits thrown by the Panno’s to secure a day’s work on the waterfront.

Many significant disputes took place on the Sydney waterfront. There were many stoppages. One notable strike was in 1949 when the union became caught up in the events mainly surrounding the miner’s coal strike. The union’s funds were frozen and the General Secretary Jim Healy and Assistant General Secretary Ted Roach were jailed.

This brought the entire Sydney waterfront to a standstill with the wharves closing down. Stoppages also occurred in 1954 and 1956 with big strikes over margins and recruitment. Sydney Harbour also saw major battles around the export of pig iron to Japan prior to WWII. The banning of Indonesian vessels 2to support Indonesian independence and actions to protest against French nuclear testing were also of great significance.

In June 1950 there was a ban placed on Sundays being worked, until the payment for annual leave and appearance money was granted by the ship owners. These wins for workers were to flow on throughout the entire community. Over the years the wharfies who worked at Darling Harbour, Glebe Island, Pyrmont, White Bay and Woolloomooloo in the employ of numerous ship owners under industry employment arrangements played a major role in our union’s history.

Most recently adding to that history was the struggle to defeat the right wing Howard government in his attempt to destroy the Maritime Union.

Darling Harbour was the first workplace in Sydney that was put under attack by the dogs and security guards, during the infamous Patrick dispute. Darling Harbour was also significantly affected when head the of Patrick, Chris Corrigan, as a precursor to the 1998 lock-out, sacked all 55 delegates from the Sydney workforce in a sign of things to come.

This article could never do real justice to the mighty history of working class struggle that is the legacy of unionism and of Sydney as a working harbour. The Sydney Branch of the union has published a short booklet on the Hungry Mile and will soon start work on a project that depicts the enormous magnitude of the class struggles that took place on Sydney Harbour and how every wharfie and seafarer who worked on Sydney Harbour, part of our collective past, has played a positive role in the development of the lives of working people in Australia.

Sydney’s future

Even while Sydney Harbour has been slowly closed down, the number of maritime workers in the port has slowly increased over the last few years. Port Jackson’s closure has seen increased growth in the terminals at Port Botany. Much of the cargo previously moved through bulk and general facilities is now being accommodated in containers. The 1960s process of containerisation is not yet fully finished.

While only a couple of years ago cargoes like timber packs, certain steel products and pipe were slung below by the holders in the hatch, lifted by the ship’s cranes into the gangway and moved by forklift, today much of this cargo lies inside containers. This altered method of transporting cargo and the volume growth generally, due to Sydney’s expansion and previous economic growth, has seen the terminals at Sydney operate at unprecedented levels.

Sydney’s DPW terminal now employs over 550 wharfies. The Patrick terminal now employs around 450 wharfies. With a new terminal coming into operation we can expect even greater numbers of workers into the future subject to the authenticity of projected container growth. The current economic crisis will inevitably contribute to some uncertainty in this regard but in the long term the forecast is for Port Botany to move 3 million containers per annum. Currently there are about 1.7 million containers moving across the wharves. Despite the negatives of competition and a certain amount of internal feeding, there is an inevitability that moving this many containers will require significantly more labour.

Changes in the work

Sydney Harbour was witness to an amazing transformation in the nature of stevedoring, from the dreaded days of manual handling on the Hungry Mile, the hand trucks, the steam winches, the carcasses of animal or bags of grain on the back of struggling workers. Workers on Sydney Harbour saw changes from the walls of bagged wheat and the dire filth of lamp black and sulphur to modern cargo handling equipment. Time would alter the way people moved goods.

The harbour gradually saw the development of portainer cranes moving containers at far greater speeds (some bosses would probably still argue against this fact). Fifteen years ago there were few if any vessels on Sydney Harbour that had self contained ships cranes. The majority of vessels, even that short a time ago, were host to derrick cranes and union purchase gear. The demise of these beautiful ships hosting the derricks and union purchase gear seemed almost overnight.

The last two ships carrying union purchase gear into Sydney Harbour were the Capitaine Wallis and the passenger vessel the Sea Princess which had union purchase gear in its forward hatch. The derricks and the union purchase gear just evaporated into nothingness and the bigger and more modern ships with their heavier cranes became the norm. Before too long the cranes that replaced the derricks and unions purchase gear would become nothing but a hazard and obstacle in the way of portainer crane booms at White Bay and Glebe Island and the big shore cranes operating at Darling Harbour.

Ro-ro vessels would become increasingly more prevalent as any cargo that could be driven off or carried by forklift would often be placed on these vessels. The prevalence of semi-containerised cargoes on these big ro-ro, vessels, particularly the Wilhelmsen vessels, of which the Tampa† would become famous for entirely different reasons, was a signal of things to come for bulk and general stevedoring.

Part of the madness of the current situation is that despite the almost inevitable demise of break bulk cargo both White Bay and Glebe Island could have been extremely successful container terminals. In fact both were. Australian National Line operated a terminal out of Glebe Island; and White Bay was and could have been further developed into a container terminal. In essence the 3 million containers going through Port Botany could have been increased to 4 million through extended operations at Glebe Island and White Bay which conveniently had perfectly functional and ideally located rail heads.

The lack of planning is beyond belief. History will poorly judge the NSW State Government’s of Carr and Iemma in this regard. They failed with an F-minus in stevedoring infrastructure planning. Their destruction of Sydney as a proper working harbour is disgraceful and unforgivable.

Sydney Harbour supplied the goods for much of Sydney’s development. As a workplace it had the most majestic views and location. It was also the site of many unfortunate accidents and deaths. Many workers were killed on the waterfront. Their sacrifice to the development of Sydney must never be forgotten or brushed aside. They will always be remembered by the MUA if not by the employers who exploited the labour of the so many thousands of workers who called Port Jackson their workplace.

Capitalism has prevailed over common sense planning and structured development of the needs of the people of Sydney. No doubt many are eyeing off the most profitable and lucrative harbour sites for either their personal pleasure or for their capacity to create profits. Those profits and that luxury will be based upon the blood, sweat and tears of generations of waterside workers, seafarers, tug workers, linesmen and port workers.

The working harbour will never truly die while there is even one vessel left to operate or unload, but the poor policy decisions of this state government have eroded in a significant way the real working class and social culture, the real maritime legacy and history of Sydney as a working Harbour.

*Warren Smith and Glen Wood are Maritime Union of Australia officials.

from Maritime Unity, paper of the MUA Sydney Branch

†At dawn on August 24, 2001 a 20 metre wooden fishing boat with 438 mainly Afghan men, women and children asylum seekers became stranded in international waters about 140 kilometres north of Christmas Island, an Australian territory in the Indian Ocean 2,000 kilometres off the north-west coast of Australia. All vessels in the area were asked to respond and the Tampa, a Norwegian cargo ship, was closest to the site. The asylum seekers demanded that captain Arne Rinnan take them to Christmas Island. The Howard government refused permission for the ship to enter Australian territorial waters. Following a week-long standoff — which included the boarding of the Tampa by Australian troops — the asylum seekers were loaded onto an Australian Navy vessel. Most were transported to detention camps on Nauru under the government’s notorious Pacific Solution legislation. The remainder were diverted to New Zealand where they were subsequently granted asylum and citizenship. Arne Rinnan was given Norway’s highest civil honour for his handling of the situation whereas the Howard government threatened to prosecute him as a people smuggler.

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