The Guardian February 17, 1999

Please Mr Duffy, the truth:
The wharfies and World War Two

by C T Ryan

An article in the Daily Telegraph (January 6, 1999) by its columnist 
Michael Duffy accused waterside workers of "corrupt" and "sometimes 
traitorous" conduct during World War Two. Among other things he accused 
wharfies of the theft of soldiers' mail, of holding up shipments of vital 
war supplies to Australian troops resulting "many of our soldiers having 
died unnecessarily as a result".

These serious accusations of treason runs counter to the true history of 
waterside workers in this period, a history of great sacrifice and hardship 
endured in the struggle against fascism and Japanese militarism.

Many questions can be posed to Mr Duffy: Were the waterside workers of Port 
Kembla who prior to the war refused to load the Dalfram with BHP 
pig-iron destined for Japan's war industries, traitors? Were the 21 
wharfies killed at their work when Darwin was first bombed traitors? Were 
the wharfies who had sons fighting in the war traitors?

And what of those wharfies who were ex-servicemen themselves from the First 
World War, many of whom were found to be suffering from "Lung injuries from 
gas in the last war..." by Macquarie Street specialist Dr Roland McQueen in 
his 1943 investigation into the health of Sydney's waterside workers. Were 
these men traitors, Mr Duffy?

The slander of traitor is only the most dramatic way in which Michael Duffy 
in his article besmirched waterside workers of the war period.

He also presented the militancy of wharfies in these years in a way that 
ignored its historical context. This history was one of vicious 
exploitation and bloody-minded opposition to progress by waterfront 
employers. It spawned anger and frustration in wharfies which frequently 
exploded into industrial action.

Finally, Mr Duffy utterly ignored the contribution made by wharfies to 
Australia's war effort through their working long hours and shifting an 
enormous amount of cargo, and through their union's championing of a more 
efficient and rational system of labour supply on the waterfront.

My own research** has convinced me that this contribution was vital to the 
war effort.

"Feverish high tension work"

Before examining this contribution something must be said about the 
exploitation suffered by waterside workers in the years before the war 
which gave rise to war-time militancy.

Quite simply the lot of wharfies in the 1930s was miserable.

Their union, the Waterside Workers' Federation* (WWF), had been seriously 
weakened by the defeat of a strike in 1928 and the contemporaneous 
introduction of the Transport Workers Act.

This notorious "Dog Collar" Act implemented a licensing system for 
waterside workers which aimed at eliminating militancy from the waterfront.

Non-union, strike-breaking and unemployed labour was brought onto the 
waterfront in many thousands at the height of the Depression under the 
auspices of the Act. Waterfront employers used the labour surplus, together 
with the "Bull" system, to pit wharfies against each other in competition 
for scarce work.

The Bull system involved the casual engagement of waterfront labour, with 
wharfies selected for employment on a job by job basis.

The employers' strategy aimed at weakening wharfies' industrial 
organisation and at maximising their exploitation through wage reductions 
and appalling working conditions.

The strategy succeeded. Wages were driven down by as much as a third.

Working conditions remained primitive, for example, there were the 24-hour, 
"man killer", shifts which waterside workers could be compelled to work 
under the terms of their award. There were the excessively heavy loads 
wharfies were expected to carry and to "truck" (wheel on hand carts). There 
were no "smoko" breaks.

At this time the shipowners also introduced the "speed-up" system which 
aimed at the uninterrupted loading and discharging of ships' cargoes and 
the handling of the greatest amount of cargo in the shortest possible time: 
100 tons of lead an hour; 80 tons of bagged sugar an hour; 70 tons of zinc 
smelter slabs an hour; 1,000 cases of fruit an hour, etc.

In this situation workers' safety was discounted, speed was everything. 
Unsafe work practices prevailed and many wharfies were severely injured as 
a result.

In 1943 Dr McQueen would report evidence of "crippling wounds" from 
occupational injuries among wharfies, including "Spinal and head injuries, 
multiple fractures of various bones and finger amputations abounded".

Aside from such injuries the general health of waterside workers 
deteriorated drastically in the stressful years of the 1930s. Dr McQueen 
was "surprised" by his findings, and his report on the health of Sydney 
waterside workers makes for gloomy reading:

"I had examined men who in the main had been mined physically by the 
intolerable anxieties of the depression years.

"The endless search for the infrequent job which would keep them and their 
families from the precarious borderline of malnutrition had taken its 
devastating toll.

"The feverish high tension work performed when the job is secured in order 
to ensure its repetition had been paid for at the shocking price of 
premature old age and physical calamity."

Winning the war

Given this history it is not surprising that many wharfies seized the 
opportunity to secure a better deal for themselves during the war years 
when their bargaining position was strengthened as a result of an abundance 
of work and, consequently, strong demand for labour.

What is remarkable is the degree to which waterside workers came to 
restrain their militancy and to exercise discipline in the interests of the 
war effort.

The WWF played the key role in harnessing the energies of waterside workers 
into prosecuting the war. An illustration of the union's role is the 
passing of a resolution by its Federal Committee of Management in June 1941 
directing wharfies "to work on Saturdays, Sundays, and holidays, as 
required ...".

Winning the war became the main immediate task facing waterside workers. Of 
course the union recognised that its contribution to a more efficient war 
effort would strengthen its position and help improve the lot of wharfies 
too  the national interest and the interests of waterside workers 

For the WWF a successful war effort demanded the efficient and rational 
employment of waterside labour. An early indication of the union's attitude 
was the call made by the Communist General Secretary of the union, Jim 
Healy, in July 1940 for a national government to mobilise Australia's 
resources for defence.

The waterfront's casual system of labour engagement militated against the 
efficient utilisation of waterside labour. Under casual engagement labour 
was supplied to work ships in an erratic fashion. Also in the early years 
of the war wharfies took advantage of the system to pick and choose their 
jobs many often preferring to work the better paid night shifts and 
ignoring day shifts.

Wharfies would frequently boycott the jobs of particularly hated foremen 
who in the Depression exercised great power over them by denying work to 
militants and intimidating others with threats of dismissal.

WWF commitment to efficiency

The Curtin Labor Government set up the Stevedoring Industry Commission 
(SIC) in April 1942 in response to delays in the shipment of vital cargoes 
of war supplies  delays caused in part by the erratic casual system of 
labour supply.

The Government intended that the SIC would facilitate the expeditious 
working of ships' cargoes in the interests of Australia's defence.

The WWF leadership strongly supported the SIC, Healy himself moving a 
motion of support for the new body at a meeting of the Sydney Branch of the 
union in April 1942.

The creation of the SIC helped pave the way to a more systematic approach 
to labour engagement and allocation on the waterfront.

One example of the WWF's commitment to more efficient use of labour was the 
agreement it arrived at with the SIC and the United States Army in 
Queensland in November 1942 to ensure that available civilian labour was 
used to work on ships carrying war supplies.

This agreement came at a time when an increasing amount of cargo was 
beginning to be discharged in Queensland's ports, much of it supplies for 
the American forces based there. (In the year 1943-44 nearly one million 
more tons of cargo was discharged in Queensland than earlier in the war.)

The US authorities' use of soldier labour rendered waterside workers idle 
and was a waste of military resources. Healy had contacted the Americans 
and the SIC over this matter and following the agreement the US Chief of 
Staff, General Marshall, ordered his subordinates in Queensland to adhere 
to it.

However, the WWF continued to have a battle with the Americans for wharfies 
to work ships.

In August 1943 Healy requested the SIC to give a "definite direction" to 
its representative in Cairns that "civilian labour [is] to be employed in 
preference to Army labour".

In November 1943 the WWF's Townsville Branch complained that 37 gangs of 
civilian labour were idle while soldiers were being used to work ships. 
Once again Healy contacted the SIC to get "immediate action".

Rotary and all that

The greatest contribution the WWF made to ensuring the more efficient use 
of waterside labour was its support for the introduction of the gang rotary 
scheme by the SIC in Sydney in 1942-43.

Under the scheme waterside worker gangs were to be engaged in turn 
according to a roster or dispatch board.

A Chief Labour Superintendent was to control and direct the engagement of 
all labour and would have the power to "direct gangs or individuals ... to 
work when and where, and at what type of work required."

The gang rotary scheme promised both an adequate supply and rational 
allocation of labour.

Understandably, given the history of ill-treatment and exploitation they 
had suffered in the 1930s, many wharfies were now reluctant to abandon the 
casual system of engagement while they were in a relatively strong 
industrial position (for once!) thanks to the abundance of work and heavy 
demand for labour.

Consequently there was a 16-day strike in Sydney against the rotary scheme 
in March and April 1943.

The union leadership, however, with its eye on the big picture, waged an 
intense struggle within Sydney Branch in 1942-43 to win the membership's 
acceptance of the scheme and it was finally introduced in 1943.

In reporting to the WWF's Federal Council in September 1944 Jim Healy gave 
an indication of the impact the gang rotary scheme had had on waterside 

He said that the union had helped "regiment and organise its members ..." 
so as to ensure "the quick turn round of vessels   ...", and referred to 
the rotary scheme Orders which legally compelled waterside workers to 
attend appointed pick-up centres daily for engagement.

Diminution of employers' power

The gang rotary scheme was only one of the measures designed to achieve 
more efficient utilisation of waterside labour.

Another was the requirement under the SIC's establishment regulations that 
waterside workers must be registered by the SIC to be employed on the 
waterfront, this would ensure that only bona fide wharfies were employed as 

The union recognised that these measures would strengthen its position on 
the waterfront. For example, given that the WWF covered most of the 
registered waterside workers there was the promise of preference in 
employment to WWF members.

Likewise, the gang rotary scheme not only enhanced unity by eliminating 
competition between waterside workers but also diminished the power of the 
employer and foreman. It meant in effect "more union control  the 
shipowners' bogey", wharfies maintained.

Waterfront employers also recognised that a more efficient system of labour 
supply threatened a diminution in their power over waterside workers and 
they strove to undermine progress towards such a system.

In August 1942 the SIC issued its Order No. 7 which provided for the early 
commencement of loading or unloading operations on a vessel on its arrival 
in port and the continuous working thereafter of all hatches until the job 
was completed.

In December 1942 Jim Healy complained to the Secretary of the SIC that at 
Grafton the ship Ulmarra had not been worked in accordance with 
Order No. 7 because the employers had refused to employ the WWF labour that 
was available.

Such incidents point to the employers' determination to prevent the WWF 
from getting into a position where it could convincingly demand preference.

Another incident occurred in mid-1944 when a company failed to employ 15 
registered and "ready, available and willing" waterside workers to work a 
ship at Byron Bay. The company was subsequently suspended by the SIC.

In pursuing their sectional interests employers were clearly prepared to 
sabotage the efficient use of waterside labour during the war. So what of 
their war effort Mr Duffy?

The union on the other hand had to wage a struggle to get a more efficient 
system of labour engagement in place. It was even prepared to take strike 
action if necessary as was the case in April 1944 when there was a one-day 
strike in Brisbane over certain actions of the local American military 
authorities which threatened the introduction of a new rotary scheme.

The strike resolution referred to the rotary scheme as helping to provide 
for "increased production" which would serve "the object of bringing about 
a speedy victory".

The union in Brisbane was also concerned about the inefficiency of the 
local American authorities with regards to administering the "loading and 
discharging of vessels in ... Brisbane".

The Brisbane Branch leadership asked Healy to immediately contact the 
higher American authorities so as to help obviate the need for further 
industrial action.

Bloody-minded opposition

It would be wrong to claim that waterside workers during World War Two 
never took industrial action in pursuit of their own immediate interests, 
they frequently did so.

It was the militancy of workers who had suffered terrible hardship in the 
Depression years; of men who had been bullied by employers and foremen 
holding the whiphand under the system of casual labour engagement.

Now the scales had shifted a bit more in the wharfies' favour and many were 
anxious to vent anger and frustration built up over many years. Their 
militancy, which generally took the form of "job actions", was even more 
than this; it was the militancy of workers fighting to achieve decent 
remuneration and working conditions.

They had to fight for "smoko" breaks, for extra rates for working dangerous 
cargoes, for reductions in size of the back-breaking loads they had to 

There was a long campaign to obtain basic amenities such as canteens and 
washing and change room facilities. The latter particularly necessary for 
workers in an arduous occupation which could be extremely dirty. There was 
the campaign to end the hated 24-hour shifts.

The response of waterfront employers to these campaigns was characterised 
by bloody-minded and mean-spirited opposition. For example, wharfies were 
fined for taking "smokos" in breach of the award and in 1940 the shipowners 
threatened to apply the "Dog Collar" Act to Sydney if wharfies persisted in 
taking them.

For many years the WWF had appealed to shipowners without success to 
improve waterfront amenities such as by providing canteens. It was only the 
intervention of the SIC during the war years that saw real progress towards 
the provision of basic facilities. Even then progress was not fast.

In Newcastle the slow progress in construction of a long promised 
"sheltershed" and canteen was a source of considerable frustration for the 
wharfies who in 1945 finally threatened strike action at BHP's Steel Works 
wharves over the issue.

In 1944 there was a dispute in Sydney over the refusal for many months of 
the Australian United Steam Navigation Company to pay a number of waterside 
workers payment for half an hour, a payment which the SIC ultimately 
decided they were entitled to.

The obstinate determination of employers to pursue their own interests 
during the war even at the risk of industrial instability and inefficiency 
was most tellingly demonstrated in their opposition to the WWF's proposals 
for decasualising the industry.

In terms of labour engagement the industry was effectively decasualised 
with the implementation of the gang rotary scheme. In 1944 the union 
demanded that this reality be recognised in terms of better wages and 

In August 1944 Jim Healy at a meeting of the SIC moved the resolution to 
decasualise the industry. Specifically, he called for: a guaranteed wage, 
paid annual leave, paid sick leave and an industry pension for retired men. 
The employers on the SIC opposed this move.

As far as waterfront employers were concerned there was to be no change to 
the pre-war order on the waterfront. For them the contribution made by the 
WWF in mobilising waterside workers and the long-hours wharfies had worked 
during the war in a dirty, arduous and dangerous occupation counted for 

Mr Duffy's vile calumny

It would be absurd to claim that no waterside worker ever stole goods or 
took intemperate industrial action. It would be equally absurd to claim 
that no politician was ever corrupt, no doctor ever incompetent, no lawyer 
ever avaricious or that no journalist had ever peddled a lie.

However, Michael Duffy chose to make a series of allegations against 
wharfies and to present them in such a way as to paint a grossly inaccurate 
and distorted picture of the reality.

Among other things he failed to offer proof that the incidents of theft he 
alleged were in fact committed by waterside workers. Were they the only 
people with access to the waterfront during the war Mr Duffy?

Of another order again was the accusation of "traitorous" conduct that 
Michael Duffy flung at waterside workers, a body of workers who made a 
vital contribution to Australia's war effort. It is a vile calumny.

Mr Duffy might quibble that he did not intend to tar all wharfies with the 
slander but this is the effect of what he wrote. I will not speculate on 
his motives but would once again remind him that wharfies during World War 
Two had sons in the armed forces and that many were ex-servicemen 

I would also remind him that wharfies have families and that an article 
such as his, making the assertions that it did, is hurtful to these 

At this point I must declare a personal interest in responding to Mr 
Duffy's article. My father, Boyd Harold Ryan, who passed away last year, 
was a wharf labourer for over 30 years.

He was intensely proud of his occupation and his union, and like many of 
the young men who came to work on the waterfront in the years after World 
War Two he was an exserviceman.

As an infantryman he served with the Darwin Infantry Battalion, later the 
19th Battalion (AIF), in Darwin during the period of the air raids, then in 
New Guinea and New Britain. In New Britain he was decorated with the 
Military Medal. The inscription on this medal reads: "For Bravery in the 

What have you ever done for your country, Mr Duffy?

* * *
The Waterside Workers' Federation has since amalgamated with the Seamen's Union of Australia and other maritime unions to form the Maritime Union of Australia.
* * *
C T Ryan is the author of Ships and Sickles: The Communists and Three Australian Maritime Unions 1928-1945, MA thesis, University of NSW, 1989.

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