MUA---Here to Stay ...Today!

The Century of Brawn

Tim Hewat

We are about to review The Century of Brawn---the hundred years or so in which the brainless bullies of the big battalions called the tunes that dominated Australian industrial relations. From the very beginning their mantra was one penned by that renowned ratbag and drunk, born in a tent on the goldfield at Grenfell: Henrik Hertzberg Larsen---aka Henry Lawson. I quote:

        We'll make the tyrants feel the sting
        Of those that they would throttle;
        They needn't say the fault is ours
        If blood should stain the wattle.

In other words: No matter what WE do, it's YOUR fault.

The Century of Brawn was at the seedling stage in the 1880s and flowered in the 1890s. Prior to that, as had been the case in Britain before the Industrial Revolution, there were some small craft unions whose members were anxious to keep out anyone who had not served their time; the Sydney Shipwrights Association was the first in 1829 and then came the likes of cabinet-makers, stonemasons, printers, cobblers, plumbers and---wouldn't you know it---school teachers in Geelong in 1878.

But big unions for the burly boys were bound to come into play. This became known as the New Unionism---put together for great numbers of unskilled workers who depended for their bargaining power on solidarity and mateship rather than trade skills. And there were a few likely lads happy to lead them.

Consider first William Guthrie Spence, from the island of Eday in the storm-swept Orkneys off the coast of Scotland, who came to the Ballarat goldfield with his parents at the age of six.

Two years later Spence collected some vivid memories by witnessing at first hand the Eureka rebellion---recollections he used to good effect when he embarked on a career as union activist and politician.

Now here in the making was no Clarrie O'Shea or Wally Curran or Norm Gallagher or, for that matter, no John Coombs. This self-educated man grew up to preach God's word from the pulpit and declaim working man's demands from the stump. He not only organised the diggers---first the gold miners of Victoria and then the coal miners of New South Wales---but he rounded-up the shearers throughout four colonies and welded them in into what eventually became the biggest brawler of them all: The Australian Workers Union.

Facts about this man are not in dispute: he was a hard-working teetotaller, an elder of the kirk, a local councillor, a Justice of the Peace. And he became the first trade unionist whose name was known throughout Australia.

Assessments of him were another matter, however, and varied wildly. On the one hand we have Geoffrey Blainey, the best of all historians, who wrote---and I quote:

If travellers happened to see Spence, standing in the refreshment room at Ballarat railway station, they would have noticed nothing unusual in his appearance, manner or speech ... A quiet negotiator, he was inclined to see a strike as the last cartridge in his belt ... He was not the author of catch-cries and long-remembered phrases; indeed, there was something of the lawyer in his approach to an argument.

But against that we have Manning Clark, who wrote---and again I quote:

Spence thundered against capitalist society with all the wrath of an Old Testament prophet denouncing human wickedness. He professed a belief in the brotherhood of man, but he mocked at 'Chinkies' and denounced the Kanakas as a 'Leprous Curse'.

We all know that Clark was rejected as a historian by even his own publisher, Peter Ryan, who dismissed his six-volume A History of Australia as having "the insubstantiality of thistledown---a construct spun from fairy floss, and much of that false".


Let me detour for a moment to tell you of my first encounter with Manning. One of his duties as a master at Geelong Grammar was to umpire under-15 football matches. At the end of one such game, I felt an arm go round my shoulders and turned to see Manning eyeing me sympathetically and saying: "I hear that you were beaten last night, dear boy." He was referring to a caning I had received for some misdemeanour, as he was vehemently opposed to corporal punishment. It no doubt pained him further when I responded chirpily: "It was much less irksome than having to do a detention". The fact is, whether he was a historian of merit or not, Manning was a genuine eccentric---and we have far too few of them in this country.


To return to Bill Spence: Because the members of both his miners' and shearers' unions had no special skills and could easily be replaced, a key plank in their platform was the demand for a monopoly on all jobs down the mines and in the woolsheds---a policy still fiercely pursued by the MUA. To this end, the men about to start shearing the sheep on Jondaryan Station on Queensland's Darling Downs declared in 1890 that only union shearers would be allowed on the place.

To their own surprise, they won---not least because the banks were leaning on the owners who were desperate to get their hands on the wool cheque without delay.

So delighted was Spence by success at Jondaryan that he prevailed upon a national conference of his Amalgamated Shearers' Union of Australasia---then 20,000-strong and the biggest in the land---to resolv as follows:

That, in view of continued active attempts on the part of a number of sheep owners to crush unionism, this Association appeals to all trade societies, including the Seamen's and Wharf Laborers' Unions, to co-operate by refusing to handle wool shorn by non-union labor.

Action came not from the shearers, however. It was the seamen who triggered the trouble in the winter of 90. Those in the fo'c's'le of the coaster Corinna demanded the reinstatement of a fireman, whom they believed had been sacked because he was an official of the Federated Seamen's Union. At the same time those above deck gave a 24-hour ultimatum that they would walk ashore if the owners refused to relax their ban on the Mercantile Marine Officers' Association affiliating with Trades Hall in Melbourne.

No sooner had the seafarers embarked on what became known as The Maritime Strike than they were joined by the wharf laborers, the coal miners of Newcastle, the silver-and-lead miners of Broken Hill and eventually by the shearers. So the stage was set for what the Daily Telegraph of the day called a "struggle of unprecedented magnitude in the history of Australia".

In Sydney volunteers started carting a train-load of wool towards Circular Quay, guarded by an armed escort. Along the route, striking members of the Trolley, Draymen and Carters' Union (today's transport workers) hooted and jeered and tried to halt the procession. When its head reached the Quay, a crowd of some 3,000 protesters had gathered. So Nugent Brown, a senior police officer, read the Riot Act and sent in troops and mounted police whose horses' hooves soon cleared the wharf.

All strike action was over by the time spring gave way to summer, and the unionists had lost every round. But---rather as the military catastrophe of Gallipoli 25 years later was turned into a symbol of nationhood---the disaster of the Maritime Strike of 1890 became an industrial landmark. Why? Because it told the brawn brigades that, if they wanted effective power the place to wield it was where numbers really counted, in Parliament. So, for better or worse, the Australian Labor Party was born.

Consider next William Morris Hughes, the Cockney born within sight of Big Ben but through whose veins only the clever but cantankerous blood of Welsh Wizards flowed.

Billy Hughes was a politician first and a union leader much later. At the age of 22 he quit London and sailed for Queensland. There was no work in Brisbane, so he hit the road---humping his bluey and accepting casual work as navvy, fruit-picker, blacksmith's striker, and drover's off-sider. At 28 he married Elizabeth Cutts, his landlady's daughter in Sydney, and opened for business as---of all unlikely things---an umbrella-mender!

In the aftermath of the Maritime Strike, his small shop in the then-working-class-but-now-trendy waterside suburb of Balmain became something of a meeting place for young men interested in Labor politics. And in the State election of 1894 he stood for and won the seat of Lang, which covered Darling Harbor.

Then, for the first Commonwealth election in 1901, he transferred to the Federal seat of West Sydney (which embraced Lang) and polled three times as many votes as his two conservative opponents combined. Indeed, for the next 52 years until his death, and despite several political contortions, he was never beaten in an election.

During his first years as an MP Hughes was not into unions. His biographer, L.F. Fitzhardinge, recorded that his "association with unionism had been occasional and, so to speak, external". Instead, his interest outside politics lay with the law and he was reading for the Bar on a part-time basis. But he was nothing if not shrewd. He saw how power in union affairs had enabled Bill Spence to grow into a political career, and he concluded:

A Labor political leader who cannot count on union support and who does not know the industrial movement from the inside, has a basic weakness.

Hughes' method for correcting that weakness was to re-activate the Sydney Wharf Laborers Union which had been reduced to almost nothing by the Maritime Strike. For three months, terrier-like, he was everywhere along Sydney's 'Hungry Mile' of wharves, arousing interest, enrolling members and recruiting organisers. When he called a renaissance meeting between Christmas and New Year 1899 he was able to announce that the union had 1,300 members and money in the bank. His reward? They elected him to lead them---as they continued to do for the next 16 years.

Although an aggressive little man, he favored negotiation over confrontation. Sir Henry Gullett, then a reporter and later a minister in Lyons and Menzies governments, described him thus:

The truculent wharf laborers were inflamed and strong for a strike. Hughes---a sallow, emaciated figure---was for conciliation and stood up single handed to the mob. He reasoned and pleaded with them; he ridiculed them; he swore at them and assailed them as misguided idiots. When it ended, there were cheers and no strike.

Hughes worked towards a national body and in 1902 amalgamated a dozen unions which circled the continent into the Waterside Workers Federation. It had 6,300 members who made him president.

It must be said that the Federation did not immediately make life easier for wharfies, whose job was a bloody awful one. For a start, they had no continuity. Men were obliged to stand around for the 'pick-up', a system in which a foreman pointed to You, You and You. The biggest and strongest---known as the 'bulls'---were favored because they could work harder and longer, shifts of 24 and even 48 hours.

Then the work itself was back-breaking. Bagged wheat was a major export cargo. Because the farmers paid rail freight on the number of bags and not on their weight, each bag was made as heavy as possible. A test-weighing in Sydney in 1904 showed an average of 395 pounds or 179 kilos a bag---that's more than four times the weight of a bag of cement today, and we all know how heavy they are. The wharfies used to 'neck' those bags---balancing them on their neck and shoulders---to carry them to a ship's hatch and then dump them into the hold where more men stowed them. For this they were paid 1 shilling and 3 pence an hour---say $6 an hour at 1998 values. Agitation by Hughes and other Wharfie MPs eventually led to a Commonwealth-States agreement limiting the weight to 90 kilos---equal to just over 2 bags of cement.

By then Hughes had established the Waterside Workers' Gazette, most of which he wrote himself---including, one supposes, this splendid example of self-panegyric in 1907:

Mr W.M. Hughes, MHR, one of the ablest and most active representatives of Labor in Australian politics, sailed for London by SS Orient on Saturday to take part in the great Navigation Conference.

That he is not a practical seaman everyone is aware. But he knows as much of the subject as any layman may ever hope to learn, and his wide knowledge in conjunction with his skills as a barrister should render his visit to Europe of the utmost benefit.

Greater events were about to unfold, however. World War One was declared in the middle of 1914 and eight months later the Anzacs landed on Gallipoli. Before that frightful folly was abandoned, Billy Hughes had succeeded Andrew Fisher as Australia's seventh and possibly most-controversial Prime Minister. He stayed on, however, as president of the watersiders' union, too!

As Prime Minister, Hughes was a fervent advocate of conscription into the armed forces---a move the British made at the beginning of 1916. So determined was he that he decided to put the question in a referendum, the first time an entire nation was asked to decide such an issue.

The argument tore the people asunder. Even before the vote could be taken, the Labor Leagues of New South Wales---in the sort of bastardy which years later would bring tears of joy to the likes of Paul Keating and Graham Richardson---voted to expel their own Prime Minister from the Labor movement. Two months later that expulsion was echoed by the once-adoring Committee of Management of the Waterside Workers Federation!

In the event, Hughes lost the referendum by 64,549 votes, or just 2.8 per cent of the electorate. But a month later the Welsh Wizard had the last laugh when he and 23 others walked out of the Labor caucus and formed with the Liberals a win-the-war national government---a coalition which six months later scored a massive election win for both houses.

But the wharfies and the other Big Battalions of Brawn were not finished with Hughes. In the winter of 1917, in support of striking Sydney tram and railwaymen and in protest against galloping inflation and general war-weariness, the best part of 100,000 workers including wharfies, seamen, ships' painters and dockers, coal bumpers, gasworkers, firemen, engineers, slaughtermen and other meat-industry employees walked out in what was the biggest-ever strike in Australia.

Again Billy Hughes---by then known warmly as 'The Little Digger' because of his support for servicemen---had the last laugh. He used a new law called the War Precautions Act to smash the strike---arresting union leaders, commandeering coal mines, rationing gas and electrcity and imposing martial law on the waterfront. Strike-breakers were used to discharge, load and bunker ships. (with recent events on Webb Dock in mind, it is interesting that most of the volunteers were recruited by either the Farmers' and Settlers' Association or the Victorian Farmers' Union.) In Sydney the strike-breakers formed the Permanent and Casual Wharf Laborers Union (soon known as the P & Cs) who successfully rivalled the Waterside Workers Federation for years.

By the time this so-called General Strike had collapsed, an event which became known as The October Revolution had not only changed everything in Russia, it had sown the seed for significant upheavals in Australian industry---as we shall soon see.

Four years after the end of World War One, Billy Hughes' National Government started to fall apart and was trounced at the polls. The dapper Stanley Melbourne Bruce, resplendent in butterfly collars and spats, became Prime Minister, leading a thoroughly conservative government in which the fledgling Country Party held half the portfolios.

(Events which followed showed how fanciful it was in the recent waterfront stoush for John Howard and Peter Reith to be painted as Burke and Wills figures in confronting maritime unions.)

The Bruce Government made three attempts to curb the power of the brawn unions. In the first, when seamen struck and paralysed the country, Bruce made Parliament sit for 40 hours straight to amend the Immigration Act so that any foreign-born unionists who obstructed the movement of goods could be deported. At once the seamen's leaders---Tom Walsh, Irish born and a Communist, and Dutch-born Jacon Johnson---were jailed pending deportation.

But Bruce acted without giving a thought to the High Court---just as other governments have done in recent times. At the urging of one Herbert Vere Evatt on behalf of the unionists, the grey-beards ruled three-to-two that the amended law was unconstitutional and the men must be released.

In his second attempt in 1928, when wharfies went on a long and financially-crippling strike, Bruce made Parliament sit all night to pass the Transport Workers' Act which demanded that Waterside Workers buy a licence before they could be taken on for work. This licence carried not only a man's name and age, but the color of his eyes and hair, the nature of his complexion and "other distinguishing marks" like scars.

It was immediately dubbed the 'Dog Collar Act' and provoked violence at several ports. Wharfies abused, harrassed and assaulted casuals who competed with them for work and, on several occasions, fire-bombed their homes. When they tried to break through a cordon of police protecting casuals on Princes Pier at Port Melbourne, shots were fired and wharfies wounded---one, a Gallipoli veteran, died of wounds a few weeks later.

Bruce's third try to carry his fight against the unions involved legislation to abolish the Arbitration Court. When this was opposed by his predecessor and former wharfies' leader, Billy Hughes, four more of his own MPs crossed the floor and toppled the government. At the subsequent election Bruce became the only Australian Prime Minister to lose his own seat of Flinders. Labor was swept into power. But by then Wall Street had crashed and the Great Depression was grabbing the world by the balls.

The Depression was ghastly for everyone, but particularly for the wharfies. As Margot Beasley tells it in the authorised History of the Waterside Workers' Federation the union had been rendered almost penniless by the strike of 1928, was fragmented by inter-branch rivalry and was beaten for work by the casual P & Cs.

The dark years of depression were good news for just one group: the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) which had been formed in 1920. Its members worked tirelessly to win positions of power in trade-unions. None worked harder than one James Healy.

This burly bloke was born in Manchester, joined the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders at the age of 17 during World War One, was badly wounded in a leg in France and then like thousands of others in the industrial north of England could not get a job. So, married and with three young sons, he migrated to Mackay in Queensland in 1925 and soon won local office in the Waterside Workers' Federation.

After making a union~funded visit to the Soviet Union, Healy formally joined the Communist Party in 1934. Then, three years later, he ran as the outsider of four candidates for Federal Secretary of the Watersiders and beat the incumbent by 712 votes.

Healy's indoctrination into international Communism soon led the wharfies into using their brawn on issues wider than the humiliations of the pick-up and the intrusions of scabs.

We have the word of Rupert Lockwood---Communist and informant to the Soviet Embassy---that it was Healy who, in November 1938, phoned his fellow Communist Edward Roach, leader of the wharfies at Port Kembla, to sound the alarm that a British tramp called Dalfram was steaming towards him to load 7,000 tonnes of BHP pig iron for Japan, then in the third year of its invasion of China.

Roach's wharfies promptly black-banned the Dalfram. Two months later---after BHP closed its steelworks, blaming the ban and sacking 4,000 workers---Attorney-General Robert Gordon Menzies went to Wollongong to parley with the wharfies. At the request of the police, Communist Party members cleared a safe passage for him to the Town Hall. But all the way, the mod jeered "Pig-Iron Bob"---a sobriquet coined by yet another Communist watersider, Stan Moran, who died only 19 days ago in his hundredth year!

As with all wars, World War Two meant jobs aplenty. But habits die hard with the brawn unions. The war effort was weakened constantly by strikes in the mines, on the railways and certainly on the waterfront, where there was now work for all.

My own brother became a dock walloper when the 2nd/14th Field Regiment was ordered onto Sydney wharves to replace striking wharfies. I am bound to relate, however, that he told me his men, like the wharfies, quickly became adept at pilferage. If you dropped a case of Johnie Walker from a modest height, a few bottles always remained unbroken! His regiment did a further dock stint when Japanese bombs drove the wharfies off Darwin wharves.

The war was actually good news for the wharfies. Soon after the Fadden Government was beaten in a no-confidence motion in 1941 and John Curtin became Labor's Prime Minister, a Stevedoring Industry Commission was set up to reform the waterfront. Vital to its success was the fact that Hitler had broken his non-aggression pact with Stalin and sent panzer divisions roaring towards Moscow. This meant that, as far as Australia's Communists were concerned, it had ceased to be an "imperialist" war and become a "people's war". In turn, this meant that Healy and his Red mates, instead of obstructing, were prepared to co-operate.

The biggest result was the scrapping of the hated selection of workers at a pick-up and replacing it with gangs who were engaged on a rotating-roster system. It was this reform which led to the Waterside Workers Federation's winning a monopoly on all jobs---the cause of most of our recent troubles.

Hitler's lunatic invasion of Russia had another result. It gave Communism a certain cachet and by 1943 membership of the CPA had reached an unlikely 25,000. Far more important than the actual numbers, were the positions the unflagging faithful had forged for themselves by the end of World War Two.

It is no exaggeration to say that Communists had the trade union movement and, to a significant and now-largely-forgotten extent, the country by the throat. Members of the CPA or their fellow-travellers held most of the key offices in transport---including the railways and shipping unions---in coal mines, in shearing sheds through the AWU and in heavy engineering through the Federated Ironworkers Union. Indeed, when I started on The Age in 1946 and was obliged to join the Australian Journalists Association because it was a closed shop, I was astonished to learn that nearly all the senior reporters on Keith Murdoch's Herald and Sun News Pictorial were Communists!


Let me take you on another detour and acknowledge my own small debt to Communism. It became my job on The Age to cover the waterfront and Bill Bird, Communist secretary in Victoria of the seamen's union, was a contact. Then, for reasons too complex to go into here, I was offered a job on Lord Beaverbrook's Daily Express---then the world's biggest-circulation paper---if and when I presented myself in London. Being penniless, I asked Bird for a written waiver from the rule which said that any sailor who signed-on in Australia could demand first-class repatriation at any date in the future. Bird was agreeable and I was able to pierhead-jump into the crew of MV Australia Star and be paid a princely one shilling a month for working my way to Britain. It's a pity that young fellows can't do that today.


The life I left behind was interrupted by strike after stupid strike. Further, the Cold War was starting to make things harder for Communists in Australia, and they made things even harder for themselves in the winter of '49 by calling a national strike by coal miners. When it had run a month and 261,000 jobs in New South Wales alone were closed down, the Chifley Labor government took the bold decision and sent in the armed forces---Army and Air Force started to work the open cuts and the strike collapsed.

Rightly or wrongly, the people tended to blame Labor for the Communists bloody-mindedness and, when Menzies promised to outlaw the CPA, the Liberal-Country Party coalition won a handsome majority in the House of Representatives at the next election.

Always as good as his word, Menzies brought in the Communist Party Dissolution Bill. It sailed through the Reps but was knocked back in the Senate. So Menzies sought and got a double dissolution of Parliament. won both Houses and the Bill became law.

Once again Bert Evatt headed for the High Court, this time on behalf of Communists---and again he won; the pesky grey-beards declared six-to-one that the Act was unconstitutional. So Menzies appealed directly to the people via a referendum; but, as we have reason to know well, it is easier for Kerry Packer to go through the eye of a needle than it is to get Australians to accept change.

It would be tedious to rehearse the twists and turns of big-union events which are within the memory of most of us. But mention must be made of the transformation triggered on the waterfront by the arrival at Fremantle in 1969 of the first all-container ship, the Encounter Bav, and the adoption over the next ten years of containerisation and bulk handling. These had two profound effects on wharfies: it halved their number, but it gave permanent employment for the first time to those who remained.

Profound change threatened another union in the Brawn Club at that time, the Australian Workers' Union, AWU. And it takes me on a third detour:


For more than 20 years I have been marketing consultant to the world's biggest Merino-breeding operation. The Boonoke/Wanganella studs, at Conargo in the Riverina, were bought by Rupert Murdoch's News Limited in 1987 and I joined them soon afterwards.

Now, they had some experience of the shearers' union's insistence on a closed shop. When the Falkiners hired men who were not in Bill Spence's union back in 1888, shearers who were actually on strike torched the homestead---a situation made worse when staff who rushed to fight the fire found the booze basement and got drunk instead!

Then, during another strike in 1956, staff and jackeroos did the shearing under the protection of armed guards.

A third testing time arose early in 1983 when the full bench of the Arbitration Commission varied the Pastoral Industry Award to allow wide combs to be used on the shearing handpieces. The AWU, which disliked change almost as much as they hated New Zealanders, at once called a strike, and soon wide-comb shearers were being beaten up and terrorised.

The problem facing managers at Boonoke was that stud ewes must be shorn on time so that their teats are clear of surrounding wool to make it easy for soon-to-be-born lambs to suck. So they decided to defy the strikers---and recruited an expert to guide them.

This was Frank 'Bumper' Farrell, former rugby-league international and long-time police inspector at Kings Cross, who was in charge of security at News Limited in Sydney. He floodlit the woolshed, rostered staff to mount 24~hour guards on approach roads and confiscated the shearers' guns when they checked in.

A couple of days after shearing began, union officials arrived at a check point and asked, as was their right under the award, to inspect the shed. When they reached it, all shearers had locked themselves in the quarters.

The officials demanded to speak with them and became angry when this was refused. A nasty situation was calmed only when a policeman, out from Deniliquin on duty, remarked "It's certainly hot"---and slipped off his jacket to reveal a sidearm in a shoulder holster!

Other menacing groups sought entry, and there was news of working sheds being set alight at Lake Cargelligo and Coonamble. But the Boonoke shearing was finished when the strike petered out after a couple of months.

The fact is that the strike saw the end of the AWU's shearing influence. and wide combs are now everywhere. Indeed, you'd have to cut off an arm to get a wide comb away from a shearer these days.


To get back to the waterfront: As anyone who has read Bob Hawke's memoirs knows, HE solved all the problems back in 1991. I quote:

I was called in to save the process of negotiating fundamental reforms on the waterfront ... The adrenaline kept flowing as I haggled, cajoled, persuaded and laid down the law throughout the night, talking to those present individually, in groups and collectively, until 7 o'clock in the morning. By then I had secured an agreement which provided the basis of the reform which has revolutionised the Australian waterfront.

Certainly Hawke's agreement cost millions of dollars in retirement payouts. And, to be sure, the dwindling membership of both the Waterside Workers Federation and the Seamen's Union of Australia did oblige them a couple of years later to merge into the Martime Union of Australia.

But if you were looking for any signs of a real revolution on the waterfront, there were none---as recent events have shown so spectacularly.