The Legacy of the Hungry Mile
Some Vignettes from the Waterfront
The waterfront is a fascinating area. There is so
much to be appalled about with the waterfront, but
it is hard not to find it intrinsically attractive.
It crawls with villains, but they are not your genteel
corporate criminals who are enormously successful but
essentially colourless. These are not particularly
successful villains but they are particularly colourful
ones. They do add something to the colour and variety
which life affords.
But never in the history of industrial relations have
so many owed so little to so few. I think that is an
appropriate way to open any sort of commentary on the
Australian waterfront. The very essence of what is
wrong with our waterfront is summed up in that paraphrase
to Churchill's famous comment. How little we owe these
merry few, these few, this band of waterside workers.
It can be simply summed up by looking at the recent
Interstate Shipping Commission report which found there
would be minimum gains to the community of around $650
millions per annum if the waterfront was fixed up
Most people who are involved with the waterfront believe
the real figure is twice that. If you say that the
figure is about $1300 million, and if you divide that
by the number of people employed there---about 10,000---you come up with a figure of $130,000 per man per
year. That is what it costs the community to keep waterside
workers in the state to which they have become accustomed.
When you come to that figure of $130,000, you might
think there is a mistake, a nought too many, somewhere.
But the mistake that we have made is the tolerance
that we've showed, for years. We have allowed it to
get worse and worse. Every effort at fixing the problem,
including containerisation, has made absolutely no
difference. The next time someone tells you that Australians
are intolerant, remind them of our toleration of the
watersiders. Remind them that we are paying a million
dollars per eight wharfies per year.
This Nobel Prize in toleration has been achieved through
a real team effort. There are the waterside workers
who have been key players. There are the foremen stevedores,
the supervising stevedores, the stevedoring companies,
and that paragon of employer virtue, the Association
of Employers of Waterside Labour. There are the shipping
companies. There is government, and our old friends
in the Arbitration Commission. The Industrial Relations
Commission hasn't yet really had much chance to muddy
One of the reasons that I get excited about the waterfront
is that I've spent much of the last 20 years involved
in some way with its idiosyncrasies, not to say its
idiocies. One of the first occasions that I became
involved with the waterfront was as Secretary of the
Clerks' Union in Tasmania. I had to negotiate a guaranteed
wage for casual clerks. Where, other than on the Australian
Waterfront, would the casual clerk get a guaranteed
wage? We were in Sydney and the AEWL had brought up
specially for these negotiations their Port Manager
from Port Kembla. What they wanted in return for this
guaranteed wage was a compulsory retirement age of
65, because these casual clerks could go on forever.
What this character came up from Port Kembla specifically
to do was to reinforce the need for this compulsory
retirement age. We said: 'What's the big problem, is
it so important that they retire at 65?' He said:
'Well, I'll tell you the sort of situation you get
to. You have a member at Port Kembla called Bernie.
He is a doddering poor incompetent fool and I said
to him the other day: 'Bernie, you're 87, you should
give it away, you're past it' and he said: 'I can't
give it away'. I asked him why not and he said: 'Well,
I've got my responsibilities.' I said: 'Bernie, what
responsibilities does a man of 87 have?' and he said:
'I've got a son in an old men's home and I have to
keep him there.'
I once served on the Port Discipline Panel in Hobart,
along with the Secretary of the WWF and the Manager
of the AEWL. The Manager of the AEWL was frequently
disciplined by the Port Discipline Panel but nobody
else was. In fact when I was first elected Secretary
down there this AEWL Manager came and saw me and said:
'Look, you've got a real problem with old Fred.'
I said: 'Well what problem have I got with Fred?'
He said: 'He is constantly drunk at work'.
'Well it's not a big problem for me; he doesn't work
for me, he works for you guys, I said, 'Why don't you
sort it out?'.
He said: 'Oh we can't sort it out, you've got to sort
The management could not reprimand or instruct or
in any way discipline that employee or the port would
be shut. So I had to go and read the riot act to this
guy and tell him to stop getting drunk all the time.
And as I had very little power over him it met with
very little effect. That is the culture of the waterfront;
as Ian McLachlan said, it really is the garbage on
It is necessary to go to the title of this conference,
'The Legacy of the Hungry Mile', to gain the perspective
needed to understand the waterfront and come to grips
with what needs to be done. The hungry mile was real.
The bull pen was real. All of these other extraordinary
demeaning and degrading institutions on the waterfront
were real. Men bribed supervisors to get work and the
supervisors never had to buy a beer when they went
into a pub because the wharfies would buy them beers
in order to get themselves jobs. Injury was not a risk
to these men, it was the inevitable result of unsafe
practices that were perpetuated throughout the industry.
In short, up until the early fifties the waterfront
was a terrible place to work.
In consequence it gave rise to a mighty union, a union
which has had extraordinary leadership. There were
two who went on to be prime ministers, Billie Hughes
and Andrew Fisher. There was Jim Healy, a communist
true believer and an extraordinarily able man. You
go to Charlie Fitzgibbon; clearly he was head and shoulders
above any of the union leadership in the sixties and
seventies. More recently there was Norm Docker, federal
secretary in the eighties, who was generally accepted
as being the most competent union official in this
country. Now the WWF is led by Tas Bull.
That list of leadership is extraordinarily impressive.
The WWF are very proud of their history, of the great
struggles and the great achievements of the past. They
have made the waterfront from their perspective an
extraordinarily good place to work. They have extraordinary
rates of pay, extraordinary hours, good benefits, good
protection, the whole lot. It's just a shame they have
bankrupted the country in doing it. It is just something
that can't be afforded.
The Australian waterfront really should be a case
study. When we tell our children about what is wrong
with bullies, we should tell them about the waterfront,
because the waterfront employers behaved and continue
to behave in the classic manner of bullies. They treated
the waterside workers abominably while the waterside
workers were unable to stop them. As soon as the waterside
workers succeeded in organising themselves, their employers
simply fell down in front of them, and they have capitulated
consistently to every demand of the WWF and passed
the costs on. The WWF in its turn has behaved like
the child in the lollie shop; it has just kept going
Periodically governments become aware of the damage
being done to the nation and hold inquiries to show
that they understand the problems and want to fix them.
The difficulty that government has with the waterfront
is that the costs are so dispersed. You can analyse
how much the waterfront adds to the cost of a pair
of shoes from Korea, and it might be 25 cents on a
$25 pair of shoes. You can understand a government
asking: 'Is it worth the hassle to save 25 cents on
a pair of shoes?' The costs of the waterfront are dispersed
so broadly that they don't appear to be too bad to
any parTicular group---except, of course, for the exporters.
If anything is to be done about the Australian waterfront,
the power of the union has got to be broken. There
is no escape from this imperative---the power of the
WWF has to be broken. You will not reform the waterfront
without changing the power relationships which exist
on the Australia wharf. It is not a question of more
laws, it is foremost that we need a change of attitude.
We can reform the waterfront, we can break the power
of WWF and we can start re-establishing Australia's
reputation as a trading nation. We can do all of that
with a change of attitude, with a determined attitude
to do it.
Tas Bull has said to us very frankly: 'Our tactic
in dealing with the Inter-State Commission Report is
to talk, is to conciliate, is to negotate until it
comes off the agenda, that's what we have done with
every other report and that's what we'll do with this
one.' So when you wonder why people 'are pre-empting
the WIRA process', why people are allegedly 'trying
to bring bloodshed to the Australian waterfront, why
these people are doing all these dreadful things: that
is why we are doing it. If we don't, it is just going
to slide off the agenda and nothing will change.
We don't need new laws, we need to change our attitude
to the laws that exist and to our determination to
use those laws. The maritime and stevedoring unions
are no more invincible than the meatworkers or the
confectionery workers; they are as much subject to
the law as you and I are. What we need is not new law
but new will. That's the condition that Ian McLachlan
had to deal with in the farming community. He had to
get the farmers off their tails to load sheep, to get
into live sheep, to get into the wide combs and so
on. The meat processors were not a wild-eyed anti-union
bunch either, but you can change these things over
time by showing that you can succeed. That's frequently
much to the surprise of the people who are allegedly
on your side.
It's amazing what has been achieved throughout history
by people who were being humoured by those around them.
The waterfront reform today depends on enough of us
pushing the issue each day, not allowing the pressure
that the Inter-State Commission Report has brought
to bear on the WWF and the AEWL and the Federal Government
to lapse. Peter Barnard and I attended that wharfies
meeting at the Federal Council, and there is no question
that they know precisely how they are going to deal
with this issue. Unless we embark on a series of steps
and tactics and strategies which destabilise them from
that course, then they will win. The Waterfront Industry
Review Authority will come down with its report at
the end of three months; it will have its in principle
agreement. The Minister, Ralph Willis, will make one
of his monumental speeches in which he will claim that
this is the greatest piece of microeconomic reform
in history. And then we'll all go back to suffering
the slings and arrows of the waterfront.
We must ensure that this strategy does not succeed.
That must be seen as our first duty. In different ways
we can all support this vital programme of reform on
the waterfront. We can all pressure our politicians.
We can all talk to John Laws and these other gurus
on talk-back radio. We can keep the issue alive. Ultimately---and I find this is as distasteful as anyone---the
final settlement of most of the waterfront industrial
problems will be in the Industrial Relations Commission.
We will end up there.
That's no great hardship; it depends on how you get
there as to how the result is. It's no use us notifying
disputes and pleading with the Commission to save us.
It's a lot better if we can create the circumstances
where the Union is notifying the disputes, where the
Union is the party indicating it's in trouble and it
wants assistance. If we can stand out there, if we
can load grain next Saturday at Fishermens Island without
waterside workers, let them notice the Commission that
they have a problem. We haven't got a problem. If we
can load live sheep without them then we can load containers.
All of those things add to the pressure---another push
along this line. In the Commission, we don't have to
convince the Commission of the merit of our argument,
but of our capacity and our willingness to fight. It
is preparedness to fight which carries the most clout
in the Industrial Relations Commission.
But how is all this going to affect the Waterside
Workers Federation themselves? What will happen to
this important and powerful union? For those of us
who are interested in such things, the Waterside Workers
Federation is almost an ideal union. It is sufficiently
small for there to be a real relationship between the
leadership and the membership of that union. It has
been so successful that the members don't mind paying
a very high level of union dues in order to sustain
the union because of the small numbers. The great majority
of WWF members, something in excess of 90%, generally
vote in union elections, so the ratbag officials accurately
represent the ratbag members. That's not so in most
unions. But how does such a representative union fit
into Bill Kelty's grand matrix? Not at all well really,
because obviously he doesn't want unions that are so
close to their members that they actually represent
their point of view. Who knows where such unbridled
principle could lead? Perhaps to a point where members
expect to control union policy.
The WWF is currently engaged in discussions on amalgamation
with the Seamen's Union, a marriage of which we can
say that is made in Swanston Street rather than in
heaven. Clearly both unions are in long term decline.
Probably only their demise would be sufficient for
both of their affected industries to stage a comeback.
That is quite ironic isn't it; that the condition precedent
for their long term survival is their short term demise.
Those of us interested in the restoration in Australia
as a major trading nation need to work hard and assiduously
for the removal of the extraordinary status of the
stevedoring and maritime unions. It is well to do everything
we can to bring about what the ISC call the normalising
of the waterfront. This is the critical point. We must
have an industry which is much the same as any other.
We must get away from the idea that it is 'the waterfront'
and it is different. That's the mentality that we all
All of the foregoing is what we have to try and do---but is it a likely outcome of the current process?
Probably not. When you remember that the Federal Government
has charged the Waterside Workers Federation and the
AEWL, overseen by the Australian Council of Trade Unions,
to come up with an in-principle agreement to reform,
you realise that the whole procedure has become a shallow
act of window dressing. It is a nonsense to expect
the AEWL to effectively do the job that is required
of it, because that would mean putting the AEWL out
of business. If the ISC report was to be implemented
as written, the AEWL would have no more standing in
our community than the Timbermillers Association. They
would be a registered employer organisation, fullstop.
It is contrary to the natural inclinations of organisations
to so put themselves out of business. It is nonsense
of the government to expect that the people who have
created the mess are going to clean it up. As the IAC
said in its report on coastal shipping, it is clear
that the gradualist solutions have failed. Now is the
time for real reform determined by, directed by, and
executed by the people who pay for the mess, not the
people who profit from it.