The Legacy of the Hungry Mile

Some Vignettes from the Waterfront

Paul Houlihan

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 these waters.

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 it out.'

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 our doorstep.

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 for more.

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 have.

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.