We expect drama on the waterfront. And sure enough, when the Melbourne Branch of the Waterside Workers of Australia celebrated its centenary last year, they could trace 75 years of dramatic confrontation followed by years of equally dramatic advance and prosperity.
Melbourne became a major world port following the Gold Rush in Victoria in 1851 when the population of the state quickly increased sevenfold. Then came a slump and thousands without work crowded the waterfront, creating difficulty in establishing the Wharf Labourers Union (in 1885). The 900 dockers who struck for better wages and the eight-hour day knew there were hundreds waiting to take their jobs. Thanks to the solidarity of other unions, the wharfies won through. Their success encouraged dockers in other ports to organise.
Melbourne is now Australia's largest general cargo port, handling some 3,000 ships and 1 5 million tonnes of cargo each year. The union too has grown and has contributed two Prime Ministers – Andrew Fisher and Billy Hughes. Yet a negative image persisted till the 1950's, as the union was locked in battle with governments, employers and Press. and weakened internally by sectarian fights.
Today the WWF Is not only united but has played a steadying role in the Australian trade unions; and a job in be ports is one of the best paid. The wharfies are a colourful bunch. In Melbourne half are of Maltese origin; others come from Greece, Ireland and Eastern Europe. Most have nicknames: 'The Judge' sits on a case all day, 'Glass Arms', is too fragile to lift, the foreman 'Singlet' always on our backs and 'Hydraulic Jack’, who will 'lift' anything! ln 1961 two organised factions, Communist and Catholic vied to elect a successor to Jim Healy, the Federal General Secretary who had just died and who had given powerful leadership from the Left, welding 60 ports into a strong federation.
Then a group of rank and file members from different political and sectarian sides, proposed another candidate. Although they had neither funds nor political machine, their man, Charlie Fitzgibbon, won the job and held it with distinction for the next 24 years.
The leader of this rank and file group, Jim Beggs, recalls. ‘As a young wharfie l had no interest in my union. l never went to meetings. lf there was a dispute l went duck-shooting. l was building my own house in this middle-class area. At that time the only time you read about a wharfie was for thieving, fighting or for going on strike. So I told my neighbour where I worked. It was casual work. Some weeks l had three days work – plenty of time to build the house, but not enough momey to buy the material’.
One day a new neighbour over the fence asked Beggs what he did. Jim told him. ‘I work on the waterfront myself’, said the neighbour, Tom Uren. He was director of one of the tougher stevedoring firms in the port. When Jim worked late on his house he noticed Uren switched on his outside light to help him. Their friendship deepened. The Urens helped the Beggs straighten out some domestic tangles, by using the ‘start with yourself’ principle. They often talked about the waterfront. When Uren said that people were more priority than profits, Jim realised that Tom was different from the average port employer. He had actually resigned from a well-paid job –on a matter of principle. Jim began to feel he ought to pull his weight on the union side.
In those days, few imported Austin cars reached their customers with the clock on the dashboard. One was in the Beggs’ home. Jim decided to take it back. ‘It’s hard to steal something from the docks’ he says, ‘but it's twice as hard to take it back.’ But he did. The news stopped the conversation in dockside pubs. But from that point Beggs could look management and men straight in the eye.And of course, he got a new nickname - ‘Daylight Saving’ - he put the clock back!
His second step was to make a personal apology to an ex-flyweight boxer called Les, a leading Catholic who would sometimes knock out his opponents at stop-work meetings. Unfortunately for him, they were still Communists when it came to it! Beggs, who came from a staunch Ulster Protestant family had a bigoted attitude to Catholics, so he voted Communist. Jim's apology to Les created a new factor in the union. They became the nucleus of the group who proposed Fitzgibbon as General Secretary. When he won, it was his 400 majority in Melbourne that made the difference. Fitzgibbon was also to become president of the Docks Section of the International Transport Workers Federation representing portworkers worldwide.
Beggs says, ''Charlie's election brought the union from the brink of anarchy back to the centre of the road. Charlie proved that you could improve working conditions and wages without industrial action. Every two-year contract was negotiated without an hour of work lost. And that in a union recently considered as one of the most indisciplined group of workers in the country.
Jim's first union job was docks delegate. ‘I was a ‘lone voice’ at first admits Beggs, 'but I got the backing of my gang. After some months we decided that pilfering was anti-union!’ In 1965 he was elected senior Vice President of his branch. ln 1971 he became President – and still is. In '77 he became Senior Vice President of the whole federation.
He is cheerful and sharp-minded, hard-working and articulate. His success as a trade union leader comes neither from charisma nor chip-on-the-shoulder bitterness. His strength lies in his record of practical achievements which has won the confidence of the men, in his outgoing personality and in the wholehearted support of his wife, Tui.
The present consensus of Australian Government, unions and management is admired and even envied by many other countries. But consensus doesn't just happen. Many men and women, from Bob Hawke down, have worked hard over the years to create it. Among them the uniting role of the waterside workers has been an important contribution and is widely appreciated. Beggs says, 'l'm concerned that we continue to encourage the centre, so that the extreme Left and the extreme Right can't destroy that centre ground, that bridge area where people of both sides have got contact.’
Good on you, Beggsie!