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Tuesday, 24 September 2002
Page: 4790


Senator WEBBER (8:02 PM) —I rise in this adjournment debate to bring to the attention of the Senate the Centenary of the Maritime Union of Australia, which of course includes the achievement of the individual unions that formed the amalgamated union in 1993. The Maritime Union represents stevedores, seafarers, port workers and divers—all of whom work long and arduous hours on ships, in harbours, on ferries and tugs, on our wharves, and in offices and control towers. That work is often long and dangerous and can include the operation of heavy equipment often up three storeys high or, in the case of divers, at depths of 500 metres below sea level laying underwater pipes.

Whilst the Maritime Union was created through an amalgamation in 1993, its beginnings go back a long way in Australia's history, with the formation of the world's first maritime union—the Seamen's Union of Australia—in 1872 followed shortly after by the Sydney Wharf Labourers Union, which was formed later that same year. In all cases the maritime unions were established in response to appalling working conditions, which often included 24-hour and sometimes 48-hour continuous shifts during peak wool and wheat seasons. Wharfies were invariably employed under the `bull' system, where workers assembled to be selected for work on brute strength alone. This dehumanising practice forced workers to compete against each other for work, often jeopardising their own health. Unfortunately, the `bull' system was not abolished until the Second World War.

Federation in 1901 resulted in national unions with the registration of the Waterside Workers Federation in 1902 and the Seamen's Union of Australia following four years later. The first of many industrial tests for the WWF was the General Strike of 1917 in support of striking New South Wales railway and tramway workers, resulting in the recruitment of strike-breaking labour from country towns. The establishment of strike-breaking and employer funded unions led to the near starvation of striking WWF members and their families. Indeed, 1917 also saw the first large scale industrial dispute involving the WWF in my own state of Western Australia. On August 13, Fremantle lumpers, as wharfies were then called, refused to load the Singaporean vessel Minderoo with 1,100 tonnes of Western Australian flour for fear that it would eventually feed German troops in Europe. They had been told at a union meeting earlier that day that a returned soldier from the battlefields of France claimed to have seen Western Australian flour bags in German trenches.

Depicting the workers as disloyal and unpatriotic, the then Western Australian government, in concert with the shipowners, started to recruit non-union labour on the wharves. In three days the government had recruited 1,200 `blackleggers' or what was then called `volunteer labour'. With the threat of the deregistration of their union, the WWF members eventually returned to work. The two groups of union and non-union lumpers struggled to work together, and simmering hostilities in Fremantle came to a head in 1919.

On April 10 that year, the SS Dimboola docked in Fremantle from interstate, carrying much needed supplies for Western Australia and a sick passenger, who was rumoured to have been exposed to a deadly pneumonic influenza outbreak in New South Wales. Fearing an outbreak in WA, union and non-union labour alike stood as one with the citizens of Fremantle in refusing to unload the vessel. With the Harbour Trust, as it then was, ordering fumigation at anchor, the owners of the cargo forced through a decision to berth the ship and fumigate at port. Whilst it was usual to wait seven days after such a procedure, a group of non-union labour began to unload the Dimboola after only two days. The Dimboola was picketed by lumpers and, whilst the labour continued to unload other ships, employers decided that no ships would be touched until the picket line was lifted. Similar to what we saw during the recent Patrick dispute, the people of Fremantle rallied to support the striking workers with even the then local lord mayor saying that he would stand or fall with the lumpers.

As the Depression hit Australia in 1928, appalling conditions remained on our wharves, with sacks of potatoes and wheat weighing up to 92 kilograms having to be carried by hand, sulphur cargo catching fire and carbon black staining the skin of workers for weeks. Rotting animal hides from South America, covered in maggots, also had to be unloaded by hand by the workers.

The resolve of the union to fight for better wages and conditions allowed them to endure the so called `dog collar' act of 1928, where wharfies needed to be licensed simply to go to work. They also endured the efforts of the government in the 1950s to reintroduce non-union labour. The WWF, the SUA and other smaller unions operating in our maritime industries continually fought the erosion of wages and working conditions. In fact, the union had not faced an attempt to introduce non-union labour again until January 1998 when the Patrick Corporation locked its employees out of its Webb Dock operation in Melbourne. With a replacement work force secretly trained in the port of Rashid in Dubai to become stevedores, the livelihood of union members was again under threat.

Most Australians distinctly remember television images of security personnel in balaclavas preventing 1,400 permanent employees and 300 casuals going to work in various Patrick operations around the country on 7 April. Most Australians also remember the unambiguous support for and involvement in the activities of the Patrick Corporation by the former minister for workplace relations, Mr Reith. Most Australians will also recall the National Farmers Federation joining Patrick and the government in causing one of the darkest days in not only the industrial history but also the social history of this country. Neither police with bayonets in 1919 nor security guards with balaclavas and dogs could break the spirit or resolve of the Maritime Union—or break their connection with our community.

As in 1919, the people of Fremantle and Western Australia rallied behind the Maritime Union to lend support and comfort to those workers, standing up for what they believed and for what they saw as a great injustice. It is fitting that the Fremantle picket line of the Patrick dispute was called the Tom Edwards picket line, in memory of the union worker who died in the strike of 1919 standing up for what he believed in. Indeed, faced with automation and the decrease of stevedores from a peak of 25,000 to about 4,000 today, the Maritime Union of Australia has protected the lot not only of its members but of society as a whole. Whether it be campaigns against declining wages and conditions, flags of convenience shipping, protests against the Vietnam conflict or support for an independent East Timor, the Maritime Union has been doing its part to ensure that the workers and the human rights of all Australians are fully protected. For over one hundred years, the Maritime Union of Australia has faced greater challenges than most and has weathered the storm, whilst continuing to look after the interests of its members. It would seem that, 100 years since the federal registration of the union, the MUA is here to stay.