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A brief history of the use of the Armed Forces during wharf disputes.



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D e p a r t m e n t o f t h e P a r l i a m e n t a r y L i b r a r y

RESEARCH NOTE Number 47, 1997-98 ISSN 1328-8016 A Brief History of the use of the Armed Forces during Wharf Disputes Recent events on the waterfront, the Government’s policy of waterfront reform and reported references to the proposed use of troops during strikes have generated interest in the past use of military personnel in waterfront disputes. This Note documents the known facts surrounding waterfront disputes since Federation where military personnel have been involved. It relies on historical sources such as official war and union histories, verifiable newspaper articles and government papers. However, it is partially constrained by limited detail in some sources, lack of access to some primary sources such as Cabinet and Defence papers, and the restrictions of wartime censorship. Rumours and anecdotes are not canvassed. World War 2 In March 1943 opposition to a new gang rotary system led to a 16 day strike by members of the Waterside Workers' Federation (WWF) in Sydney. The Curtin Government ordered troops to ‘keep the ships moving’. Following heated argument the workers agreed to the new system and returned to work on 13 April. Due to manpower shortages on the wharves, Australian military personnel were occasionally used to load military cargo. These troops were called Docks Operating Companies and

handled excess cargo. They were paid according to the industrial award.

By 1944 labour shortages on the waterfront were critical. Responding to these shortages the Government 'released' 700 men from the Army to undertake waterfront work. However, numbers still proved insufficient, and the need to use military personnel on military cargo continued.

In May 1943 naval ratings crewed the Canberra following a dispute between the Seamen’s Union (SUA) and the Maritime Industry Commission. SUA members had refused to sail one man short.

Other industrial disputes where the use of troops was threatened Stoppages on the waterfront in January 1942 in Sydney brought the Curtin Government close to ordering Naval personnel to unload ships. In addition on 19 January the Prime Minister threatened to remove the waterside workers' exemption from military service. Union members returned to work that day.

On 8 September 1943, in response to a strike by the SUA which led to delays in shipping

coal, the Government threatened to ‘take the necessary action’ to keep the ships sailing.

The SUA also went on strike in December 1943 when the escorts for coastal shipping were removed. The Government had failed to inform the union of the new arrangements. The Prime Minister, John Curtin gave instructions that Naval ratings crew the ships, and served the Union with a National Security Order, under the National Security Act. The following day the workers voted to return to work.

Troops load ships in Melbourne, 1951 In May 1951 WWF members in Australia declared several New Zealand ships ‘black’ in solidarity with striking New Zealand waterside workers. Apart from prosecutions against the union, the Government also authorised the use of troops to load ships affected by the ban. Ships affected were the Port Halifax which was subsequently loaded by 90 soldiers in Melbourne and the Dea Mazella and Aspasia Nomiskos which were loaded by RAAF personnel after naval ratings manned tugs to berth the two freighters.

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Intervention on the Waterfront at Bowen 1953 On 2 September 1953 army troops secretly flew from Brisbane to Bowen to load ships which had been delayed because of the failure of the WWF to meet its labour quota in Bowen. This action was based on plans developed earlier by the Menzies Government in the event of major industrial upheaval. Called 'Operation Alien' it had originally been developed as a military response to the perceived threats of the Cold War period.

Consequently, waterside workers in Bowen ceased work entirely, the WWF threatened to bring out its members throughout Australia and the ACTU condemned the Government's action. Railway workers declared the wharf ‘black’ and were supported by local meat and sugar workers. The crisis was defused when the Commonwealth Government agreed to withdraw all troops and the WWF agreed to meet its quota at Bowen.

Vietnam War In April 1954 Navy and Air Force personnel loaded munitions onto the Radnor bound for French troops in Indo-China because wharfies had refused.

Disputes over loading military cargo onto the merchant ships Boonaroo and Jeparit during Australia's involvement in the Vietnam conflict led Federal Cabinet to decide that if further shipments were impeded by union action the vessels would be commissioned with Navy crews. Despite ACTU pressure the Seamen's Union refused to crew the Boonaroo. As a consequence it was commissioned into the Navy in March 1967.

In November 1969, responding to the growing public outcry against the war, and in particular the My Lai massacre, the Sydney branch of the Waterside Workers' Federation refused to unload the Jeparit. The Government responded by commissioning the Jeparit into the Navy in December 1969 and loading and

unloading was then undertaken by troops.

Amanda Biggs Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Group Information and Research Services

23 June 1998

Views expressed in this Research Note are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Information and Research Services and are not to be attributed to the Department of the Parliamentary Library. Research Notes provide concise analytical briefings on issues of interest to Senators and Members. As such they may not canvass all of the key issues. Advice on legislation or legal policy issues contained in this paper is provided for use in parliamentary debate and for related parliamentary purposes. This paper is not professional legal opinion.

© Commonwealth of Australia

This Note complements two recent IRS Publications: Troops as strikebreakers: use of the Defence Force in Industrial Action situations, which mainly discussed 'Plan Cabriole', a Defence Force plan to respond to the possible disruption of essential services; and, Call out the Troops an examination of the legal basis for Defence Force involvement in 'non-defence' matters, including industrial disputes.