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Fremantle in slow motion: winning back the Melbourne Waterfront, 1919.

The defeat of the Waterside Workers Federation (WWF) in the great lockout at the beginning of the Depression looms large in the history of waterfront unionism in Australia. Its impact was so devastating, and the consequent rebuilding of the union under communist leadership so impressive, that the earlier defeat suffered by the wharfies in 1917 tends to shade into obscurity. A related problem is a teleological reading of the defeat in 1917 as a sort of dress rehearsal for 1928. The official history of the union by Margo Beasley, for instance, makes the point that the Permanent and Casuals (P&Cs), the scab union that played such a decisive role in the 1928 defeat, was set up in the aftermath of 1917 and that: 'Its existence affected the industrial strength of the WWF for decades to come'. (1) While it is true that the P&Cs was formed in Sydney in 1917 and maintained a membership on the Sydney waterfront throughout the 1920s, the significance of this fact is somewhat undermined by Beasley's admission that, by 1924 that membership was only eight. Moreover, there were no scabs left on Fremantle or Melbourne after 1919. (2)

What is striking, in retrospect, is not that a handful of scabs remained on the waterfront in the 1920s, but that the decisive defeat of the WWF in Fremantle, Melbourne and Sydney in 1917 was so rapidly overcome. In the immediate aftermath of 1917 there were thousands of scabs working in all three ports; scab unions had been formed and their members granted preference over members of the WWF. Yet within two years the scabs had been driven from the Fremantle and Melbourne waterfronts. How this turnaround was achieved in Fremantle is comparatively well known and documented--most recently by Oliver. (3) A spectacular riot, in which returned soldiers played a leading part, climaxed in the successful driving out of the scabs, along with the conservative premier of Western Australia, and hundreds of bayonet-wielding police. By contrast, the process by which the Melbourne wharfies rid themselves of the dreaded National Service Bureau, set up by the Federal Government in 1917, thereby also ridding themselves (or at least nullifying the influence of) the scabs it recruited, has not been established.

The two accounts of what happened in Melbourne available in the historiographical record contradict each other. Beasley states that the bureau was abolished in August 1919:
   In a small victory, Justice Higgins of the Arbitration Court
   announced in August 1919 that the Yarra Stevedoring Company's
   method of hiring labour would be abolished and that there would be
   a return to 1917 methods. (4)

However, an earlier historian of the union, Rupert Lockwood, states that 'defeated Melbourne Branch members [of the WWF] in early December 1919 resolved that they had no choice but to apply to the bureau for registration'. (5) Clearly, both accounts can't be correct. Moreover, Beasley doesn't explain why Higgins chose to abolish the bureau after two years of operation, making his decision appear as no more than an act of eccentric benevolence by an arbitration judge occasionally given to such acts. She mentions elsewhere in her narrative that the Melbourne wharfies took strike action in 1919:
   Melbourne wharf labourers, whose volume of work was severely
   depleted by the seamen's strike, staged a parallel action in the
   autumn of 1919 over the continuing existence of the labour bureau
   in the port. They wanted a reinstatement of preference, improved
   conditions, and wages to keep up with the cost of living. The
   Conciliation and Arbitration Court would not hear claims while they
   were on strike, but their actions did result in the appointment of
   the Dethridge Royal Commission into employment on the wharves. The
   Royal Commission quietened the industrial situation, but without
   giving any concessions to watersiders. (6)

Beasley is correct in stating that the Dethridge Royal Commission was a response to the industrial action taken by the Melbourne wharfies at the same time as the seamen walked off the job in May 1919. She is incorrect, however, in stating that the Commission 'quietened the industrial situation'; it did nothing of the kind. The wharfies (sensibly, in view of its ultimate negative decision) ignored the Dethridge Commission and continued their strike action. (7) The decision to abolish the bureau, which led to the return to work of the Melbourne Wharf Labourers on 2 September 1919, was not a benevolent decision of Justice Higgins; it was the recognition of an industrial victory. Nor for that matter was it a 'minor victory', though the victory was not, indeed, complete.

Three Ports in the Hands of Scabs

The industrial dilemma facing the wharfies in Fremantle, Melbourne and Sydney in 1919 was a consequence of the hard line taken by conservative state and federal governments in late 1917. The Great Strike that ripped through the eastern states of Australia in August and September of that year had provoked an almost immediate reaction from the authorities. With the enthusiastic involvement of organisations ranging from the Farmers and Settlers Association of New South Wales (NSW) to the Victorian branch of the Red Cross, thousands of 'volunteers' were recruited to crush the industrial insurgency. (8) Many, but not all, were middle-class patriots from the bush or from the better suburbs, from the universities and the senior students of the greater public schools. On the strikebound waterfronts of Sydney and Melbourne, where there was more scope for the unskilled and the inexperienced than many of the other workplaces involved in the Great Strike, scabbing was a severe problem. In the two ports, nearly a half of the normal workforce was replaced by 'volunteers'. (9)

Moreover, when the strike began to wind down in September, it became clear that at least half of the scab workforce on the waterfront was composed, not of middleclass patriots but of men who wished to remain and who, promised preference, would, if they remained, force the returning strikers to wait in line behind them at the daily call up. That is why, on the waterfront in Sydney and Melbourne, the Great Strike was transformed into a lock out--one that would last in Melbourne till early December. The wharfies eventually returned, defeated in both Sydney and Melbourne, to wait in line behind a scab workforce that numbered around a thousand in each port--about a third of the normal workforce. In Fremantle, a strike at the same time over a separate issue provoked a similar response. The West Australian government set up a bureau, modelled on the 'National Bureaus' established by the Federal Government in Sydney and Melbourne, and recruited scabs to break the strike. (10)

The defeat in all three ports was total, and the situation facing the wharfies was dire. Conservative governments, in power at both state and federal level in the three states, promised the scabs preference and protection. In Melbourne, they were given sole access to the lucrative deep-sea trade, with the added bonus that it was carried out at Victoria Dock, which was easily protected. There was, however, one strategic advantage that was to prove crucial to the wharfies. In early 1919 the waterfront of the three cities began to see returned soldiers, some who had been wharfies before they had enlisted, others who simply drifted down to the waterfront to look for casual work. It was a cause of understandable resentment that men who had endured the horrors of the Western Front should have to wait in line behind scabs who, in wartime 1917, had not enlisted.

In Fremantle this strategic advantage was taken up almost immediately by the local branch of the WWF, the Fremantle Lumpers Union. Bill Renton, the union's secretary, had lost two sons in France in the month before the Armistice. He was the ideal figure to cement an alliance between the union and the returning diggers. (11) Fremantle's remote location also helped. The federal leadership of the WWF, while they had expelled their former President, Billy Hughes, nevertheless remained committed to the industrial strategy the union had pursued under his tutelage when, in 1914, it had been granted its first federal award by Justice Higgins. Throughout 1919 the Federal Committee of Management (COM) of the WWF was engaged in an attempt to gain a second award, which would give wharfies nationally their first pay rise after five years of wartime inflation. Higgins, as part of the process, had required the union to submit a bond of 500 [pounds sterling] that it would forfeit if any of its branches took industrial action. The federal officials on the COM had urgently requested in March that the branches abstain from industrial action until the award was granted. (12) Remote from the Melbourne-based COM, the Fremantle Lumpers were far more influenced by local circumstances than the nervousness of their national leadership.

In May 1919 random violence against the 'Nationals' (the local Fremantle euphemism for the scabs) escalated into full scale industrial action when the 'Nationals' broke an agreement to enforce quarantine on the steamer, the Dimboola--this was at the height of the Spanish Influenza pandemic. The attempt by Premier Colebatch to restore order by means of police and bayonets was defeated by a mobilisation of much of the population of Fremantle, led by returned soldiers for whom the amateur bayonet practice of policemen was not much of a deterrent. One wharfie was killed, Bill Renton was injured, but the police, the premier and the scabs were driven out of Fremantle. (13)

In Melbourne the situation was more complex, but the same strategic advantage as Fremantle applied--returned soldiers were present in large numbers and they were unhappy about the preference given to the 1917 scabs. Their understandable resentment, and the readiness of returned soldiers to resolve problems with their fists, was matched by the anger of the wharfies who had begun their own war against the scabs. During the 1917 strike the WWF had counselled its Melbourne members to ignore the scabs and throughout most of that conflict this counsel of respectability was adhered to. The Age was able in August 1917 to ensure prospective 'volunteers' that the Athenaeum, the venue chosen to enlist scabs, was safe as 'the wharf labourers as a body, acting on the advice of their leaders, will shun the locality'. (14) By late October, deep into the lockout phase of the dispute, respectability was abandoned and outbreaks of violence occurred. By the time the Melbourne wharfies returned, bitterly defeated, on 6 December 1917, a determination to drive the scabs from the waterfront by any means was apparent. The day after they returned to work, the secretary of the scab union wrote in complaint to the Commissioner of Police that the wharfies had started to 'terrorise and interfere' with his members. (15)

It is not surprising then that the news in early May 1919 of the victory in Fremantle had a galvanising effect on the Melbourne Wharf Labourers Union, which now had about 400 returned servicemen amongst its approximately 3,000 members. (16) The Age warned on 15 May:
   Developments that occurred yesterday indicate that trouble similar
   to that which happened at Fremantle within the last few weeks is
   impending ... It is said that the loyalists, most of whom did not don
   khaki during the war, have been getting preference to the exclusion
   of returned soldiers who are members of the Wharf Laborers' Union.

The involvement of returned soldiers is further attested to by a complaint made by the president of the Melbourne sub-branch of the Returned Sailors and Soldiers Imperial League that:
   an attempt was being made by a certain section of the unionists on
   the wharves to use the returned soldier as a 'tool' to get rid of
   the 'loyalists' ... he had actively [sic] seen returned soldiers
   being 'egged' on to attack 'loyalists' on the wharves. One man,
   wearing a returned soldier's badge, had thrown a 'loyalist' into
   the river. He had seen others assault several 'loyalists'. The
   unionists had loudly applauded, but they took care to keep out of
   the brawl themselves. (18)

The belief that now was the time to escalate this campaign of violence into full-scale industrial warfare was also encouraged by the seamen's strike, which was about to begin. Despite their extreme reluctance to engage in industrial action, the officials of the WWF were forced to call a mass meeting on 18 May 1919, where the Melbourne secretary of the union advised against taking action until it was clear what would happen with the seamen. (19) The implication of his argument, that the wharfies and the seamen should act together, was sufficient to win the day against action. As it happened, all attempts to link the wharfies and seamen foundered on the hostility of the federal officials of the WWF (and some of the Victorian officials as well) to direct action in general and to the Seamens Union's new radical leader, Tom Walsh, in particular. (20) The absence of a strike vote or collaboration between the officials from the two unions proved, however, to be no barrier to joint action on the ground. The officials might have been hostile to the idea of taking action, but they were unable to prevent it. (21)

The lack of work on the waterfront caused by the seamen's strike, when it began on 21 May, strengthened the position of the established wharfies by discouraging many of the scabs. They now had little incentive to defy a campaign of intimidation and remain on the waterfront, when all they gained in return was a trickle of work. More importantly, once the seaman had struck, the wharfies were faced with a choice that mirrored the choice faced by the seamen in 1917, when they had struck rather than work with waterfront scabs. (22) As the seamen had in 1917, the wharfies in 1919 made that decision independently of their officials; they chose not to unload the strike-bound ships. Moreover, emboldened by the victory in Fremantle, by the seamen's strike, and by the presence of veteran soldiers in their ranks, they turned the harassment of the scabs into outright warfare. Already by 21 May, the day the seamen began walking off inter-state vessels in Melbourne, (23) the Age reported that four scabs had been hospitalised and that the wharfies had 'succeeded in driving the "loyalists" away from the vessels on which they were working'. (24) The way in which they refused to work the ships was described vividly:
   Though efforts have been made to cloak the fact, it is evident from
   what had occurred during the past few days that a state of strike
   exists as far as the unionist wharf labourers are concerned. On
   Tuesday [20 May] some of the members of the Wharf Laborer's Union
   were engaged to assist in loading the Grace Darling at No. 11 shed
   on the North Wharf, but when the time for starting work arrived
   some of them called upon the 'dinkum' unionists to stand aside and
   they would see the 'scum of the earth'. The unionists stood aside,
   and the 'loyalists', being intimidated, left the vessel. (25)

The intimidation of the scabs was not always so easy. On 23 May, 17 scabs were working on the steamer Monaro, on the South Wharf. They were attacked by a group of wharfies who threw coal and coke at them as they worked. The arrival of 20 police restored order, but not for long.
   It is related that subsequently a crowd of about 400 unionists
   visited the locality, and made overtures to the 'loyalists'.
   Intermediaries informed them that if they ceased work without delay
   they would be given a free passage to their homes, but that if they
   did not take advantage of the offer no quarter would be shown them.

Not surprisingly, the scabs took up the offer of a safe passage home. That same day a crowd of 1,000 strikers 'and women' marched to Trades Hall (which the Age described as a 'storm chamber'); they were addressed by their officials and by Jenny Baines of the Victorian Socialist Party, and a motion demanding the abolition of the bureau was passed. (27) By the end of May the police had redoubled their efforts, protecting one group of scabs with a baton charge. (28) The special constables sworn in 1917 were recalled to duty and efforts were made to house the scabs at the waterfront. The wartime enthusiasm that had helped recruit the special constables appears, however, to have waned. The Police Commissioner complained bitterly that, of the five hundred special constables who had been sworn in in 1917, only 50 had reported for duty and, as the rest had not returned their batons, it was impossible to enroll any more. (29) It is not surprising, then, that the belated police mobilisation proved to be too little too late. Most of the scabs were gone, never to return; from around one thousand in December 1917, their numbers had dwindled to two hundred by the beginning of June 1919. (30) Thirty of these abandoned the waterfront formally in June, explaining their reasons thus:
   we cannot return to the wharf for work under the present conditions
   owing to there being too many men for the work provided. That a
   large number of the loyalists have never received a living wage,
   which we can prove by the Yarra Stevedoring books and dockets. In
   the interests of industrial peace we have decided to withdraw from
   the wharfs. (31)

Towards the end of the seamen's strike in early August, the remaining 170 members of the scab union were reduced to approaching the Wharf Labourers Union for assistance in getting compensation in return for leaving the waterfront. As the Age related:
   The original loyalists, of whom there are about 170, have made
   representations to the Melbourne Wharf Labourers' Union that they
   are anxious for a reconciliation, and are willing to leave the
   wharfs, but consider that if they do so they should receive some
   compensation from the Government. The assistance of the Wharf
   Labourers' Union to this end solicited and an interview was
   accordingly arranged ... with Mr. Tudor, leader of the Federal
   Labor Party. (32)

As it became clear that the seamen were about to score a stunning victory, the prospect of the waterfront in Melbourne remaining paralysed by striking wharfies loomed as a serious concern. This industrial reality was underscored by the leak to the Age of the fact that the Dethridge Commission was not going to recommend the abolition of the bureau. (33) The wharfies had no choice now but to rely on their industrial strength. Fortunately, with Victoria starved of coal, and all but a handful of demoralised scabs driven from the docks, they were in a winning position. On 26 August, as the seamen finally returned to work, the Melbourne Wharf Labourers held a mass meeting which resolved to accept the badges of the 'Original Loyalist Association' but only on condition that the bureau be abolished. (34) This apparent reconciliation, however, didn't prevent a group of wharfies from wrecking the offices of the Loyalist Association later that day. (35) The following day negotiations began with the acting Prime Minister, and on 2 September the Melbourne wharfies returned, with preference restored and the bureau abolished. (36) The deal appears to have been organised by the same 'round table' mechanism as was used to end the seamen's dispute, bypassing not only Higgins, but the Arbitration Court, the acting Prime Minister dealing directly with the union and the employers. Hughes had bypassed Higgins to resolve the 1916 coal strike by appointing a more compliant judge to capitulate to the miners' demands. By 1919, the government was bypassing the arbitration court altogether. In the case of the seamen, this mechanism had been made necessary by Higgins' insistence that he would not provide arbitration if the union was on strike. The seamen's strike was widely understood as a strike against the principle of arbitration, and Higgins' was unwilling to have anything to do with recognising their industrial victory. With Victoria starved of coal, the government had to end the strike--hence the decision to bypass the stubborn Higgins. (37) It is hardly surprising that when the wharfies declared their intention, the day the seamen's strike ended, to maintain their own strike and thus continue to deprive Victoria of coal, the round table was immediately revived and, after less than a week, a capitulation to the wharfies' demands expediently arranged. As the Age reported:
   The abolition of the bureau in Melbourne and the return to the old
   picking up points on the wharfs has, naturally, given considerable
   satisfaction to the members of the Melbourne Wharf Labourers'
   Union. (38)

The fact that the abolition of the bureau was won by direct action and not granted by Justice Higgins is important. (39) The defiance of arbitration by the Seamens Union in 1919 was deliberate and provocative. The hostility to Tom Walsh displayed by WWF officials was probably enhanced by the fact that the WWF was engaged throughout 1919 in attempting to gain another award from Higgins. As noted above, the COM had urged the WWF branches to avoid industrial action. The fact that the members of the Melbourne branch were willing to defy the will of their federal officials and take direct action, and that by doing so they won a stunning victory, is clearly significant.

In Sydney, however, the situation was much grimmer for the WWF. As in Melbourne, the scabs had been given a virtual monopoly of the lucrative deep-sea trade. Unlike in Fremantle or Melbourne, the arrival of returned soldiers on the waterfront had not been of benefit to the unionists. The returned soldiers in Sydney had set up their own union, the Returned Service Association (RSA) and, by June 1919 were as fed up with having to wait in line for work behind the scabs (who in Sydney were organised by the Permanent and Casuals Union) as had their comrades in Melbourne and Fremantle. Several hundred returned soldiers marched to the Premier's office to complain about the lack of work on the waterfront, which they blamed partly on the fact that the 'Permanents' were willing to work for below-award wages--something the returned servicemen would not stoop to. (40) They also approached the Sydney branch of the WWF with a view to amalgamation. Yet this promising opportunity could not be grasped. There was an obstacle in the path to unity, Timothy McCristal, the secretary of the NSW branch of the WWF, whose penchant for ultra-left rhetoric had resulted in his arrest in 1917. (41) He was at it again in January 1919 with a speech in which he described the returned soldiers on the waterfront as 'the diarrhoea class who only got as far as Cairo'. (42) When, later in 1919, the returned servicemen approached the local WWF branch for talks, the negotiations foundered on the mutual mistrust between McCristal and the leaders of the RSA. (43)

Complementing McCristal's inopportune ultra-left rhetoric was the desire of Joe Morris (the union's Federal Secretary) and the national COM of the WWF to avoid a strike in Sydney. The instruction by the COM in March to abstain from industrial action was noted without dissent in the minutes of the Sydney branch. (44) McCristal's radicalism clearly had limits, and confronting Joe Morris was beyond them. (45) Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that he preferred to display his radicalism in front of receptive crowds in the Domain rather than in the more demanding arena of industrial struggle. A contrast between verbal radicalism and industrial timidity was a feature of a number of left-wing officials in Sydney at this time. (46) Without an effective alliance with the returned soldiers, and with an official bar on industrial action, the scabs remained in Sydney. (47) It was not until 1924 that, as an indirect result of industrial action taken by the South Australian Labour Council and the Seamens Union, preference was removed from the P&Cs on the deep-sea vessels in Sydney harbour, and all but eight members of the scab union were absorbed into the WWF. (48)

The WWF COM had decreed against industrial action on the Sydney waterfront, and was aided by McCristal's alienation of the returned servicemen. In order to appease Justice Higgins, Sydney was quarantined from the virus that had infected Fremantle and Melbourne. Even in Melbourne, the victory was not as complete as it might have been. There was no compensation for the 170 scabs and they were forced to remain on the waterfront, albeit without preference. When the Melbourne wharfies moved to remove this remnant by industrial action in October, they incurred the wrath of Justice Higgins who threatened to vary the new award and exclude Melbourne wharfies from the pay rise. (49) The action was abandoned and the handful of scabs remained, albeit without the bureau, competing for work with the WWF members on an equal basis. On 13 October Justice Higgins delivered the sought-after new award for the wharfies; it provided an increase in the hourly rate from 1/9 to 2/3. (50) The extra sixpence per hour represented a 28.5 per cent increase that Higgins, incorrectly, considered to match the increase in the cost of living since 1914. The Piddington Royal Commission, which reported in 1920, established that the actual increase in the cost of living from 1914 to 1919 (averaging the figures for NSW and Victoria) was 66 per cent. (51) The wharfies had therefore curtailed their successful campaign to drive the scabs from the ports, and abjured any notion of seeking a wage rise by direct action. They did this in order to secure an award that neither restored preference (although it had been restored unofficially everywhere except Sydney) nor offset, to any substantial degree, the dramatic decline in real wages they had suffered during the war.

An Incomplete Victory

Nevertheless, the fundamental industrial battle had been won in Fremantle and Melbourne. The scabs had been banished from Fremantle, and the scab presence in Melbourne had been reduced to a demoralised and intimidated rump; denied preference, it would soon wither away to nothing. Only in Sydney were scabs still present, though as mentioned above, they too were to lose preference in 1924 and were thereby reduced to an insignificant remnant of only eight. Yet an assessment of the industrial situation on the waterfront after 1919 must go further than the presence of scabs. Apart from taking work from union members, the scabs weakened the ability of unions to win industrial gains for their members. A further question needs to be posed: what did the WWF achieve as a result of its improved industrial situation?

We have already seen that in October 1919 the wharfies were granted an award that failed to make up the losses in real wages produced by the wartime (and postwar) inflationary surge. To place this in perspective it is useful to compare the wharfies' performance to the seamen and the coal miners. The comparison is valid because all three groups of workers possessed in 1919 the same strategic advantage--they controlled the production and transport of coal. In the era of steam, coal remained the fundamental energy resource--without it virtually everything ground to a halt. Most of the coal used in Australia was mined in NSW, transported to the other states by ship, and unloaded by wharfies. The coal surpluses that had enabled the NSW government to ride out the 1917 strike had disappeared by 1919. In this situation, the mere threat of industrial action in the NSW coal mines was sufficient to win a wage rise, which was granted on 3 May 1919 by order of the Acting Prime Minister. (52) The seamen's strike began later that same month and won a total victory by early August. The wharfies, as we have seen, chose not to follow the example of the miners and seamen (with the exception of the Melbourne strike against the bureau) and instead allowed the Arbitration Commission to determine their wages. Figure 1 charts the percentage increase in the wage rates of the three groups of workers between 1914 and 1919, compared to the percentage increase in the cost of living, as estimated by the Piddington Royal Commission in 1920.


The most substantial increases that stand out in Figure 1 are the two recorded in 1917 and 1919 for the miners (the '1917' increase was granted in January 1917 as a result of the 1916 coal strike) and those awarded in 1915, 1918 and 1919 to the seamen. Apart from the rise achieved by the seamen's strike in 1919 (surprisingly, for such a famous victory, still slightly below the rate of inflation) the two rises that fell below the rate of inflation, the miners' rise in January 1916 and the wharfies' in October 1919, were both awarded by Justice Higgins. He appears to have served the Seamens Union somewhat better with rises above the rate of inflation in 1915 and 1918. However, in this case, using 1914 as a base point is deceptive, as the Award granted the Seamen in 1915 was their first wage rise since 1911. A chart comparing their wage rate to the cost of living rise between 1911 and 1919 would depict all these increases as below the increase in the cost of living. This probably explains why the seamen were still disappointed with Higgins' 1918 award--a disappointment which played a role in the accession of Walsh to the union's leadership in January 1919. (53)

Despite this cavil, however, it is clear that the seamen performed better than the wharfies in maintaining their wage rates over this inflationary period and that the coal miners certainly did so. This is most dramatically the case, moreover, in 1919, the year in which the cost of living increased the most. In 1919 the wharfies had defied Higgins twice, and driven scabs from two ports as a consequence. It is hard not to conclude that they would have done better to follow the example of the coal miners and seamen, and fight for a wage rise outside of arbitration. Given the strategic situation--the absence of coal stocks and the removal of the threat of mass scabbing--it would be hard to imagine a better opportunity to regain the losses they had sustained since 1914. Instead they achieved in 1919 an incomplete industrial victory.

An industrial stalemate over waterfront wages was confirmed in 1922 when Judge Powers finally granted an automatic quarterly cost-of-living adjustment of the pay rates of wharfies. This would have come in handy during the inflationary period of the war, and to workers who had had to wait from 1914 till 1919 for a wage rise it, no doubt, appeared as a massive step forward. Unfortunately it was granted only after the inflationary period had ended--a cynical interpretation would be that it was granted precisely because the inflationary period had ended. Indeed, the second adjustment awarded in May 1923 actually reduced the hourly rate by a halfpenny. (54) More importantly, by accepting indexation, the wharfies were accepting that the real wage cut they had suffered between 1914 and 1919 would not be reversed. Further cuts or increases in real wages were ruled out, and the stalemate was broken by an employers' offensive. It is hard not to see parallels with the waterfront in 1998, when the MUA successfully disposed of another group of scabs, but where the victory won on the ground was lessened by conditions conceded in the final negotiations.


The existing historiography of the Australian waterfront has been coloured by a fundamental misconception. For Lockwood, the wharfies' involvement in the 1917 strike was an episode of mindless militancy, doomed to failure as the rank and file of the WWF failed to heed the sage advice of their federal officials, Morris in particular. By failing to mention the abolition of the Melbourne bureau, let alone the manner in which it was achieved, he gives the impression--despite at least one statement to the contrary (55)--that the union continued to suffer from scabbing throughout the 1920s. Beasley, by downplaying the victory in Melbourne and misrepresenting it as a benevolent act of Justice Higgins, has, albeit in a slightly different way, reinforced this misconception. An understanding of what actually happened on the Melbourne waterfront in 1919 challenges this historiographical consensus; in fact it turns it on its head.

The participation of the wharfies in Melbourne and Sydney in the 1917 strike is portrayed by both Beasley and Lockwood as an unmitigated disaster and, it is easy to see why they drew that conclusion. The strike was defeated, preference was abolished and scab unions were ensconced in the two ports as well as Fremantle (due to the contemporary defeat of another dispute). Lockwood goes further to paint a picture of unthinking militancy in 1917 contrasted to the strategic wisdom of the WWF's General Secretary, Joe Morris:
   Joe Morris had been telling them for weeks. There wasn't a hope of
   winning the strike with volunteers to spare ... Through the bleak
   month of October the rank-and-file rejected his advice: their
   judgement had become as blinkered as their fighting spirit was
   redoubtable. (56)

There are problems with this description of the 1917 strike. (57) It is even less useful if one is to understand the significance of the events of 1919. In 1919, Morris and the COM were again faced with a membership that was keen to take industrial action, in this case to remove the bureaus and the remaining scabs. As we have see, the officials were just as keen to avoid industrial action, but in the case of Fremantle and Melbourne, the action went ahead. Here, however, the comparison with 1917 ends.

In 1919 the 'blinkered' militants won two stunning victories. Moreover, the way in which the abolition of the bureau in Melbourne was won, less than a week after the end of the seamen's strike, is testament to the unparalleled strategic position of the wharfies in August 1919. With Victoria starved of coal, the abolition of the bureau was easily achieved. In these conditions it is hard to imagine that direct action over wages would not have delivered a better outcome than the substantial real wage cut inherent in the award granted by Justice Higgins later that month--the award for which the COM were so desperate to avoid industrial action. That wage cut was then set in ice by the introduction of a form of indexation in 1922, until the lockout of 1928 once again transformed the industrial situation. (58)

Instead, then, of a picture of a waterfront in which the WWF was restrained by the continuing presence of scabs, a consequence of mindless militancy

in 1917, we have the reality of an incomplete victory in 1919 that had negative implications for wharfies' living standards throughout the 1920s. Only in this case it was not militancy, but its absence which was the problem.


* The author thanks the two Labour History anonymous referees for their asistance.

(1.) Margo Beasley, Wharfies: A History of the Waterside Workers' Federation of Australia, Sydney, Halstead Press, 1996, p. 52.

(2.) Ibid., pp. 62-84.

(3.) Bobbie Oliver, War and Peace in Western Australia: The Social Impact of the Great War 1914-1926, Nedlands, UWA Press, 1995, pp. 70-76.

(4.) Beasley, Wharfies, p. 62.

(5.) Rupert Lockwood, Ship to Shore: A History of Melbourne's Waterfront and its Union Struggles, Sydney, Hale & Iremonger, 1990, p. 191.

(6.) Beasley, Wharfies, pp. 53-4.

(7.) Beasley's source for this is an article in Labour History: Richard Morris, 'Justice Higgins scuppered: the 1919 seamen's strike', Labour History, no. 37, Nov. 1979, pp. 52-62, p. 58: 'The Waterside Workers' Federation had been engaged in a parallel but separate strike in the autumn of 1919, but the appointment in June of a Royal Commission under Mr. Justice Detheridge [sic] to review stevedoring labour relations had temporarily tranquilised the wharf employers.'

(8.) Age, 21 August 1917, p. 6, reports a meeting of 'soldiers & volunteers of the Red Cross movement' at Prahran Town Hall voting to lend its support to the government. The scabbing operation in New South Wales actually began with an offer of support from the Farmers and Settlers Association (see Sydney Morning Herald, 14 August 1917, p. 7).

(9.) See R. Bollard, 'The Active Chorus': The Mass Strike of 1917 in Eastern Australia, PhD thesis, History Department, Victoria University, 2008, pp. 99-111, for a complex discussion of the number of scabs on both waterfronts.

(10.) Sun (Sydney), 25 August 1917, p. 6: 'The [West Australian] Government is determined to fight the strikers. Offices for recording the names of volunteers for national service have been opened in Perth and Fremantle.'

(11.) Minutes, Fremantle Branch of Waterside Workers Federation (WWF): 29 September 1918, Australian National University (ANU), Noel Butlin Archives Centre (NBAC), N28/6: 'Mr Renton explained that the object of calling members together was to explain to them that at present it appears that a good deal of dissatisfaction exists in connection with the method of engaging labour for work on the wharf, Returned Soldiers were treated in a most shameful manner by the Employers'; 28 October 1918, the minutes contain a motion of condolence to Renton on the loss of his two sons at the front; 25 November 1918, a delegation from the Returned Soldiers Association was greeted with a motion that 'our books are still open'.

(12.) Minutes of Sydney Branch, WWF, 3 March 1919, ANU, NBAC, WWF Papers, Z248/Box 98.

(13.) Oliver, War and Peace in Western Australia, pp. 70-76.

(14.) Age, 21 August 1917, p. 5.

(15.) Police Department, Inwards Correspondence, Letter to Chief Commissioner from Australian Wharf Workers Association, 7 December 1917, Victorian Public Records Service (VPRS), 807/ P0000/624, File W9850: 'As you are no doubt aware the members of the Wharf Lumpers' Union decided to register their names for employment through the Yarra Stevedoring Company. Now, the fact is, that having done so, they have already started to terrorise and interfere with members of the Association which is formed from the National Volunteers. Only to-day a case of brutal assault came under our notice, the injured person having to be taken to the hospital.'

(16.) Age, 15 May 1919, p. 7.

(17.) Ibid.

(18.) Age, 21 May 1919, p. 5.

(19.) Age, 19 May 1919, p. 8.

(20.) WWF Federal Committee of Management (COM) Minutes, 14 June 1919, ANU, NBAC, WWF Papers, T62/1/1: 'T.R. Clarke said ... that he had taken the risk of going to that meeting as a representative of the COM of the WWF and that he did not believe in any Branch entering into agreements without first consulting the COM of the WWF and that the Federation would have been involved in the strike if he had not been present at that conference [of the Melbourne Wharfies and the Seamen's Union]'; 12 July 1919, 'Mr F. Riley in addressing the Committee said ... his Committee [Melbourne Branch] had been able to keep the members from declaring a strike'.

(21.) WWF COM Minutes, 19 May 1919, ANU, NBAC, WWF Papers, T62/1/1: After a discussion of the dispute over the bureau in Melbourne, the COM moved 'that the Federation forbid any branch taking any action in reference to strikes, without the consent of the WWF'. It is not entirely clear what the attitude of the Melbourne officials was as the Victorian Branch's minutes are not available. However, to the extent that their attitude is discussed in the COM minutes, they appear also to have been opposed to any action.

(22.) R. Bollard, 'The Active Chorus': the great strike of 1917 in Victoria', Labour History, no. 90, May 2006, p. 80.

(23.) Age, 20 May 1919, p. 7, records that the crews of 20 vessels in Melbourne gave 24-hour notice that they would quit.

(24.) Age, 21 May 1919, p. 9.

(25.) Age, 22 May 1919, p. 7.

(26.) Age, 24 May 1919, p. 13.

(27.) Age, 23 May 1919, p. 7.

(28.) Age, 28 May 1919, p. 9.

(29.) Police Department, Inwards Correspondence, letter from Police Commissioner to V.B. Trapp, 26 May 1919, VPRS, 677/P000/94.

(30.) Age, 2 June 1919, p. 7.

(31.) Age, 10 June 1919, p. 7.

(32.) Age, 1 August 1917, p. 7.

(33.) Age, 16 August 1919, p. 4.

(34.) Age, 27 August 1919, p. 10.

(35.) Ibid.

(36.) Age, 28 August, p. 8.

(37.) Morris, 'Justice Higgins scuppered', p. 61.

(38.) Age, 3 September 1919, p. 10.

(39.) Beasley's statement that Higgins abolished the bureau is not cited; the only sources she cites for Melbourne in 1919 are Lockwood and Morris, neither of whom could be the source for this. The Age and Argus both describe the abolition as the consequence of direct negotiations managed my Senator Mullin, apparently modeled on the negotiations Mullin carried out to end the Seamen's strike (to Higgins' extreme annoyance; see Morris, 'Justice Higgins scuppered', pp. 58-60). The Argus makes this even clearer by recording transcripts of Higgins presiding over the WWF's application for an Award (which was occurring simultaneously). At one point (see Argus 28 August 1919, p. 7) an employers' representative raises the strike over the Bureau and Higgins is recorded as dismissing it as none of his business: 'This is really a struggle with the Government: it is not for me, I admit that'. The records of the Arbitration Commission, in any case, contain no record of a decision by Higgins or any other judge regarding the Bureau; see National Archives of Australia (NAA), 'Bound Transcripts of proceedings and rulings in cases heard by the Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration, NAA/B1958 and 'Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration disputes case files', NAA/B207. The final proof is the report in the Argus, 3 September 1919, p. 9 which quotes Senator Millen announcing the terms of the strike settlement to the press as a consequence of his successful negotiations.

(40.) Sydney Morning Herald, 7 June 1919, p. 7.

(41.) Sydney Morning Herald, 1 September 1917, p. 12, records the offending 1917 speech: 'All kings, governors, bosses, and parliamentarians are parasites fattening on the backs of the workers. These parasites on our back will not suffer in wages or wealth through the strike. Now, men, what would you do with a bug or a flea if you found one under your shirt? (A voice from the crowd called out "Kill it!") Yes, that is the answer, and we have to destroy the parasites who are living on the backs of the workers'.

(42.) Report of speech by 'Sergeant McCristal, a returned soldier' in the Domain, 12 January 1919, details the full quote (clearly indicating a certain eccentricity): 'He further stated that a lot of the men that were in the Returned Soldiers' Union were not soldiers; they were only the low diarrhoea class that got as far as Cairo, and deserted, lived under means not mentionable. He favoured Bolshevism and a Republic of Australia and the One Big Union. He told the people not to put any politician into Parliament that was a Free Mason'. NSW State Archives (NSA), 7/5588.1, Police Special Bundles,

(43.) Minutes of Sydney Branch, WWF, 9 April 1919, ANU, NBAC, WWF Papers, Z248/Box 98, records the approach made by the RSA. 7 May 1919 records McCristal's denial that he had said that 'the Returned Soldiers ... were six bob a day murderers, scabs and mongrels'. The minutes continue to relate a messy and drawn out series of negotiations without a conclusion, marked by recriminations, mostly focussing on McCristal.

(44.) Minutes of Sydney Branch, WWF, 3 March 1919 ANU, NBAC, WWF Papers, Z248/Box 98.

(45.) It is probably significant that McCristal was willing to defy the COM on another issue. Minutes of the Sydney Branch of the WWF, 28 August 1918, ANU, NBAC, WWF Papers, Z248/Box 98, noted correspondence from Joe Morris 'stating that the Committee of Management had instructed him to ask all Branches to refrain from negotiations about the One Big Union scheme'. McCristal was happy to ignore this request. He was heavily involved in the One Big Union scheme and later served on the provisional executive of Willis's short-lived Industrial Socialist Labour Party. Defiance of the COM on a political issue was easier than on an industrial question, which underlines that McCristal was more given to radical rhetoric than industrial militancy.

(46.) See, for instance, Miriam Dixson, Reformists and Revolutionaries: An Interpretation of the Relations Between the Socialists and the Mass Labour Organizations in New South Wales 1919-27, with specific reference to Sydney, PhD thesis, ANU, 1965, p. 139, for a discussion of just such a contrast with regard to the 'Trades Hall Reds'.

(47.) Despite the lack of industrial action on the Sydney waterfront in 1919, there is evidence that the general political radicalisation had had an impact on the wharfies, quite apart from McCristal's rhetoric. A police report from 3 December 1918, NSA, Police Department, Special Bundles, 7/5588.1, records a lunchtime meeting held by ex-Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) prisoner Monty Miller and his daughter for the Industrial Labour Party (one of the attempts to revive the IWW under another name) which was attended by 'several hundred wharf labourers'. Also, Minutes of Sydney Branch, WWF, 25 June 1919, ANU, NBAC, WWF Papers, Z248/Box 98, record a visit by two delegates from the Fremantle branch of the union who related the story of their victory the previous month and 'urged that some steps similar to those adopted in Fremantle should be taken here to get the returned men to link up with the Federation'. The leaders of the Sydney Branch were, it appears, given every opportunity to learn from the lesson of Fremantle's victory. They seem to have been unable or unwilling to do so.

(48.) Beasley, Wharfies, p. 64.

(49.) Age, 21 September 1919, p. 7.

(50.) Untitled document recording history of award increases for waterfront workers, ANU, NBAC, WWF Papers, Z248/Box 120.

(51.) Report of the Commission on the Basic Wage, Together With Evidence, Melbourne, Federal Parliament, 1920, National Library of Australia (NLA), W.M. Hughes Papers, MS1538, Series 18, p. 4, provides separate figures for the cost of living rises in each state, but no national figure. The figure of 66 per cent is an average of the two figures for NSW and Victoria (which were close to each other in each of these years).

(52.) 'Position on the Northern Coalfield of New South Wales May 1929' (Northern Collieries Association), p. 14, 'Daily Wage Rates', ANU, NBAC, Australasian Coal and Shale Employees Federation (ACSEF) papers, E165/10/9, gives the date of the order as 3 May 1919.

(53.) The Piddington Royal Commission of 1920 (See Endnote 50), provided the figures for the cost of living, represented in Figure 1 as an average of the two figures for Melbourne and Sydney.

'Position on the Northern Coalfield of New South Wales May 1929' (Northern Collieries Association), p. 14, 'Daily Wage Rates', ANU, NBAC, ACSEF papers, E165/10/9, provided the figures for the coal miners, it painstakingly records every national wage increase awarded the miners over this period. Brian Fitzgerald & Rowan J. Cahill, Seamen's Union of Australia, Melbourne, Seamen's Union of Australia, 1981, pp. 46-52, provided the figures for the seamen.

An untitled document recording history of award increases for waterfront workers, ANU, NBAC, WWF Papers, Z248/Box 120, provided the figures for the wharfies. While it is untitled, this document (from the context in which it is found and from internal evidence) appears to have been produced around the time of the 1928 lockout. It also records every wage increase from the 1914 Federal Award up until that time.

(54.) Untitled document recording history of award increases for waterfront workers, ANU, NBAC, WWF Papers, Z248/Box 120.

(55.) Lockwood, Ship to Shore, p. 187, in an introductory section actually states that: 'The post-war decade between the German surrender to the Allies and the onset of the Great Depression saw another miracle--the restoration of union power on the Melbourne waterfront'. Unfortunately, the narrative which follows does not describe anything of the kind--the fact that he appears to suggest that the bureau continued to exist right up to 1928, in particular, belies this statement.

(56.) Lockwood, Ship to Shore, p. 167.

(57.) See, for instance, R. Bollard, '"The Active Chorus": the great strike of 1917 in Victoria', Labour History, no. 90, May 2006, pp. 77-94.

(58.) A necessary qualification to this observation is that the hourly wage rate was not the sole determinant of wharfies' living standards. As wharfies were effectively casual, the amount of work available was equally important. However, for the most of the 1920s, the rate of economic growth was lower than it had been in the pre-war period, and in 1919, when a short-term economic boom prevailed, a combination of the seamen's strike and the post-war shortage of shipping limited the amount of work available. Other mechanisms which could have been influenced rates of pay at local levels: dirt money, payment for difficult cargoes etc, may also have had some mitigating effect in some ports at some times, but it is hard to imagine that such mechanisms could have substantially compensated for such a dramatic cut in the base hourly rate.

Robert Bollard *

Robert Bollard recently completed a PhD on the Great Strike and is currently teaching history at Victoria University.

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Author:Bollard, Robert
Publication:Labour History: A Journal of Labour and Social History
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Nov 1, 2009
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