Union Songs

Under the Hook

Melbourne Waterside Workers Remember: 1900-1998
Wendy Lowenstein and Tom Hills (Enlarged and updated 1998)
This article was also published in Green Left Review in 1999

Review by Mark Gregory

"The shipowners started off as pirates and they never changed. They got rich on colonialism. They transported the missionaries and the guns came later. They made their fortunes in India and China and Africa. They were in the slave trade. They paid their seamen bloody nothing, and they shanghaied them from the waterfront pubs. In most of the world they could get their ships loaded for almost nothing - some places they still can. You waited on them for work; they picked you up when they wanted you, and sacked you the minute it was raining so hard that it would damage the cargo - never mind you! They only wanted you if you were strong and docile. If you got old or sick they didn't pick you up. If you were militant they didn't pick you up. They gave you nothing."
  (Tom Hills)

Just mention the Australian wharfies to some people and they seem to lose their grip on reality. They seem to know everything about them as well, how much they earn, drink, steal. They know about their political views, their strike records, their attitude to work, their compo claims, their attitude to violence and their association with crime. In a word the wharfies are the stuff of folklore, indeed one journalist in the 1950's described the situation thus: "the nation's favourite coconut shy, the wharfie ... I read the newspapers carefully ... never since my boyhood have I seen anything that might suggest that the wharfie could occasionally be right"

These old attitudes of press and politicians and pundits were wonderfully exposed in the 1998 wharf dispute of course. Quite suddenly there was a quasi education campaign with everyone becoming experts on things like "crane rates". Maybe the term will become part of our language and people will enquire as to the crane rates of politicians and judges and even shipowners. The full story of conspiracy and illegal acts by the state is still to emerge so there is a lot to look forward to. Even the scabs have begun to complain and take action against their bosses and co-conspirators in the government. Wouldn't it be the rarest moment if Reith's political demise was secured by the actions of those he hired to smash the MUA?

How then to describe a book like "Under the Hook"? It's a history of the waterfront, a history written and told by wharfies themselves. An oral history of a work force rich in speechways. A remembering of union struggles and community actions by those who were part of them. A history of class struggle in Australia. A history that centres on what Eric Hobsbawn has called "the shortcentury" the period from the Russian revolution to the "fall of communism". "Under the Hook" encompasses all these histories from the stance of the waterside worker. By using the tape recorder as a research tool to collect historical evidence the book puts back into history the working class lives that more conventional history ignores. From this evidence we get a rich picture of growing up in Port Melbourne, looking for work in the Depression, organising to build a powerful union, fighting the scabs for a generation or more then bringing them into the union.

"Under the Hook" is great to dip into for amazing stories like the wharfies' long struggle to help the fledgling Indonesian state emerge from Dutch colonialism in the 1940's, the refusal to load pig iron bound for a war mongering Japan in the 1930's. In this book is the story of how Menzies got his lifelong nickname "Pig iron Bob", how the wharfies took on other politicians, the press, the international monopolists who owned the ships and docks so vital to Australian industry. And now the story of 1998 the Dubai conspiracy, Webb Dock, the long days and nights of pickets at Patrick docks around Australia, the court battles, industrial, state, federal and high. In these new chapters are interviews with women and men from the community picket lines, from the Melbourne union office as well as union officials and the wharfies themselves. Here too is the refreshingly unusual story of a police force unwilling to be used as a battering ram against workers.

The 1998 struggle acted as a catalyst for poster and banner production, for new bonds to be forged between unions and between unions and other organisations. Dozens of songs and poems were written and hundreds of cartoons continued the long tradition of making pompous leader writers opinions seem utterly irrelevant. A Walkley Award was the prize for journalist Pamela Williams' unravelling of the conspiracy to smash the MUA! The songs and poems have their web site (unionsong.com/), the cartoons have already been republished as a collection with introduction by Bob Ellis (War on the Wharves: Pluto Press) and Pamela Williams is writing a book. But to get to grips with the history, the taste and smell, the subversive idea of workers as history makers, you can't go past "Under the Hook"

Copies of "Under the Hook" are Available for $30 plus postage,

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