Union Songs

Peace is Union Business

Mark Gregory (February 2003)

In the 1914 to 1918 slaughter we now call the First World War, Australian unions were among a number of organisations that attempted to stop the war and did successfully stop conscription. The Wobblies played a leading role in that opposition and many of them were jailed for years. Soldiers returning home often became militant union organisers who hated war and hated those who profited from it in particular. Alex Campbell "the last Anzac" was just such a fighter, as pointed out by Workers Online at the time of his death last year. Unions and peace activities have a long history.

In the 1930s workers faced the depression, fascism and the next push to war. In November 1938 wharfies in Port Kembla NSW refused to load the Dalfram, a ship carrying BHP pig-iron to Japan. Their action earned them wide support in a community fearful of Imperial Japanese war plans. It also earned wharfies the undying hatred of the "born to rule" conservatives, including Robert Menzies who wore the nickname "Pig-Iron Bob" for the rest of his life as this song explains:

The Pig Iron Song

MP3 track

©1964 Clem Parkinson

It was 1937 and aggressive Japanese
Attacked the Chinese people tried to bring them to their knees
Poorly armed and ill equiped the peasants bravely fought
While Australian water siders rallied round to lend support

Attorney General Menzies said the ship would have to sail
"If the men refuse to load it we will throw them into jail"
But our unity was strong - we were solid to a man
And we wouldn't load pig-iron for the fascists of Japan

In the Vietnam war the then Federal Government deliberately tied Australian troops to United States war plans. Menzies lied to parliament and the Australian people. "Peace is Union Business" was the slogan coined by unions opposed to that war. The government and press supported the war but still failed to get popular support. Sound familiar?

In Sydney members of the Seamen's Union (SUA) refused to crew the Boonaroo, a ship of war materials to Vietnam. The government ended up using the navy to sail the ship. You can hear an historic recording of the song sung by SUA member Geoff Wills in the 1960s in this MP3 track.


©Don Henderson 1967

Oh, who will man the Boonaroo?
Who will sail her, be the crew,
sailing on the Boonaroo?

Is there food and is there store
to feed the hungry, clothe the poor?
In this world their number isn't few.
In her cargo would you find
any way for one mankind,
sailing on the Boonaroo.

Is there bandage by the reel?
Is there medicine to heal?
Christ knows, there's healing work to do.
In her cargo would you find
any way for one mankind,
sailing on the Boonaroo?

Would the hull be filled
with material to build,
perhaps a bridge for a world that's split in two?
In her cargo would you find
any way for one mankind,
sailing on the Boonaroo?

Or jam packed in the hold
is there grief and death untold
and asked "Why?" have to answer true.
In her cargo would you find
any way for one mankind,
sailing on the Boonaroo?

The Vietnam Songbook (Barbara Dane and Irwin Silber, 1969) is full of songs from many countries around the world and Boonaroo was one of nine Australian songs in the collection.

Perhaps the most famous "Vietnam War" song of all was the "Country Joe and the Fish" song called "Fixin' to Die Rag". This song seemed to sweep around the world and was taken up by many of the troops sent to Vietnam.

And it's one, two, three,
What are we fighting for?
Don't ask me, I don't give a damn,
Next stop is Vietnam;
And it's five, six, seven,
Open up the pearly gates,
Well there ain't no time to wonder why,
Whoopee! we're all gonna die.

You can listen to the original on Country Joe's web site at

With the growing world movement opposing the United States war on Iraq there's a new crop of anti-war songs, and no surprise that one is a new parody of "Fixin to Die", Perhaps "Son of a Bush" will enter the language just like "Pig-Iron Bob" did!

The Iraqi War Song

(or Feel Like I'm Smelling a Rat Rag)
A song by Country Bumpkin and the Hogs©2002
Come on all of you dumbed down men,
that son of a Bush needs your help again.
He's got himself in a terrorist jam,
when daddy sent chemicals off to old Saddam.
So roll up your sleeves for vaccines in your arm,
they don't tell you that they're doin' you harm

And its one, two, three, what are we fighting for?
Most know it's the same old scam,
next stop is old Baghdad.
And it's five, six, seven, open up the pearly gates.
Well, we've got no mind to question why,
whoopee, we're all gonna die

I found this song on the web at

That "Peace is Union Business" is already clear from the growing anti-war demonstrations in towns and cities throughout Australia. John "Dubya" Howard may think he's tied our troops to the Stars and Stripes but millions are determined he wont have his way.

As ACTU President Sharan Burrow told the Sydney demonstration in November "People ask me why the unions would get involved in this debate. The answer is simple - it is working men and women and their children who bear the brutal brunt of war. Economies are destroyed, jobs are lost and families dislocated, wounded and killed".

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