Radio doco series on waterfront struggle


The Workplace has Become a Warzone: Reflecting on the Waterfront Dispute of 1998

The Stick Together Show, 3CR

May 4, 11 & 18, 8.30am (repeated May 6, 13 & 20, 10am)


A three-part documentary on the 1998 waterfront dispute has been produced by Colm McNaughton for the Melbourne community-based radio station 3CR. McNaughton has produced the documentary for 3CR's union program, the Stick Together Show.

Part one provides historical background to the dispute. Wharfies are interviewed about the 1928 wharfies' strike and struggles to unionise and bring job security and health and safety standards to the industry. In the 1920s and 1930s, wharfies suffered many deaths and serious injuries at work.

Wharves were run on the old bull hiring system — employers would look over the workers gathered in front of the gates in the morning and pick the biggest and strongest workers for the day. The Waterside Workers Federation (WWF) eventually succeeded in abolishing the system.

The documentary outlines the broader political role of the WWF and its national secretary Jim Healy — the WWF's support for Aboriginal stock workers, its support for the Indonesian independence struggle against the Dutch, and its ban on exports of pig iron to Japan because of its war against Chinese workers and peasants.

Part two interviews a range of participants in the 1998 dispute, including former Victorian secretary of the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) Jim Higgins; current MUA official Dave Cushion; current MUA Victorian secretary Kevin Bracken; and Women of the Waterfront activist Michelle Farruja.

Cushion and Bracken describe the massive community support the union received and the role it played in helping the MUA win the dispute. Higgins describes the international support the MUA received — the only ship that was loaded by scabs in Melbourne went all around the world looking for a port to offload its cargo. Eventually, it had to return to Melbourne to be unloaded after the dispute was resolved.

Dock workers in Papua New Guinea stopped work in support of the Australian wharfies. Japanese dock workers refused to unload car ships during the dispute. And millions of Indian rail workers took up collections for the wharfies.

The events of April 17-18 are vividly described. The strikers had been warned that on the night of April 17, the police would try to break up the picket line. All night helicopters were flying overhead as the police lifted away railway sleepers to create a pathway through the picket line. On the morning of April 18, thousands of building workers marched up to the picket line, sandwiching the police between the picketers and the building workers. The police retreated, paving the way for the resolution of the dispute.

The program draws out the point that the picket line was illegal, but when the community feeling is strong and the movement is united, the movement can challenge unjust laws. No union has ever been sued over the MUA picket line.

McNaughton can be contacted on 0432 504 531 or at