The struggles of maritime workers on the big screen

September 7, 2005

Betrayed: The Story of Canadian Merchant Seamen
Directed by Elaine Briere
55 minutes


Betrayed is the latest documentary by renowned film-maker and photographer Elaine Briere. The film deals with the Canadian Seamen's Union, which was formed in 1936 and overcame "galley-slave" conditions on Canadian ships. The CSU n won the eight-hour day for Canadian seafarers and had a disciplined and professional attitude to work, providing a powerful example for members of other unions.

The union's strong anti-racist and internationalist spirit meant that it supported workers in other countries. During World War II, its members served on the famous Atlantic convoys to Britain and the Soviet Union, which were attractive targets for Nazi submarines. Despite suffering a higher casualty rate than sailors in the Canadian navy, these merchant seafarers ("heroes in dungarees", as they were called) did not receive veteran status or other benefits.

After the war, reconstruction and the growth of international trade saw the Canadian merchant fleet become the fourth largest in the world. But the CSU, then the largest all-Canada union in the Canadian Trades and Labour Congress, had developed powerful enemies.

The film makes use of interviews with those who directly participated in the struggles of the time, as well as archival footage.

In Betrayed, Briere shows how the CSU came under coordinated attack from its political opponents. The union's response to defend itself was supported by workers in 26 countries, tying up 60% of global shipping. The result was the largest international strike of the 20th century.

The film also has an Australian connection — it depicts the struggle at Port Pirie to keep an Australian crew from being fired so that a "galley-slave" crew could be hired in its place.

Briere recently toured Australia, hosted by the Maritime Union of Australia. The MUA also assisted in the film's production costs.

From Green Left Weekly, September 7, 2005.
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