When Wollongong workers stared down the prime minister

Robert Menzies became known as "Pig Iron Bob" for his role in an industrial dispute at Port Kembla.

A new documentary film Radical Wollongong, produced by Green Left TV, will premiere in Wollongong on May 18, followed by screenings in other cities and regional centres.

The film features activist participants from Wollongong's radical history of strikes and community rallies, from miners’ struggles to Aboriginal justice and environmental protection.

Co-producer John Rainford gives some background to the rise of fascism in Europe and the actions of Robert Menzies against wharfies who refused to ship pig iron to Japan.

***

There were 6 million union members in Germany when Hitler came to power in 1933.

Most were organised in socialist unions. The unions offered cooperation to the Nazi state, whose first response was to declare International Workers Day, May 1, a paid holiday.

The next day, the socialist union leaders were arrested and their unions’ property and funds confiscated. Strikes and collective bargaining were prohibited.

Fascism advanced in the period between the two world wars as the political pendulum swung to the right. The collapse of liberal democracy and the onset of the great depression led to right-wing authoritarian regimes that stretched across Europe; from Portugal in the west to Romania in the east; from Greece in the south to Estonia in the north.

Britain had its Union of Fascists led by Sir Oswald Mosley. Its members, at the organisation’s high point of 50,000 in 1934, included Lord Rothmere, publisher of London’s Daily Mail.

In Australia, the Sydney Morning Herald managed to find merit in Hitler’s destruction of unions. Support for Hitler was not an uncommon conservative impulse, but one politician stood out from the rest. Robert Menzies, then-attorney general and minister for industry from 1934 acquired a reputation among Australian unions as “Australia’s number one fascist appeaser.”

In 1938, he became known as "Pig Iron Bob" for his role in the industrial dispute that followed the refusal of waterside workers in Port Kembla to load pig iron on a British-flagged ship, the Dalfram, which was bound for Japan.

Japan had joined Germany in an anti-communist pact and invaded China in 1937. As Ted Roach, a wharfie communist union leader in Port Kembla, told the Joseph Lyons government: “We would be saying as we loaded each piece of pig iron, 'this will kill a dozen Chinese … this will be thrown back at us in Australia in the form of shells and bullets'."

As attorney-general, Menzies applied the Transport Workers Act under which nobody could work as a wharfie in Port Kembla without a licence — and licences would only be issued to those ready to scab and work the Dalfram.

Wharfies called the Transport Workers Act the Dog Collar Act. Port Kembla wharfies refused to take out licences.

When Menzies travelled down the coast road to Wollongong, for a meeting in January 1939 with a combined unions disputes committee, coalminers declared the day a holiday. With their families, they blocked his progress in the coal settlements of the northern suburbs. They surrounded his car and abused him until police came to his rescue.

When he finally arrived in Wollongong, he could not get from his hotel to the meeting across the road in the Town Hall because a crowd of thousands barred his way and there were not enough police to force a safe path for him. The police had to ask Roach to provide a group of wharfies to get him across. Roach obliged and while Menzies was being escorted across someone shouted "Pig Iron Bob". The name stuck.

On January 24, 1939, a settlement was reached which meant victory for the workers. Wharfies were to load the Dalfram, but the government in return was forced to lift the Dog Collar Act and agree to review its policy on pig iron exports. This led to the prohibition of pig iron exports and a further 300,000 tonnes of pig iron intended for Japan were never sent.

[Next week, the 1949 coal strike and the referendum on banning the Communist Party.]