Workers as history makers

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Workers as history makers

Under the Hook: Melbourne Waterside Workers Remember: 1900-1998
By Wendy Lowenstein and Tom Hills
Enlarged and updated, 1998
To order, send $30 to Wendy Lowenstein, PO Box 1033, Hawksburn Vic 3142.

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 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 compensation claims, their attitude to violence and their association with crime.

The wharfies are the stuff of folklore — as one journalist in the 1950s put it: "The nation's favourite coconut shy, the wharfie ... never since my boyhood have I seen anything that might suggest that the wharfie could occasionally be right."

These old attitudes of the press, politicians and pundits were wonderfully exposed in the 1998 wharf dispute. Quite suddenly there was a quasi-education campaign. Everyone became experts on things like crane rates.

The full story of conspiracy and the role of 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 the bosses and their co-conspirators in government.

Under the Hook is a history of the waterfront written and told by wharfies themselves. It's an oral history of a work force rich in ways of speaking, a remembering of union struggles and community actions by those who were part of them.

It is also a history of class struggle in Australia, centred in what Eric Hobsbawm has called "the short century", the period from the Russian Revolution to the "fall of communism".

Using the tape recorder to collect historical evidence, Lowenstein and Hills put back into history the working-class lives that official history ignores. The book provides a rich picture of growing up in Port Melbourne, looking for work in the Great Depression, organising to build a powerful union, fighting the scabs for a generation or more, then bringing them into the union.

Under the Hook contains amazing stories, like the wharfies' long struggle to help the fledgling Indonesian state escape from Dutch colonialism in the 1940s. It contains the story of how Liberal PM Robert Menzies got his nickname "Pig-iron Bob", and how the wharfies took on other politicians, the press, and the international monopolists who owned the ships and docks so vital to Australian industry.

New chapters recount the story of the long days and nights of pickets at Patrick docks around Australia last year, and of the court battles. They contain interviews with women and men from the community picket lines and from the Melbourne union office, as well as with wharfies. They also tell the unusual story of police unwilling to be used as battering rams against workers.

The 1998 struggle was a catalyst for poster and banner production, for the forging of new bonds between unions, and between unions and other organisations.

A Walkley award was won by journalist Pamela Williams for unravelling the conspiracy to smash the MUA. She is now writing a book.

Dozens of songs and poems were written about the struggle (you can read a selection of them on the web at <www.chepd.mq.edu.au/boomerang/unionsong>), and hundreds of cartoons about it have been published as a collection in War on the Wharves (Pluto Press).

But to get to grips with this history, the taste and smell of it, and the subversive idea of workers as history makers, you can't go past Under the Hook.

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