Artists who walked the Hungry Mile

Wednesday, September 15, 1993 - 10:00

By Zanny Begg

SYDNEY — The National Maritime Museum has gathered together a collection of artworks produced by Sydney wharfies in a fascinating exhibition, "On the Waterfront: wharfies, artists and actors". The exhibition brings to life the heady days of struggle by activists in the Waterside Workers Federation (WWF) during the 1950s and 1960s.

Those were days when the work was incredibly hard but the union fought for the rights of its members. The WWF, under the leadership of Jim Healy and Tom Nelson, had seen its members through the disunity and hard times of the Depression. It had fought for higher wages, for the right to have smokos, for double time against unpaid overtime, against the "bull system", against scabs and sell-outs and for decent working conditions on the wharves.

The WWF was built by men who had walked the Hungry Mile from No 3 Darling Harbour to Bathurst Street in search of work, who had experienced severe hardship and unemployment. "On the Waterfront" is imbued with the determination and militancy of those who struggled to improve the working conditions on the wharf.

It shows how the militancy of the WWF attracted artists, actors and musicians to the atmosphere on the waterside. This creative input inspired many of the workers on the wharf to explore their own artistic talents. The Studio of Realistic Art was established, the New Theatre moved into the WWF offices, and a film unit was born.

The union became the focus for the local community, providing an outlet for its cultural, political and social needs. The art produced was simple, direct and very powerful.

One gang of workers on the wharf became affectionately known as the "Brains Trust" because of the number of artists, communists and actors who made up its ranks.

Ralph Sawyer is an artist involved in "On the Waterfront" who was a member of the "Brains Trust". Sawyer, who left school at 14, described the wharfies having long, passionate discussions about ancient history, contemporary politics, art and philosophy.

"We were driven by our commitment to a better society", he told Green Left Weekly. "Sometimes we would work the night shift just so that we could spend the day talking politics while painting banners and preparing for May Day and other events."

Sawyer had joined the Communist Party when he was 17. "My father had gone off to World War I waving the Union Jack and had come home waving the hammer and sickle", Sawyer recounted, "which inspired me to join the party". He left a barber's business in Woolloomooloo and began work on the wharves in the early 1950s. His friends said he wouldn't last a month of hard work on the waterside, but he was made a union delegate two weeks after he arrived and worked on the wharves for the next 30 years.

During this time Sawyer saw many changes on the waterfront and participated in many political campaigns. "Everything was there because we fought for it. When I started work there was nothing, only two showers, no amenities; there were dreadful conditions." The current right-wing union leadership has let its members down, according to Sawyer: "Everything we fought for has been white-anted".

But Sawyer remains optimistic. When you walk into his studio, you are immediately overwhelmed by the huge hand-painted triptych of Ho Chi Minh, Lenin and Castro that leans against the back wall. His commitment to socialism is just as strong as it ever was. "If you believe in scientific socialism, then you know our time will come ... we are riding a wave of reaction at the moment, but that wave will break."

Pointing to his painting of Castro, he declares, "Fidel is one of my favourite human beings". He then describes how Castro sent him a Havana cigar, a book and a Cuban painting to thank him for his paintings in solidarity with Cuba.

The involvement of artists in the WWF was a catalyst for great artistic ingenuity. Jock Levy, who worked on the wharf from 1952 to 1960, was involved in the New Theatre when he was approached by Tom Nelson to make a film about the pensions for veterans campaign.

With almost no funding, Levy and his friend Keith Glow got a film unit together which eventually made 13 films. "The whole concept of a film unit run by a trade union was unique in the world", says Levy. "It had never been done before."

The film unit used a 16 mm camera, and its only means of transport was a rickety motorbike with a side car. Levy and Glow converted a kombi van into a mobile cinema which they took to other unions, to factories and to the community. Levy believes that "the main thing is you have to have an ideal, you have to be committed and you have to be prepared to sacrifice" — then anything is possible.

Having a film unit was very important for the WWF because of the smear campaign run against the union in the mainstream press. "Packer's paper was very hostile towards the wharfies", Levy explained. "The attitude of the editorials was shocking. It was necessary to put across a working-class point of view so that we could elaborate on the history of the waterfront struggle to the new members and also show the general public an alternative view — a more truthful view."

Levy understood the vested interests of the mainstream media very clearly. "Packer and his mob were disturbed by the events on the waterfront because Communists were leading members of the union and they were doing a magnificent job; they were incorruptible. Packer and the big companies like P&O were really worried because we agitated for better wages and conditions on the waterfront and beyond."

Unfortunately, the ACTU wasn't as clear as this and refused to fund the film unit when the WWF found it hard to maintain. As Levy explains, "It could have been the mouthpiece for the ACTU, but the right-wing leadership wasn't really interested".

The amount of footage from the film unit in "On the Waterfront" is perhaps a little disappointing, but you are able to get a feel for the quality of the work from the brief educational video screening as part of the exhibition.

The power of this exhibition lies in the unpretentious portrayal of the workers by the artists on the wharf. The commitment to socialism of the wharfies was real, and their art reflected this genuine concern in a lively and direct manner.

"On the Waterfront" is definitely worth seeing for anyone interested in the struggle for workers' rights. That struggle is still very much alive, as Jock Levy points out: "The concepts we fought for are still valid, and I stick to them just as seriously as I did in the 1950s — if not more so."

["On the Waterfront" is showing at the National Maritime Museum, Darling Harbour, until November 21.]

From GLW issue 115