Australian politics, society & culture

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Waterfront blues

By John Button 
Cover: June 2007June 2007Medium length read

In the classic film On the Waterfront, set in New York, the embittered young watersider Terry Malloy (played by a youthful Marlon Brando) asks an apparently meddlesome priest, "What's your racket?" "I don't have a racket," is the reply. "I'm a priest." "Everybody has a racket," says Malloy.

This might have been a shrewd observation about the human condition. But in the popular and more comforting imagination it is usually interpreted as an observation about ports. When the film came to Melbourne, the Waterside Workers Federation staged a demonstration outside the cinema on the opening night. The film was said to be anti-working-class and hostile to people who worked on the wharves. This was a dubious interpretation, but at the time demonstrations like this were not entirely unusual. In one sense they were a racket.

Ports make great backgrounds for movies, television dramas, crime novels, and sometimes just adventure stories. Joseph Conrad and Jack London both wrote vividly about ports, which they knew about from personal experience. Sherlock Holmes thought ports were hotbeds of intrigue and full of ruffians. The Belgian writer Georges Simenon was fascinated by European ports and "fishermen's cafés, where I arm-wrestled with sailors who smelt of the sea and Calvados". His fictional detective, Inspector Maigret, found sleazy waterfront bars handy for tip-offs.

European ports like Marseille, Bremen and Genoa had the reputation of being tough places, as did ports around the world. In Australia wharfies sometimes had rackets, just like businessmen. Partly they compensated for poor employment conditions, hard physical work, the number of accidents and - for a long time - having no sick leave. On Thursdays the union collected a shilling from members for those who were sick or injured. As late as the 1950s employees were casually engaged through the ‘bull system', whereby job seekers were marshalled in a yard and the foreman (the ‘pink eye') picked out those he wanted. To be sure of a job, "it was best," I was told, "to put ten bob in a matchbox and hand it to the foreman in the pub the night before."

Later there was a roster system, and then a radio pick-up: employees wanting work listened to the radio at 6 am to find out if work was available. Conditions won at those times became part of the waterfront folklore, and difficult to give up.

The ports had reputations for other things. In Sydney there were messy and disruptive disputes among various Marxist factions over control of the union. In Melbourne crime on the waterfront was rife, leading to a royal commission into the activities of the Ship Painters and Dockers Union. There were 40 murders in fewer years.

By the '80s trade was growing in volume; there was more cargo (increasingly in containers) and less employment, because of rapidly increasing mechanisation. Symbolically, the wharfies' hook was being replaced by a crane driver's certificate. There were various ways of handling the challenge of increasing efficiency. In the late '80s I asked the Italian minister for ports what his job involved. "Nothing much really," he said. "Our ports are so inefficient that we send everything by truck to Rotterdam." But the times were changing, and Australia had no Rotterdam.

The chorus of an old American folk song begins: You load sixteen tons and what do you get / Another day older and deeper in debt. Whatever the equivalent tally was for Australian watersiders, by 1996 they were not loading it. Nor did they complain too much about being deeper in debt. The in-joke about their remuneration was ‘the prime minister's wages plus half the cargo'. These circumstances were central to the maritime dispute of 1998, dramatised in the television production Bastard Boys, shown last month on the ABC.

The screening of Bastard Boys has produced a few dramas of its own. A number of the principal characters didn't like the way they were portrayed. ‘I don't look like that,' or, ‘I didn't say that,' were the most usual comments, and a number of them were right. It's not easy reconciling a dramatic treatment of historical events with the detailed actions and words of the participants, who are still alive, have real names, and have reputations which they value.

I found myself, for example, troubled by Bill Kelty's wig, and by the fact that he seemed so much less effectual than he always was in his time at the ACTU. And I don't believe that the real protagonists swore as much as they did in this production. The real-life Greg Combet (say those whose who worked with him during the era) was not much given to swearing. The fictional confrontation between Chris Corrigan and his bankers seemed ludicrous for the same reasons.

For a fastidious person like me there was too much vomiting. The young wharfie Sean vomited twice, the Josh Bornstein character vomited once and, for ideological balance, Mrs Corrigan vomited once as well. Perhaps all the swearing caused them to vomit, but the reality is that swearing in this production was a metaphor for toughness, and vomiting a metaphor for sensitivity. As dramatic devices they seemed far-fetched and out of character with the overall quality of the production.

Bastard Boys opened with black-clad security men in balaclavas leading Rottweilers along the wharf. It was a scene both dramatic and threatening. But the visual drama of the story was best captured by the giant portainer cranes moving silently along, dwarfing humans on the wharf below. This was fantastic filming. Those huge cranes seem to be saying, Forget your squabbles. We're taking over now. This is the future.

The real drama, of course, happened nearly a decade ago. As a result of it, many wharfies were made redundant, stevedoring productivity rose from as low as 15 unit lifts per hour to 25, there is now apparent industrial peace on the waterfront, and Chris Corrigan and his principal backers walked away with a pot of money.

Was it all worth it? In 1992, six years before the events portrayed in Bastard Boys, Melbourne's waterfront terminal operated at world's-best-practice levels. Out of 27 terminals around the world Melbourne was rated third, with 27 unit lifts per hour, just after Kobe with 29 and Rotterdam with 28. These results were obtained by negotiation after the then prime minister, Bob Hawke, called a meeting with leaders of the waterfront employers and the unions in 1989, and gave them an ultimatum for fixing up waterfront efficiency. He warned, "If you haven't done it in three years I will do it for you." In response, workplace conditions and productivity improved dramatically, with close co-operation between the unions and employers.

It was not to last. In 1992, 57% of the workforce retired under a redundancy program. Most of the union leaders also left the job. The maritime union was formed by merging 24 waterfront unions, and the awards were amalgamated under the guidance of Greg Combet. New union officials were elected in the port of Melbourne. They were not much interested in productivity and were reluctant negotiators. Collective bargaining was abandoned, productivity declined, and the port slipped back into its old ways. Although they were voted out after three years, the damage had been done. This provided the excuse, indeed the reason, which led Chris Corrigan, in conjunction with a government committed to non-union labour on the waterfront, to start the events which reached their conclusion in 1998.

Now it's all a memory, with a television drama to remind us of its significance. It was, as the Bill Kelty character observed in Bastard Boys, the "end of an era", and a reminder that imposed efficiency, whatever its virtues, always comes at a price.

About the author John Button