In and Out of Port: Workers’ power in action!

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In and Out of Port; Voices from the Port of Melbourne: An Oral History by Sigrid Borke. Published by Sigrid Borke, 2000. ISBN 0646408208

April 7, 1998. A date which is burnt into the memories of countless activists from all around the world. The day that Patrick Stevedores, at Webb Dock Port Melbourne, locked out its entire unionised workforce. The naked anti-union aggression was breathtaking. Security guards wearing balaclavas and with dogs, charged in to clear the docks.

The union under attack was the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA). The Howard Government was desperate to break the MUA, hoping that, if it fell, no other union would stand.

But the MUA stood firm. The story of that struggle and the community support it inspired is not the main theme of In and Out of Port. But the idea for the project was born on those picket lines.

When the first wharfies were locked out, Sigrid Borke, who lives near Webb Dock, rushed down to support them. Her life revolved around the picket line. Her conversations with the seamen, wharfies and older residents about earlier struggles convinced her that “these voices from the Port of Melbourne, reflecting their lives and experiences should be heard in a wider arena.” The accounts of those she met make up this riveting book.

The accounts of Borke’s interviewees provide the background to understanding how that extraordinary struggle was rooted in the history of the people of the Port of Melbourne.

Hunger and solidarity. In the early days, Bill Ireland says, the taxis wouldn’t go into Port Melbourne — too rough. Nowadays, it’s trendy — and he hates it. Nancy Vorherr, one of 14 children brought up by her mother during the depression, remembers the hunger. She used to go down to the local factory, when the workers came out. “Any lunch mister, any lunch missus, and they’d give us a pie or a pastie.”

Veronica Aldridge says, “We’d share our slice of bread, we’d break it in half, because there’s nothing worse than hunger, going to sleep with a rattling, roaring tummy and crying with it and waking up the next morning.”

That kind of sharing was the culture on the ships as well as in the Port. Alby Ireland says, “Yeah, well it’s a fraternity in itself, it’s hard to explain. If you’re in strife, there’s always somebody knows about it, or if you’ve been in an accident or in hospital, the Union will have a tarpaulin muster for you and various ships will throw in a couple of hundred bucks for you so it get’s you over until you’re capable of going back to work.”

There are dozens of stories to back this. Frank Milne tells us about Bob Phillips. He had cancer of the throat and was given three months to live. So they got a few blokes together, and “I said we’ll put in a few dollars each and pay his rent and his electricity and meals on wheels and that, until he goes.” But he didn’t go, and for the next seven years his union mates looked after him. When the tumour in his throat grew so he could only eat soup, Frank cooked him up a week’s worth of soup every Thursday and put it in containers for each day of the week.

In 1998, when Paul and Val McGahan, the publicans from the Hibernian Hotel, brought food for the picketers every day the strike was on, they were following the same life-affirming working class tradition.

United we stand. The community did more than just support each other. They knew what to do about their enemies, too. When Bill was collecting donations for the strike fund in one of the pubs, the manager told him to “get out and don’t come in here asking for money for your commo mates. So he was immediately put on the black…He lost heaps,” says Bill with obvious satisfaction.

Women, too, knew all about grassroots organising. Eileen and Elaine Cleary, mother and daughter, give a spirited account of the Raglan/Ingles Estate Tent Embassy in October 1999. It was set up to force the new Labour Government to fix the appalling condition of the flats. They got support from everywhere, food vouchers and tarpaulins from the Town Hall, wood from the unions. “All of Port Melbourne,” as Eileen says.

Internationalism. Impressively, the solidarity wasn’t confined to “mates.” The seamen and their strong local community were citizens of the world. Roger Wilson talks about the Seamen’s Union support for the World Federation of Trade Unions, and their work to get minimum ILO standards, especially for third world crew. Not easy. Even when the union did succeed, the seamen concerned might find themselves blacklisted in their home country.

The union supported the Gurindji during the Wave Hill strike in the early ’60s, raising money for food and clothing and sending it with seamen on ships running between Melbourne and Darwin.

Roger Wilson describes the Seamen’s Union support for the Italian seamen in their strike in 1959. He was fascinated by their unconventional tactics and impressed by their organising. They lined the wharf, calling on the scab crew to join them. For Wilson, this was a new concept: “you don’t think about talking to scabs or appealing to them.” When a truck broke through the picket line, loaded with sides of beef and lamb, the Italian workers leapt onto the back as it roared past. By the time it reached the ship, there was only one side left — the rest were in the harbour.

The fight against apartheid in South Africa, Greek workers organising against military rule, the anti-colonial struggle of the Indonesians — the Seamen’s Union was a staunch ally. As Sigrid Borke says in her introduction, “liberation struggles, land rights struggles and peace campaigns were part of seamen’s lives.”

The internationalism of the seafarers’ political activities was a strong reason for the international support the MUA received in 1998. Globalisation of workers’ struggle has a long and proud history.

Warnings and lessons. But In and Out of Port isn’t just a feel-good read for workers. As well as the inspiring stories of struggle, courage and survival —the stuff that makes you feel “Yes, with comrades like these, how can we lose!” — there are, over and over again, the voices of warning.

In their sharp identification of what can go wrong, there are lessons for every rank and file unionist.

Seamen had rich sources of political education. It was an important part of union meetings which almost everyone attended. “International affairs didn’t get swept over the horizon. They were always brought to everybody’s attention: speeches, books, visiting guest speakers at stopwork meetings,” says Fred Frese.

Working class politics was also learned on the job. But as a teacher, I was struck how almost every seaman commented on the effect television in cabins had on ships crews. The hard-won libraries, with a wide cross- section of reading material, declined, as did the discussions in the mess room about football, racing and the big political issues of the day.

Interviewee Bob O’Shea is the nephew of Clarrie O’Shea, the Tramways Union leader who was jailed in 1969 for refusing to pay union fines. He talks bitterly about the “two notorious K’s,” Keating and Kelty. O’Shea argues the leadership of the union movement has sold out to governments which represent bosses, not workers. He advocates political vigilance by union members. O’Shea expresses his frustration when he comments that some of his workmates would “just take the officials’ word for what was going on, and didn’t question things closely, and unfortunately the officials got their way too much.” That’s an analysis you don’t have to be a member of the Seamen’s Union to make!

But you can’t keep your union officials accountable unless you have the political understanding to critique what they’re doing and why. It all comes back to political education. I related to what O’Shea was saying, because it reminded me of the importance of the educational work we do in Radical Women and the Freedom Socialist Party — grassroots campaigning, selling newspapers and other publications and conducting study groups and meetings.

The people we meet in this book are an impressive bunch of men and women — the union movement can be proud of them. And the day-to-day events of the MUA struggle tell us that the best traditions of the movement are still strong. In and Out of Port is crammed full of working class characters with a story to tell — a story of survival, struggle, solidarity and socialism.

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