The following are speaking notes for my speech at the Manning Clark House showing of the documentary “Dalfram Dispute 1938: Pig Iron Bob” (directed by Sandra Pires and the Why Documentaries Team in 2015).
Thank you for the invitation today.
Firstly, let me acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which we meet, and pay my respects to their elders both past and present.
My name is Alex White and I’m the secretary of UnionsACT, the peak council for the Canberra trade union movement, representing 33,000 union members.
I’m really pleased to be here tonight to speak about the Dalfram Dispute and its significance for the union movement.
Documentaries like this one are very important. The union movement, despite having an inspiring and exciting history, does a very poor job of re-telling the important stories that made us what we are today.
This is partly because we are bad story tellers about ourselves, but it also is a symptom of the entrenched cultural attitude that “workers history” is boring or insignificant, especially compared to the history of “great people”.
When I started in the union movement, I had only the most basic awareness of the history of our big disputes – and most of my contemporaries were the same. Big victories and losses, like the anti-conscription campaign or the great railway strikes were not taught to new organisers, and even more recent successes like unions striking to protect Medicare weren’t part of our induction. These disputes and strikes certainly weren’t taught at school.
(I’d also add that basic workplace rights are also not taught at schools – even things like the minimum wage and the right to join a union. UnionsACT started a program 2 years ago to change this, and we’ve dramatically expanded it this year with the launch of our new Young Workers Centre.)
Australia has an amazing history of working class heroes, and we should do a better job of celebrating them.
Unions used to be active in promoting our history and the culture of working people.
Around the time of the Dilfram Dispute, unions were at the epicentre of the lives of working people across Australia.
Unlike today, unions in the 1920s, 30s and 40s were active in every sphere of civil society. We ran sporting clubs, dinner clubs, funeral clubs, social clubs, schools, training and apprenticeship programs, radio stations and newspapers, and of course, we were active industrial organisations in workplaces.
Members and their families would interact with fellow union members, delegates and officials at work and in the community.
We celebrated our achievements and our important days – through marches, festivals, plays and musical performances, monuments and murals.
The Dilfram Dispute is not just an amazing and important dispute in union and Australian history. It was also fundamentally a dispute about peace.
The union movement was and remains the largest global organised movement for peace.
Campaigning for peace and against war has been at the heart of the union movement’s core values since the first workers took collective action.
We believe in peace because we are a global movement that has solidarity as our core conviction.
Our movement’s struggle for a better future for all, with decent living standards, employment, housing and social welfare, are in jeopardy unless we can achieve long-lasting, stable peace.
As the wharfies in Port Kembla knew, the victims of the Japanese bullets made by Japan Steel Works were the workers and peasants in China.
The war industry not only diverts vast resources away from socially productive activities, like education, healthcare, housing and other essential public services, but it also uses regressive nationalism to divide working people in order to incite working people to support wars.
Today, Australia’s military budgets have grown to unprecedented levels – draining vast wealth from the everyday people who pay taxes, and giving it to war profiteers.
What’s worse is that the conservative political forces have united with the profiteers to increase the size of our local munitions industry, so Australia can sell weapons to human rights violating regimes like Saudi Arabia.
The ideology that drives massive spending on the war industry is also the one behind worsening levels of inequality.
We cannot accept the economic violence of inequality. It’s an inequality where the poorest are forced to pay the price for defending the wealth of richest under threat of war, invasion or even annihilation.
In the 30s, as now, military budgets increased massively, while social welfare budgets were cut and anti-worker laws were imposed.
What’s more, the politicians then made the conscious decision to sell commodities to regimes that were engaged in aggressive acts of war.
In the late 1930s, the Japanese had invaded China, and in so doing engaged in appalling war crimes.
All wars are immoral humanitarian disasters, but wars of aggression are atrocities by their very nature.
For Australian leaders like Robert Menzies, to support the Japanese war of aggression in China should be considered a war crime today.
It is an unforgivable stain on Joe Lyons, Menzies and the Liberal party (or United Australia Party as it was known then).
It’s also why we must consider the wharfies at Port Kembla to be international heroes of the peace movement.
The WWF members stood their ground against enormous pressure. Not just against the Menzies government, and the bosses of BHP and the Port, but also the Labor Party.
The basis of their dispute was their disgust at being asked to send war materials to an aggressor nation.
Now, as you’ll see in the documentary, secondary to this dispute about opposing an immoral war was the vicious anti-worker laws known as the Transport Workers Act.
This was just one in a long litany of laws designed to force workers to become servants.
In a nut shell, the law was introduced in the late 20s to break the power of the WWF by giving the government the power to control who could load ships. ‘
At the time, the anti-union UAP was in power, and they used the law to black list union members and favour scab labour.
It was a massive threat to the militancy of the WWF throughout the 30s, because it allowed the government, in effect, to institute a no-union rule in response to union action.
The law also effectively banned strikes, which then, and now, remains one of the major means for working people to win improvements.
At Port Kembla, the election of Ted Roach, the main leader of the Dalfram Dispute, to the position of Secretary of the local WWF, saw a significant change in how the union responded to this threat.
Roach focused on building local networks of dock workers in Port Kembla, and on a strong program of political education.
The WWF’s militancy focused on breaking the boss’s chief threat against wharfies at the time – control over the roster system.
Because of this major industrial victory, the fear of management reprisal was largely removed. This allowed the workers at Port Kembla greater freedom to organise.
It also meant that a few months later, when the Dalfram Dispute began, the workers were less fearful they could be sacked by the boss.
I’d just like to digress for a moment to talk about the situation working people face now.
Since the 1990s, workers in Australia have had significant restrictions placed on their rights to strike, in violation of international law.
These restrictions have been eroded so much that it is now almost impossible for working people to withdraw their labour.
Let’s be clear: the right to strike must be a fundamental right for every working person. We are not slaves, and working people should be able to withdraw their labour.
Unfortunately, the current government has worsened the restrictions, so that individual workers now face fines of tens of thousands of dollars for taking industrial action.
Recently, a group of construction workers in Perth were fined over $10,000 each for a 15 minute stoppage, and their union, the CFMEU, is facing hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines.
Why? Because a worker was killed at their workplace. And the workers stopped work because they were in shock and because they wanted to make sure the site was safe.
But under Australia’s laws, stopping work, even for 15 minutes after one of your workmates has been crushed to death, is illegal.
And it’s also illegal for the union to provide support, counselling and assistance to the survivors. Which is why the CFMEU is facing fines.
I’d also like to talk about why strikes and stoppages, like the refusal by the WWF members to load the Dilfram, are effective.
It’s because they disrupt things. They disrupt the profit-making of the boss.
It may seem obvious, but it’s worth pointing out that all profits are created by the work of working people.
By withdrawing your labour, by enforcing a stoppage, the purpose is to disrupt the profit-making of the boss.
That forces the boss to the table to negotiate.
Strikes, or the threat of strikes, is one of the main reasons that bosses historically have negotiated with unions.
It’s why big business and conservative governments have collaborated to restrict and remove the right to strike.
The Transport Workers Act of the 1930s specifically aimed to restrict that right, just as the new anti-union laws introduced by the Liberals aims to do so today.
I’ll finish up now by reflecting a bit on the world we face. It is, sadly, so similar to the world faced by Ted Roach and the workers at Port Kembla.
We live in a time when not only workers’ rights but democracy itself is under assault around the world.
The attack on democracy and threats to peace are always an attack on workers.
How widespread is this anti-democratic phenomenon? I can just rattle off some of the names — Putin, Trump, Erdogan, Orban, Bolsonaro, Duterte, Netanyahu.
Unions are at the front lines in the fight for peace and democracy in all of those countries.
We also live at a time of massive and growing inequality.
The richest see their wealth increase by $2 million every hour.
Meanwhile, wages are stagnating for the first time in decades.
Membership of trade unions declines, fuelled in part by extreme anti-union corporations who import extreme US-style union-busting tactics.
Personal debt continues to rise.
Our public institutions have been hollowed out.
Health care costs are increasing. Pensions and superannuation are threatened.
And we face the digital revolution, automation, rise of AI and vast expansion of massive, global, vertically integrated corporations.
There is so much similar about the challenges we face today compared to the challenges faced by unions in the 1930s.
The crisis of global democracy is also a crisis of economic morality.
As I mentioned before, the same ideology that drives vast war spending is also the ideology that demands cuts to public services, that insists on endless extraction of resources from the earth.
The same ideology that fuels extreme casualisation demonises people reliant on social security and drains money from disability support for a fake budget surplus.
Without overstating it, unions remain the best bulwark against this ideology and its consequences.
Our movement is integral to restoring and maintaining economic and civil morality.
As former ACTU assistant secretary Tim Lyons has said, unions achieve two moral economic purposes. The first is a rights purpose, the second is a distributional purpose.
The first is based on the recognition that disproportionate power lies with the employer.
The heart of union organising is to even up the balance.
Unions are about ensuring that working people are treated fairly and given a measure of control, however modest, over their lives while at work.
Absent a union, we see gender pay gaps, insecure work, low wages, unsafe working conditions, and the treatment of working people as objects.
The second purpose is distributional.
Unions influence the fairer distribution of the gains of economic growth.
Through collective bargaining and minimum wage laws, unions ensure working people and their communities benefit from wealth creation.
Where there are strong unions, there are more equal, prosperous societies.
It is little wonder therefore that since the global financial crisis, global capital has intensified its assault on unions, and thereby weakened collective bargaining, cut minimum wages, increased workplace insecurity, and introduced an austerity agenda.
The lesson from the Dilfram Dispute is that our movement and our efforts to promote peace and democracy remain as important as ever.
And what’s more, it shows that we cannot sit on the sidelines, we cannot be silent in the face of injustice.
Dilfram shows that the union movement is at its best when it is courageous, and when we fight for a better future for all.
And finally, Dilfram shows that when working people stand together, we can win.