Darling Harbour was the busiest port in Australia, employing hundreds of Pyrmont men. It was also Australia’s most turbulent worksite. The Maritime Strike broke out here in 1890, and here it was crushed. Stevedoring companies demanded cheap, biddable, casual labour and tension was inevitable. During the “Great Strike” of 1917 for example, wharfies struck to support railway workers and the Waterside Workers’ Federation (WWF) reluctantly endorsed the action.
Wages had been declining for several years, and war conditions made strike action seem (especially to exporters) treasonable. Mass protests in Sydney supported the strikers, but governments organised strike-breaking. Many rural and urban middle class men (known as “volunteers”), including students and private schoolboys, kept services running. The strike failed, and several years passed before unionised workers drove “scabs” out of the waterfront.
The “bull system” prevailed, whereby employers selected men each day from a pick-up point. (After 1938, one of the four points was at the corner of Harris and John Streets.) WWF members fought pitched battles against non-union men who – especially in the 1930s – clustered at the wharves in the hope of work. The WWF was led by committed men with a radical ideology, which (for example) led the WWF to blacklist exports of war material to Japan in the late 1930s, and to boycott Dutch ships (to support Indonesian Independence) in 1945. Mostly the WWF used its muscle in industrial disputes, for example supporting the Sugar Workers Union when it struck against CSR in the 1940s.
In 1943 at a time of acute crisis, the bull system was scrapped. To ensure that cargoes flowed, concessions were made. Men formed teams (gangs), who worked together. And working conditions improved: a gang was employed for blocks of four hours, minimum wages and smoko breaks were imposed, and overtime paid for weekend work.
Wages were still unpredictable. In April 1951, 47 men earned from £25 to £29 each; 1,382 got £20 to £25; 1,666 got £15 to £20; 2,369 got £10 to £15; about 800 got less than £10. Average weekly pay was £10/2/- through 1949-50, £11/7/3 in July-September, 1950, and £10/16/3 in October-December (when the men cut their pay by striking). “Attendance money” was a step towards decasualising the industry. If a man turns up and there’s no work for him, he gets 12/-.” (Sydney Morning Herald, 7 June 1951) The Herald was dismayed that wharfies always elected Communist leaders, but the danger and insecurity of the work and the unreliability of the income surely explain this loyalty.
In the 1960s shipping containers transformed stevedoring; the passenger terminal at Circular Quay made Jones Bay Wharf redundant, and cargo moved to Port Botany in the 1970s. Wharfies in Pyrmont are ageing but their memories are vivid, and the waterfront still provokes more conflict than any other work site.