James (Big Jim) Healy (1898-1961), trade unionist, quit the Labor Party to join the Australian Communist Party, before he was elected general secretary of the Waterside Workers Federation (WWF) in 1937. In that role he transformed the federation into a modern union with a national policy and a national journal, the Maritime Worker, which he edited.
As a member of the Stevedoring Industry Commission from 1942, he secured pay rises and the demise of the ‘bull’ system, replaced by a regime of rotating teams (gangs) of workers. In exchange, the WWF encouraged the men to work hard to load and unload military supplies. Healy’s greatest achievement in the 1950s was to absorb the rival union, the Part-time and Casual Workers Union (PCWLU, formed originally by non-unionists) into the WWF.
So effective was Healy’s leadership that he was impervious to the hostility of industrial groups who attacked communist officials in the 1940s and 1950s. Smith’s Weekly called him “seventeen stone of bone and meat, which includes a large amount of grey matter inside the cranium”. He was “a volume of human cargo whose weight is felt on our waterfront.”
When he died in 1961, the Bulletin called him the ‘best single P.R. device the Australian Communists ever had’.
In his obituary for Big Jim Healy, the wharfie, Henry McCarthy insisted that in his long term as General Secretary, the WWF made its greatest gains. One was the abolition of the bull system, “an auction block of labor, a hang-over from the days of the slave mart”. For most of his term, Healy was a leading member of the Communist Party, and yet he managed to reunite the waterside workers by bringing the rival union into the fold.
Despite constant denigration of the Party and the Waterside Workers, productivity increased, industrial disputes declined, and the wharfies benefited from better paid, more humane and more reliable working conditions.
Henry McCarthy, The Making of a Great Trade Union, Tribune 21 July 1965