Wharf labourers formed their first union in 1872: the Sydney Wharf Labourers’ Union (SWLU). Through the buoyant 1880s the union prospered, but the Maritime Strike of 1890 was a savage reality check, and wharfies suffered through the 1890s depression with no effective protection.
Federation delivered a new industrial relations regime and Billy Hughes, SWLU Secretary and federal member for the waterside suburbs, was the driving force in creating the Waterside Workers Federation (WWF) in 1902. As President he discouraged strikes and brought the WWF into the arbitration system. The men’s rewards were few, but in 1909 the WWF reached an agreement with the Australian Steamship Owners Federation, to end stoppages in exchange for preferencing WWF members. It was hard to restrain the militant Sydney branch, but Hughes persisted and in 1914, (as Attorney General) he achieved his goal, an Australia-wide award for waterside workers.
Relations between rank and file wharfies and their union representatives were often strained, and union officials preferred arbitration to strike action. Hughes’s advocacy of conscription was a factor in his expulsion from the WWF in 1916. During the Great Strike of 1917, rank and file workers were, again, much more militant than their union officials, and that happened again in 1926, when strike action provoked the federal government to enact laws that required waterside workers to be licensed. The pattern was repeated in 1943 when the hated bull system was replaced by a rotating gang system which the union officials negotiated and wharfies at first resisted. “Political” actions such as the boycott of pig iron to Japan were driven more by the rank and file than by union officials.
In the 1950s, General Secretary Jim Healy built on the WWF’s new powers to assimilate the rival Part-time and Casuals Union, giving the united workforce the power it had lacked for half a century. Despite the gains in wages and conditions, wharfies were ambivalent about with the Communist Party, electing communists like Healy as industrial leaders because they were tough negotiators – but ignoring the political ideas of the men they elected.
After their greatest influence, in the 1940s to 1960s, the power of the wharfies waned as containers displaced manual labour. The removal of stevedoring to Botany Bay also changed the social composition of Pyrmont and other harbourside suburbs.