Part of a series of interview segments produced by the SUA/MUA in which retired Australian merchant seamen recount their working lives at sea as well as their engagement with union campaigns and activities. Each episode features a seaman, or sometimes a pair of seamen, sharing their story in a largely unstructured and extended interview. They form an important on camera collection of oral histories about Australia’s unionised merchant seamen.
In this episode seaman Laurie Steen recounts how he started work as a 16 year old in 1965, which is when he joined the union. He started on a dredge working 12 hour shifts and they had to work over time to make enough money because the basic wage was very low. Sometimes they refused to sail because the pay was so low. In the old system of employment they had to “stand up” to see how strong they were, but this was later replaced with the roster system.
Laurie recounts the Ampol dispute where foreign workers were hired even though the project was funded by the Australian Government, which resulted in a picket line outside their Sydney offices for several years. They were fighting for the right to man Australian ships on the Australian coast.
Laurie remembers that they had some very good cooks. Being a tradesman was a bonus in the navy and he believes the seamen were the telegraphs of their time, the storytellers, telling the news and stories from one country to another. They were the communication between the nations.
He points out that the Union had been fighting Apartheid in South Africa from before the 1950s, and they refused to load ships with weapons during the Vietnam War. The Liberal Party would load them but no seamen would take them. He thinks the Seaman’s Retirement Fund was a lifesaver, before which many of the old timers didn’t have enough money to retire on.
Picture and sound quality is low given low budget production.
Author: J Bird, 2023