Pensions For Veterans

Australian Workers Film Guide


Produced by the Waterside Workers Film Unit, the film depicts the 1953 Waterside Workers campaign to win pensions for veteran waterside workers.  The film shows the hardship of both life on the docks, and even greater hardship in retirement as workers are discarded without a pension, plunging them into poverty, illness and insecure shelter.

Opening with scenes of Sydney’s waterfront, the film begins with sequences of workers loading and unloading supplies of coal, timber, food, steel, concrete and flour.  Highlighting the dangers of an industry that sustains 12,000 injuries a year, or half its workforce, the film starkly frames ageing workers toiling on the waterfront, followed by evocative images of old men walking lonely streets in abject poverty, reliant on charity for sustenance and shelter, and beset by illness and ruined physical health.  Contrasted with images of shipping company profit, the viewer is presented with images from a medical report into waterside worker health, followed by images depicting ill health, including x-rays, lung disease and physical impairment.

Against a backdrop of tired, aging and scarred men, working all hours of the night, the film revisits the dark days of the Depression when men were forced to work 24 hours straight for three days running.

Having set the stage for the campaign, the film shifts gear as a Waterside Workers Federation deputation enthusiastically boards a Canberra bound bus.  Arriving at Parliament House, the deputation led by union leaders Tom Nelson, Jim Healy and Duchie Young, marches up the stairs to present their pension demands. After the men leave Parliament House, the film finishes with scenes of mass meetings in which men are seen voting to continue the fight.

The impetus for the film came from Tom Nelson, Secretary of the Sydney branch of the Waterside Workers Federation, when he approached Jock Levy to make the film, which was approved by rank and file members of the union. The film was subsequently filmed over a four week period and screened at a stop work meeting at Leichhardt Stadium in November 1953 to an audience of thousands of waterside workers. Jock Levy and Keith Gow were paid wharfie wages for the duration of production, afterwards returning to their laboring work on the waterfront, while Norma Disher worked on the film on a voluntary basis. [1]

The campaign to win pensions for veterans proved to be a long one.  It would take until 1967, some 14 years after the production of Pensions For Veterans.

[1] Milner, L. (2003), Fighting Films: A History of the Waterside Workers’ Federation Film Unit, pp 82-84, Pluto Press; North Melbourne.

Special Notes/Achievements

Featured on Fighting Films DVD [2]

[2] Fighting Films DVD (2006), Produced by Lisa Milner. [DVD] Sydney; Maritime Union of Australia.

Author: J Bird, 2023

Duration: 32 mins

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Film Director: Jerome Levy, Keith Gow, Norma Disher,

Film Producer: Jerome Levy, Keith Gow, Norma Disher,

Film Writer: Jerome Levy, Keith Gow, Norma Disher,

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