Australian Workers Film Guide


This is an engaging documentary charting the history of the Waterside Workers Federation, from its inception in 1902 through to the contemporary struggles of the 1980s. From the primitive days of toil and exploitation, to the increasingly mechanized docks of the modern area, the film situates the history of the waterside workers and their union within Australia’s ever changing social and political landscape. A turbulent and conflict ridden struggle to not only improve the conditions and pay of waterside workers, but to elevate the wider working class, spreading peace and friendship with all the peoples of the world.

The filmmakers combine archival footage from documentaries made in the past by the Waterside Workers Federation Film Unit with contemporary interviews with old seamen and unionists. A major theme is working conditions and the constant battle with employers and government. There is some dramatisation and recreation of certain milestones, like the 44 hour week where a judge gives the seamen equal rights to working horses. 

Through the weaving of well-acted dramatisation, interviews, narration, historical footage and newspaper clippings, the filmmakers recount the Maritime Union’s fight to win rights and a decent wage for their members. They also make use of conflicts between the union and the ship owners, as well as conflicts with the law and the courts. 

During cycles of boom and bust the wharfies were always knocked about. No service leave or holidays. The employers would use any kind of excuse to sack members of the union. There was a lot of bullying. There were many accidents on the job. With no job security some were out of work for years. And after working until 70, there was nothing left to retire on.

The film presents examples of how the union and its members fought for the cause of peace, which included the conscription issue of 1917, were tramway strikers and other unions joined in the fight. Solidarity was of paramount importance. If one worker was in trouble, others would help. They were fighting for issues they believed deeply in.

The film covers the process of amalgamation with other unions, such as the International Transport Workers Federation, which was crucial to the union’s survival. Conservative governments are seen to be constantly fighting against the union – the Bruce Government police chased them with buttons and workers were shot at. While in 1928, a new award reduced rights and introduced penalties for strike action. 

We learn how the wharfies halted the export of the pig iron sent to Japan before World War Two, which enraged Prime Minister Robert Menzies. This was followed by protests against Menzies’ Communist Bill of 1950, workers boycotting the Dutch for 4 years in support of Indonesian independence, boycotts against South African Apartheid as well as the Vietnam War. The film posits that the union manages to strike “the conscience of the nation” with its humanitarian feeling and commitment.

Special Notes/Achievements

Keith Gow, one of the original members of the Waterside Workers Film Unit, was a writer on this film.

Author: J Bird, 2023

Duration: 51 mins 19 secs

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