War on the wharves

THE Fremantle History Society’s annual Studies Day will fittingly be held in the MUA headquarters from 1.30pm on October 27, as this year’s focus is Fremantle’s turbulent labour history.

Topics will include the State Implement and Engineering Works, a history of Chinese seamen in Fremantle, local activism in the 1930s and an investigation into Fremantle’s role in the infamous 1998 waterfront dispute by Dr Bobbie Oliver.

The papers presented during the day will be included in the tenth volume of the Fremantle Studies Journal, which will be officially launched by Mayor Brad Pettitt at 5.15pm after the main event.

The MUA headquarters are on the corner of Queen Victoria Street and Kwong Alley just over the bridge from Fremantle, and registrations open at 1pm for a 1.30pm start. Bookings are essential, with tickets available at $20 for members and $25 for non-members.


ON the night of April 7, 1998, two days before Easter, Patrick Stevedores began an assault on their employees in every major Australian port, including Fremantle.

This involved balaclava-wearing security guards, guard dogs, helicopters, the Police Tactical Response Group and searchlights as intimidation tactics.

The ports became war zones as workers formed picket lines and resisted.

Much of what has been written about this dispute (both historic and dramatic) concentrates on Melbourne’s Webb Dock.


This is Fremantle’s story.

The workers’ only crime was belonging to a union.

For this they found themselves up against a ‘scab’ workforce of former military men, the federal Howard government, the WA Court government, the National Farmers’ Federation – assisted by a multi-million-dollar, anti-union fighting fund and the police force.

The Howard government and Patricks claimed the wharves were unproductive and wharfies overpaid.

Neither claim was true; productivity on the Australian waterfront had increased by an incredible 75 per cent in the previous five years, while most wharfies received $30,000-$40,000 a year.

The MUA and its predecessors had a proud history in Fremantle.

The Fremantle Lumpers Union formed in 1889 and withstood the hungry years of World War I, when prime minister Billy Hughes set up a rival ‘scab’ waterside workers union, and the ‘Bloody Sunday’ attack by premier Hal Colebatch in 1919.

As the WA Branch of the Waterside Workers Federation, the union weathered numerous disputes throughout the 20th century, operating as casual labourers in the notorious ‘bull pen’ system and enduring appalling working conditions.

The 1993 amalgamation with the Seamen’s Union was done in order to forge a more powerful union for maritime labour.

Now, the union was struggling to survive.

In this History Studies Day presentation, you’ll hear about the MUA’s unprecedented resort to legal means to win their battle.

It also tells of the experiences of those brave enough to stand on a picket line, facing huge trucks of the kind you see thundering by when you’re waiting for the lights to change at Tydeman Road and Stirling Highway.

Most significantly, the story of what happened in Fremantle and around the nation in 1998 serves as a warning while federal Parliament debates the “Ensuring Integrity” Bill.

Workers need unions to defend them in an increasingly hostile and unscrupulous working environment; Australia needs unions to maintain fairness and justice in society.

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