Tension on the docks

Freo lumpers at work in the hot and dangerous cargo holds.

THE five-week work stoppage at Fremantle Harbour in 1899 came to shape how Western Australian industrial relations functioned. 

The urgency in which the following crisis was resolved echoes disputes throughout the 20th century, with striking similarities and obscure differences. 

The demand for industrial peace existed because the harbour was pivotal to the rest of the colony. Fremantle (Walyalup) was isolated within the British Imperial trade network, which was a source of tension between governors, ship-owners, and maritime workers alike. 

Members of the Fremantle Lumpers Union were a group of dockworkers who would load and unload cargo from ships. 

Blood

Their work was irregular and brutal, with a safety review finding that there was “blood on the cargo”. 

Their working environment was at times deadly because the harbour was always congested. It was not a job that could be done five days a week, with a neat 9am to 5pm shift. 

The lumpers preferred to work around two days a week, with five days to recuperate. 

This gave rise to the perception from some in the community that they were lazy vagabonds, but that is far from the truth.    

The discovery of gold in the late 19th century intensified trade through the already congested harbour, and masked the Long Depression that had hit cities across the globe. 

Many people enthusiastically migrated to Western Australia in search of a fortune in the goldfields, nearly tripling Fremantle’s population from 5,607 in 1891 to 14,704 by Federation in 1901. 

Freo’s South Quay in 1900.

Premier John Forrest capitalised on the influx of people and finance to fund public works with the guidance of CY O’Connor. Fremantle was a buzz of activity, but it was all temporary. 

As public works were completed and gold seams dried-up, the Depression came unmasked upon Fremantle.

On February 15 a Steamship Owners Association member announced on their notice board that they would operate under the principle of “freedom of contract”, negating the gains which the union achieved through collective bargaining. It resulted in an average pay cut of 19.33 per cent and the loss of three hours of overtime pay.   

The notice outlined the terms under which members of the SOA would hire maritime labour. 

It was, in every respect, unfavourable to workers at the waterfront. 

The president of the Association stated that the new terms, “were the rules under which the Association would in future work, [and there’s] nothing to state in regard to the new rules or the reason which led to their promulgation”. 

Starved

Another spokesperson for the SOA described the situation bluntly: “Unquestionably the time is a favourable one for the steamship owners to seek to reduce wages. The lumpers are pretty well starved down at the present time, and are to a large extent in the power of their employers.” 

It was becoming clear Western Australia could not escape the Long Depression.

The lumpers were stumped by the notice.

However, the new terms were not in effect until March 1, and they assumed there was enough time to find a resolution. 

But then, February 18, a new notice for employment was posted, stating it would give preferential work to old employees if they re-registered their names on the new terms of employment.

Continued next week

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