The Waterside Workers’ Federation of Australia (WWF) was a force on the wharves until 1993, when it was amalgamated into the Maritime Union of Australia. The WWF had presided over massive changes on the waterfront, always battling for improved conditions – slow battles, with reports still appearing in the 1940s commenting adversely on the huge danger to a man’s health in working on the wharves, and the lack of even basic sanitary facilities. One of its early battles was around the weight of the bags that the workers had to carry into the ships: in 1904 it asked for a weight limit of 150 lbs (68 kg) – the weight limit at the time was 240 lbs (109 kg) but this was often exceeded. In 1970 the safe limit for lifting was deemed to be 55 kg. The WWF also conducted political actions, such as the Pig Iron dispute, where waterside workers refused to load pig iron onto ships bound for Japan in 1937-38 as a protest against Japan’s aggression against China, or the embargo of 1945-49 against Dutch shipping in support of Indonesian independence from Dutch rule.
In the 1950s the WWF expanded into social and cultural areas. The Sydney branch set up a Women’s Committee and organised the first WWF sports carnival. The Sussex Street headquarters were remodelled to include a range of facilities – a canteen, a library and reading room, an art studio, and even a theatre.[i]A film production unit was established, making short films to balance depictions in the mainstream press. The heroes are the trudging men bearing loads that bend them double, working in dirty and hazardous conditions.
In 1900 the NSW state government took control of the Port of Sydney under the Harbour Trust Act, following public shock over the outbreak of plague, attributed to the rats that infested the privately-owned waterfront. It wasn’t only rats that made conditions grim on the wharves – no toilets, shelter sheds, or even water taps; 30-hour shifts; no continuity of employment, with workers being chosen on a daily basis by the foreman.
The rats persisted, despite the Act, and in 1947 the Stevedoring Industry Commission authorised the WWF ‘to cease work on rat-infested ships in the port of Sydney’.[ii] I asked Bill Gosling about the rats when I interviewed him.[iii]
The rats around the wharf, the Sydney grey rats around the wharf are fairly common. But on this one occasion, the rat catcher came in to see me and he said, ‘I might have my lunch while I’m here’, so he opened his case, there was a dead rat, in a plastic bag. ‘It’s alright,’ he said, ‘I stored it in a plastic bag first.’ He thought nothing of eating his lunch with a dead rat alongside of him. Another occasion, this concerns the same rat catcher, he went into a shed and one of the clerks said to him, ‘Look at that scabby old cat there, why don’t you give him a shot of something and put him out of his misery.’ He turned round, he said, ‘That scabby old cat’s my chief officer.’ He turned to the clerk, ‘If you touch that cat,’ he said, ‘you’ll have me to deal with.’ He said, ‘That cat works at night when I’m home in bed.’