In April 1998 the Patrick Corporation, the company which ran the operations at the major Australia ports, embarked on a brutal ‘restructure’ and sacked their entire workforce. Australian stevedores, often called ‘wharfies’, found themselves locked out of their own workplaces overnight and replaced with non-union labour, who had been recruited from the Australian army and from private military and security companies. This ‘restructure’ was designed to break the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA), which the vast majority of wharfies were members of. This union had, and has, a strong, militant and active membership, a history of internationalism and real solidarity with First Nations people.
My dad had worked on the waterfront, as a dogman and rigger, responsible for directing the loads handled by the cranes. At the time of the MUA dispute he was a teacher, but he went down the picket line every day. Often my sister and I went too. I recently asked my Dad why he was so, in his words, ‘obsessed.’ Was it because he had worked on the waterfront? Not really, he said, it was more that he could see clearly that if workers could be locked out of a job overnight on the wharves, then they could be anywhere. No one was immune, no one above it, no matter the sector.
Looking at the photos now, I can see how that struggle was built around a particular kind of white, masculine strength, though my dad was good at making space for his young daughters. We often took the skipping rope down the picket line. At the time, Jennie George was the president of the Australian Council of Trades Unions. When we returned home from the picket to watch the strike on the tv, she would often be interviewed in her huge, fantastic, red framed glasses. She was an example of a different kind of strength, no less hard than the men, but different. I can see now that she was important to me. At the time I just thought, Jennie George, eh! What a woman!
My sister and I wore t-shirts which read ‘MUA Here to Stay’ to school, our hair swinging down our backs in plaits (my dad putting his rigging skills to use in a more domestic sphere). One friend looked at our shirts and said ‘what is M-U-A? Mooa? Mewa?’ and I thought How could you NOT KNOW?!’ That is the first time I felt that hot, incredulous feeling, common in the midst of a campaign. It would certainly not be the last.
There was a lot of singing on the picket line, voices warbling against the windy docks. All those old songs like Bread and Roses and Power in a Union. I’d grown up with these, largely thanks to my Mum, and I still know every word including the fourth verse, because they are impossible to forget.
In Solidarity Forever, there is a line: ‘Is there anything left for us to do but organise and fight?’ Sometimes, like in 1998, that line seemed uplifting and buoyant and carrying. After all, we did win, and drinking from that cup of victory tasted sweet. In these difficult times, though, that line from that old tune seems like the saddest in the world. It is just a factual description of people out of options. Nothing else to be done but keep going, to try to build power, and stack hope against hope.
Rosa Campbell is an Editorial Fellow at History Workshop Online and a doctoral candidate in history at the University of Cambridge. Her work explores the global history of Australian Women’s Liberation and she is interested in oral history, global intellectual history, and the way that histories inform and ‘press upon’ contemporary activism. She is also an Associate Research Fellow at Birkbeck and Fellow of the Raphael Samuel History Centre. Outside of academic work, she writes for adults and children on a range of platforms and is a proud member of the London Renters Union.