Pig Iron

3CR,  ‘Solidarity Breakfast’, 14 December 2013

Humphrey McQueen

Seventy-five yeas ago, the wharfies at Port Kembla were in the middle of a two-month strike. They were not out over wages or working conditions, crook though both were. They were in a political strike to stop the export of pig iron to Japan.

To understand what was happening on the docks we have to go back ten years. A new award had slashed conditions. Strikes ran on and off for months but there were more scabs at the gates than union members. After the Transport Workers Act, the 1928 dispute on the Melbourne docks, a wharfie needed a licence to work. Hence, the dog-collar Act.

In 1937-8, the Waterside Workers Federation was still in the process of bringing the scabs into the fold. You can imagine what a rough and tough task that had been for the new Federation leadership under the communist secretary Jim Healey.

Attorney-General Menzies extended the licence regime to Port Kembla. During the two months of the stoppage, not one person applied for a licence to scab. Not even after BHP sacked all its steel workers to put pressure on the wharfies who were being supported financially by the iron-workers.

These struggles hold lessons for nowadays. Under Communist leadership, all unions at the time were rebuilding after ten years of being smashed between 1927 and 1931 and after dragging through the depression. The militants knew they had to roll with the punches. So, in the end, the wharfies loaded the pig iron. But they had two victories. The dispute signaled an end of the dog-collar everywhere. It didn’t work anymore. The second achievement was to spread industrial action against war and fascism. By the 1950s, this policy was summed up in the call: ‘Peace is union business’. Once again, we need to learn from the weapons of the weak.

It is also worth pointing out again that the Imperial Japanese Army never wanted to come south. It wanted to avenge defeats at the hand of the Soviets in the early 1920s and to carve out an empire. In doing so, the Japanese were also following the example of the Europeans and the Yanks by trying to get their claws on the biggest possible slice of the Chinese melon.

Dole queue patriots is how they were described at the time. Many had been out of work for most of the previous decade. Those who did not get work before 1939 were forced to enlist in the army when unemployment was still pushing ten percent.

Given the tens of millions being poured into the celebration of the Great European slaughterhouse, why are the pig-iron strikers not being honoured all over the media as anti-fascist heroes? Why is no tax money going into the documentary film being made about the struggle?

In 1938, Rupert Lockwood was a journalist with Murdoch senior. Rupert got to propose a toast at the parliamentary breakup in 1938 when Ming was the guest of honour. Rupert praised Menzies for his charitable concern for the impoverished Chinese. They were known to suffer from nutritional deficiencies. The Attorney General was going to help the Japanese militarists put some iron into the Chinese diet. Menzies went to hell carrying the nickname ‘Pig Iron Bob’.

(Rowan Cahill’s biography of Rupert Lockwood is now on line.)

For the sake of balance, let’s say one thing for Pig-Iron Bob. He went down to Port Kembla in the heat of the dispute to face the strikers and their families. Did anyone see Peter Reith on the Melbourne docks in 1998?