The lives of waterside workers in the 1950’s
Wharfies in Australia, as in many other countries, have a particularly savage history of poor working conditions. Heavy lifting jobs, dangerous work sites, and no amenities even for washing or a clean place to have lunch, were only the tip of the iceberg. Work on the wharves was not only physically gruelling, it was also impermanent, seasonal and highly casualised.
The stretch of Sydney docks from Darling Harbour to Woolloomooloo was known as the ‘Hungry Mile’; every man who wanted work would have to walk the length of the wharves. The struggles to improve conditions were important parts of their union’s history, and were vital to the constitution of its militant, radical outlook. Union members’ efforts to better their situation provoked scathing attacks from the mainstream media, as well as from the government and the ship-owners. By the 1950s, the Waterside Workers’ Federation boasted its largest national membership of 27,000; and with this strength in numbers came a corresponding strength in militancy, and its leader ‘Big Jim’ Healy made no secret of his communist beliefs.
[Wharfies] have often been repressed in Australia’s historiography, not least because the militant wharfies and seamen who helped tame distance were living proof that Australia was not the country of conflict-free consensus that conservative orthodoxy preached for so long.
– historian Frank Broeze in ‘Island Nation’, 1998
The Waterside Workers film unit
The Waterside Workers’ Federation Film Unit was formed in 1953 with three members: Norma Disher, Keith Gow and Jock Levy. Keith and Jock were wharfies working on the ships before the Unit began, and they had had experience in film and theatre. They had met Norma through their after-hours work at Sydney’s New Theatre. They made fourteen films, mostly documentaries and animations, on a range of subjects that other filmmakers would never tackle then. They focused on industrial disputes, safety, housing shortages, and other social and labor issues, interpreted from a working-class viewpoint.
They were supported by left-wing unionists, writers, artists, and theatre workers. The unit members worked collectively and involved other waterside workers in the production process, as extras or helpers. They employed a grassroots distribution and exhibition system, showing their films at union and community meetings, and from their Kombi van, which doubled as a production vehicle and screening platform. Their films were bought by unions, libraries, and government departments, and won awards locally and overseas. Their best-known work is The Hungry Miles (1955), which gives a history of the waterfront industry from the workers’ perspective. Scenes from this film depicting living conditions during the Depression have often been used in later works, especially television documentaries.
The MUA Film unit today
At the start of the twenty-first century, the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) was the victim of government and industry reforms of the 1998 waterfront dispute. Because of this, and as the inheritor of the legacy of the WWFFU, the MUA perceived a new interest in the production of union media. The MUA 2004 conference agreed to support the establishment of an MUA film unit bringing together progressive, professional freelance filmmakers and actors with rank and file workers. In order to recruit talent for the new unit, a series of competitions, titled ‘Working Class Idol’, were held.
Stevedore Jamie McMechan, the winner of the second competition in 2008, has gone on to become the mainstay of the MUA Film Unit. The new film unit – McMechan and a small band of co-workers – make their films in their paid and unpaid time around their waterfront shifts. The films are then circulated to members through state branches, where they are shown at stop work meetings and other functions. This working arrangement mirrors that of the members of the WWFFU fifty years earlier. Films are made to document working conditions, depict industrial disputes and labour gatherings, record the talks of union leaders and workers, and commemorate labour celebrations such as May Day. Safety issues, conferences, campaigns of other unions, protests and social justice events, are amongst the films’ topics. As prominent older unionists die, their funerals and life celebrations are documented for posterity.