Appeal for port history

Daniel A Elias is hoping to find old memories about wharfies from old timers and their families read his story below about the little-known 1899 strike that changed WA’s industrial relations forever.

A HISTORIAN researching a century of tensions on the waterfront is hoping old wharfies and their families will be able to bring his ambitious thesis to life by sharing stories and ephemera from the key moments that shaped Australia’s maritime sector.

Daniel A Elias is studying at UWA and looking at the issue of how maritime workers, shipping companies and state institutions navigated the tensions between each other and across the globe.

“The history will explore four periods over a 100-year span,” Mr Elias said.

Work stoppage

“Starting with the work stoppage of 1899, moving to the waterfront tensions during the post-WWI era, followed by the Cold War era and the advent of containerisation, and finishing with the waterfront confrontations of 1998.”

Mr Elias is hoping any relatives of people involved in those periods who has stories, personal correspondence, photos, posters, magazines, newspaper clippings or anything else related, will get in contact.

“I want to make sure I keep the human life in my history, and the community’s contribution would go a long way in helping me achieve this goal,” he said.

Mr Elias can be contacted on freo.maritimephd@gmail.com

Tension on the waterfront

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. 

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

Blood

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. 

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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