Waterside Workers' records digitised

3 May 2022

Digitisation of Waterside Workers' records to mark the 150th anniversary

This year marks a very special anniversary for the Maritime Union of Australia, with 2022 marking 150 years since the formation of the first trade unions representing waterside workers in Port Adelaide, Sydney and Port Melbourne (Sandridge) in 1872.

During the 1880s and 1890s, state-based waterfront unions became prominent in New South Wales, South Australia, Western Australia and Victoria. These unions federated in 1890, and on 7th February 1902 the Waterside Workers’ Federation (WWF) was formed, with a view to taking a more national approach to addressing common concerns. The first elected president was William “Billy” Hughes, future Prime Minister of Australia. By late 1902 the WWF had 18 branches and just over 6,000 members.

In 1907 the WWF obtained federal registration and Billy Hughes continued on as General President, although in 1916 he was expelled from the union and the Labor Party for his support of conscription. The following year, WWF members joined many other trade unions in the Great Strike of 1917.

Throughout the 1900s, the WWF remained very active. In 1928 union members demonstrated en masse against the Bruce Government and Transport Workers Act, which forced wharfies to pay for an annual license to work. During a demonstration at Port Melbourne, wharfie Allan Whittaker was shot and killed by police.

In 1937 James “Jim” Healy was elected General Secretary, and under his guidance, the WWF developed into a more modern and effective union. During 1937-38 wharfies in Sydney and Port Kembla protested against growing Japanese aggression in China by refusing to load scrap metal and pig iron bound for Japan, arguing that the resources would be used in weaponry. From 1945-49 the WWF boycotted Dutch ships carrying goods which could be used to crush the Indonesian independence movement. The union was also very active in protesting against the Vietnam War and the Apartheid movement in South Africa, particularly through boycotting cargo.

Like most unions, the WWF underwent some significant structural changes throughout its history. In 1950 the WWF absorbed the Permanent & Casual Wharf Labourers Union of Australia. In 1991 it amalgamated with the Australian Foremen Stevedores Association. However the largest change was in 1993, when the WWF amalgamated with the Seamen's Union of Australia (SUA) to form the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA).

The MUA perhaps became most well-known to the general public during the bitter Patrick Dispute in 1998, an 80-day dispute in which MUA members were locked-out of wharves by Patrick Corporation, who sought to undertake an aggressive restructuring of their operations.

Today the MUA is a division of the large Construction Forestry Maritime Mining and Energy Union with a current focus on the protection of local jobs and shipping, improved workplace safety, and addressing fuel security issues.

We hold a very large number of WWF records, including membership records, meeting papers, correspondence and photographs dating from the 1870s to 1990s.

To mark the 150th anniversary, the ANU Library Digital Scholarship team have digitised thousands of photographs from our Waterside Workers' Federation and Maritime Union of Australia archives. Later this year we will be using some of these records in an exhibition to mark the anniversary.

You can browse digitised Maritime Union and Waterside Workers Federation photographs on the ANU Open Research website.