Birth of the WWF

The Waterside Workers Federation was officially formed in February 1902 at a meeting at Parliament House in Melbourne. During a decade-and-a-half, wharfies built a sustainable framework for a national organisation, which allowed members to run the union and develop political and industrial relations.

The work was back-breaking. Backs, shoulders, legs and internal organs were injured because of the excessive hours, speeds and, of course, weights. Weights could range from 180 pounds (76 kilos) to 336 pounds (152 kilos)--carried on the backs of the wharfies. Many men were injured on the job; some even left work unaware of serious health conditions and later died.

In 1904, the Sydney branch attempted to win a weight limit of no more than 150 pounds (68 kilos) per bag of wheat. A compromise was reached after hearings and organising--in 1908, legislation set the limit of the importation of bags that weighed more than about 200 pounds (90 kilos). But, excessive weights continued to be a fight for the WWF for many decades.

The first national agreement was reached in 1909 between the Australian Steamship Owners Federation (SSOF) and the WWF. The agreement provided for hiring preference of WWF members but also included a pledge for no work stoppages. Though wage rates increased in certain ports with rates lower than those paid by Sydney-based companies, different rates still existed for deep-sea and coastal work.

However, militancy of branches--in particular, the Sydney Branch--challenged the no work stoppages clause. For example, the Sydney branch refused to work on ships using scab labour during a New South Wales coal lumpers' strike, and supported a 1909 northern coal strike. The Melbourne branch also defied the wishes of the WWF Committee of Management, refusing to work in support of a 1910 waterfront timber sorters' strike. Beyond solidarity, both branches were symbols of militancy, striking in 1911 for better pay and increased rates for special cargoes.

In 1914, a Commonwealth award for waterside workers broke new ground, setting uniform wage standards for wharf labourers across the nation, as well as becoming the basis for awards for other casual workers.

As recounted in "Wharfies": "Demands for increased wage and overtime rates, and payment for meal hours and smokos were relatively straightforward. But special rates were claimed for such things as urgent work necessitating absence from home, work in freezing chambers, with explosives and in fumigation holds, for vaccination and replacement of contaminated clothes, for working on wrecks and salvaging cargo, for standing in 'boisterous' weather, and for the extreme climatic conditions in ports north of Brisbane. Special rates were claimed for bagged cargo of particular weights, and for cargoes (many obnoxious) such as lime, cement, blood manure, sulphur, bone dust, superphosphates, gypsum, rock phosphates, blister copper, manganese, plaster, pig iron, ammonia, wet hides, lead bullion, ore, ballast, carbolic powers, copper matte, zinc ashes, log timber, cased mineral oils, acid (in liquid), coal and coke, broken glass, pipes covered in creosote, concentrates and powellised timber."

The arbitrator, Justice Higgins, set hourly rates: 1s 9d per hour, 8s 6d per day. [note: "s" referred to shillings and "d" referred to the old "pennies" with 12d=1 shilling]

Billy Hughes, the WWF's first president, became Prime Minister of Australia in 1915. Ultimately, his support for conscription for war service would lead to his expulsion from the Labor Party and, then, expulsion from the WWF; the Sydney Branch voted 160 to 42 to expel Hughes, installing J Woods as the new president. Thus, the WWF became the only trade union to ever expel a Prime Minister from its ranks.