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Australia’s great union activist “Pig Iron Bob” campaign remembered

Lee Rhiannon 8 Apr 2015

One of Australia’s great activist union battles came alive in Wollongong Town Hall a few weeks back with the premiere of the film “The Dalfram dispute 1938 – Pig Iron Bob”.

With more than 800 people in attendance including wharfies and other unionists, a large delegation from China, and family members of the main protagonists - wharfies leader Ted Roach and former Prime Minister Bob Menzies - it was a lively night.

The film, produced by Sandra Pires, is excellent. It will be screened around the country in coming months and I recommend that you see it.

In the 1930s BHP, backed by the then conservative United Australia Party government, was shipping scrap wrought iron, known as 'pig iron', to Japan. Under the country’s imperial leaders Japan was engaged in horrific war crimes. The 1937 Rape of Nanking by the Japanese saw 600,000 Chinese slaughtered.

Ted Roach, then-Branch Secretary for the Waterside Workers’ Federation fore runner to the Maritime Union of Australia, informed members working on the Port Kembla wharves that the pig iron due to be loaded on the ship, the Dalfram, would be made into bombs and bullets by the Japanese and used first against the Chinese people and eventually against Australia.

BHP falsified the paperwork to make out the Dalfram was going to Singapore. But their lie was exposed. The workers went on strike.

The then Attorney General and aspiring Prime Minister Robert Menzies travelled to Wollongong to try and end the dispute and get the shipments going. This is when locals gave Menzies the name Pig Iron Bob.

Menzies extremist positions have been exposed over the years. In 1938 on a visit to Germany Menzies spoke favourably about aspects of the rising Nazi state. A letter Menzies wrote in the early stages of the Second World War gave further evidence of his attempt to support fascism. In 1941 Menzies backed the Brisbane-line, the British plan to not defend northern Australia from Japanese invasion.

The resolve of the wharfies was fantastic. This was a fight against fascism. They stayed out for nine weeks. The sacrifice for them and their families was massive. But the community support was huge with food donated by local shops and nearby farmers.

This film is a wonderful historic record of a great struggle and a reminder that unionists have a right to strike and struggle not just about wages and on the job conditions but also issues of social justice.

When I spoke at the premiere as well as congratulating the film makers and acknowledging the most important contribution the Dalfram wharfies made for peace in our region, I also detailed how such strike action is now illegal under the Abbott government.

This is film that is not just important for its historic value. It serves as a reminder that we must step up our opposition to the current conservative government that is hell bent on changing the face of Australia by stripping down penalty rates, pushing more workers into casual positions and stopping strikes.

I hope that the Dalfram film will help mobilise the action we need to defeat the Abbott government.

Rupert Lockwood’s book War on the Waterfront gives excellent coverage of this period. 

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