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When wharfies said no to fascism

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Film Review: 'The Dalfram Dispute 1938 – Pig Iron Bob'
Louisa L.

“The waterside companies only picked those men whom they considered to be 'bulls', the strongest, toughest, fittest or the sneakiest men who could pay those who were doing the employing. The employer wanted to exploit to the full meaning of the word 'bull'... for some men whom I've interviewed it was not uncommon to work 48 or 72 hours straight, so that at the end of their working lives they were broken wrecks of men,” says Dr Glenn Mitchell from Wollongong University in 'The Dalfram Dispute 1938 – Pig Iron Bob'. He describes capitalism unfettered...

This bull system was in full swing when Ted Roach arrived in 1936 Port Kembla, the home of BHP's steelworks near Wollongong. Wharfies would wait on the street for possible work till the company man arrived. He'd point, “You, you and you.” The rest would go home.

Poverty and injustice were Ted Roach's early teachers, and led him to the Communist Party. The combination of his leadership and waterside workers' determination smashed the bull system, instituting Australia's first ever port roster system run by the men. 

According to Mitchell, Roach's strategy denied bosses power of choice by presenting different workers each day, only enough to do the work. Roach was “bringing a form of discipline, a logic, a coherent well-structured program to the world of work, the like of which had never been seen in Port Kembla.” 

But this was just the prologue.     

Send this ship and there'll be more killing
War loomed. Nanjing was China's capital when Japan invaded on December 13, 1937, their soldiers instructed to “kill all, burn all, destroy all”. 300,000 people were killed in six weeks, 20,000 women and girls raped. Children and pregnant women were bayoneted to death. Horrific images made headlines around the world, and original footage, plus interviews and re-enactments make the film's Chinese scenes immensely powerful. 

In Port Kembla people were talking. Shirley Chester, a resident, remembers the mood, “They've gone into China, anything can happen!... Rumours were that they were on the go.”

Then Roach gave a simple argument, explained by Glenn Mitchell, “Send the ship, this ship, and more ships and there'll be more killing. Don't send this ship, don't send any other ships and the killing will stop. It's a very powerful argument... that connects the local to the international, and connects the men to their simple basic humanity.”

This refusal by Port Kembla dockworkers to load pig iron on a Japanese-bound ship after the Nanjing massacre is the film's heart. It juxtaposes Ted Roach, the leader of the South Coast Waterside Workers Federation and Pig Iron Bob, Attorney General Robert Menzies, who demanded capitalist law be upheld. 

Steeled in struggle
Each day for nine weeks, the wharfies presented for work, but were sent home for refusing to load the Dalfram. Children went to bed with hunger pains, but the wharfies stood firm. This extraordinary act of working class internationalism stands unmatched in Australian industrial history. 

“It was waterside workers determining Australian foreign policy, and this infuriated the boss class,” states Dr Drew Cottle of University of Western Sydney.

Les Louise, Historian and ex-Communist Party member says, “Politically active people, they were steeled in the Depression... the massive unemployment, the suffering of ordinary people, the evictions, the brutality of the police.”
Women and men, neighbours, small business people, the Australian-Chinese community, radio 2KY and workers across the country supported the wharfies and their determined families. Menzies did the opposite, hoping to starve them out, thinking his oratory could sway them, threatening them. He was mistaken.

How appeasement becomes admiration
The film gives voice to those who knew Menzies personally, his daughter Heather Henderson and David Kemp, former MP, who states Menzies “was devoted to Australia”.

But Menzies' appeasement of fascism is given its class context. Japan was a major trading party that helped capitalism recover from the Depression, so BHP, grain and wool exporters called the shots.

“For people such as Menzies, his class, communism was evil incarnate... They saw none of those characteristics in Nazism. They thought of it as an authoritarian regime... that had regrettable characteristics, but one that preserved private property and the place of the church, social hierarchy and order... nothing comparable to communism,” reflects Melbourne University's Stuart Macintyre.

In 1938 Attorney General Menzies visited Germany,  and appeasement moved to admiration. 

On October 16 he spoke of “a national spirit” under Nazism that was “sadly lacking in Australia”.
Glenn Mitchell states that Menzies talked of the “spiritual quality in the willingness of the young Germans devoted to service of the state... He begins to articulate a very pro-German response,” unconcerned with invasion of Czechoslovakia, takeover of Austria or re-armament. For all the wrong reasons, Menzies stated, “World peace hinges on Germany.” 

Kemp suggests Menzies' attitude is a reaction to communism. “Australia was riven by class war promoted by people like Ted Roach... Roach was undermining national unity and dividing the nation at a time when other nations were building national unity... Menzies worried about where that would lead Australia if it ever became involved in war,” he says.

Kemp exposes his own class bias, ignoring basic humanity as a motivator: “The Communist Party saw itself increasingly... as an organisation that would exist in Australia to disrupt the capitalist system and carry out actions that would be helpful to the Soviet Union... The Dalfram dispute arose out of that.”

Body and soul
The film doesn't analyse communism, but in one sequence calls it “anti-democratic”and discusses the dilemma faced by “democratic” leaders: “Could fascism or communism come to threaten their way of life? Should they continue to trade with non-democratic governments, would such trade indicate they were in alliance with fascist or communist powers?” 

This brief linking of fascism and the struggle to create socialism and eventually communism is  slightly problematic in an overwhelmingly incisive film. If a momentous struggle like that documented by the film is in danger of  disappearing from knowledge, how much more has been hidden or distorted about a movement that threatened the very existence of capitalism and imperialism?

Roach's daughter, Suzanne Roach, describes her father's commitment to communism. “So once he worked out what he thought were the inequities, he took on what he thought could fix it... he took it on lock, stock and barrel, body and soul, and believed in it till the day he died. He just believed that there were steps to be taken to make sure that it was possible for everybody to take their own steps to improve their life... communism meant that in a big way.”

On one point David Kemp is correct – the Soviet Union did tell other communist parties what to do, and some toed the line, but Suzanne Roach emphasises that her father was driven by his experiences, not by communism. Perhaps that was what made him such a good leader, able to empower people who were mostly not communist. Reality in Australia and in our particular struggles, not dogma, should always be the driver of our actions. 

The young dad across the road is moved by war histories. So in the 2013 I mentioned my disgust when Robert Menzies' face was projected onto the Opera House during the naval centenary. 

“He was the wartime prime minister, wasn't he?” my neighbour asked. Despite his passion and intelligence, he knew nothing of Menzies' role in the march to war, nor anything of the heroism of those wharfies, their families or the Australian community that supported them.

The nine week refusal to load pig iron is now known by relatively few, but deserves deep remembrance.

This small budget documentary, made with community support at every level, has a light and lyrical quality which both belies and strengthens its enormously important service to the people.

History is being rewritten on a staggering scale by both lies and omissions. This documentary is a breath of truth. I'll be lending it to my neighbour, my family and to my friends, especially to teachers, who I hope will show it to their students. 

'The Dalfram Dispute 1938 Pig Iron Bob' is directed by Sandra Pires and produced by Why Documentaries. Available from


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