Union pride

Proud to be a Wharfie, By Jim Beggs AM, Published by Arcadia
Review by Nigel Tapp

Jim Beggs’ rise to the top of the Waterside Workers’ Federation may never have happened if he had not struck up a conversation with his neighbour and a man akin to the enemy, stevedoring company advisor Tom Uren.

Soon after the pair met over a shared boundary fence Mr Uren asked if Mr Beggs wanted to see the waterfront operate differently.
With a positive response received Mr Uren posed the question which would help move Mr Beggs from simply a man who complained about a problem to a man who had a fervent desire to be a catalyst for change on the Victorian docks.

“If you want to see the waterfront different Jim, maybe the place to start is with yourself,” Mr Uren challenged.

Mr Beggs recalls the story in his autobiography Proud to be a Wharfie.

The book is more than just a personal story of a man who spent more than two decades as national president of the union, the last person to fill the role.

It is also a social history of the Melbourne waterfront.

Mr Beggs does not hide the fact it was a tough place to work when he first arrived as a 21-year-old eager to earn more money. It was a time of the open pick up system where workers were expected to literally be on-call all day every day, but with no guarantee of work.

Corruption raged when it came to deciding which workers got jobs, disputes were common and a barbed wire fence was needed to separate union members from the ‘scab’ labour employed during the 1928 strike.

It is also a heart-warming story of mateship and the characters Mr Beggs met along the way. Men such as The London Fog – because no one saw him lift all day – Billy and Hughie Sykes, ‘Gogs’ Chapman and Les Stuart.

A committed member of the Uniting Church, Mr Beggs’ story is also one which focuses on his faith and his desire to change the face of his union.

At the book’s launch last year, Mr Beggs said he wanted people to understand that trade unions were agents for change and not agents for resistance.

Mr Beggs certainly played a major role in change on the waterfront – many for the betterment of the workers – and he saw much change.

Mechanisation and containerisation has made the waterfront certainly a much safer place to work but it has also greatly reduced the number of men needed.

During Mr Beggs’ day, employment on the Melbourne waterfront exceeded 80,000 workers and now it is a touch over 3000.

Mr Beggs may not have enjoyed the profile of some other Australian union officials of his era but, as this book clearly demonstrates, he certainly was a catalyst for change.

Available at various bookshops or go to: www.scholarly.info and www.bookshop.vic.gov.au

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