A Century of Working Class Activism: A Review of Wharfie

A Century of Working Class Activism: A Review of Wharfie

by Wal Stubbings and Lesley Synge, published by Zing Stories, 2017

Queen’s Land Branch News No. 104 – Friday 22 September 2017

Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) Queensland Branch Secretary 73 Southgate Avenue, Cannon Hill QLD 4170

IN THE LAST ten years of his life, retired Brisbane wharfie Wal Stubbings started recording the stories of his own life. When Wal died in 2014, aged 101, his memoirs remained unpublished, scattered throughout scores of documents typed and saved as computer files by family and friends. Wal’s son Col understood the importance of this legacy. He

phoned Brisbane writer Lesley Synge to ask her to piece together the stories into a coherent whole. Fortunately, she said yes. Drawing on Wal’s written stories, his letters, recordings of interviews with him and other sources, Synge has compiled Wharfie, a book destined to become a classic of Australian working class memoir.

Synge has done a remarkable job of sewing the patches together. Occasionally she has added small sections in her own words, designed to clarify or explain certain points in the narrative. But her interventions are modest and complementary. With a deft editing hand Synge has allowed Wal to tell his own story. This is not a biography of Wal but a memoir in the first person, presented in Wal’s own words with his own matter-of-fact conversational style, wry humour and honesty. The book follows a chronological arrangement, recounting Wal’s early years in the isolated timber-getting and mining communities of Tasmania’s west coast, then moving through his four decades on the Brisbane waterfront and as an activist in the Communist Party of Australia (CPA), and ending with his political, sporting and family activities during his long retirement. Each section is illustrated with photographs.

There are many reasons to read and enjoy Wharfie. Here are just three.

The book is rich in information about the way things were and how they changed, especially for working people. Capitalist societies like Australia’s have evolved so rapidly and profoundly in 150 years that many aspects of human existence prior to the 1970s seem utterly strange to us. Reading the life story of a man who lived for more than a century is like reading science fiction in reverse. For most of his life Wal functioned in a world without personal computers, mobile phones, the internet, credit and debit cards, ATMs or mass air travel. He was in his 40s when television arrived in Australian homes, in his 60s when it changed to colour. When Wal and his wife Ada became active in community politics in the Brisbane suburb of Moorooka, their home became the venue for meetings because they were among the few locals who could afford a telephone.

On the waterfront men loaded and unloaded cargo by hand. Wal’s first wharf job entailed shovelling and carrying coal in baskets from ship’s holds to train wagons. Thousands of tonnes were moved this way. In Brisbane, humping bags of cargo was normal until containerisation in the 1960s. Wal’s experiences remind us that technology, however sophisticated, is always an extension of human brains and muscles. However distant we become from the pick, the shovel and the grappling hook, labour and the natural world are and always will be the source of all social wealth.

Wal’s life story confirms that humanity advances through collective knowledge and effort. While capitalist ideology encourages us to revere the outstanding individual, the self-motivated high achiever, in reality social progress derives from cooperation. Most of what we learn we learn from others, and what we achieve, we achieve together. Shovelling coal, the young Wal learnt from an old wharfie the best way to go about it. Thanks to him, Wal survived the long shifts with body intact. In the timber industry similar communal wisdom, passed down from experienced timbermen, kept Wal from being crushed to death by falling trees. Confronted by the structures of economic and political power, Wal could easily have been crushed in a different way. Instead, he turned to the collective strength of community organising, trade unionism and the Communist Party, and discovered in them both the power of solidarity and a way of leading a meaningful life. He realised his own advancement was bound up with the advancement of others. Not for him the dog-eat-dog selfishness of neoliberalism.

Wal’s approach to life and politics provides a second reason to read Wharfie. He emerges from its pages as a worker-intellectual with the courage to question his own actions and beliefs. At least up to a point. A staunch socialist, he travelled to the Soviet Union in 1963, only to return with doubts about the nature of the Soviet regime. He aired those doubts publicly. But he didn’t leave the Communist fold. Despite Wal’s unease about Stalinism he remained a member of the CPA and loyal to the communist leadership of the Waterside Workers Federation (WWF). His loyalty skews his judgement at times. Was it really the case, for example, that in the 1960s the WWF ‘tried to create a culture where you could express yourself – right-wing, left-wing or whatever’? (p.138) Perhaps. But probably not. All the same, Wal was no Communist dupe. In 1968 he lost close friends over his criticism of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. Later, he came to the view that ‘socialism under Stalin was not what Marx and Engels envisaged.’ (p.161) Always close to the rank and file, Wal adjudged the Soviet Union a failure because central authority had taken control, crushing workers’ democracy.

Wal never stopped questioning and learning. From the Aboriginal activist and wharfie Joe McGinness he learned that communication is more effective if you start with the little things, finding the common ground first. From a proud young man with paraplegia he learned not to assume your personal help is always needed or welcomed. From Ada’s dementia late in her life he discovered he was not the self-sufficient carer he assumed he was. From returning to his childhood home in Tasmania and contemplating the environmental devastation wreaked by copper mining, Wal concluded that the ‘slash and burn’ approach to development dominant in his lifetime had to be rejected. Wal’s ability to reflect honestly on his own habits of thought and behaviour and not to accept ‘common sense’ views on face value, is a lesson for us all.

The third reason to read this book is that it serves as a ledger of the debt we owe earlier generations of worker activists. As a Vigilance Officer for the WWF Wal was at the forefront of making the waterfront a safer place. In one incident the role almost cost him his life. This did not deter him. Through his persistence and the persistence of others like him, safety was established as a workplace priority. As a result, fewer workers were (and are) injured or killed on the job. As Wal well knew, however, this situation can never be taken for granted.

The debt we owe does not stop at the workplace. Many readers of Wharfie will already know about the WWF’s role in supporting the Indonesian struggle for independence. They will probably also know about the union’s support for Aboriginal rights and its prominence in the Queensland Right to March campaign in 1978-79. But how many will know that in 1956 a contingent of Brisbane wharfies travelled to Inglewood on the Darling Downs to help residents recover from a flood? How many know that Spinal Life Australia and the Sporting Wheelies and Disabled Association originated in fundraising activities by the WWF and its Women’s Committee? How many are aware that the Communist Party organised what was probably Queensland’s first rent strike to prevent a hike in government rents in Moorooka?

Wal or Wal and Ada together were involved in all of these battles. Wal also supported the Timorese against the Indonesian takeover in 1975. Thirty years later, in his 90s, he led a successful campaign to halt Coalition plans to extend the GST to personal and medical services for residents of retirement villages. This while coping with the trauma of Ada’s decline. So many campaigns fought, so many conditions and freedoms won and defended. So many people who benefitted. All his adult life Wal Stubbings believed organized labour to be the hope of the world. The history recounted in this tremendous book shows why he was right. For this reason alone it is a must-read for workers everywhere.

Jeff Rickertt