When then Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced plans for a new submarine base on Australia’s east coast last March, Port Kembla, Newcastle and Brisbane were proposed as suitable potential locations. The submarines will be part of the new nuclear-powered fleet announced under the AUKUS alliance agreement (see box). 

It has been reported that of the sites being considered, Port Kembla in the New South Wales city of Wollongong is the Defence Department’s preferred option. The Maritime Union of Australia’s Southern NSW branch immediately responded by condemning nuclear proliferation in the Illawarra, stating, “The MUA has always stood for peace, internationalism and justice, and so condemns in any shape or form the proliferation of nuclear capability in any country, especially our own. This includes the development or proliferation of nuclear-powered defence vessels”. South Coast Labour Council secretary Arthur Rorris told the Illawarra Mercury that unions and the Port Kembla community would “fight tooth and nail to prevent putting a nuclear target on our city”.

Port Kembla has a long history of resistance to militarism. Wollongong was declared a nuclear-free city in 1980, and in 2019 the Wollongong City Council signed the International Campaign for the Abolition of Nuclear Weapons Cities Appeal. In 1967, Port Kembla waterside workers and the Seamen’s Union of Australia refused to load the Jeparit and the Boonaroo bound for the Australian war effort in Vietnam. But this history of anti-war industrial action stretches back much further.

In October 1937, the Australian Council of Trade Unions called for a nationwide boycott of Japanese goods and an embargo on the export of iron from Australia to Japan in response to Japan’s invasion of China. In December 1937, the Imperial Japanese Army marched into Nanjing (at that time the capital city of China), methodically killed at least 200,000 unarmed civilians and disarmed soldiers, and systematically brutalised the living. It was an atrocity of mass murder and mass rape. (Shinzo Abe, the recently assassinated former prime minister of Japan, denied that the Nanjing massacre ever occurred).

The Victorian Trades Hall Council declared, “Threats of retaliation must not deter [us] from exhibiting our deep-rooted opposition to the wholesale slaughter of defenceless civilian populations”. The South Coast branch of the Waterside Workers’ Federation (WWF) pledged to refuse to load any ship with or carrying war materials for Japan, passing a resolution viewing “with horror the unprovoked and murderous attack of the Japanese militarists ... we as members of the Australian working class are prepared to assist the Chinese workers in their fight against Fascist Japan”.

At the time, Japan was one of Australia’s most important trading partners. Broken Hill Proprietary Ltd (BHP) had a contract to supply the Japan Steel Works with 300,000 tons of pig-iron, to be used to manufacture high-explosive and incendiary bombs and other military materials for the undeclared war on China. The British steamship SS Dalfram had been chartered by BHP to take pig-iron to the Japan Steel Works. On 15 November 1938, when unionised wharf labourers at Port Kembla discovered and confirmed that the pig-iron was bound for military production in Japan, they immediately walked off the job, refusing to load the Dalfram. This strike was not about pay and conditions: it was in solidarity with the Chinese people against the brutal Japanese invasion.

The day after the dock workers walked off, the crew of the Dalfram went on strike, refusing to move the ship to another berth where non-union labour could be employed. The Seamen’s Union declared that “no law in the world would compel them to carry the pig-iron to Japan”. The Dalfram’s officers withheld the crew’s pay of seven months and cancelled all shore leave, turning the ship into a floating prison. Only after 11 days and a furious storm were the crew released. 

Arab sailor Mohammed Goulah, leader of the Dalfram’s stokehold crew, was dragged off by police to a doctor to be certified as insane and “under the influence of drugs”. A leading psychiatrist found him to be “quite normal”. On his release a week later, Goulah told the press: “I will never sail a ship that carries potential war material for Japan”.

By boycotting a ship bound for Japan, the unions were seen by the conservative federal government as not only interfering in a commercial contract with Japanese businesses, but dictating the nation’s foreign policy. As Prime Minister Lyons articulated in parliament: “The government cannot permit the usurpation of its functions by any section of the community. It alone has the full responsibility to determine what attitude it shall adopt with regard to the Sino-Japanese dispute, and cannot allow this responsibility to be taken from it”.

Robert Menzies, then the attorney general and minister for industry, saw unions taking industrial and political action as a bigger menace than Japanese imperialism. Menzies called the ban “a provocative act against a friendly power”. At this point, according to the League of Nations, 1 million Chinese civilians were already dead. Putting the profits of BHP first, Menzies used the punitive Transport Workers Act against the Port Kembla dock workers, meaning only workers with a licence from government licensing officers could get work. Any worker not willing to load the Dalfram would be refused a licence, and workers could be forced, on pain of dismissal, to load cargo to which they objected. Unionists called it the “Dog Collar Act”. The licences cost one shilling, the same as a dog licence.

But the WWF refused to be intimidated and maintained the strike. Apart from managerial staff, only one licence was taken out—by a union member who supported the ban. A public bonfire was organised in front of the Port Kembla Customs House to burn the only licence. The WWF was able to create such unity against the act as to make its application ineffective.

There was immediate support from other unions for the ban, and the wharves were declared black (banned). The Illawarra Trades and Labour Council set about reinforcing the 24-hour seven-day picket on the Dalfram, and established area committees to collect and distribute funds and food. The waterside workers received financial support from around Australia. Parties went out rabbiting and fishing to help feed the families of the striking workers. Chinese market gardeners in New South Wales rushed truckloads of fresh produce to Port Kembla to help sustain the struggle, and the Chinese immigrant community in Sydney shouted Christmas dinner and tea for the Dalfram crew. The Port Kembla wharfies received a letter of gratitude for their “highly esteemed” support from 34 unions in the city of Hankow in China, which was facing imminent invasion by advancing Japanese troops.

Production had been brought to a standstill by the dispute. BHP announced it was immediately sacking 3,500 steel workers and another 500 straight after Christmas. Four thousand workers were left without a wage. 

Menzies was enraged by the intransigence of the Port Kembla dock workers. He came to Wollongong on 11 January and was met by a hostile demonstration of more than 1,000 people. The Labour Council committee had mobilised Illawarra for his arrival, with watersiders, miners, steelworkers, women and children forming a miles-long guard of dishonour for his ministerial cavalcade. Menzies snuck through the rear entrance into the Wollongong Hotel, and safe passage had to be organised by wharfies forming a rough path through the crowd to the Town Hall opposite for his meeting with union officials. It was here that Gwen Croft, a member of the local Women’s Relief Committee, first called Menzies “Pig Iron Bob”. The name stuck and lasted throughout his political career.

Police threatened those out of work with arrest under vagrancy and consorting acts. The Union Bank of Australia (now part of ANZ, with BHP its biggest client at the time) foreclosed mortgages on strikers. Deserters from the multiracial Dalfram crew were arrested and imprisoned as “illegal immigrants”. With relief funds almost gone, the Labour Council committee recommended a return to work, and banned any handling in Illawarra of war materials. The South Coast branch of the WWF reluctantly agreed to the Labour Council’s request on 21 January 1939. The Dalfram had lain idle in Port Kembla Harbour since 15 November 1938. The waterside workers had held out for 10 weeks and two days without pay, before they were forced back to work by the threat of starvation.

The dock workers loaded the Dalfram under protest—with just 8 percent of the planned scrap metal and pig-iron cargo. Under the terms of settlement, the Dalfram was loaded, the dog-collar licences were withdrawn, and none of the remaining 277,000 tons of pig-iron were shipped to Japan. The Transport Workers’ Act was never used again and was subsequently erased from the statutes. The Dalfram was the last ship from Australia ever to feed the Japanese war effort—which was responsible for the slaughter of 20 million Chinese civilians through the eight-year Second Sino-Japanese War.

This is the history that should be remembered when nuclear-propelled submarines and a nuclear submarine base are slated for Australia’s east coast. Nuclear-powered submarines use highly enriched, nuclear-weapons-grade uranium. An accident or malfunction could result in a submarine becoming a floating nuclear bomb. In April this year, the Wollongong City Council reaffirmed itself as a nuclear-free zone, but the declaration is largely symbolic, and state or federal governments can overrule council decisions at any time.

A revival of the best traditions of internationalism and anti-militarism to build international solidarity of the working class against all warmongering governments is desperately needed. During the Dalfram dispute, the dockers in Port Kembla exercised their power as workers, withdrawing their labour and refusing to be complicit in a war on the Chinese. As imperialist tensions escalate and the Australian government prepares for future conflict with China, this history of solidarity between Australian and Chinese workers is the example we should be looking to for inspiration.