Dalfram dispute: $100k monument to commemorate Port Kembla wharfies strike

In November 1938 waterside workers refused to load iron onto a ship on the grounds that it would be used to make bullets and bombs for the Japanese war against China. The dispute led to Robert Menzies being called "Pig Iron Bob". When Menzies went to Wollongong in 1939, police called on communist union leaders to help him through a crowd of hostile workers. Photo taken in January 1939. Picture: Fairfax Photo Library/Norman Brown
In November 1938 waterside workers refused to load iron onto a ship on the grounds that it would be used to make bullets and bombs for the Japanese war against China. The dispute led to Robert Menzies being called "Pig Iron Bob". When Menzies went to Wollongong in 1939, police called on communist union leaders to help him through a crowd of hostile workers. Photo taken in January 1939. Picture: Fairfax Photo Library/Norman Brown

Several years ago it was suggested to filmmaker Sandra Pires she delve into a stand-off at Port Kembla in 1938, a protest against mass genocide. She was captivated.

The Dalfram Dispute 1938 was released in 2015, but now Ms Pires is leading a new project to recognise the “noble” strike with $100,000 available for an artist(s) to create a new monument.

This November marks the 80th anniversary of when 180 wharfies refused to load the SS Dalfram with a shipment of iron. It was bound for Japan as raw materials for bombs and ammunition to be used in the takeover of China.

It’s just pivotal and important and it should be remembered.

Sandra Pires

For 11 weeks these stevedores were out of work and out of pay for standing in solidarity to protest the undeclared war. Many in the community – including local policemen – tried to force the men to return to work using violence, but their conscience helped them prevail.

South Coast Labor Council's Arthur Rorris with Maritime Union Branch Secretary Garry Keane and Sandra Pires from Why Documentaries at Port Kembla. Picture: Adam McLean

South Coast Labor Council's Arthur Rorris with Maritime Union Branch Secretary Garry Keane and Sandra Pires from Why Documentaries at Port Kembla. Picture: Adam McLean

“I cant see another action that is as noble, it’s just pivotal and important and it should be remembered,” Ms Pires said.

“To me the biggest recognition should be to the families and those supporting the men to stay out of work. Their beliefs were noble … they believed it was wrong.”

The Illawarra community banded together to help the wharfies survive and support their families during their plight, Lorraine Lehman-Jones’s father was one of them.

Norman “Sunshine” Gamble was 25 and single at the time and despite being bashed several times for upholding his beliefs he refused to load the Dalfram.

“They knew it would come back in the form of bullets,” Ms Lehman-Jones said. “My dad used to go around collecting whatever he could for families, for the people who did have children … he had a good heart.”

Protesters during the historic Dalfram dispute in Port Kembla. Picture: Fairfax File

Protesters during the historic Dalfram dispute in Port Kembla. Picture: Fairfax File

A commemorative plaque is already at Port Kembla though is hard to find and overgrown with scrub, while Ms Pires said something bigger – that would draw tourists – needs to be erected to honour this community action for peace.

The Port Kembla Community Infrastructure Fund has offered the Maritime Union of Australia up to $100,000 for an artist – or collaboration of artists – to design, produce and install a monument that recognises every facet of the community in support of this strike.

MUA Southern NSW branch secretary Garry Keane said it was an incredible display of community solidarity that wasn’t over pay or work conditions, but for people they had never met on the other side of the world.

Expressions of interest from artists are now being taken. For more information visit: http://thedalframdispute1938.com.au   OR email Sandra@whydocumentaries.com.au

FLASHBACK: Dalfram veterans Ray Elliott, Norman Gamble and Allen Hetherington reunite at Port Kembla in 1998. Picture: Kirk Gilmour

FLASHBACK: Dalfram veterans Ray Elliott, Norman Gamble and Allen Hetherington reunite at Port Kembla in 1998. Picture: Kirk Gilmour