No. 4 Jetty at Port Kembla was the scene of a shocking fatality on 7 November 1938. A young man from Tea Gardens, Robert Clyde Smith, was crushed to death while unloading pig-iron (wrought iron) on to a ship bound for Japan. The accident occurred as a result of two trucks colliding on the wharf.1 As Smith’s coffin was transported to Wollongong train station for its journey back to Tea Gardens, over 200 members of the Port Kembla branch of Waterside Workers’ Federation (WWF) marched in front of the coffin.2 Within a week these workers would be involved in one of the best-known strikes in Australian history, the “Dalfram Strike of 1938”.
On 15 November 1938, 180 wharfies refused to load pig-iron onto the ship SS Dalfram. BHP had a contract to provide 300,000 tons of pig-iron to Japan which it was then believed would be made into bombs to be used in the war against China and later Australia in WWII. The strike was not based on conditions or wages but on a moral stance. Support came from other trade unions and the Sydney Chinese community sent truckloads of food to help the families of the striking workers.
The then Attorney General, Robert Menzies, tried to put an end to the strike fearing trade tensions with Japan. This stance was met with aggression and he was nicknamed “Pig Iron Bob” which stuck throughout his career. The wharfies returned to work “under protest” 10 weeks later with the Dalfram being the last ship to carry pig-iron to Japan.3
While Smith’s death did not cause the strike, it highlighted simmering tensions between the Waterside Workers and the work they were asked to do.4
Author: Janine Roberts
1 Illawarra Mercury, 2 December 1938, 11.
2 Dungog Chronicle, 18 November 1938, 4.
3 Michael Donaldson and Nick Southall, Against Fascism and War: Pig Iron bob and the Dalfram Dispute, Port Kembla 1938, Wollongong Free University Press, Wollongong: 2013. Accessed 23 March 2021, https://ro.uow.edu.au/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=4009&context=lhapapers