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Cockatoo Island dock workers cleaning the hull of RMS Niagara (c. 1930)

Activism and stewardship

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5 min read
The growth of trade unions in Australia during the early twentieth century can be traced to Cockatoo Island, where dock workers fought for improved working conditions.

Although the island and its dockyard closed in 1991, the fighting spirit of its workforce was kept alive by activists who lobbied for the former Defence site to be returned to the people of Australia.

A unionised workforce

Following the First World War, Cockatoo Island became Australia’s largest Commonwealth employer, with its dockyard – a major shipbuilding and ship repair facility – serving as training ground for more than 21 trades. Each of the trades was represented by a different union. There were struggles within and between unions, for influence and power.

An obvious class hierarchy emerged too. Painters, dockers, welders, ironworkers, shipwrights and others on the lower rungs did noisy, dusty, dangerous work. Nevertheless, they were united by their working-class identity and family ties. It was not uncommon to find fathers, sons, uncles and brothers working side by side. Meanwhile, those at the top – the managers, drawers and technicians – worked in offices and laboratories.

In the 1940s, the island was the centre of intense factional and political struggles between communists and their opponents. Membership of the Communist Party of Australia exceeded 20,000, and communists were dominant in the leadership of unions such as the Federated Ironworkers Association, Sheet Metal Working Industrial Union and the Seamen’s Union of Australia.

Golden standards

Struggles for improved hours, wages, demarcation and safety at Cockatoo Island were followed closely by the rest of the nation. For example, workers used lathes, band saws, cutting gear, live electricity and molten metal but safety gear was not always adequate.

As a Commonwealth dockyard, improvements on the island set a precedent for all Commonwealth-run workshops across the country. Unions also fought for awards that ensured basic entitlements such as rates of pay, minimum and maximum working hours, annual leave, redundancy provisions and penalty rates for overtime, weekend or night work.

The complexity of the island’s union and guild membership, and the history of its demarcation and industrial disputes, catalysed the Australian Government to establish the first federal wage and conditions award in Australia and apply it to the island. The federal award established to consolidate and organise Cockatoo Island was the model for many subsequent federal awards which have operated alongside various state award systems in Australia until very recently.

The end of the dockyard

In 1987, the government announced its intention to close Cockatoo Island's dockyard, due to a downturn in naval shipbuilding and the end of the submarine refit program.

In 1989, the Department of Defence invited formal expressions of interest for the sale of Cockatoo Island. The Cockatoo Island Dockyard shop committee, which represented 13 unions, responded with a strike and an occupation of the island. A fire was lit on the island, large enough to be seen from the mainland, and 1,000 workers marched at Parliament House in Canberra. Although the dispute was resolved after 14 weeks, the dockyard officially shut down in 1991.

Friends of Cockatoo Island

In 1998, the Australian Government announced it would establish the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust (Harbour Trust) to rehabilitate prominent former Defence sites on Sydney Harbour, including Cockatoo Island, and return them to the people of Australia.

The announcement followed years of advocacy by community groups adamant that surplus Defence sites on Sydney Harbour should be maintained as public spaces and kept safe from redevelopment. These groups, collectively known as the Defenders of Sydney Harbour Foreshores, included the Friends of Cockatoo Island, which had been founded by Jack Clark and his wife Mary Shelly Clark in the mid-90s.

The Harbour Trust formally commenced its role in September 2001. By 2007, it had concluded extensive remediation works at Cockatoo Island and opened it to the public.


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