A film exposing the Cold War against seafarers in Canada to the 2002 battle of the Yarra in Port Pirie and beyond tours Australia
It was 1949. Canadian seamen had just returned from war. Many had not. All too many had died for their country. But unlike their fellow seafarers in the navy there was no welcome on their return. Just another war to fight. The Cold War. And this time they were the enemy.
Elaine Briere’s film Betrayed tells how Canadian shipowners joined forces with the government and recruited an army of thugs from across the border to wage war on the Canadian seafarers. It was a war that escalated from fist fights, baseball bats and bicycle chains, into a world war against maritime workers, employing gunboats, the military, the air force and real bullets. Some seafarers died in the struggle.
A key player in this war against workers was none other than Canadian Steamship Lines, the same CSL that took on the Maritime Union in Port Pirie in 2002 — 53 years after the Canadian Seamen’s Union was crushed.
No maritime worker, indeed no worker, should miss this film.
Painstakingly researched, the film documents the merchant marine at war, the union’s fight to get seafarers better conditions, the bloody battles around the coast, as well as the solidarity action in Australian and other world ports.
Personal recollections of those who survived the battle are interwoven with graphic archival footage and newsreel of the times.
It also documents the world fire sale of national flag shipping and the rise of Flags of Convenience, the devastating impact they have on the world’s marine life and the brutal exploitation of third world seafarers who crew them.
Throughout WWII Canadian seafarers worked an 84-hour week — 12 on 12 off, seven days a week. After the war shipowners demanded they still work the 84-hour week with a 30 per cent cut in wages.
Organised labour grew after the war and the CSU was one of a number of trail blazing unions. Against the odds the union won a shorter working week and better cabin conditions for its members in 1947.
The government and the shipowners retaliated by labelling the union Red.
"There were people who were communist and some of the leaders were communist but these people were more like nationalists," veteran Canadian seafarer George Fraser recalls. "Nobody was going to sell the country out to Joe Stalin or something like that. These people were looking and fighting for the rights of working people here in Canada. The shipowners just jumped on the bandwagon of the United States by branding whoever they didn’t like, or whoever spoke out, as Communists. I’m telling you I lived through that period and it was a scary time."
The Seamen’s International Union was called in from across the border to supply scab labour. It was run by gangsters.
"The Liberal cabinet arranged to bring in a mobster from the United States, Hal Banks, a real hard core gangster," said former CSU seafarer David Broadfoot. "He brought in his SUI and they introduced it onto our ships with bicycle chains and baseball bats."
The government then changed the law so foreign seafarers and non-union labour could replace the Canadian seafarers. The union fought back.
"We’d rather be dead on our feet than alive on our knees," one veteran recalls.
Train and truckloads of armed scabs invaded the ships in 1949. Some had guns. One scab shot at striking seafarers. Police in steel helmets armed with clubs joined them.
Hundreds of world unions took action in support of their comrades. Sixty per cent of worldwide shipping was affected.
In Canada, striking seafarers were arrested for mutiny under the Admiralty Act and sentenced to hard labour.
South African dockworkers went on strike, gunboats opened fire on CSU’ers in Cuba, then still under the old mafia regime, three maritime workers were murdered in San Francisco, scabs were flown into Brisbane, to break a strike after Seamen’s Union tug crew refused to touch a scab ship and in Melbourne maritime workers declared the Haligonian Duke a black ship, with wharfies and tug operators holding it in port for months before the Navy was brought in.
It was the biggest international strike of the 20th century.
In the UK, British intelligence agency, MI5, the navy, the army and the airforce were brought in to ’protect the nation’s larder’ after dockworkers refused to load Canadian ships, bringing ports to a standstill. Thirty ships were held up.
But at home in Canada, 23 unions fearful of being tarred with the same Red brush, demanded expulsion of the CSU.
It was all over on June 1 1949. As soon as they broke the union, the government and the shipowners got rid of the ships.
"Betrayed shows that globalisation doesn’t just happen. It is constructed and developed in a deliberate manner. This is a remarkable film that connects the dots from the destruction of progressive unionism in the fifties to the dire situation facing working people today."
- Mark Achbar, Director/Producer The Corporation.
The story of the Yarra is also told in Betrayed, with news footage and in an interview National Secretary Paddy Crumlin :
"They didn’t take the ship away to change the flag in a Third World country," he said. "They were so cocky and confident they determined to do it in an Australian port. They took the ship to a small port in Port Pirie and reregistered it in the Bahamas and were in the process of flying in a Ukranian crew."
He retells how the crew refused to leave the ship for 21 days, how CSL turned off the electricity and water and "developed a strategy of starving them out in this small port in the Australian outback."
The Maritime Union brought Elaine Briere to Australia to tour Betrayed in May. She joined the Spirit of Tasmania III where the film was screened overnight en route to Devonport, Tasmania, then further screenings in Melbourne, Adelaide, Darwin and Brisbane.
During National Council the union screened Betrayed at the Australian National Maritime Museum, Darling Harbour, before a public screening at the Valhalla Cinema in Glebe on May 12 alongside Bitter Paradise, an earlier film by Elaine Briere on East Timor.
Eleane also joined the MUA delegation in LA for another screening at the International Mining and Maritime Conference.
The Maritime Union helped fund the making of Betrayed and in return the filmmaker has provided copies of the film for $20 in both DVD and VHS format.