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Editions
August 09 Edition Cover

A living, breathing almanac

31 May 2016

A living, breathing almanac Image

By Jack Hayes

In life, there are some people you must see if the circumstances call for it.

If you feel sick, you see a doctor. If you need to deposit money, you see a banker. And if you need to know something about the docks – anything at all ­– you see Jim Beggs.

The ex-Waterside Workers’ Federation Victoria president truly is, a living, breathing Docklands almanac.

Jim provides an extraordinary mixture of anecdotes regarding hilarious work practices, an endless supply of nicknames and an often-sombre reflection of the harsh working conditions he, and thousands of others endured.

With over six decades of his life spent on the docks, Jim looks fondly back at his time as a “wharfie” – so much so he wrote his own book titled Proud to be a Wharfie.

Very few occupations have received the same level of adverse publicity than the wharfies over the years. With 62 years of involvement, Jim’s book endeavors to dispel some of the stigma attached to his beloved wharfs and their workers.

“I couldn’t have wished to work for a more generous, a more humorous and hardworking group than wharfies,” he said.

“The camaraderie we had on the docks was unparalleled. There was no sick pay back then, so when a bloke was sick we all banded together to look after each other.”

Jim’s impact on the wharfs not only resonated throughout the docks themselves but, in one case, across the Indian Ocean to the prison cell of Nelson Mandela.

“We had a speaker from South Africa back in 1960,” he said. “He was a South African trade unionist. He told us about apartheid, which we had never heard about. We were so intrigued by his talk we extended our lunch break by half an hour.”

“So when we all went back to work we got the sack, which was disgusting. So the next day the union pulled out the whole port. That was the beginning of any individual organisation raising the question because it was in the headline news, ‘wharfies walk off over apartheid in South Africa’. ”

“When Mandela came here in 1990, I met him at the Melbourne Town Hall. He went out on to the street and spoke to the thousands there. He (Mandela) said, I particularly want to thank the waterside workers at this port here in Melbourne.”

“When I was languishing in jail, wondering if this dream would come true, I got this message that this union way on the other side of the world had raised the banner for our cause, you have no idea what that did for my morale.”

Very few individuals have impacted an area and an industry like Jim and none can lay claim to the title “king of the wharfies”.

As the tides of the maritime industry begin to change, Jim Beggs’ name will endure.

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