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Wharves stop for labour leader John Coombs

I took this cover photo back in the 90s when I was working for John Coombs and the union. It was not shot during the big Lockout, the year of dogs and men in balaclavas better known now as the Patrick Dispute, but during a nationwide stoppage to save the Australian National Line in 1994.

John Coombs, former secretary of the Maritime Union of Australia, died last month But even in death he stopped the wharves one last time. The wharfies could not carry his coffin down The Hungry Mile, Barangaroo, in the Age of Covid. So on his funeral, September 9 at 11am change of shift, maritime workers in ports around the coast down tools.

The nation's trade paused. Towering quay cranes raised their booms in the air like metal arms in salute. Ships, tugs and trucks sounded their horns. Up top on of the Port Botany cranes young Bill played Solidarity Forever over the speakers. Under the hook wharfies sang along.

On the water the Shirley Smith fire tug put on a show with all hoses to a chorus of tug horns. On the bunkering vessel Absolute in Fremantle, seafarers took off their hard hats and held them to their hearts the ships red ensign flying at half mast. At the container terminals wharfies stood in the rain.

In Melbourne the crescendo of horns reverberated eerily through the empty streets under lock down. In Adelaide, Darwin, Newcastle, Geelong, Port Kembla, Kwinana, Brisbane and Bass Strait shipping – in all ports and on all vessels still flyng the Australian flag, tributes sounded.

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