The Painters and Dockers wars: Chopper Read, Chris Flannery and the rise of Mick Gatto (Part One)
In April 1976, around $15 million was stolen from the bookmakers at Melbourne’s Victoria Club. Soon known as the “Great Bookie Robbery”, the heist is believed to have been masterminded by Raymond “Chuck” Bennett, who had been associated with the Federated Ship Painters and Dockers Union in the 1960s. Since then, he had left the country to join a ring of Australian shoplifters operating in Europe. Known as the “Kangaroo Gang” for their Australian background, the group had dissolved in the 1970s, with several members entering the international drug trade.
For his part, Bennett returned to Australia, making waves with both the Great Bookie Robbery and his subsequent refusal to pay tribute to Melbourne’s Kane brothers. Like Bennett, they were closely associated with the Painters and Dockers, allegedly using their power in the union to levy a tax on criminal activity in Melbourne. Then, in 1978, Les Kane was gunned down in his home in an attack which is believed to have been led by Bennett, who was acquitted in the resulting trial. One year later however, Bennett was shot dead while appearing in court on an unrelated charge.
Despite the police presence, Bennett’s shooter escaped, with their identity generally believed to be Brian Kane. By 1982 he too was dead, murdered in a Melbourne hotel. At his funeral, several figures who would go on to achieve their own notoriety in the Melbourne underworld would pay their respects:
After Kane was murdered on November 26, 1982 there were more than 100 death notices from friends, family, and some men who would fill the void left by the series of murders. Mick Gatto and Alphonse Gangitano were to pay their respects while one notice to “Uncle Brian” was signed by “Your little mate, Jason Moran”.
Jason, who went on to marry Les Kane’s daughter, would himself go on to be a prominent Melbourne criminal, benefitting from close contacts with former Painters and Dockers after the union was deregistered in the 1990s.
The Painters and Dockers emerged in the early 20th century, and had been relatively left-wing during the turmoil of the period. By the start of the 1950s, the Melbourne branch of the union was led by State Secretary George Doyle, who was accused of Communism by government investigators. At the same time, there was a significant criminal element within the Painters and Dockers, a common theme in waterfronts across the world. Noticeably, they appear to have been influential in Melbourne’s privately-owned dockyards, possibly because local employers saw them as easier to work with than the left.
Compared to the Waterside Workers Federation, which was strongly Communist, the Painters and Dockers were known to be less militant, having received a federal industrial award after WWII that helped entrench their position. Outside of Australia, an overlapping of organised crime and organised labour can be observed operating in a similar matter to the Painters and Dockers, particularly in the maritime industry. In part, this is due to the historic role of the waterfront as a haven of illegal activities such as smuggling. At the same time, dockworkers and sailors also have a history of industrial militancy and political radicalism, meaning that gangsters are often a preferable alternative.
Along America’s East Coast, the International Longshoreman’s Association was close to the Mafia and corrupt employers, with New York’s Murder Inc believed to have been responsible for the death of grassroots leader Pete Panto. At the time of Panto’s death, the ILA was dealing with a radical splinter group in the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, which was attempting to organise on the East Coast. Again, with the support of its Mafia allies, the ILA held on to power, despite its reputation for corruption.
Back in Melbourne, Doyle’s designated successor Jim Donegan was forced to cede control of the private-sector docks to the criminal element soon into his leadership of the Painters and Dockers. Throughout the following years, the influence of organised crime grew in the union, gaining key positions by stacking local branches with gangsters. The practice was likely backed by employers, who would have been happy to employ some “ghost dockers” as long as they didn’t vote Communist.
Then, in 1971, Donegan died of liver failure. With him gone, violence quickly broke out as the union’s criminal element sought to take over. With Donegan’s presumed replacement, Patrick Shannon, apparently unwilling to stand, a lowly member named George Carey agreed to step into the role. Within months, Carey had disappeared, either running away from the job or murdered by the criminal elements. Finally, Shannon assumed the role, scheduling an election for 1972 to confirm his mandate to lead the union.
Shannon’s ticket for the election was soon opposed, with a rival slate set up by William “Billy” Longley. A man with a long criminal history, Longley was joined by James Bazley, a reputed contract killer, and the Painters and Dockers would soon be engulfed in violence. An early incident took place outside the union offices, when a Longley associate was hit with a brick after brandishing a gun. Afterwards, Shannon ally Alfred Nelson disappeared, with the union offical’s abandoned car later hauled out of the ocean. According to rumours, Nelson had wielded the brick in the earlier skirmish, while the man said to be responsible for his death was longtime criminal Desmond Costello, a former member of the Kangaroo Gang along with Ray Bennett.
In December 1971, Costello was shot and killed, as Shannon’s faction attempted to fight back against Longley’s bid for power. As a result, the violence continued into 1972, with various shootings and arson attacks taking place in the lead-up to the vote. Notably, a fire at the union’s offices destroyed decades worth of records just a week before members went to the polls. Despite the attempts of Longley, Shannon’s slate won, leading to further turmoil. A year later, the violence claimed Shannon himself, with the State Secretary shot and killed in a Melbourne pub. The resulting investigation scooped up Gary Harding, who admitted his role in acting as a look-out and identifying Kevin Taylor as the shooter. Taylor, in turn, identified Longley as the mastermind, who returned to prison in 1975.
Despite Longley’s downfall, control of the Melbourne Painters and Dockers had finally been wrestled away from the Communists. In the place of Shannon, Longley ally Jack “Putty Nose” Nicholls became State Secretary, allowing for the union’s criminal elements to seize full control. It would be in this period that the Painters and Dockers would reach the height of their power in Melbourne’s underworld, with the conflict between Raymond Bennett and the Kane brothers part of the violent turmoil which followed.