Australian dockers on strike - Workers win the first battle / FRFI 143 Jun / Jul 1998

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FRFI 143 June / July 1998

by Anthony Bidgood

On 7 April at midnight, Patricks Stevedores, one of the two major stevedoring companies in Australia (the other being the British transnational P&O), sacked its entire workforce throughout Australia. This action was another effort by the conservative coalition government to destroy the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) - a union representing wharfies (dockers) and seamen.

This ongoing attempt to destroy the MUA brought together the Federal government, especially the Industrial Relations minister Peter Reith, the management of Patricks, the National Farmers' Federation (NFF), who set up their own scab stevedoring company, and Fynwest, a company run by former SAS officers who were to supply the scab labour.

The MUA had been claiming for some months that the Federal government and Patricks were conspiring to destroy it. In September an attempt was made to set up a non-union stevedoring operation in the small northern port of Cairns. A threatened international ban on the US company involved saw this attempt quickly abandoned. Then in December, Fynwest attempted to train a scab labour force in Dubai from soldiers about to leave the army. This too was abandoned under threats of an international ban on the port of Dubai. Despite denials at the time, by February this year the Patricks' boss, Chris Corrigan, admitted that he was 'aware' of these efforts. On 8 May the bosses of Fynwest claimed that Patricks had financed the Dubai operation and that the government had been involved in the planning as far back as July 1997. These last claims showed that the object of these operations was to destroy the MUA. How else can one interpret a capitalist enterprise financing the setting up of a 'rival' to 'compete' against it directly?

In January the NFF leased from Patricks part of its Webb Dock facilities in Melbourne. Through a front company, the NFF brought scab labour onto the docks. The MUA replied to this attempt by a series of selective strikes and pickets against Patricks' operation throughout Australia. Like Britain, Australia has draconian anti-union legislation. This legislation was introduced by the current government, but became law only with the support of the Australian Democrats (AD) in the Senate. The legislation outlaws, among other things, secondary boycotts.

Federal government collusion with Patricks was suspected when it offered within hours to fund redundancy payments to the sacked wharfies. A sum of A$250 million was offered. This offer was rejected by the MUA and the wharfies while the government undertook, with considerable media support, a campaign of vilification against the MUA. Wharfies were unproductive, overpaid and rorting (ripping off) the system. The Stock Exchange supported Patricks in the manner that it knows best. The share value of Patricks' parent company, Langs, soared. Corrigan's personal wealth increased by A$1 million in a single day.

The legal arms of the various governments quickly moved to support Patricks. To get around having to use secondary picketing, the MUA invited 'members of the public' to peacefully assemble on the docks. This 'assembly' was continuous and on 16 April a Supreme Court judge ordered the MUA to leave the docks. The scene was set for a confrontation with the police. Using another tactic, the 'anti-monopoly' commission (the ACCC) was threatening to fine the MUA A$750,000 a day.

The MUA however, unlike the British NUM in 1984/85, had not been deserted by other unions. Perhaps because they realised that they had to take a stand on this issue, the trade unions in Victoria had been required to provide members for picket duties and members responded, from the building to the academic sector.

By midnight on 17 April between 3,000-5,000 MUA members and supporters had gathered at East Swanston Dock. Organisers instructed those assembled how to maintain our lines against the expected police assault. Further advice was given on what to do if arrested, who our lawyer was, and not to sign any bail conditions. Thanks to observers in the city everyone was kept informed of police activity, including their progress towards the docks. People were alerted to the possible use of agents provocateur. By about 3.30am up to 1,000 police had arrived at the docks. As they formed up so did the picketers, arms linked and grabbing hold of the person in front. MUA members formed the front rows.

For two hours there was a tense standoff. Then at 5.30am Martin Kingham, an organiser with the building union, the CFMEU, announced that the CFMEU was calling on its members, then starting work on city construction sites, to walk off the job and come down to the docks. At least 2,000 responded and the police confronting the peaceful picketers found themselves surrounded. The police withdrew. The Federal government and Patricks were outraged but could do little. This victory was a turning point and now the legal battle began to move in the union's favour.

On 21 April a Federal Court judge 'found evidence of an unlawful conspiracy to rid the wharves of union labour' and ordered that all the sacked workers be reinstated. Amazingly this judgement was based on a clause of the anti-union Industrial Relations Act! Appeal after appeal by Patricks failed and the MUA members are at present back at work.

Important though this legal victory was for all workers, of even greater significance was the response from broad sections of the population. With massive cuts in schools and hospitals, increasing use of part-time and contract labour and an official unemployment rate of 8 per cent, the MUA's fightback proved to be a catalyst. In April over 3,000 delegates had called for a stop-work rally on 6 May in Melbourne against the Industrial Relations Act. Over 100,000 turned out for the day, marred only by the call by many speakers for the return of a Federal Australian Labor Party government. It was the actions of the former Federal ALP government that had 'set the scene' for the desire to compete globally. One of its agreements in 1989 had halved the dockside workforce, forced through double shifts as the norm and increased productivity by 50 per cent. However this dispute was not about productivity but about breaking the remaining combative trade unions here in order to maintain profits.

The left in Australia is small and marginalised, remnants based on differences from the 1920s and 1960s. It was unable to play any real part in this dispute. Recently there have been small signs of resistance to the policies of the current conservative and former ALP governments. Attempts to form a genuine left reformist party, the progressive Labor Party, are continuing. Some 'left' leaderships in a couple of unions have been replaced by militants not necessarily tied to the ALP. An interview given by Paddy Crumlin, assistant National Secretary of the MUA, was remarkable for the uncharacteristic way in which he spoke about class struggle and the need for socialism.

The MUA dispute continues and claims of government collusion going back to July 1997 ensure that this issue still has a considerable course to run.