1. The Great Conspiracy

The Howard Government was elected in 1996 with an agenda set in close collaboration with its big business backers. The long post-war boom ended in 1975: since then, business has pressured both Coalition and Labor Governments to boost the flagging fortunes of Australian capitalism by a combination of economic restructuring, tax cuts, and wage cuts, along with reduced spending on welfare, education and health. The union movement has been the main obstacle to achieving these goals, and so has been singled out for special attention by business lobby groups. Howard's predecessor as Coalition Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser, tried and failed at both the economic and industrial tasks set by business. It was not until Bob Hawke was elected in 1983 and the Accord framework put in place that the business agenda of economic restructuring got under way. The Accord lifted the share of national income going to profits and enabled some Australian companies to become internationally competitive. And so, as the corporate sector raked the money in, business either sat on the fence or actively backed Labor in the elections of 1984, 1987 and 1990.

The elections of 1993 and 1996 saw business turn away from Labor and its Accord approach to economic restructuring. The ACTU leadership throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s had actively promoted award restructuring and enterprise bargaining. It supported the business push for increased productivity, competitiveness, cost cutting, benchmarking and all the other corporate targets. As it did so, it undermined the union movement. For the first time since the Great Depression, membership fell and coverage declined from one-half of the workforce to only one-third. Now, business reasoned, it could proceed with its anti-working class offensive faster and more thoroughly by ditching Labor and taking on, rather than working through the union movement.

Chastened by its defeat in the 1993 elections, the Coalition came back and won the 1996 election but only by concealing some of its more aggressive plans for workers. The Coalition was "never, ever" going to introduce a GST, and Howard offered "a rock-solid guarantee that no worker in Australia is going to be worse off" as a result of his industrial relations reforms. The conservative vision was for a "comfortable and relaxed" Australia.

However, once elected, the real agenda of the conservatives was quickly revealed. Awards were to be stripped back and pride of place given to individual contracts. Unions were to be tied down by a series of punitive shackles. The secondary boycotts legislation, prohibiting solidarity industrial action, was reintroduced into the Trades Practices Act. And at business forums, Reith set out his agenda for busting the country's key unions. Resources giant CRA was already shutting out the mining unions, with individual contracts replacing awards at site after site. Union coverage in the mining industry fell from 77 per cent to 58 per cent between 1990 and 1995.1 Reith held up CRA as an example to be followed and through 1996 and 1997 the mining union CFMEU was confronted with a rash of union busting attempts, with the entire workforce at ARCO's Gordonstone mine in Queensland being sacked in August 1997.

The MUA was number two on Reith's hit list. This was no accident. Its predecessor, the Waterside Workers Federation (WWF) was long a byword for strong industrial action on the job, and made a series of giant steps in the conditions of waterside workers throughout its long history.2 From being an underpaid super-exploited section of the workforce doing the dirtiest and heaviest jobs, the wharfies earned the respect of their fellow unionists across Australia and overseas for their preparedness to take a stand to improve their industrial conditions. Over time, union action did away with the hated "bull system" whereby wharfies were engaged for work under an open market for labour every morning, and replaced it with union control. The union won limits to working in atrocious conditions, whether hot, cold or dirty. It won limits on weights that were to be lifted manually and successfully challenged the foremen and supervisors who had made their lives hell.

Peter Reith used the union's gains as an argument for why other workers should not support the wharfies when they were sacked by Patrick. He depicted the wharfies as an "aristocracy of labour" who took home huge wages, did not work hard and were generally selfish. This is a complete lie. The waterfront unions have had one of the longest traditions of lending solidarity to other groups in struggle. As far back as 1889, Sydney wharfies donated £500 to support striking London dockworkers. In the following year, wharfies refused to handle wool black-banned by striking shearers. In 1938, the WWF in Wollongong started a national boycott of shipments of pig iron to Japan which at that time was using Australian materials to attack the Chinese. After World War Two, the wharfies placed a four-year ban on Dutch shipping bound for Indonesia, in solidarity with the Indonesian independence campaign. At the same time, they struck in Queensland for four weeks over the Labor Government calling a state of emergency over a strike on the railways. In 1967, the wharfies refused to load ships carrying munitions to assist Australia's war drive in Vietnam. Even now South Africa's black unions remember the solidarity shown by Australian seafarers and wharfies in helping isolate the brutal apartheid regime. And this inspiring tradition carried on into the 1990s. In 1991, wharfies refused to unload ships carrying rainforest timber in Melbourne in solidarity with the native peoples of the Malaysian forests. And in 1995, wharfies blacked French shipping during nuclear testing in the South Pacific. So long as the MUA remained strong, any other union facing drastic assault had a ready and powerful ally, as the mobilisation of solidarity action by the MUA to support the CRA workers at Weipa in November 1995 showed.

No other union has such pivotal strength. Australia is a country heavily integrated into international trade, and more than 90 per cent of Australia's overseas trade passes through the ports. The union's membership is highly concentrated in five key ports, making it relatively easy to mobilise members. Australia's huge internal distances make it impossible to weaken the MUA by opening new ports or playing off small ports against big.

This was the union that the Government wanted to break. Reith and Howard wanted to bury the traditions of solidarity and self-defence epitomised by the MUA, and demonstrate to workers and activists that no-one could stand up to their relentless drive to put the interests of business ahead of those of ordinary people. The conspiracy between the Government and Patrick Stevedores was meant to tell tertiary students fighting against fees and privatisation of higher education that if the Government could beat the wharfies, they didn't have a chance. A defeat for the MUA would be a signal to Aboriginal groups that they might as well forget about fighting for land rights and human dignity. And the attack on the MUA was meant to tell business that its interests were secure with the Coalition. Business relished this prospect of smashing the MUA, and Stan Wallis, head of the Business Council of Australia, declared that big business was "prepared to wear any amount of costs" to this end. The Financial Review spelled out what this meant when it revealed that several large companies had contributed close to $100 million to the National Farmers Federation in its bid to destroy the MUA.3

Thus the great conspiracy against the MUA unfolded.4 In January 1997, the Workplace Relations Act was put in place. In the following nine months a series of meetings took place involving Peter Reith, Transport Minister John Sharp, their departmental advisers, a set of highly-paid union-busting consultants, Chris Corrigan from Patrick Stevedores, and Don McGauchie and Wendy Craik of the National Farmers Federation. These meetings culminated in a submission endorsed by the Howard Cabinet in July which argued for an "activist" strategy and a full-scale attack on the MUA, including the dismissal of hundreds of wharfies.

In September, International Purveyors, owned by mining giant Freport McMoran, attempted to bring in non-union labour employed under individual contracts to operate facilities in Cairns. Threats by the International Transport Workers Federation to hamper Freport's port operations blocked this move. In the same month, Patrick Stevedores, Australia's largest stevedoring company, undertook its first move to bust the MUA at its facilities, transforming its four employer companies into labour-hire shelf companies, thereby removing them from its financial responsibility.

In December 1997, the Dubai conspiracy was blown apart. The Government had connived with Patrick to train 30 former and serving military personnel in Dubai in readiness to work as scab labour for the Australian waterfront. Again the threat to black shipping by the International Transport Workers Federation saw the Dubai Government withdraw the scabs' working permits.

In January 1998 the Government was back for Round 4 against the MUA when Patrick leased part of its Webb Dock facilities in Melbourne to Producers and Consumers Stevedores (PCS), a non-union front company established by the National Farmers' Federation. At the same time Patrick locked out its own unionised workforce, starting what was to become a four-month "peaceful protest" at Webb Dock. Four weeks later Patrick started training scabs at Webb Dock and the battle lines were shaping up. The Government offensive also involved a well-orchestrated media campaign against the wharfies, with current affairs programs being lined up in late 1997 to paint a picture of wharfies as overpaid bludgers who held the country to ransom. Meanwhile the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission was being readied to take action against the MUA or other unions which might come to its aid, including stiff fines for secondary boycott action.

  • 1. A. Morehead et al (1997): Changes at Work: The 1995 Australian Workplace Industrial Relations Survey, Longman, Melbourne, Tables A7.1a and A7.1b.
  • 2. Material on the history of the WWF is derived from W. Lowenstein, and T. Hills (1982): Under the Hook: Melbourne waterside workers remember working lives and class war: 1900-1980, Melbourne Bookworkers, Melbourne; T. Sheridan (1994): ‘Australian wharfies 1943-1967: casual attitudes, militant leadership and workplace change’, Journal of Industrial Relations, June, pp. 258-84; and M. Beasley (1996): Wharfies: A History of the Waterside Workers’ Federation of Australia, Halstead Press, Sydney.
  • 3. S. Svensen (1998): 'Chronology of the Patrick Dispute', p.16. Available on the web at: http://www-personal.buseco.monash.edu.au/~svensen/chronol.html.
  • 4. The conspiracy against the MUA is described in more detail in many other sources, including "War and Peace: An Age Special Report", The Age, 17 June 1998, pp. 11-14; Parliament of Australia Current Issues Brief 15 1997-98: "Outline of the Waterfront Dispute", Canberra (May 1998); and Svensen’s chronology.