2. The Unions Fight Back

The Government and business mobilisation behind Patrick Stevedores created a situation in which the ACTU leadership simply could not afford to let the MUA be driven into isolation and destruction. In the 1980s the ACTU had actively campaigned against unions that threatened its Accord relationship with the Labor Government. The Food Preservers union and the Furnishing Trades union were victimised by the ACTU for pressing ahead with claims that threatened wage restraint by the whole union movement. The ACTU actively participated in smashing the Builders Labourers Federation and the Federation of Airline Pilots for the same heinous crime.

The MUA case was different. With union membership having severely slumped in the 1990s, and with the employers and Coalition Government on the offensive, to abandon the MUA would leave the field clear for the decimation of the union movement and, with it, much of the political power and influence of the ACTU leadership itself. The steady retreat of the past 15 years would have become a rout, and we would have seen Thatcherism come to Australia with a vengeance. And so, the same leaders who had participated in destroying the airline pilots and builders labourers unions now realised that their own future political and industrial power required the defence of the remaining union strongholds. Hence Bill Kelty's "line in the sand" to defend the mining unions at CRA Weipa in November 1995. Hence Kelty's address to the 1997 ACTU Congress in which he promised that the union movement's resources would be thrown into defending the MUA. However, what they had in mind was only a limited campaign: defending MUA coverage, but not jobs and conditions.

Amongst workers at large, the motivation to defend the wharfies was different. After the night of 7-8 April, when security guards with dogs burst into Patrick Stevedore facilities and bundled MUA members out of cranes and off the wharves, tens of thousands of supporters were drawn to their ranks because of their sheer outrage at Patrick's outrageous industrial thuggery. Reaction was also immediate and widespread because of a feeling that Australian workers "owed" the wharfies for their industrial support for other causes over the decades. Very significant also was an understanding amongst hundreds of thousands of workers that if the wharfies were beaten no union was safe. But most important was the general realisation that the wharfies were confronting their common enemy. Hatred for Howard and Reith was a common thread that linked all those who came to the picket lines - hatred not just for the Government's industrial relations policies but for their general agenda of cuts to welfare, their programmes of mass privatisation, their tax "reform" packages, and their outright racism and discrimination towards Aborigines and migrants. The dispute posed the possibility not only of getting the wharfies back to work but also of destroying the Workplace Relations Act and the credibility of the Howard Government.

So the fight was on, not just for the wharfies but for unionists around Australia.1 The MUA's call for solidarity led to an outpouring of support. Many unions contributed directly to the ACTU appeal, to the tune of $1.2 million. Thousands of individual unionists also contributed dollars from their own pockets, with many taking out payroll deductions to keep the money flowing in. P&O wharfies who took on work that had been redirected from Patrick's docks donated from between $50 a shift to half their pay to help out those who had been sacked.

What had the real potential to stop the Government and employers in their tracks were the offers of industrial solidarity. On 20 March, 12,000 construction workers in Melbourne struck for a day to demonstrate support for the MUA in its campaign against scabbing at Webb Dock. On 2 April, members of the Australian Workers Union (AWU) in the oil industry gave a promise to strike the moment Patrick's workers were sacked. Both of these occurred even before the sackings. And so when the sackings took place on 8 April, thousands of workers walked off their jobs to join the picket lines set up by the MUA outside the key ports, notably in Fremantle, Melbourne and Sydney. Throughout April warehouse workers from the big supermarket chains, building and construction workers, truck drivers, metalworkers, and coal miners all took action and turned up in large contingents to lend support to the wharfies' cause. When it was reported on 20 April that WA Premier Richard Court's brother was set to bust the picket line in Fremantle with a convoy of farmers trucks, P&O workers struck in protest. The Metalworkers Union (AMWU), the National Union of Workers (NUW) and the Communication, Electrical and Plumbing Union (CEPU) all announced that they would take illegal action in support of the MUA if the call came. Even without any lead coming from their leadership, 37 per cent of AMWU members polled by that union supported a national general strike, while CEPU members at Telstra told Victorian division secretary Len Cooper they were prepared "to go to any extremes" to back the wharfies. The South Australian United Trades and Labor Council also promised support for a general strike if one were called by the ACTU and MUA. Before long the employers were running scared, with Reg Clairs, CEO of Woolworths, complaining that solidarity action could have a massive impact on corporate profits.

This solidarity was demonstrated every day, but was clearest on the night of Friday 17 April when literally thousands of workers turned up at East Swanson Dock in Melbourne. On a tip-off that 1,000 police would be descending to break up the picket line and cart people off to detention centres, workers, students, and pensioners flocked to East Swanson dock to stand their ground in the face of imminent police attack. With arms linked, packed in tightly behind barricades of cement blocks, cars, and railway tracks, they ignored their fatigue and the cold to stand up for the rights of all workers. By 3 am, 4,000 picketers from every Victorian union, from community groups, from the ALP and from the Left had turned up to stop the police action. At 8 am nearly 2,000 construction workers arrived at the picket line and encircled the cops, forcing them to retreat completely. They had to beg to be let out! At another entrance to Swanson Dock, after a police push had cleared out the picketers early on Saturday, the dock was re-taken by a detachment of 1,000 picketers coming across from elsewhere at the dock. Nothing moved into or out of the entire Port of Melbourne, and the picketers were elated. This was the biggest victory won by the trade union movement for many years, and well did business recognise it as such: the shares of Patrick's owners, Lang Corp, fell by 13 per cent when the new week's trading began!

The "community assembly" marshalled at East Swanson dock was the most impressive feature of the entire campaign. The Melbourne picketers were determined no trucks would pass. Railway tracks were laid across the road and welded together as a "community arts project". Concrete blocks were erected on the entrance road to East Swanson. A trailer was overturned to block traffic. Transport Workers Union members (TWU) planned to block Footscray Road with their trucks if any non-union truck driver tried to force entry.

Organisation at East Swanson quickly sprang into place to co-ordinate the work of thousands of MUA supporters. Each union was rostered to provide picketers for particular time-slots. A telephone tree of thousands was established to alert supporters when the police made any move. At any one time several hundred workers and supporters would be at the Melbourne picket line, bringing food, drink, ideas, laughter, song, and whatever skills they had. The festive atmosphere, the solidarity and sense of purpose struck everyone who turned up at the picket.

Sydney and Fremantle too put on a display of industrial audacity not seen in living memory. Hundreds showed up to protest outside Patrick's operations at Darling Harbour and Port Botany in Sydney. Once picketers were grabbed by the police and taken off the road, they went straight back to join the picket. NSW trucking companies met and decided to refuse to send their drivers through the picket lines in Sydney. In Fremantle there were similar scenes, with up to two thousand wharfies and their supporters making the movement of trucks difficult if not impossible.

The mass response to the MUA call for solidarity also filtered through to the official structures of the union movement. Within days of the sackings, mass meetings of union delegates were called in Brisbane and Melbourne, and motions of support were passed. The NSW Labor Council organised an all-unions delegates meeting on 28 April to discuss action, and the ACTU Executive, having talked weakly about "community campaigns" for a full fortnight after the sackings, was finally forced by the pressure of events to sanction industrial action and to appear at the Melbourne picket line in explicit defiance of a Supreme Court injunction. The ALP, after two weeks of dithering, swung in behind the MUA campaign. Kim Beazley and Simon Crean visited picket lines to show their support. Former Victorian Premiers John Cain and Joan Kirner attended the Melbourne picket lines in solidarity, while in Fremantle, former WA premier Carmen Lawrence and current State Opposition leader Geoff Gallop also put in an appearance.

Attendances at May Day rallies in Brisbane and Sydney were well above those in recent years, with more than 10,000 in Brisbane and 4,000 in Sydney, but it was Melbourne where the solidarity was most impressive, with a massive demonstration of more than 80,000 at a Victorian Trades Hall Council rally on 6 May, two days after the High Court had upheld the reinstatement of Patrick workers.

The entire dispute was like a flash of lightning across the Australian political landscape. The lines of division in Australian society were laid bare for all to see. Corrigan was clear on this; he claimed that it was a battle between capital and labour, and that business should stop whispering their encouragement to him over the phone and start getting behind him with substantial public and financial support. The executive director of ACCI advised companies in other industries to use the Patrick restructuring strategy if they faced opposition from unions to increasing productivity.2 And Australian workers, turning up in their thousands at ports all over the country, showed that they too understood the need for solidarity on their side.

A further remarkable strength of the MUA campaign was the way in which industrial action and massive solidarity caused a partial paralysis in the ranks of the state. This was most clear in the case of the police who, in stark contrast to their behaviour in other major industrial conflicts of recent years, were relatively restrained. Given the extent of mass civil disobedience in three capital cities, there were comparatively few arrests and no serious effort was made in any state to baton picket lines. Most picketers were released immediately after being dragged off the road by police, rather than bundled into the back of vans and charged.

Some picketers put this down to the police being merely "meat in the sandwich". Others pointed to the police's own industrial grievances, which meant that they owed their political masters no favours and were reluctant to break up pickets violently. However, the main reason was because the picketers showed that they were determined and this determination created divisions within the ranks of the employers and government.

Despite the injunction against the Melbourne picket by the Victorian Supreme Court on 20 April, and despite increasingly shrill calls from politicians and farmers for the police to be sent in to smash up the pickets, mass working class action in Melbourne made the police powerless to act. They did not dare move in with tear gas, water cannon or batons for fear of inciting a massive and uncontrollable response. In Melbourne there is no doubt that police action of this nature would have been met by a state-wide general strike within the week. In Sydney, the police were completely outnumbered. When at one point police in Sydney were ordered in to break up the lines, more than 160 of them took sickies! In Fremantle, in protest at a raid by riot police on the Patrick picket line at 2 am, a crowd of more than 2,000 determined picketers assembled very quickly, demonstrating that the police were in for a fight. The largest incident of mass arrests took place in Brisbane, where the picketing was comparatively timid.

The wharfies' campaign caught the public imagination beyond the organised labour movement. Footy player Wally Lewis, comedian Rod Quantock, ATSIC Commissioner Mick Dodson, Angela Chan from the Ethnic Communities Commission, actor Genevieve Picot and even Hazel Hawke all came in behind the wharfies.

It's often said nowadays that "globalisation" and the internationalisation of finance and business means that unions can't fight and win. The MUA dispute showed how workers have their own ideas on this score. Not only did they cripple the flow of international trade for five weeks but made their own links across national borders, as picketers cheered the news that Japanese and Philippines workers had demonstrated in their support. In India, Indonesia, Holland, PNG and South Africa too, waterfront workers took solidarity action to support Australian wharfies. In California, the wharfies of Los Angeles and San Francisco defied their own repressive industrial laws and refused to handle ships which had been loaded by scab labour in Australia.

The campaign in defence of the MUA and the massive solidarity of workers around the country and overseas was a breath of fresh air and demonstrated that Howard and Reith's plans for a quick and dirty war against the MUA had backfired terribly.

  • 1. Details on the union campaign are drawn from contemporary news media of the time (including The Australian, ABC Radio and television), and personal observation by members of the Brisbane Defend Our Unions Committee and comrades in other cities. The Brisbane Committee produced two four-page bulletins during the dispute which summarised some of the key issues at stake. The internet site Takver's Soapbox "War on the Wharfies" (www.users.bigpond.com/Takver/soapbox) also provided a useful compilation of media coverage of the dispute.
  • 2. Svensen, p.25