3. Lead In The Saddlebags

What will probably stick in the minds of most people involved in the four-month dispute were its tremendous strengths. At last we seemed to be on the verge of the "full symphony" of union power that Bill Kelty had promised in 1995 over conservative attempts to bust unions. Inspiring as the struggle was on the docks, however, the campaign fell short of what was necessary to deliver a stunning victory to the MUA. The full symphony never eventuated; the ACTU sought to relegate mass involvement in the campaign to background music, while the key people, the soloists, rehearsed their role behind closed doors.

Nowhere was the industrial ineffectiveness of the strategy of the officials more evident than in Brisbane and we now briefly turn to the campaign at this port.1

Some of the same impressive characteristics that we saw in Melbourne, Sydney and Fremantle were evident at Fisherman's Island, the main container port in Brisbane. There was the well-resourced Camp Solidarity which was run around the clock and which within a week of the sackings began to resemble a mini-village, with BBQs, Family Days, portaloos, a regular kitchen, TV, and newspapers. Faxes and messages of support were pinned on all available spots. The level of support for the MUA campaign was illustrated right from the start when about 800 delegates showed up at short notice to a meeting called by the Queensland labour council (ACTU Queensland) at the Brisbane City Hall on 16 April. Every speech by the MUA was greeted with stormy applause.

However, time and again the local MUA leadership and the ACTUQ leadership pulled the plug on any significant direct action. So, at the ACTUQ delegates meeting, the leaders refused to countenance a definite call for a 24-hour state-wide strike despite such a motion having been passed at a similar delegates meeting in Melbourne on the same morning. Instead, we were urged to "trust the leadership" and to wait for the call for action which never came.

This strategy of caution and "discipline" was reflected at the Fisherman's Island picket line itself. Unlike Sydney and Melbourne, there was no serious attempt to picket out the Patrick operations in Brisbane. Very few efforts were made actually to stop and turn the trucks around. One reason given by the MUA leadership for not stopping the trucks was that the same road also serviced the Conaust facilities, with which the union had no direct grievance. The union had a definite tactic which was to keep Conaust running, to put more pressure on Patrick to settle, and to avoid being hit by secondary boycott legal action. However, it also reflected a broader weakness in the campaign in Brisbane which saw the union leaders pull back time and again from decisive action.

The weakness of the official strategy in Brisbane was most evident in four episodes that occurred one after the other in mid-April. On the afternoon of Saturday 18 April, Peter Reith was due to appear at a dinner for "small business achievers" at the Beenleigh Community Centre south of Brisbane. Within five days, union activists from around Brisbane were able to mobilise three hundred workers and students to picket this event. However, the MUA marshals then took over the picket and transformed it into a media stunt, stopping protestors from even attempting to slow down Reith's car as he arrived at the Community Centre for fear of creating "bad publicity". The reason for this tactic was that the MUA leadership wanted to go in and "put their case" to Reith! So, following Reith's dinner with Brisbane's small business community, the MUA branch leaders went inside to hold predictably fruitless discussions with the Minister.

On the night of Sunday 19 April, more than 1,000 MUA supporters came to Fisherman's Island in the expectation that a genuine blockade was about to begin. At 10 pm the entire crowd marched down the road to the perimeter fence surrounding the Patrick site expecting to tear it down and occupy the site, to establish a beach-head around which supporters from around Brisbane could be mobilised to stop all work for the following morning. The minimal security and police presence was powerless to stop them. However, the MUA and ACTU leadership had other ideas and quickly called people off the Patrick's site and back to Camp Solidarity. The dejection of the crowd was palpable.

Despite this demoralising experience, a crowd of four hundred showed up at Camp Solidarity on the following morning in the expectation that this time we were going to establish a proper picket to stop all trucks moving in and out of the Patrick's operations. After a couple of hours, the MUA and ACTUQ leaderships then led a crowd of picketers to sit on the road. Fine speeches were made, chants of "MUA here to stay!" rang out, but after 40 minutes it was back to business as usual. The trucks began to roar down the road again, with trains passing on the nearby tracks.

Two days later, on Wednesday 22 April, the story in Brisbane was the same. The delegates' meeting of the previous week had endorsed an ACTUQ Day of Action to support the wharfies. Major contingents of anything from a couple of hundred to one thousand members from the AMWU, the CEPU, the TWU, and the CFMEU turned up and marched through driving rain to within 100 metres of the bridge leading up to the perimeter fence. Again, these unionists, who could have broken through the fence, thrown the scabs in the water and occupied the site, were stopped short and marched back out again.

The results of the strategy followed by the Brisbane MUA officials were obvious: only in Brisbane did trucks move freely in and out of the wharves. Only in Brisbane were there no significant contingents of supporters from other unions at the picket line on a regular basis.

This was not because of any conservatism on the part of Brisbane wharfies or other workers. At the ACTUQ delegates meeting of 16 April, every one of the official speakers from the platform commented that their job of restraining direct action on the picket lines or in workplaces around the State had been tremendously difficult. They asked for our sympathy and said how hard it was to say no to wharfies pleading for stronger action and to urge them instead to accept what they called "the discipline of the picket line". John Thompson, secretary of the ACTUQ, volunteered the information that his office had been swamped by faxes from members demanding that the peak council call state-wide industrial action, and claimed that his main job had been "putting out fires" around the State.

Brisbane was the most obvious weak link in the major sites of the MUA's industrial campaign, and the experience in Queensland may appear at first sight to be exceptional. Certainly MUA picketers and supporters in Sydney, Melbourne and Fremantle were more elated than frustrated during the early weeks of the dispute, as well they might have been. Nonetheless, despite the heartening and inspiring nature of the mass campaign in these other places, especially Victoria, even there it was marked by some of the same damaging elements that characterised the Queensland campaign and which went on to play an important part in shaping the final settlement.

The most evident of these weaknesses was the way in which the MUA and ACTU leaders refused to build on the spontaneous rank and file mobilisation. In the first couple of weeks after the mass sackings, all the talk from ACTU president Jennie George was of the need for financial support for the wharfies and their families. On no account should there be hasty action, or the Government given an excuse to take legal action against the union federation, or there be "inconvenience" to the Australian community. According to George and, in Queensland, Thompson, a massive industrial solidarity campaign would have been "a gift to the Coalition". Thus, the offer in the first week of April by the Australian Workers Union to shut down oil refinery operations in support of MUA members locked out of Webb Dock was turned down by the ACTU.

However, such was the level of mobilisation on the ground that this passive position became untenable by the middle of April. At the Melbourne delegates meetings of 16 April, Doug Cameron, the national secretary of the AMWU, told unionists Reith could "shove his laws up his arse". On 20 April, the ACTU Executive finally passed a motion endorsing pickets and demonstrations. However, only in the case of Victoria was the union leadership prepared to organise a state-wide general strike. For its pains, it was bucketed by the leaders of the NSW Labor Council, who refused to back such a call in NSW or even to allow the motion to be put to the floor of its mass delegates meeting on 28 April. And in all ports, even Melbourne, Fremantle and Sydney, the MUA decided to allow scabs to enter Patrick's premises to carry out their work.

Underlying their opposition to a major industrial mobilisation was the decision by the MUA and ACTU leaderships to follow a quite different strategy, characterised by reliance on the courts, deference to the ALP, and a top-down bureaucratic approach to the entire campaign. In order to understand why the campaign ended in the way that it did, therefore, we need to consider these three elements of the officials' strategy, and also the political assumptions that underpinned it.

1. Reliance on the courts

The action by Patrick Stevedores forced the leadership of the MUA and ACTU to take a stand. They could not allow this union busting effort to go unchallenged, and they were prepared to break the law on occasion. And so when the Victorian Supreme Court banned supporters from attending the Swanson Dock picket, the entire ACTU Executive went down and defied the law. Not one was arrested. However, notwithstanding the occasional act of defiance, the basic orientation of the MUA and ACTU leaderships was reinstatement of the Patrick workforce through the courts as a precursor to the leadership resuming its traditional role as a party to industrial negotiations with Corrigan and Co. This meant that the leadership sought to tailor industrial action to the needs of its legal campaign; when the court cases supposedly demanded it, industrial defiance was wound back to allow the lawyers to take charge.

While there is nothing intrinsically wrong with unions making strategic use of the courts in industrial disputes, in the MUA campaign the courts and an allied emphasis on legalism were placed at the centre of the union's strategy. Even though it was industrial action that was decisive in winning the MUA its victories in the courts, and even though not a single worker was prosecuted despite many breaches of the Workplace Relations Act and the Trades Practices Act, the leadership constantly pulled back from decisive action to win the dispute for fear of jeopardising its actions in the courts. In the period before 4 May, when the High Court upheld Justice North's decision that the Patrick workforce be reinstated, the leadership's emphasis on the courts explains its unwillingness to mobilise members at P&O and its decision to redirect Patrick's cargo to P&O wharves, despite P&O boss Richard Hein having made it clear that he would "flow on" any gains made by Corrigan to P&O operations. The strategy also lies behind the decision by the ACTU and MUA leaders to take advantage of none of the dozens of offers of industrial solidarity made by unions around the country. It explains the decision to allow scab buses through Patrick's gates every morning and why the MUA allowed its members to crew ships which berthed at docks run by scabs. Finally, the court strategy underlay the decision to reduce the Brisbane picket lines to a media stunt.

Given that the courts eventually ordered reinstatement of the Patrick's wharfies, perhaps the MUA and ACTU leaders' strategy of limiting industrial action for fear of provoking a battery of legal charges against them was justified? Two factors count against this interpretation. Firstly, with tens if not hundreds of thousands of workers ready to walk off their jobs at the call of the ACTU and MUA, the ACTU leaders threw away the best chance that the unions have ever had to confront and destroy the secondary boycott provisions of the Trades Practices Act which have been used with devastating effect on several occasions in the past 15 years. Even though workers were defying the law by their actions every day, and even though it was these actions that were responsible for the legal successes that the union enjoyed, the union leaders never took up the opportunity to kill off the legislation. The result is that the secondary boycott provisions have been left unchallenged, allowing Governments or employers to use them against some other much more isolated and cash-strapped union in future.

The second factor that counts against the leadership's strategy was that it was extremely risky even on its own terms. Once the wharfies were back at work for no pay, the legal cases dragged on for weeks but could have stretched for months. The longer the issue was deliberated in the courts, and the more the campaign bogged down in discussions with the administrators, the more the massive solidarity following the sackings on 7 April was frittered away. The unions' trump card was the containers stacked high on the wharves. Once the workers were reinstated pending a final settlement and the backlog of containers was shifted, this card was gone. The situation at this point became very dangerous, with the possibility that the courts could rule against the union. And in its final decision, although the High Court eventually upheld the wharfies' right to their jobs, it also ruled that the administrators had the right to determine on commercial grounds if the labour hire companies should continue to operate. This was a critical factor that underlay the highly damaging terms of the final settlement.

2. Deference to the ALP

The second element that characterised the leadership's strategy was willingness to tailor its campaign to the supposed electoral needs of the ALP while making no demands on it. In Queensland especially, the fact that Labor was facing an imminent State election campaign counted strongly in the decision by the ACTUQ and MUA leadership to run such a weak industrial campaign in that state. This was a serious error. First, it was not even clear that such support would be reciprocated. State ALP leader Peter Beattie was more or less invisible throughout the campaign, only appearing to cheer on the MUA at the Brisbane Labour Day rally on 4 May, the same day that the High Court decision to reinstate the wharfies came down.

Much the same attitude prevailed in the ALP hierarchies interstate. For the first two weeks after the sackings, the ALP parliamentary leaders kept well clear of the picket lines and refused to make public statements in support of the MUA, preferring to position the party as the "mediator" between the two warring sides. Beazley suggested that if Labor had held power, he would have brought in Bob Hawke to mediate in the dispute, cold comfort for those who remembered his role in smashing the Pilots Federation in 1989. Both Shadow Industrial Relations spokesperson Bob McMullen and Kim Beazley condemned the International Transport Workers Federation for organising a boycott of Australian produce in the United States. And what did Labor offer in the event that it got elected federally anyway? Not once during the entire campaign did Labor suggest that it would repeal the Workplace Relations Act or the secondary boycott provisions, and there was no move by Labor during the subsequent federal election campaign to scrap enterprise bargaining in favour of a return to the award system.

Eventually, the sheer extent of mobilisation across the union movement meant the ALP's "balanced" approach was no longer tenable, and it was only at that point that senior ALP politicians appeared at the picket lines.

The feeble effort put in by the ALP reflected its broader political agenda. Towards the end of the campaign, Beazley began calling on Howard to act as "peacemaker", to "move from off his partisan stance". Beazley obviously knew Howard could not play a "non-partisan" role - his call simply reflected his attempt to pitch the Labor Party to employers as the party that could bring about major concessions of the type Patrick Stevedores wanted but without the industrial costs. The ALP leadership looked to negotiations and compromise, not just because it did not want the imminent Queensland and federal election campaigns fought on the question of "industrial law and order", but more broadly because its main aim is to win government and to foster "social cohesion" by forging "partnerships" between labour and capital.

However, the experience of social "partnership" between labour and capital under Labor has already proved to be a no-win situation for workers. During the 1983-96 Hawke and Keating Labor Governments it was exactly this idea of business-worker co-operation that underpinned the various "industry plans". These dished out millions of dollars to BHP, the car manufacturers, and defence industry suppliers amongst others. Productivity at BHP's steel division tripled, profits came in at a billion dollars a year in 1993-95, while the workforce fell by 40 per cent. Restructuring in the car industry saw the closure of Nissan, Ford's Homebush plant and Toyota's Port Melbourne and Dandenong plants, accompanied by the loss of thousands of jobs.

Labor's industry plans also decimated the national public sector infrastructure. In 1994, a study by the Government's own Bureau of Industry Economics measured the changes in employment and productivity at all of the major government enterprises in the five years to 1992-93. These are the results:

Changes to Productivity and Employment in Government Enterprises (%)
1987-88 to 1992-932
Sector Productivity (%) Employment (%)
Electricity Supply +113 -34
Gas +54 -22
Water +54 -26
Urban Transport +46 -17
Ports +154 -50
Railways +64 -32
Australia Post +23 -4
Telecom +112 -17
All Government Enterprises +102 -24

A follow-up report in 1995 showed that productivity in the key utilities increased by a further 14% in the previous year, largely due to "a large fall in labour inputs".

Wharfies have themselves already tasted the bitter fruits of "waterfront reform" under Labor. It was under Labor that the number of wharfies was halved, and it was under Labor that double shifts were introduced onto the wharves. It was Labor's Laurie Brereton who attempted to sell off the state shipping line ANL. How, then, could wharfies and their supporters trust Labor in these conditions?

Socialists and militant unionists certainly want Labor to thrash the Coalition in any election. However, in favouring inoffensive Labor election strategies over industrial action, the MUA and ACTU leaderships actually made such an outcome less likely. Had the union movement won a resounding victory by using all-out industrial action, it would have created the circumstances in which not only would business have turned its back on the Coalition's strategy of industrial confrontation, but would also have set the tone for an incoming Labor Government - and it was precisely this factor that scared Beazley and his colleagues. The last thing the ALP wanted was to win power on the back of a massive industrial mobilisation by MUA members and their supporters. Such a mobilisation could have gone a long way towards rebuilding a fighting union movement capable of challenging any Government, conservative or Labor, that sought to sacrifice workers' conditions and jobs. A cobbled-together deal through the courts and administrators was far preferable to the ALP leadership (as well as the MUA and ACTU leaders) than a devastating defeat for Reith and Howard, as it pushed the prospect of open class war back to the margins.

3. Top-down leadership

The third factor that scarred the campaign strategy was the virtually dictatorial grip over it by a small group of the union's national leaders headed by John Coombs. The lack of internal democracy was evident in a variety of ways. Most importantly, it was demonstrated in relations between the top officials and the MUA rank and file. There were no mass meetings at the picket line or elsewhere to debate and plan the course of the campaign. Instead, the meetings that were called were simply for the local leadership to hand down information to members about progress in negotiations and court cases. And even these were few and far between. There was no move to set up committees allowing rank and file members control over the course of the dispute. And only the most limited printed information was distributed to members by the state or national offices through the course of the campaign. Members had to rely on snatches of gossip and the daily media reports to learn what was going on. The first they knew of the contents of the proposed peace package was through the web site run by the Age newspaper!

The tendency for all power to be centralised was also felt in the lack of involvement of even branch leaders in directing the campaign. Between the workers' reinstatement on 6 May and the announcement of the proposed peace package on 26 June, the bizarre situation prevailed whereby even branch secretaries and organisers knew nothing about was happening in the negotiations in Melbourne. As a result, the branch leadership was quite incapable of explaining to members what was going on.3

There were several negative results of this top-down approach to running the campaign. First, rank and file members of the MUA were constantly called upon by their branch leaders to demonstrate "discipline" and to "trust the leadership" without ever having any say over the course that the campaign was taking. An admirable characteristic in itself, "discipline" simply came to mean "shut up and do as you're told!", and the branch officials were in turn advised of the need for "discipline" by the national office. In this way, the national leadership of Coombs, O'Leary, Tannock and Doleman made itself entirely unaccountable to members and to its own branch officials. It preferred to work closely instead with Greg Combet of the ACTU and former federal research officer for the WWF, and the team of MUA lawyers.

Second, the lack of democratic debate meant that the rumour mill worked overtime at each port. While some of this was inevitable – who could know what decision the judges were going to hand down this week? – much of it resulted from the tendency of the national leadership to withhold information from members. During the seven week period between reinstatement and the final peace deal, when members were receiving no pay other than strike relief, the immense vitality that had been demonstrated in April began to evaporate. Workers became increasingly cynical and morale sank.

How did this monopolisation of power occur in a union historically known for its lively port debates and argument? Several factors are responsible.4 One was the shift over time from annual to biannual and finally in 1988 to four-yearly elections for full-time union positions. Another was the destruction in the same year of the old port autonomy that existed within the WWF, and the replacement of decentralised branch structures by a new centralised federation, in which the national office took control of funds, and the port committees lost much of their local influence. This tendency was reinforced five years later with the merger with the Seamen's Union which did not have any of the old job delegates structures of the WWF.

The most important reason for the decline in local activity was the industrial environment that has prevailed on the waterfront for the past three decades. From 1970, when the stevedoring award was supplemented by two-year national agreements covering all stevedoring companies, conditions of work for wharfies steadily improved. The union was able to lift wages and conditions, and the stevedoring companies passed on the costs to the shipping companies or offset wage rises by pensioning off many of the older wharfies. These improvements were won at a cost, however – a commitment by the union not to take any strike action over any industrial condition covered in the agreement for the life of each agreement. This did not immediately reduce industrial combativity on the waterfront – there was a three-day national strike in 1974 – but it did much to transform the industry over a period of years. By 1976 waterfront industrial disputes accounted for only one per cent of all time lost in industry, down from 20 per cent ten years earlier.

The no-strike commitment was extended in the years following 1983, with the WWF a key partner in the ALP-ACTU Accord which promised full wage indexation in return for industrial "discipline". Jim Healy's successor and friend of Bob Hawke, Charlie Fitzgibbon (national secretary from 1961 to 1983), was instrumental in drawing up the Accord and the union's national leadership under Tas Bull (1984-92) had a lot at stake in the continuation of the Accord process and its good relationship with the ACTU under Bill Kelty. There was relatively little opposition to the Accord within the ranks of the WWF in the mid-1980s. Members had won substantial wage increases in wages since the early 1970s. Not only that, but any individual who stood up at WWF stop-work meetings to oppose the Accord commitment to industrial peace and wage restraint (which quickly became wage cuts) was mercilessly baited and isolated by the branch and national leaderships.

For a period in the late 1980s and early 1990s things began to be shaken up with waterfront reform and the agenda of trade-offs (see next chapter). Wharfies faced the second-tier trade-offs in 1987, followed by award restructuring in 1988-90, followed finally by enterprise bargaining, starting in 1991. The succession of "give-backs" occurred at the same time as redundancies were cutting a swathe through the ranks of the union. More members now began to stand up to the national agenda of the Tas Bull leadership. In Brisbane activists in Conaust organised a serious campaign to oppose their draft enterprise agreement in 1991. This was short-lived, however, as Conaust management smashed the opposition and victimised most of the union militants, who were then consigned to a "transitional labour pool". These victimisations cut short any revival of membership militancy, intimidating any other workers who wanted to speak out.

The result of this commitment to industrial discipline by the WWF was that in 1992-93 when Tas Bull retired and the MUA was formed out of a merger with the Seamen's Union, the national office of the WWF had not organised a single national stoppage for nearly 20 years. John Coombs and his allies rose to power in a period of industrial passivity; one in which members had never been mobilised for an extensive and hard-hitting industrial campaign. This inevitably meant that power gravitated to the national office.

Furthermore, there was simply no current of socialist activists amongst the wharfies capable of forming the nucleus of a rank and file alternative to the leadership and pointing to an alternative way forward for wharfies dissatisfied with the conduct of the Patrick campaign. Members of the Socialist Party of Australia (now Communist Party) have been active in the MUA (and prior to the merger, in the Seamen's Union and WWF) for many years. So too have members of the Maritime Unionists' Socialist Activities Association (MUSAA), with which it shares very similar politics. However, these have been little other than factional platforms for elements of the MUA leadership, with leading CPA figure Jim Donovan holding the assistant secretary's position in the Central NSW (Sydney and Port Botany) branch of the MUA, and Queensland MUSAA secretary Mick Carr holding the secretary's job in the South Queensland branch of the union. Members of both the CPA and MUSAA have done little or nothing to distinguish themselves from the strategies advocated by the federal leadership of Tas Bull and John Coombs, most obviously in relation to the waterfront reform program. Indeed, Donovan was a key member of the WWF waterfront reform team in 1988-90. In the absence of a political alternative to the leadership strategy of waterfront reform and a body of members capable of winning the argument for it on the picket lines, there was little scope for rank and file members to ensure that their priorities, not those of the national leadership, dominated the agenda of the campaign.

The tight centralised control and the lack of rank and file participation that was evident during the course of the 1998 dispute therefore reflects trends that have been developing inside the WWF/MUA since the 1970s. These trends are intimately linked to the union's political agenda since that time and it is this agenda that ultimately explains the nature of the MUA campaign during the dispute.

  • 1. Details on what follows are drawn from personal involvement in the Brisbane campaign by members of the Defend Our Unions Committee.
  • 2. Source: Steering Committee on National Performance Monitoring of Government Trading Enterprises, Second Annual Report, 1994, AGPS
  • 3. Information on the state of internal communication within the union was provided by Mick Fulton.
  • 4. What follows is based on information in Beasley.