6. "MUA, Here To Stay", But At What Cost?

A Miserable Deal

The final deal between the MUA and Patrick fell far short of what could have been achieved.1 The most obvious failing of the deal is that it signed away nearly 50 per cent of the entire permanent Patrick workforce. The MUA leadership tried to argue that "only" two or three hundred jobs would be lost in the deal, but when the packages were handed out in September, 736 jobs were gone. Maintenance, security and cleaning jobs have all been handed over to outside contractors, with no guarantee that existing wages and conditions or even union coverage will be maintained.

Second, the package involves significant wage cuts for many wharfies, with the loss of penalty rates and the annualisation of salaries. Third and more damaging still is the major level of casualisation that the agreement has ushered in. With the core Patrick workforce down to less than 700, two-thirds of MUA members will be casuals. Casual workers will work with two-hour minimum shifts, on call 24 hours a day 365 days a year. The deal opens the door to 12-hour shifts without penalty rates, compulsory weekend work, workers forced to work up to 15 midnight shifts straight, with some shifts starting between 8.30 pm and 2.30 am, and finishing any time between 6.30 am and 12.30 pm. Straddle truck drivers and container crane drivers may be forced to drive for a full 12-hour shift, exacerbating the already high rate of neck and back problems (stevedoring has five times the national rate of injury and twice the rate mining has).2

The deal is also a setback for union power on the waterfront. Alongside further casualisation, the MUA agreed to management control over the allocation of workers (ie abolition of the "order of pick"). With head-picking firmly entrenched, management now has the power to victimise union activists. Management has already used its increased control over workers to jack up the pace of work and to pick on workers for the slightest infringement of discipline.

Finally, the agreement has undermined not just the conditions of MUA members at Patrick but wharfies around the country, since P&O management has already announced its intention of gaining similar, if not bigger, concessions.

The Political Context: A Defeat for Union-Busting

Industrially, it is clear that the union has taken a severe blow, in terms of membership and conditions of employment. However, the outcome of the dispute cannot be measured simply in terms of the contents of the peace package. In assessing the deal, we must judge not just the immediate industrial issues involved but also the broader political context.

In each of its major aims, to bust the MUA and to use this as the first step for a broader offensive, to introduce scab labour onto the wharves, to intimidate other unions by successful use of the Workplace Relations Act and the Trades Practices Act, and to give itself an electoral boost on the agenda of union-busting, the Government failed outright.

The defeat suffered by the Government can be illustrated by the contrast in the behaviour of Reith and Howard at the start and at the end of the dispute. Who can forget Peter Reith crowing on the night of the sackings when he announced the "new era on the waterfront", or the mutual backslapping between Howard and Reith on the floor of Parliament on the following morning? What of Reith's claims that the MUA members had lost their jobs for good? Right-wing columnist for The Australian, Alan Wood, gloated on 9 April, just one day after the sackings, that "hard as it is to believe, it really looks like it is all over on the wharves, bar the shouting … The MUA's monopoly of waterside labour is doomed … Peter Reith's claim that the Government has moved to 'fix the waterfront for once and for all' has a solid ring to it". Instead, as the campaign progressed, Reith's smug pronouncements began to sound phonier. As the campaign was winding to its conclusion, he began to change his tune significantly, saying that of course his aim was never to smash the union, only to win improvements in waterfront efficiency.

Howard's "defining moment in Australian industrial history" and his "fight back by the people of Australia" turned out to be a significant embarrassment for the Government. The only "people's fightback" was aimed squarely at the Howard Government. Far from being a vote-winner, the massive mobilisation in defence of the MUA and the reinstatement of MUA members added to a sense of decay at the heart of the Coalition Government, reflected later in its loss of 14 seats in the October federal election, despite the Labor Party burying the entire issue of Government corruption that the dispute had exposed. The outcome of the MUA dispute has cast a dark pall over the Coalition's ambitions to unleash a "second wave" of industrial relations attacks in its second term in office.

This is not to say that the Government will not be trying it on in a variety of ways in coming months. On 30 July Reith told a meeting of construction employers that the Government would not tolerate the CFMEU industry-wide pay campaigns. This comes on top of a decision by the Government to start a Productivity Commission review into the building industry and the release of the Government's code of conduct which seeks to bust the closed shop on building sites. However, his aim to put this into practice has undoubtedly been stalled by at least a year, and CFMEU construction division secretary John Sutton has immediately warned the Government that it will face "the same militant defiance as organised by the MUA" if it tries to bash his union.

We can also gain some understanding of the outcome of this dispute by comparing it with the outcome of other great battles between aggressive union-busting governments and unions over the past two decades. Howard and Reith looked to the British coal strike in 1984-85, the battle for union recognition at Rupert Murdoch's Wapping operations in 1986, and Ronald Reagan's use of military personnel to bust the American air traffic controllers in 1980-81 as "benchmarks" for union-busting. In all three cases the unions involved lost heavily. In Queensland, the constant point of reference in industrial disputes since the mid-1980s has been the SEQEB disaster of 1985 when more than 1,000 linesmen were sacked by Joh Bjelke-Petersen and then isolated by the Queensland Trades and Labour Council (forerunner of the ACTUQ). Similarly, in Victoria and NSW trade union leaders could threaten militants demanding industrial action with the warning "look what happened to the BLF in the 1980s". The significance of the MUA dispute of 1998 has been that it has gone some way to banishing these spectres. This is most obvious in the core blue-collar unions which were most involved in the MUA solidarity work. For many union activists the dispute was a new and refreshing experience, and gave a sense of confidence that, when workers stand and fight together, they can resist the attacks of the government and the employers.

The dispute also showed that scabbing does not pay: PCS stevedores was closed down and the Patrick scabs laid off. Paul Houlihan, PCS director, admitted "We were done, we were beaten, they beat us".3 One PCS scab commented bitterly: "The union proved it, didn't they? Stay as one and you will win anything"; another, who had bought a house on the promise of three years' work by PCS, urged: "My advice to everyone out there is to join a union because an Australian Workplace Agreement [individual contract] is not safe, it's not worth the paper it's written on". The fate of these workers has sent out a cautionary message to any tempted to try their hand at scabbing in some future dispute. It has also given the National Farmers Federation food for thought and will discourage it from rushing in quite so eagerly to assist union-busting operations in the future.

For many outside the union movement, the actions of tens of thousands of trade unionists and their supporters proved that unions are still critically important. Further, it gave an added fillip to their own campaigns. This was especially evident in Melbourne where the editor of the Melbourne University student paper, Farrago, reported in August that the MUA campaign had lifted the spirits of those campaigning on issues as diverse as the Jabiluka uranium mine in Kakadu national park, the privatisation of Melbourne University, and Pauline Hanson's One Nation party. In each of these campaigns, students and activists used the tactics that they had learned at Swanson Dock, linking their arms, singing songs and confronting the police. In the campaign against Melbourne University Private they talked of the role that workers could play in their campaign: "Let's get the unions to black-ban construction on the new buildings - the MUA campaign shows that we can do this". With tens of thousands of workers drawn into struggle, the ideas of socialism and working class power also came back onto the agenda as "relevant" to campaign activists.

  • 1. The final deal reached at the conclusion of the dispute is the subject of much debate within the left and the labour movement more generally. The position of the Communist Party is outlined in The Guardian 'The Generals of the Rear' (15 July 1998, pp. 6-7) while that of MUSAA is summarised in '"MUA Here to Stay" is a historical fact' (June 1998). More critical analysis and some debate on the deal can be found in Socialist Alternative issues 28 and 30 (July to October 1998) and in Green Left Weekly, issues 322, 323 and 327 (late June to late July 1998).
  • 2. Productivity Commission, p. 40.
  • 3. G. Griffin. and S. Svensen (1998): Industrial Relations Implications of the Australian Waterside Dispute, National Key Centre in Industrial Relations Working Paper No. 62, Monash University, p.12