A pamphlet written by a participant in the Brisbane Defend Our Unions Committee on the 1998 waterfront dispute between Patrick Stevedores and the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA), the most significant industrial dispute in Australia of the 1990s and one of the most important since the 1960s.
War on the waterfront - Tom Bramble
This pamphlet was written by Tom Bramble on behalf of the Brisbane Defend Our Unions Committee. The analysis contained within is very much the product of a collective effort by all members of the Committee, but special credit is due to Carole Ferrier, Allan Gardiner, Georgina Murray, Jeff Rickertt, and Martin Thomas from the Committee and to Mick Armstrong, Diane Fieldes, Tom O'Lincoln, Liz Ross, and Stuart Svensen from Sydney and Melbourne who read and made extremely valuable comments on earlier drafts. Finally, many thanks are due to Patrick's wharfie and MUA member (since 1971) Mick Fulton for his central involvement in the work of the Committee and his valuable insights into the tactics of the union as the campaign unfolded.
ISBN number: TBA
The members of the Committee, which met weekly through the dispute, were as follows (in alphabetical order):
The four-month struggle between Patrick Stevedores and the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) was the most significant industrial dispute of the 1990s and one of the most important since the 1960s. At stake were not just the jobs of 1,400 wharfies but the Howard Government's entire industrial agenda which was:
- to take on and smash the MUA and then to use this as a springboard to move on to break unionism in the coal mines, the building industry, and the meatworks;
- to introduce non-union labour onto the wharves;
- to use the dispute as a showcase for the Government's anti-union laws to intimidate other unions; and
- to win electoral support on a ticket of "union-busting".
In every one of these key aims, the Government failed. A gathering employer offensive against unionism was stopped in its tracks. All the wharfies walked back through the gates on being reinstated by the courts. The scab company PCS Stevedores was crushed and chased off the waterfront. The MUA retained almost 100 per cent control over waterfront labour. Not only that, but the dispute itself taught much about how the labour movement can be revitalised, as industrial solidarity, mass picket lines, and the language of class struggle forced themselves back onto the industrial and political agenda in Australia.
Although Australian unionists have every right to be proud of the tremendous struggle waged by the MUA and its supporters in the first half of 1998, our side took some serious casualties. Half the Patrick workforce lost their jobs. Industrial conditions were driven backwards and the pace of work intensified. Patrick took the opportunity to step up its casualisation of the waterfront labour force. And every breakthrough that was made by Patrick is shortly to be implemented, with union agreement, at P&O.1
This pamphlet looks at the inspiring elements of the mass struggle by Australian wharfies and their supporters and the lessons that we can learn from the successes; it also asks the question: why, when the Government and the employers were on the ropes, did wharfies have to give up so much? How was it that a campaign that had so much potential and which drew in tens of thousands of union activists ended up with 700 wharfies out of a job?
Reith and Howard have been pushed back by their failure on the waterfront but made clear on their re-election that they are now back in the ring for the next round against the MUA or another key union. Pressure from employers who are gunning for full-blooded "industrial reform" and the world economic bust leaves them with no alternative. So it is vitally important that we learn the lessons of the waterfront dispute to prepare ourselves for the coming battles.
- 1In Brisbane, P&O Ports trades under the name Conaust Stevedores. When referring to the company's operations in Brisbane, it will be referred to as Conaust, elsewhere as P&O.
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.
- 1A. Morehead et al (1997): Changes at Work: The 1995 Australian Workplace Industrial Relations Survey, Longman, Melbourne, Tables A7.1a and A7.1b.
- 2Material 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.
- 3S. Svensen (1998): 'Chronology of the Patrick Dispute', p.16. Available on the web at: http://www-personal.buseco.monash.edu.au/~svensen/chronol.html.
- 4The 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.
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.
- 1Details 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.
- 2Svensen, p.25
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
[col]All Government Enterprises[/col]
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.
- 1Details on what follows are drawn from personal involvement in the Brisbane campaign by members of the Defend Our Unions Committee.
- 2Source: Steering Committee on National Performance Monitoring of Government Trading Enterprises, Second Annual Report, 1994, AGPS
- 3Information on the state of internal communication within the union was provided by Mick Fulton.
- 4What follows is based on information in Beasley.
4. Supping with the Devil: The Politics of "Strategic Unionism"
The MUA and ACTU leaders justified their overall strategy in various ways: the crippling cost of secondary boycott litigation; the strength of their conspiracy case against Corrigan and the Government; the need to win public opinion; and the alleged lack of support from other unions. All of these arguments assumed the union movement was too feeble and divided to mount an effective mass campaign. But as tens of thousands of Australian workers and hundreds of overseas workers marched, picketed, struck and levied themselves in solidarity with the MUA, it became clear that what held the campaign back was not any lack of fight from the rank and file but the leaders' own political and industrial strategy.
MUA and ACTU leaders had to stop the union-busting operation in its tracks to maintain their credibility in the eyes of workers, the Government and employers. To this end they were prepared to endorse (outside Brisbane at least) mass "community assemblies". But while the union leaders were keen to defend union coverage of the waterfront, this was not the same as protecting jobs and conditions. Their willingness to fight on the former but capitulate on the latter issue was grounded in their acceptance of the argument that the waterfront needed further "reform", and that this would entail more sacrifices.
The WWF/MUA leadership had already underwritten years of waterfront reform. Indeed, the waterfront reform programme of 1987-91 is constantly used by the union leadership as an example of the virtues of employers working hand in hand with the MUA. Established by Bob Hawke, endorsed by the WWF, and overseen by the Waterfront Industry Reform Authority, the programme offered many advantages to the shipping and stevedoring companies. Productivity increased sharply, with the number of 20 foot boxes (TEUs) moved per crane increasing from 14 to 23 per hour between 1989 and 1992 (across the five ports of Melbourne, Brisbane, Sydney, Fremantle and Adelaide) and then to 25 by 1997.1 The cost of moving a container fell from $370 to $203 between 1985 and 1993, according to the Government's own Productivity Commission. The value of such changes to container operators in 1993 alone was estimated by the Bureau of Transport and Communications Economics at $168 million.
All of this was at the cost of further radical cuts in employment, with the permanent workforce falling from 8,300 to 3,800. At the same time, the number of guaranteed wage employees (GWEs) (who were assured of earnings equivalent to two days' work per week) and supplementaries ("supps", freshly-appointed casuals, or retrenched or retired wharfies who are taken on during busy periods but who receive no annual leave, no sick leave, no compassionate leave and no redundancy payments) grew rapidly. By the time of the sackings, 45 per cent of the Patrick workforce of 2,780 were "supps" and casuals, and a further 70 workers were GWEs.2 An "in principle agreement" by the WWF also led to the reintroduction of double-headers (two successive 8-hour shifts), enterprise bargaining and company-based employment (rather than employment across the industry). This last measure was just the latest in a long line of management attempts to tie workers to particular companies with the idea of encouraging competition between them and to break solidarity. Now, with the introduction of more than 60 company-specific enterprise agreements across the entire waterfront, this employer goal came closer than ever.
At Patrick Stevedores the MUA was anxious to demonstrate to Corrigan that the union could be trusted to deliver further efficiency gains. In October 1996, Coombs put his leadership on the line at a mass meeting of workers at Patrick's cargo handling operations in Melbourne, after two such meetings had rejected a draft agreement that introduced productivity bonuses and cut manning further on cranes, straddles and forklifts. Coombs argued members must accept the draft enterprise agreement because "continued rejection of work practice reforms by the Patrick workforce would expose the union to hostile action by the Federal Government".3 But less than 18 months later the MUA agreed to management demands for another 217 redundancies. This only demonstrated the inexorable logic of waterfront reform - feeding employer demands only makes them greedy for more.
The idea that underlay MUA co-operation in waterfront reform was their belief in the politics of "strategic unionism".4 This involves the notion that, in tough economic times unions should give up fighting for a bigger slice of the economic cake (a fight over distribution), and instead help employers in making the cake bigger in order that everyone can benefit. The MUA was not alone in this. In the Accord years, the leaders of all major Australian unions started to look at themselves as partners in managing public and private enterprises - even the national economy as a whole. Increased productivity and reduced wage costs, even at the expense of jobs, was now the way forward. By 1990, most Australian union leaders were infatuated with the idea that co-operation with governments and employers was the way to go.
These ideas of co-operating with the employers particularly damaged the fighting spirit of the traditionally left-wing unions. The Metalworkers, one of Australia's most militant, had been shifting in this direction since the late 1970s. By 1990, the old traditions of the union had been completely subverted by advocacy of "best practice" and "benchmarking". The concessions made by the MUA through the late 1980s and early 1990s fit into this general pattern.
The ALP, MUA and ACTU leaders did not object to efforts by Corrigan to increase its "efficiency", only to the way this was done. Or, as the MUA's own publicity material put it "The union has worked for change, but it must be co-operative, not imposed".5 Kim Beazley made his support for further change clear in an interview on national radio: had the ALP been given a chance, it could have won the concessions in work practices and reduced manning sought by Corrigan but without the bloodbath accompanying the mass dismissals. Greg Combet from the ACTU also made the same point after the peace deal had been signed, claiming that the agreement could have been reached a year previously by negotiation, and that the benefits to Patrick would have been no less far-reaching.
This belief that workplace reform was inevitable and desirable meant the MUA leadership never directly and publicly challenged Patrick's demand for redundancies. The wharfies were in a position to use their experience to debunk all the arguments about the need for benchmarking, efficiency and best practice that have dominated working life across Australia during the 1990s. But these counter-arguments were never forthcoming because the MUA officials were as committed as the Government to increasing the rate of worker exploitation on the waterfront.
The goal of the leadership was ultimately and only to reinsert itself back at the bargaining table in negotiations with Corrigan; it was this limited objective that shaped its entire strategy. If the leadership strategy had been aimed at resisting redundancies, speed-ups and casualisation, it simply would not have made sense to trust the ALP or rely on the courts. Such a strategy would have required mass mobilisation and thus the active involvement of members in determining the course of the campaign. Instead, once the goals of the leadership were accomplished, it was back to "business as usual" in selling off jobs and conditions.
The officials' acquiescence to pro-business agendas is underpinned by their social position within the labour movement. The primary role of full-time trade union leaders has always been to negotiate with employers over the terms of workers' exploitation rather than to oppose capitalist labour relations. So long as officials work within this system (as all of them do), workers' wages and jobs have to be balanced against the demands of profit for the enterprise. And in periods when long term economic stagnation means that profits and jobs are incompatible, the union leaders will jettison jobs, so long as they themselves are not locked out of bargaining. Furthermore, union leaders themselves suffer no hardship from the deals that they do: it is not their jobs that are lost, it is not they who have to suffer speed-up, it is not they who suffer the stand-over tactics of bullying supervisors or security guards, and it is not they who have to stand by the phone as casuals waiting for the call for work. These factors all help shape their behaviour in negotiations with employers.
The deal done with Corrigan and the administrators ironically illustrates who benefits when unions accept pro-business agendas. With the dispute over, Patrick and P&O steadfastly refused to consider cutting prices for the shipping companies, preferring to cream off the profits associated with the much reduced workforce costs.6 Furthermore, the two companies continue to enjoy a stranglehold on waterfront stevedoring, with 94 per cent of all business. This made it clear that the dispute was nothing to do with "efficiency" and everything to do with smashing trade union strength, opening the way for anti-union offensives in other industries and paying for increased profits for the stevedores out of the wages and jobs of waterside workers.
- 1Data on productivity and employment on the waterfront come from Bureau of Industry Economics (1995): International Benchmarking: Overview 1995, Report 95/20, AGPS, Canberra, p. 114; and Productivity Commission (1998): Work Arrangements in Container Stevedoring, Research Report, AusInfo, Canberra, pp. 28-33.
- 2Productivity Commission, p. 21.
- 3'Melbourne cargo handlers finally accept Patrick deal', Australian Financial Review, 14 October 1996.
- 4This strategy is outlined in ACTU-endorsed publications Australia Reconstructed (1987) and Unions 2001 (1995)
- 5Source: MUA leaflet published on MUA web site during the course of the campaign.
- 6'Docks fallout: no price cuts', Australian Financial Review, 1-2 August 1998, p.1-2.
5. Was There An Alternative?
An alternative strategy would have started with a central aim of not just the reinstatement of the wharfies and the re-establishment of the union at Patrick but also to have jobs and conditions secured on the return to work. Such a campaign would have subordinated the legal strategy to the industrial not the other way around, would have exploited support from the ALP where it was useful but not tailored the campaign to the party's electoral agenda, and would, in relations between negotiators and members, have been open and empowering not closed, bureaucratic and secretive. Its key elements would have involved:
- shutting down all the key Australian ports by pulling out P&O workers when the Patrick workers were sacked;
- utilising the offers of industrial support from labour councils and building for state-wide, if not national, stoppages of all unions, in this way openly defying the secondary boycotts provision of the Trades Practices Act
- activating the energy of rank and file wharfies by forming dispute committees, comprising elected union members answerable to mass meetings of members, plus representatives of other unions taking action in support of the MUA
- placing the handling of the dispute in the hands of the dispute committees
- forming committees to handle food, welfare and family relief, fund-raising, entertainment and propaganda
- ensuring members were kept informed of progress by daily bulletins published by the propaganda committees
- organising a large-scale programme of workplace tours by wharfies to put their case to workers in other industries and to offset the effect of hostile media
- raising the demand that stevedoring is a socially necessary industry, that its control by the private sector is incompatible with safe and reasonable working conditions, and that it should therefore be placed under public ownership
- pushing for the updating of the waterfront industry award to reflect pay rates existing under current enterprise agreements
- in the event of wharfies being reinstated with no pay pending a final settlement, seeking as much as possible to maintain the backlog of containers on the wharves to keep the pressure on Patrick and the Government
Two questions are raised immediately by the approach that we advocate. Was it feasible, and why would it have been superior to the strategy that was followed?
First, the immense level of solidarity and the potential for widespread strike action has already been outlined in earlier sections of this pamphlet. Among the MUA membership, P&O workers understood very well from the outset that where Corrigan led, Hein would follow in demanding major cuts to manning and working conditions. In many cases, they followed the union strategy of handling Patrick cargo with extreme reluctance. In terms of the broader labour movement, the main job of the ACTU and labour council leaders throughout April was one of preventing industrial stoppages from breaking out like wildfire. Australian workers had already shown back in November 1995 in the case of CRA Weipa that they were prepared to take strike action to support a union under attack if the call were made by the ACTU. The thousands of workers who walked off their jobs to attend or defend the picket lines in Sydney, Fremantle, Melbourne and Brisbane, and the demonstration by 80,000 Victorian workers on 6 May showed the support that could have been mobilised if the call had gone out to defend the wharfies. Furthermore, the experience of Victoria showed that, rather than "alienating the public", mass mobilisation actually built support for the MUA's cause. The strongest opposition to Corrigan's actions was recorded not in Queensland, where the MUA leadership emphasised a public relations campaign, but in Victoria.
But wouldn't such a campaign have immediately drawn forth punitive court cases by employers and the Government using the Workplace Relations Act and the Trades Practices Act? This was unlikely, if the show of strength by the unions were determined and widespread. Reith and Corrigan acted against the MUA on the assumption that they could quickly isolate the union. Along with virtually everyone else, they were staggered by the level of almost spontaneous mobilisation that broke out in defence of the wharfies. And while the MUA and ACTU leaders were prepared to sanction a limited amount of illegal industrial action, rank and file union members showed by their actions that they were prepared to flout the legislation quite blatantly. And not a single worker was charged. If the union leaders had given a lead to this mobilisation from below, the Government knew that invoking the secondary boycott provisions would only have escalated the industrial situation to the point that its own support base amongst employers would start seriously splitting, and where its own survival would be called into question. The provisions would thereby have been rendered a dead-letter, not only for the wharfies but for every other union.
This is not merely idle speculation. When dealing with unions, conservative Governments break into a cold sweat at the mention of Clarrie O'Shea and the struggle over the penal powers in the 1960s.1 Throughout the 1960s employers and the courts went on the offensive to have all strikes effectively declared illegal by constant usage of the notorious "bans clause". These bans clauses resulted in unions piling up massive fines, totalling $280,000 between 1956 and 1969, with another $300,000 in legal costs (probably worth ten times as much today). In 1969 the union movement in Victoria finally took a stand on the issue. Clarrie O'Shea, secretary of the Tramways Union, refused to produce his union's accounts and was promptly thrown into jail for contempt of court. The response was immediate. Within four days, approximately one million workers around Australia took strike action, with Melbourne the storm centre. An anonymous donor (later found to be an ASIO agent) sprang forward to pay the fine and O'Shea was out of jail. The penal powers were rendered impotent and it took nearly 20 years before employers ventured forth to take unions to court again.
Key to the victory in the penal powers dispute was the use of direct action and a blanket refusal to abide by the law. The unions had been opposed to the penal powers ever since they were introduced. Every ACTU Congress since 1951 had passed resolutions deploring them and organising deputations to Parliament. Letters and protests galore were telexed to Canberra. The Labor Party was lobbied repeatedly. But the Menzies Government did nothing and the fines only kept piling up until bans orders "flew around like confetti", according to one journalist of the time. It took a decision by the Boilermakers Union in May 1968 not to pay any more fines that started off the process that led within a mere 12 months to the total scrapping of the bans clauses.
The struggle over penal powers demonstrated that mass defiance of reactionary laws can render them useless. And so, if Howard and Reith had pressed ahead with the secondary boycott provisions against unions striking in support of the wharfies, the ACTU leaders could have taken a leaf out of their predecessor's book by mobilising for state-wide or national strikes. Such a call would have provided a focus for all the hatred felt by workers for the Howard Government in the light of cuts in the public service, privatisation and contracting-out, award stripping, increased education and health charges for their families, and racist attacks on migrants and Aborigines.
Opponents of a massive campaign of this nature protest that falling union membership over the past decade means that unions can't mobilise a general strike in the way that they used to. This overlooks not only the massive strikes and demonstrations that greeted the election of Jeff Kennett in Victoria in October 1992 but also the international experience. While membership is certainly down on the 1980s, Australian unions still have three or four times the meagre coverage enjoyed by French unions. And yet it was French unions, which cover less than 10 per cent of the workforce, who organised a shut-down of their public sector in November 1995 and successfully fought off the attacks by their right-wing Government which had only just been elected with a huge majority.
If the waterfront had been completely shut down, would the Government have simply brought in the army to shift goods? That was certainly done in Britain in 1948 and New Zealand in 1951. Two things suggest not. First is the technical. As the appalling performance of the PCS scab wharfies had already shown, waterfront work is now highly skilled and cannot be easily picked up by the inexperienced. Very soon the slow rate of work and the high rate of damage by incompetent military handling of goods and containers would have brought howls of protest by other employers. Furthermore, the problem that the Government faced was not that goods were not being unloaded off ships but that containers could not be brought into and taken off the waterfront (other than in Brisbane) because of the strength of the "community assemblies". At the three key ports of Sydney, Melbourne and Fremantle, how could the army then have shifted the containers through what would have quickly developed into crowds of several thousand trade unionists at each of the main ports? This is the political reason why armed intervention was unlikely: what held the police back from forcing a gap in the picket lines was not their lack of guns and tear gas but the sheer level of mobilisation that had developed.
Had the waterfront been closed off and mass pickets mobilised, wouldn't Patrick have been liquidated and the entire workforce dismissed? Again, this cannot be ruled out. Such a move would then have required an occupation of Patrick facilities by MUA members and their supporters. The company has spent many millions on new equipment on the wharves in the 1990s and would have been held hostage by such an action. The numbers were there to do it at any time, and the experience of Polish workers in Gdansk who occupied their shipyards in 1980 demonstrated that major concessions could have been won from even the most repressive Government. Such a move would also have sent out a powerful message to other workers facing mass redundancies that they do not have to accept sackings and closures. Furthermore, it would have raised the issue of public ownership of the waterfront. This would not have been completely unprecedented: public ownership of Australian National Line was a key objective of the MUA in the mid-1990s. And intervention against an occupation by army, police or security guards would have provoked a massive and, for the Government, intolerable industrial backlash.
Finally, closure by Patrick would not have meant the destruction of the MUA workforce even if the occupation had collapsed. Even during the dispute, SeaLand, American-owned and already operating in Adelaide, made enquiries about setting up an operation in Brisbane. This demonstrates the fact that there is simply no way that one company, P&O, can handle the volume of goods leaving and entering Australia, and by definition, the work cannot be sent overseas. The new employer would then have been faced by a determined and militant union which would have ensured that conditions were not undercut. And it is unlikely that the workforce would have been any smaller than that which has ended up on the payroll at Patrick five months after reinstatement.
Why would this have been a superior strategy? First, it would have placed the Government and Patrick under significantly more pressure. It would have ensured that the negotiations that eventually took place occurred in an environment where the pace of events was dictated by the unions, not by the courts, the receivers or the banks. Second, the democratic example of membership control set by the wharfies could have been taken up in other unions, reversing a long tendency towards bureaucratisation in Australian unions. Third and most importantly, membership control would have ensured that it was the members' agenda, not that of the MUA leadership, that drove the campaign. It is inconceivable that a campaign controlled by the delegates not by the national leadership would have ended up sacrificing nearly half the entire workforce and driving conditions back two or three decades.
Finally, even if none of these tactics had been followed, the conditions set by Patrick and the administrator in the peace package put before members in mid-June should still have been rejected. The MUA and ACTU leaderships had got what they wanted from negotiations: restoring MUA coverage of Patrick operations and interposing themselves as a negotiating partner in all future discussions of waterfront reform. For Coombs to declare in the first week of August on reaching a final agreement with Patrick "We took the thing right to the wire, but in the end we got exactly what we wanted"2 or for Combet to claim that "Overall, we are extremely pleased"3 is an indicator that what mattered to the MUA leadership was its continued industrial role at Patrick's, not what conditions members were now required to work under.
The members, however, were to pay a terrible price. They were faced by a leadership which told them that the deal was the best that they were going to get, that the only alternative was a year-long lock out and a long and expensive court case with an uncertain outcome, and that they would lose "community support" if they knocked the deal back (code for the fact that the ACTU and ALP had threatened to desert the MUA if the union rejected the deal). Even in these circumstances, however, knocking back the deal was not unrealistic. It took the national leadership eight hours to convince a meeting of members in Melbourne that they should accept the deal - and even then 25-30 per cent of the Melbourne membership voted against the package. In Sydney, the vote to accept was unanimous, partly because it was supported by Donovan and the more left-wing Port Botany leadership. But by October the deal was unravelling in Sydney too, as wharfies began to rebel against the speed-ups and stand-over tactics that the deal had ushered in and against the national leadership of John Coombs who had promoted the deal so strongly.
The vote to accept the package represented not satisfaction with what was on offer but the absence of a trusted and respected rank and file organisation which had proved its credibility in past campaigns and which was able to answer all the arguments that underpinned the union leadership's arguments about waterfront reform. Such a grouping would have had to deal with all the questions arising out of waterfront reform, why "competitiveness" is a smokescreen for employer interests, why redundancies and further casualisation only pave the way for further job losses in the future, and why a resolution to the dispute that involved something other than a kinder, gentler, union-endorsed form of speed-up was possible. In other words, an alternative strategy would have required an alternative leadership, one that worked from the bottom up, not the top down, and one that consistently opposed the concessions that had become part of life on the waterfront in the 1990s. At the very least, the presence of such a group could have ensured that the negotiating team was sent back to remove some of the worst elements of the deal.
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.
- 1The 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).
- 2Productivity Commission, p. 40.
- 3G. 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
7. Where To Now For Our Unions?
The underlying decay in the Australian economy and the impact of the world economic crisis forces employers and governments into fresh attacks on workers, and the re-election of the Howard Government has given them the confidence to press ahead. Even during the election Peter Reith reassured a business lunch "Never forget which side we're on. We're on the side of making profits. We're on the side of people owning private capital". And immediately after the election, Graham Kraehe, managing director of Southcorp, called on Reith and Howard to make good their promises, demanding that the Government be more "action oriented" in its second term in office than it had been in its first – "They've got a chance now to show their true colours. They have a chance now to put their foot on the accelerator and implement some of the things that they've been talking about and thinking about for the last couple of years". And so Peter Reith soon began talking about further award stripping, individual contracts, compulsory strike ballots and exempting small business from unfair dismissal provisions.
If workers are to defend their jobs and conditions in the next battle, however, they will have to fight to overcome the obstacles that held them back in the campaign to defend the MUA - the belief that they need to sacrifice jobs and conditions on the altar of international competition, and that they can defend themselves by looking to the courts and the ALP. To the extent that the labour movement can claim victory in this dispute, it is important to emphasise that this was a victory won by the workers, not by the union leaders. Or, as Bob Carnegie, elected MUA organiser in Brisbane, concluded after the dispute:
It was not the Federal, Supreme or High Court of Australia that held firm on the picket lines, night and day, in bad weather and fair. It was working people of principle. It is my belief that this nation's union movement, supported internationally, could have defeated Corrigan and Reith. But in the end, the minimalist line (which so typifies the Kelty years of dispute handling) was followed – to contain at all costs workers fighting together for a better future, and to prevent at all costs workers believing in each other.1
The hard fact facing rank and file union activists is that the behaviour of the ACTU and MUA leaderships in this dispute is not exceptional. We only have to review the failure of the ACTU to lead a challenge to the 1996 Workplace Relations Act itself to see why the revival of the union movement requires a new set of politics and new strategies.
The ACTU leadership huffed and puffed about the Government's Workplace Relations Bill being "the most malicious and vindictive piece of legislation that the country has ever seen", but took no serious action to kill it off. Instead, it sought negotiations not confrontation; deals with the Democrats not a general strike; a public information campaign not stopworks; lobbying Coalition MPs not occupying their offices; and constitutional challenges through the High Court, not major strike action. Jennie George looked to right-wing Independent Tasmanian Senator Brian Harradine to support the ACTU's court challenge to the Government's claim of a "mandate" to carve up the Industrial Relations Commission. And George even wrote to female Coalition MPs asking them to "raise their voices" on issues affecting women's rights in the Workplace Relations Bill. Presumably she included Jocelyn Newman and Amanda Vanstone, at the time responsible for savage cuts to social security and higher education respectively!
Relying on the Democrats got the ACTU nowhere. The Democrats voted in favour of stripping back unfair dismissal protections, the removal of limits to part-time work in awards, "freedom of association" for scabs, and the punitive legislation against solidarity industrial action which went on to cripple the ACTU in the waterfront dispute two years later. Even after the Bill was tabled, the ACTU told the Government that it had "no plans" for co-ordinated strike action. Rather, the Financial Review explained, "it was leaving it up to employees in individual workplaces depending on their employer's reaction to the Bill".
Two years later, in July 1998, when all awards were compulsorily stripped back to 20 minimum conditions, only the CFMEU took any protest action against this savage attack on the whole award system and basic employment conditions. And in the run-up to the election on 3 October, the Victorian Trades Hall Council was alone in organising a mass demonstration against the Coalition Government. This was a far cry from 1993 when unions around the country pulled out all stops to flatten Hewson's election challenge.
As capitalism ages and the prospects for significant improvements in workers' living standards become even more remote, the role of union officials is likely to become even more conservative. Sticking within a decaying system means that the union officials become industrial police officers who will defend their own role when under attack, but not the material conditions of union members. The only thing that can counteract this trend is the revival of lively industrial activism at the grassroots.
Such a revival of rank and file organisation and self activity is not about to happen overnight. The MUA dispute is just one step in what may be a prolonged and bitter campaign to drive back the employers' relentless offensive. There are likely to be many setbacks and defeats before the tide definitely turns.
But rebuilding a fighting labour movement is possible. The defeats workers are suffering today are not inevitable. What holds workers back in many cases is the failure of political will of our leaders and our own lack of confidence to fight when our leaders are unwilling to give a lead.
To rebuild a fighting union movement will mean breaking with all the ideas of consensus and class collaboration that have dominated the past 15 years. It will mean reviving a socialist current within the labour movement that recognises that there is no room for co-operation with employers and their governments (of whatever political description), one that champions the interests of ordinary workers over those of profit, and that understands that only militant and determined struggle can deliver results.
- 1'A few thoughts on the waterfront dispute', West End Neighbourhood News (Brisbane), June 1998, p.21.
Timeline For The Patrick Dispute
Source: The Australian, 17 June 1998, p.4; Parliament of Australia Current Issues Brief 15 1997-98: "Outline of the Waterfront Dispute", Canberra; Svensen (1998), other newspaper reports in The Australian, and personal observations.
The combined efforts of the Court Liberal Government and "entrepreneur" Len Buckeridge fail to set up a non-union operation in Fremantle in the face of sustained union opposition.
The Workplace Relations Act 1996 takes effect.
Howard Cabinet votes to support Patrick in a variety of ways (including financial assistance) in the latter's decision to take "radical action" against the MUA.
International Purveyors attempt to bring in non-union labour employed under Australian Workplace Agreements to operate facilities in Cairns. Threats by the International Transport Workers Federation to hamper the port operations of the parent company, mining giant Freport McMoran, block this move.
Patrick undertakes substantial organisational restructuring and "outsources" its workforce to four labour-hire companies.
About 30 former and serving military personnel employed by Fynwest under AWAs fly to Dubai to train as wharfies at the port of Rashid.
Dubai operations aborted after Dubai government withdraws trainees' visas in the face of threatened international industrial action.
Patrick sub-leases part of its Webb Dock facilities in Melbourne to NFF-backed Producers and Consumers Stevedores (PCS), and locks out its unionised workforce, sparking union protests.
Patrick chairman Chris Corrigan admits his company was directly involved in the Dubai affair.
Non-union recruits start training at Webb Dock.
MUA engages in limited industrial action in Sydney, Fremantle, Melbourne and Brisbane to put pressure on Patrick to sign new enterprise agreements.
AWU offers to shut down oil refinery operations in support of MUA members locked out of Webb Dock. This offer is not taken up by the ACTU.
MUA seeks orders from the Federal Court to prevent Patrick from dismissing its workforce. Orders not granted, but Patrick is advised to abide by its awards and agreements.
Following late night raids on port facilities around Australia by security guards with dogs, Patrick sacks its unionised workforce of 1,400 permanents and 300 part-time workers, and announces that it will outsource a range of services hitherto performed by its own labour hire companies to nine outside contractors, including PCS.
Peter Reith announces a package of redundancy measures for Patrick workers, to be paid for by a levy on container port operators. Also announces support by Patrick and P&O for the Government's waterfront productivity initiatives. Picket lines established at every major port.
MUA wins interim Federal Court injunctions preventing the termination of Patrick workers, but the injunction is stayed, allowing PCS to set about docking ships and moving containers over the Easter break (10-13 April).
Mass delegates' meetings organised by VTHC and ACTUQ.
VTHC delegates vote to organise state-wide day of action on 6 May.
ACTUQ meeting condemns actions by Patrick and the Government and resolves "to prepare for an industrial campaign" but no date is set.
Savage raid by 140 WA riot police in helmets with batons drawn smashes up waterside workers protest camp at Fremantle at 2 am. Within hours 2,000 MUA supporters gather at the picket line to stop all traffic moving in and out.
Mass pickets at East Swanson Dock repel massive police efforts to break the line to clear a way for containers to move.
Justice Beach of the Supreme Court of Victoria grants Patrick a far-reaching injunction to clear the entrances to the port of Melbourne. This decision is appealed and the injunction is then confined to MUA officials and members.
ACTU Executive vows to defy the Beach order and joins the picket line at East Swanson Dock. ACTU Executive also sanctions picket lines and demonstrations in support of Patrick wharfies, but not solidarity strikes in other industries.
Federal Court Justice Tony North issues orders reinstating the unionised Patrick workforce, but the orders are immediately appealed and stayed.
Mass arrest of 186 in Brisbane, some blocking the road outside Fisherman's Island, some supporting workers chained across railway tracks. (Charges subsequently dropped by police in late September.)
Dockworkers in South Africa and Japan announce bans on Australian cargo.
Full Bench of the Federal Court finds Justice North's decision "free from appellable error". Patrick immediately challenges the decision in the High Court.
Day of Action organised by ACTUQ sees large contingents of blue-collar unions and several bus-loads of students march through driving rain to Fisherman's Island picket line in Brisbane.
NSW TLC organises mass delegates meeting to discuss MUA dispute.
High Court upholds Justice North's reinstatement orders, forcing 370 PCS workers off the docks. Negotiations then begin towards a peace package between the MUA and Patrick.
Largest May Day rally in Brisbane since SEQEB dispute (1985).
VTHC Day of Action includes march by 80,000 through Melbourne in support of MUA and against the Workplace Relations Act.
MUA members reinstated to the wharves, but unpaid other than weekly strike relief of $250.
Picket lines disbanded at Patrick facilities.
Patrick and MUA finalise framework agreement for resolution of the dispute.
Framework agreement leaked to the media.
PCS terminates employment of most of its staff.
Mass meetings of MUA members (from both Patrick and P&O) receive report-backs from national officers regarding negotiations over the Patrick's dispute. No draft of the framework agreement is released to members.
Meetings of MUA Patrick members vote in favour of the framework agreement officially revealed to them for the first time at the meeting. Opposition most evident in Melbourne where 25-30% of members vote against the agreement. Elsewhere the agreement is accepted with few votes recorded against.
Settlement reached between Patrick and MUA.
New enterprise agreements endorsed by stopwork meetings in Sydney and Melbourne.
Final settlement drawn up over redundancies and threatened action by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission.
Certification of new enterprise agreements.
Redundancies as per framework agreement begin.