Submitted by Spartacus on January 11, 2011

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.