4. Supping with the Devil: The Politics of "Strategic Unionism"

Submitted by Spartacus on January 11, 2011

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.