5. Was There An Alternative?

Submitted by Spartacus on January 11, 2011

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.

  • 1This campaign is described in detail in Jack Hutson (1983): From Penal Colony to Penal Powers, Amalgamated Metals, Foundry and Shipwrights' Union, Sydney.
  • 2The Australian, 6 August 1998.
  • 3'Patrick pays price for docks peace', Australian Financial Review, 4 September 1998.