Chapter 6: A case study — The 1998 MUA dispute

Submitted by Spartacus on January 19, 2011

Political Framework of the MUA Dispute

In Australia, economic rationalism has dominated our political system and economy since the defeat of the Whitlam government in 1975. Both Labor and Liberal/National governments have subscribed to the philosophy of the free market, and overseen the deregulation of the labour market. This is really re-regulation — with institutions like the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) promoting free trade while saying that it is looking after the interests of everybody i.e. by prosecuting cartels. Twenty years of failure to provide full employment, growing environmental degradation, increasing insecurity at many levels, and fear of crises have brought economic rationalism into question. However, the protagonists simply say it is not working because there are still impediments to competition, such as the trade unions.

The Conspiracy.

The 1998 MUA dispute was a conspiracy by the Australian government, an employer, Patricks Stevedoring, and the National Farmers Federation to rid the Australian waterfront of the Maritime Union of Australia. Significantly, Bill Kelty, the secretary of the ACTU had warned the government, if it were to take on the wharfies, they would see the biggest picket lines in Australian history. The conspirators planned to sack the entire union workforce employed by Patricks and to replace them with scab labour supplied by the National Farmers Federation. Redundancy entitlements were to be provided using government funds (to be called a levy) on stevedores. The repayment by the stevedores of the redundancies has been put back until 2010. The levy has been passed on as an extra charge to consumers and exporters.

The plan was disguised as an attempt to increase productivity on the waterfront. The benefit for the conspirators would be to reduce wages, conditions, and union power in a strategic industry through the introduction of non-union contract labour. This would pave the way for reduced wages and conditions across the entire workforce and hasten the demise of trade unionism in Australia. Patricks hoped to dramatically increase the price of its shares. Corrigan hoped to increase his own wealth. For the farmers it was supposed to mean lower costs. The Patricks CEO Corrigan later referred to the dispute as a conspiracy himself when he said that the dispute was an attempt to emulate what Murdoch had done to the print union workers in Fleet Street in London by setting up an alternative workforce of scab labour at Wapping.

The following events revealed the conspiracy against the MUA —

Cairns. In September 1997, International Purveyors, a stevedoring company in Cairns, bypassed MUA labour. At that time, only seven MUA members had permanent work in Cairns and there were 29 casuals. It was seen as a weak link in the union. The workers stood firm and picketed this employer of non-union labour. The Maritime Union of Australia sought support from the International Transport Federation (ITF) requesting a ban on a ship, the Java Sea, from docking at Cairns. This international action bypassed the secondary boycott provisions which have no effect outside Australia. The employer relented and an agreement was reached for MUA labour to load the ship when it arrived. The first blow had been struck. The war on the waterfront had commenced but the union had countered successfully, to the surprise of many.

Dubai. On December 3, 1997, the Maritime Union of Australia revealed that non-union labour was being sent to Dubai to train as wharfies. The International Transport Federation (ITF) threatened to blockade Dubai and the exercise was abandoned… for the time being. On December 14, the union movement claimed a victory after the United Arab Emirates cancelled the working visas of Australian army personnel training in Dubai because The International Transport Worker’ Federation threatened to blockade Dubai.1 The second counter punch had been landed, but the dispute had intensified.

Webb Dock. Executives of the National Farmers' Federation set up companies including Producers & Consumers Stevedore Pty Ltd to employ and train non-union labour at Webb Dock, Melbourne. This was portrayed as a training exercise. But on January 28, 1998, Patricks Stevedores locked out 180 wharfies from Webb Dock.

Mass Sacking. Patricks Stevedores CEO Chris Corrigan sacked his entire workforce nationwide on Tuesday, April 7, 1998.

The war had commenced.

The sacking of the entire Patricks workforce differed from other industrial disputes. Not because it was a lockout by the employer rather than industrial action by the workers. Not because of the use of security guards with dogs to evict the workers in the dead of night. No, because the union leadership and the ACTU knew from the outset the actions contemplated against them. Greg Combet of the ACTU commented on the superior intelligence held by the MUA leadership:

"I think we filed the first allegation of conspiracy in mid-February, had applied for an injunction. We arrived at the court the morning after everyone was sacked, had them on the defensive. It was very important… a great highlight."2

It was this intelligence; often detailed in nature, Patricks and the Government underestimated. For example, in the Easter break of 1998, John Coombs flew to a meeting of most of the waterside workers employed by Patricks in Brisbane and many of those employed by P&O to canvass the possibility they were about to be sacked by Corrigan. In considerable detail, he outlined Corrigan's plans to the workforce assembled at the Wynnum-Manly Junior football club. The detailed intelligence had been obtained by Coombs from 'three defectors'.

Three men, employed by the National Farmers’ Federation, PC Stevedores, Webb Dock operation, defected from Webb Dock in the weeks leading up to the lockout. Two, Richard Scougall and Lucas Rene (who gave sworn affidavits) exposed how the training at Webb dock was a sham.

One, Jamie Meek, warned that Patrick Stevedores would sack its entire unionised workforce by Easter – symbolically Crucifixion Day. But the plans were rushed forward when, forearmed, the MUA took pre-emptive action in the Federal Court."3

He told the story of the 55 wharfies in Sydney who took their redundancy cheques to the union office for safe keeping until the last dispute with Patricks was over.

He remained unsure as to whether Corrigan would sack them first in Brisbane or Fremantle or, as it turned out, sack everyone at the same time. At this stage, he probably knew only a little less than Reith about the detail. He told the men that he was in daily contact with secretary of the ACTU, Kelty, and that they could expect ACTU support. He said that he had the support of the leader of the Federal Labor Party in opposition, Beazley. Coombs announced that they would not win the dispute in the courts, and he added that "win or lose" he would be back to cop the flak. Then and there all of the officials and members pledged support.

This early meeting with the Brisbane wharfies says a lot about the dispute. The Nestles/Cobar option of sacking the entire workforce was to be invoked by employers and government.4 However, for the first time, the union leadership was fully briefed. Despite Coombs' espoused mistrust of the courts, it was in the courts the union took its first steps to defend themselves. No industrial action was called. However, Coombs said this was the first time it was necessary in the recent history of the union for them to call for support from other unions. He said there were unions with considerable funds that must be committed to the defence of the MUA. No wharfie was to cross the picket line because of want by him or his family. There was to be no one who could say that they scabbed because the union was unable to provide for his family.

This is how the dispute was fought: picket lines outside the Patricks terminal, solidarity camps, court actions in the Supreme, Federal, and High Courts.


Fremantle pickets, at times approaching two thousand strong, prevented trucks from moving on and off Patricks wharf. An attempt by a convoy of farmers' trucks to break through the picket line only seemed to strengthen the resolve of workers and swelled the numbers of picketers. In solidarity with the Patricks workers, P&O MUA members walked off the job in protest causing the farmers to end their action.

In Western Australia the Liberal government also tried to break up the protest camp with riot police. Again, this only increased the resolve of workers and within hours the picket was reformed.


Sydney pickets were effective in halting movement through the wharves at Darling Harbour and at Port Botany. When police moved in to remove pickets others quickly replaced them. When those detained were later released they returned to take up their positions. Trucking companies bowed to the power of the unionists and refused to send trucks through the picket lines. The NSW government played a subdued role by keeping its police force from using violence against workers. On these picket lines building workers and miners (led by John Maitland) played significant supporting roles.


In Brisbane, perhaps the weakest link in the nationwide workers' action, union leaders were reluctant to condone any action that would invoke the secondary boycott provisions of the Trade Practices Act. Most of the action was symbolic and it was here in Brisbane Patricks was able to display a semblance of normal operations. This weakness was exacerbated by the determination of the union leadership not to spread the dispute to the P&O wharves, again because of the risks of legal action this would entail.5

At this port Patricks were able to move trucks on and off the wharf. Within this climate, credit should be given to those determined workers, including those from other unions like the TWU (led by Hughie Williams), that showed courage in an isolated position. The lack of courage of most other union leaders to commit to action meant that the rank-and-file support was not tested, leaving only determined participants at Camp Solidarity and Camp Unity to face up to relative isolation.

Ironically the court decision was announced at a crowd of ten thousand unionists and MUA supporters at the largest political rally in Brisbane during the dispute (see May Day in Brisbane below). What would have happened had the decision not favoured the union?


The pickets on East Swanston Dock in Melbourne were a telling factor in the failure of the strategy by the government and Patricks. At the point when the NFF were most keen to get their scabs on the docks they were unable to prevent ten thousand pickets massed at the gates of the East Swanston Docks. But more than that, when the Victorian police were preparing to remove the pickets they were outmanoeuvred by the building workers who marched up behind them. The CFMEU had answered the call of the MUA in the best way possible.6

This incident became known as The Long Night and was the turning point of the dispute. Indeed, it was decisive. The police were unable to contain the pickets. Mass action had overwhelmed the coercive power of the state and the court system.

Across the board

In Fremantle, police practised riot control measures. But that was it.

In Brisbane, pickets, at times, tried to stop trucks entering the wharves, with limited success.

In Sydney, the pickets were larger and more aggressive. Police were ineffective. The NSW Labor government was said to be responsible.

In Melbourne, mass action brought stevedoring to a standstill. Eventually the High Court provided a compromise resolution

The Long Night

Click here to listen to a reading of The Long Night by Pamela Curr

The tension in the room was palpable as members of different unions spoke. It was 4pm on Friday 17th April and eighty of us were sitting in a circle in the MUA headquarters in West Melbourne. Information had been gathered from workers in different unions which backed up the belief that Kennett had delivered an ultimatum to police to clear Swanston Dock and open it up for Patricks.

The facts were gathered from union members and pieced together to reveal the plan. Members reported buses had been arranged to take a large number of police from a city railway station to the docks probably after midnight. Another union had been informed by their members that hundreds of warrants had been written up to expedite predicted mass arrests. No police from the local area around the docks were to be used in this operation. Then the barrister for the union revealed that the watch-house which was always chronically overcrowded had been magically emptied. The evidence was conclusive a move was to be made on East Swanston Dock that night.

I was there with women unionists as a community member to express support for the MUA and tell them that the community wanted to stand alongside the Wharfies. We recognised them as the frontline for workers. If the government could knock them off, we were all done for. Over 100 years of union struggle was not going to be wiped out. One of the male workers stood up and thanked me but said he did not want 'ladies' on the line. He felt this was men's business to which a woman unionist responded, "This is workers' business and women are workers too and want to stand up and be counted just like the rest of you." This finished the gender argument once and for all. The stakes were too high for division. Decisions were made fast and furious under pressure. Mobile phones interrupted with news as it came to hand.

It was agreed all unions would take turns in manning the picket. The women workers at the MUA were setting up a 24 hour phone service. They had mattresses in the office and would take turns bunking down for sleep and maintaining communication. Community Radio 3CR gave out MUA headquarters phone numbers so that any information could be forwarded quickly to where it was needed. 3CR also called up supporters to get down to the picket telling them when they were most needed. This was community radio's finest hour – a direct link to the people. We left the meeting knowing a long night was ahead of us and that we could all be arrested by morning.

The crowd swelled steadily from 7pm down at Swanston Dock. The marshals called them to practice every half hour or so and we all learnt how to link arms and interlace our fingers so that the police would have to pry us apart one by one to break this line. We agreed that we would be arrested. We were not going to make it easy for the government. Fires were keeping people warm. Their spirits were lit from within with the resolve to win this fight. There was only one toilet just inside the gate and the line was long but practicalities had to be attended to. We knew to be locked in a paddy wagon with a full bladder would be murder.

As the night wore on the crowd grew more resolved. We were now assembled in front of the gates. The marshals on the speaker system letting us know what was happening as news came to hand. At 2am lookouts reported police getting into buses in the city. We knew the time was approaching when we would be tested. Next they were marching down to the dock. It was too dark to see much but we could make out the shadowy outlines of 400 police. Then the helicopters started buzzing us with bright search lights. Back and forth for 40 minutes. It was irritating but good humour and black jokes mitigated the intended effects which were to rattle us.

As dawn was breaking the seagulls wheeled in the rosy light. The marshals on the loudspeaker kept us informed and there we stood 3000 of us facing off 400 police, both implacable. The 7am news bulletin on the ABC informed us that many of the police had removed their badge numbers. A roar of disapproval went up from the crowd. It was too dark for us to see but the journalists were close enough to take in such details.

As light broke we began to see the police more clearly. Our legs were aching after hours of standing on the cold hard bitumen. At least the unpredictable Melbourne weather was being kind – no rain.

By eight o'clock in the morning we were exhausted. The camaraderie was strong; strangers were sharing laughs, mandarins, water, and chocolates, whatever we had. We were at a stand-off when a roar started. What a sight! Builders' labourers marching down the road toward us. We waved and shouted and cheered them in. This put the police in a pickle. They were now sandwiched between weary but steadfast picketers and fresh building workers. Discipline held firm as we cheered the new recruits onto the picket line. Leigh Hubbard from Trades Hall led the police off the dock and they retreated to a Mexican wave and voices singing, "goodbye, farewell, sad to see you go." Like hell we were! We had won!

Tired and exhilarated we headed home to sleep leaving the picket in safe hands. This was the beginning of a remarkable period in Melbourne. Swanston Dock, which until then had been as foreign to most of us as Timbuktu, was to become as familiar as a second home over the next two weeks. Restaurants and theatres emptied as night after night Victorians gathered on the docks. On weekends country folk came down to join their city cousins bringing sausages and chops for barbecues. All the churches were represented standing in support of the wharfies. A Buddhist shrine was erected under some bushes with "MUA Here to Stay" across the top. Tents sprang up to feed and tend the growing community. Young environmentalists came down from the forests and cooked community meals for the picketers. A stage was erected and singers and comedians entertained the community. This was the essence of community and it started on the long night when workers and community came out in support of a group of workers who have always been the frontline defence of the Union Movement. The government thought this would be a pushover. They never dreamt that the community would rally for the wharfies. They were proved wrong on that night and in the weeks to come as the crowds swelled every night at the Peaceful Assembly on Swanston Dock chanting the familiar refrain 'Workers United, Will Never Be Defeated.'
– Pamela Curr, FairWear Campaign,7 5 April 1999

May Day in Brisbane

May Day 1998 in Brisbane was the largest since the days of the Right to March campaigns of more than 20 years earlier. Those anti-Joh May Days were swelled by a huge non-union aligned 'red contingent', which over the years has dwindled into near insignificance.

In 1998, the red contingent had been reinvigorated a little, but the big increase in numbers to 10,000 was from unionists supporting the MUA. Many of these friends of the MUA had given May Day a miss in previous years.

Unions representing occupations a million kilometres from the wharves linked their fortunes on banners, signs, and floats with the Maritime Union.

MUA - here to stay!

As the thousands slowly swelled Albert Park, news spread that the decision of the Federal Court was being broadcast.

Mighty roars erupted as Jim Tannock, the MUA official on the May Day platform told of the MUA court victory.

Smaller pockets of cheers erupted as the news rippled through the march to those in the red contingent still arriving at the park.

As Tannock thanked everyone for their support in the struggle, his every phrase was greeted with applause, laughter, and cheering. The workers united will never be defeated, M-U-A Here-to-stay. The crowd of ten thousand was as one. As workers gathered around the stage, Jim Tannock took up the cry of victory from the crowd. His speech was a simple recount of the history of the dispute but to the workers it was a mighty shout of defiance.

The man who would be Premier, Peter Beattie, followed Tannock. Enthusiasm for what Beattie had to say evaporated when it became obvious he was trying to turn the campaign to the advantage of Labor at the upcoming election.

It was as if the amphitheatre at Albert Park was a balloon, which had been pricked.

As Beattie prattled, the air of exhilaration escaped. In the background some workers had picked up Tannock, a big man, and tossed him repeatedly in the air. Beattie droned on. Even before he finished, people shuffled off home.

During the next week MUA members all around the country marched back in through the Patricks gates.
– Bernie Dowling, unionist.

Strategies for Union victory

From the outset of the dispute, the MUA strategy was clear. First and foremost the union determined that it must survive. Second they would continue the struggle until all MUA members were returned to their jobs. Then the union would negotiate reforms. To meet these objectives the union actions can be divided into three components which in some respects complemented each other; in other respects they were contradictory.

To this extent they can be ranked in order of importance as below:

  • Legal,
  • Industrial, and;
  • Political.

The Legal Strategy in the MUA Dispute – a dangerous road

It is appropriate to consider the court action by the MUA. Notwithstanding the statements from John Coombs to the contrary, most of the union's hopes were staked upon the courts. Without significant opposition from the rank-and-file, the leadership of the union turned to lawyers for the first time in its history to save itself. John Coombs staked his future on this and in return was pledged support at many mass meetings.8

At a combined delegates' meeting of all unions, attended by many rank-and-file members of the MUA and other unions in Brisbane's City Hall, a loose coalition of socialist unionists proposed a 'Clarrie O'Shea' style campaign, including a 24 hour stoppage. The ACTU (Qld) leadership opposed the motion. The proposal did not gain broad support from the rank and file – their confidence in the leadership at this point remained unshaken.

This reliance upon the courts provided a contrast with the past history of the union, when court action was a defensive complement to the direct action of the rank-and-file.

On this occasion, court action would be given the leading role, followed by rank-and-file action to provide support and hold the ground while the courts deliberated. It was a strategy of great risk. Such strategy may well have been as risky as a straight confrontation of the laws mounted by the trade union movement. It carried the added risk of further demobilising workers at large and so preventing any recovery of the union position by rank-and-file action. It did have the short term advantage of avoiding putting the whole of the union movement on the line by direct confrontation with the government. Yet, it disregarded the long-term consequences of failing to mobilise the union movement with the strongest unions leading, a measure which might have arrested the decline of trade unionism discussed in the introduction of this book. It further encouraged other unions to follow this course with dire consequences, for example, the Construction Forestry and Mining Union representing the Gordonstone miners in their unfair dismissal case.

In February 1998 the CFMEU won an early round in their unfair dismissal case in the Federal Court. Industrial Commissioner Hodder ruled that when the mine reopened, the illegally sacked miners should have preference of employment. This was overturned by a majority decision of the Full Bench of the Industrial Commission. Because of a legal technicality arising from the Workplace Relations Act, the Federal Court ruled that although the Gordonstone miners were illegally dismissed and were entitled to be re-employed, the Court did not have the power to quash the decision of the Full Bench of the Industrial Commission.

Even though the technical reasoning by the Court was wrong, the miners' appeal was not upheld in the Federal Court. Justice North gave a technically correct ruling in the MUA case that a conspiracy 'may' have occurred. This led to a compromise deal, so the case was never actually tested. The unfair dismissal of the Gordonstone miners has not been resolved to this day. Fortunately, the miners union has sufficient clout to see 14 of the 16 miners have jobs elsewhere. Yet these are the dangers of pursuing the legal road. Who is to say that the MUA would have ever won its conspiracy case even if it proved the facts of the conspiracy? Workers all know the conspiracy case to be true, but that is not to say that a court would regard the case as having technical merit. In another conspiracy case brought by the MUA against two West Australian government ministers and the Geraldton Port Authority in the first week of July 1999, the union was unable to get past the first hurdle of proving the facts.

This is the crux of the weakness of legal action. Workers' futures are not only decided by political bias, they can turn on judges' interpretation of delicate points of law. For the lawyers it is the fun of the lucrative game; for workers, legal decisions can be disastrous, or frustratingly indecisive.

From the outset the dispute turned on court battles between the MUA on one side, and Patricks, the National Farmers' Federation and the Federal Government on the other. The ACTU in particular put great store in the law of the land to protect workers' rights. Picketing and mass action were to be largely support action to hold ground while the court action proceeded.9 The courts became the central focus of the campaign and all else hinged on their decisions. There was something of a lottery in all this as the political standpoint of judges had a marked influence on their interpretation of the laws. The judges' early verdicts were in favour of the MUA – but they never went further than saying the union had an 'arguable' case of conspiracy. Had the union failed to obtain the temporary orders against Patricks, the legal strategy would have been doomed. Even if the union had then gone on to win the conspiracy case, the victory would have largely been a pyrrhic one.

The Legal Manoeuvres

The Patricks stevedoring operation was a group of companies, all ultimately controlled by a corporation known as Lang Corp. In September 1997, there was an extensive financial and legal reorganisation of these companies, in preparation for the attack on the MUA. Wharfies on the Patricks wharves were employed by five different companies within the Patricks groups. These employer companies also owned assets connected with the stevedoring business, and in effect, ran the Patricks stevedoring business on the wharves.

From September 1997 onwards, these five 'employer' companies were divested of all their assets, which were ultimately transferred to another company in the Patricks group. This company also took over the running of the stevedoring business. To run the business, this company entered into contracts with each of the Patrick's 'employer' companies which would supply the labour to work on the wharves.

The companies which employed the wharfies were thus turned into labour hire companies which supplied labour to another company in the Patrick's group, which now owned and ran the stevedoring business. The reason behind Corrigan's strategy is explained by the MUA:

"The labour hire agreements gave Patrick Operations the right to terminate their employment agreements without notice and permitted them to hire employees from elsewhere."10

The 'employer' companies no longer had any significant assets. The only income that the 'employer' companies received came from the labour hire contracts with another company in the Patrick's group.

In early April 1998, the MUA received 'intelligence' that Patricks was about to act and dismiss its workforce. The union's first response was to commence legal proceedings, trying to obtain an injunction to prevent MUA members from being sacked. The union filed these proceedings on 6 April 1998 in the Federal Court, but the Court would only be hearing the matter on 8 April.

On 7 April 1998, the Patricks company which controlled the business, cancelled its labour supply contracts with the Patricks 'employer' companies. The same day, the company entered into new contracts to obtain a new workforce comprised of non-union labour. The wharfies had not yet been sacked, but the 'employer' companies had all lost their only source of income. In theory, the Patricks 'employer' companies no longer had any work for their employees to do, and no money with which to pay them wages. The 'employer' companies were instantly insolvent – broke. These companies were not insolvent because the stevedoring business was losing money or because the waterfront was inefficient. They were broke because of the machinations of those who controlled Patricks. Patricks deliberately took steps to make sure that their own companies supplying MUA labour went broke.

Not the first time a modern capitalist like Corrigan had set up phoenix companies; new companies, unencumbered by debt, rise from the ashes of the old. This is the stock-in-trade of the merchant banker: frustrate your creditors. In this new world the wharfies had become Corrigan's creditors through their unpaid wages, leave entitlements and superannuation, not to mention future redundancy money. The workers had entered the dog-eat-dog world of their employer, as creditors not as employees.

On this same day, 7 April 1998, Patricks appointed administrators to run the 'employer' companies. Administrators are appointed to an insolvent business as a first stage in the eventual winding up of that business.

On 8 April 1998, the Federal Court granted a temporary injunction preventing the administrators of the Patricks 'employer' companies (the newly created labour hire firm) from sacking any wharfies until the Court could begin hearing the union's case on 15 April. The hearing commenced on 15 April before Justice North. On 21 April, the Court essentially granted the MUA the interim orders it had applied for. These orders basically required Patricks to return the employment arrangements on the wharf to the status quo prior to 7 April 1998, until such time as the main legal action could be heard.

The MUA took legal action against all of the various Patricks companies, claiming that Patricks was conspiring to replace union labour with non-union labour on the waterfront. The union was relying upon a claim that Patricks was guilty of an illegal conspiracy and breaching the 'freedom of association' provisions of the Workplace Relations Act. One effect of these provisions is to make it illegal for an employer to (financially) injure or prejudice an employee simply because that worker is a member of a union.

However, the MUA's claims of conspiracy and breach of the 'freedom of association' laws were never actually decided by the Courts. The hearings in the Federal Court of Australia were only preliminary hearings about procedural matters. The MUA applied for the Federal Court to make interim (temporary) orders until the Court could conduct a full hearing of the union's case. The union applied for orders requiring Patricks to continue to use only MUA labour on the wharves up until the conspiracy/freedom of association claims could be heard by the Court. The court cases in April 1998 dealt only with the legal issue of whether the courts should make these temporary orders.

While the MUA received the interim orders it applied for, this was no guarantee that the MUA would have succeeded in the main legal proceedings. The MUA and Patricks arrived at a compromise deal before the main legal proceedings came before the courts.

We have analysed the judgements of Justice North in the Federal Court, looked at the preliminary comments by the Full Federal Court, and read the judgements of the High Court in giving the administrators power to order a return to work. Contrary to what has been said by the courts themselves, many of the judges' political views played a role in the decisions.

The Court Decisions

The decision of Justice North was confined to the issues to be heard – his judgement was the least political.

By contrast, the Full Federal Court made the following statement at the outset that was clearly political, extra-legal and unnecessary:

"As individuals, each member of the Bench, like all sensible Australians, is in favour of an efficient waterfront. Export income is the economic life blood of our nation. Most of our exports depart by sea, many through container terminals. It is obviously important to ensure that the operation of container terminals is as efficient and economical as reasonably possible… Just as it is not unknown in human affairs for a noble objective to be pursued by ignoble means, so it sometimes happens that desirable ends are pursued by unlawful means. If the point is taken before them, courts have to rule on the legality of means, whatever view individual judges may have about the desirability of the end. This is one aspect of the rule of law, a societal value that is at the heart of our system of government. It follows that this judgement should be seen only as a judgement about legal issues, not a view about the social, economic and political arguments concerning waterfront management that have dominated the media during the last couple of weeks…"[emphasis added].

The Full Court obviously felt the need to apologise for upholding the MUA's legal arguments.

Place the court's statement above alongside the following report from Drewry Stevedoring Consultants which appeared in the media at the same time and the emphasis placed on waterfront reform by the judges can be brought into question.

"The report, by Drewry Stevedoring Consultants, says the slow crane rates in Australia compared with other countries' ports are due to ships unloading less cargo at each dock here. The report says that this slows the average crane rate. Drewry claims that when this is taken into account, Australian ports have a relatively high level of productivity. Patrick Stevedores has declined to comment.

We can only conclude that the MUA lawyers were very lucky indeed to get before Justice North rather than one of the judges of the Full Federal Court. They were also lucky to be supplied with the information (through ALP sources, no doubt) that gave them the exact nature of the conspiracy against them by Patricks, Reith, and the Australian government.11

Not surprisingly, it was the government propaganda that the High Court judges and others swallowed.

The High Court

This is the most politicised court in the land where appointments are made depending on which political party is in power. For example, the Coalition government has further shifted the balance of the Court against workers through the appointment of a conservative Chief Justice and a judge who was a Queensland National Party barrister during the Joh years. The MUA should consider themselves lucky not to have fronted these judges at the outset of their court appearances. Under a legal strategy, at the end of lengthy court proceedings, the MUA would always face a conservative court. This means that the MUA case may never have been proven. Thus the conspiracy case against Patricks, the banks, and the government, could only supplement a political struggle. In effect, the legal process was more likely to assist in electoral success for the ALP than the reinstatement of the wharfies. Note the plight of the sacked SEQEB workers in Queensland which ended up in the High Court with no reinstatement or damages. In the following year the Goss Labor government was elected and it never reinstated the linesmen and never repealed the changes made to the Transport Act made by the National Party government to prevent picketing of essential services.12

It took 20 years for an ALP government under pressure from business consumers facing summer blackouts to start replacing the linesmen who were lost as a result of the sacking of 1100 men by Bjelke-Petersen.

The MUA lawyers were forced from the more comfortable (and for unionists, familiar) arena of the Industrial Commission because of the Workplace Relations Act. Their strategy was to take on the government and Patricks in the arena of corporations law – an arena where workers rank last, behind other creditors and the banks. Take, for example, the voluntary administration of Patricks' labour hire companies. The secured creditors, the banks, rank first in any deed of arrangement between the employer, the banks, and workers.13 The workers rank last because the vote for the terms of the deed of arrangement in the creditors meeting is not based on numbers of people; it is based upon the amount of debt. As with this case, the banks almost always rank first in such arrangements because they carry the most debt. So the banks's vote was crucial to any arrangement for the companies to continue trading. Under voluntary administration, the most likely outcome was that the labour hire companies would go into liquidation and all of the wharfies would lose their jobs for a second time.

The MUA benefited to some extent by the tactics used by Corrigan because he took the extreme option on every occasion through:

  • The artificial scheme of setting up the labour hire companies for insolvency;
  • The premature winding up of the labour hire companies by withdrawal of funds to the parent company, Lang Corp;
  • The sacking of the entire workforce in one hit rather than port-by-port sackings;
  • The requirement by the parties to the conspiracy that the government pass legislation to fund the redundancy payments to the wharfies; and,
  • The application in the Federal Court by Corrigan for the deregistration of the MUA despite the fact that it enjoyed the support of the ACTU. This gambit usually only works when the ACTU and the ALP betray a union as Hawke and Kelty did when the BLF was deregistered.

The courts are for the corporations, the employer, and the parliament. When the parliament passed the Redundancy Bill in order to attempt to bribe the wharfies to break with their union, no lawyer or court was ever going to say it is illegal to pay unionists to give up their union.

When Patricks sacked the 55 wharfies in Sydney in 1994, was it the courts that ordered the money to be given back? No – it was the wharfies who took the redundancy cheques to their union to be put in the union safe. And later when the 55 were reinstated after a national stoppage it was the union officials who took the plastic bag full of the cheques and dumped them on Corrigan's desk. Alas, history was not to repeat itself.

In 1998 there was to be no public burning of the redundancy cheques with wharfies refusing any compromise as had happened in the 1928 timberworkers' strike where the workers burned the ballot papers they had been given by the timber companies to conduct a secret ballot on industrial action.

The fact that courts – and the laws that they enforce – exist to protect corporate interests leads to the greatest inherent weakness in the union giving pre-eminence to a legal strategy. Pursuing first and foremost a legal strategy commits the union at the outset to making a compromise with the employer's agenda. Union leaderships (including that of the MUA) are well aware that our legal system is weighted heavily against their interests, that laws, law makers, and judges are ideologically committed to ensuring that capitalism functions smoothly and efficiently – to the detriment of working people.

As noted earlier, the so called 'legal victory' of the MUA only granted them a temporary reprieve, requiring the employer to use MUA labour until there could be a full hearing of the MUA's claim of a conspiracy by Corrigan and his cohorts. The courts decided that the MUA had, at least on the surface, a strong case, but there are no guarantees in the court system – especially not for unions or unionists. Had the MUA lost the main legal action, the consequences for the union and the dispute would have been catastrophic. The loss of the legal action would have undermined the political/media campaign conducted by the union, which relied heavily upon assertions that Patricks had acted illegally or unlawfully. Given the relatively minor role played by industrial action in the MUA campaign, it seems doubtful that the union could have suddenly propelled an industrial campaign to the forefront in the aftermath of such a legal defeat.

For these reasons, it was always unlikely the MUA would have pursued the legal action to a final hearing. Its leadership understood the stakes involved. Of course, there were risks for Patricks in the courts also. Therefore, the union's legal manoeuvres were primarily about forcing the employer back to the negotiating table, where a compromise could be reached. The temporary orders requiring Patricks to employ MUA labour meant that Patricks could not ignore the union as it could when MUA members were locked out.

It is not denied that there were risks associated with whatever type of campaign was mounted by the MUA. But focussing on a legal strategy was the weakest option, because the best result that could be achieved from such a strategy was a compromise which conceded at least part of Patricks' 'waterfront reform' agenda. A more aggressive focus on industrial action or a real political campaign (challenging anti-union laws, not merely attempting to bolster ALP electoral prospects) would have required greater organisation and effort, but would also have provided greater options for the MUA. Successful industrial action could have halted completely Patricks' (anti-worker) agenda for 'reform' of the waterfront. If a combined industrial-political campaign had undermined the trade practices laws, the results would have been a boost to the trade union movement throughout the country. None of these alternatives precluded the union pursuing legal action as a means of keeping the 'compromise' option open.

No doubt there may be occasions when, despite its weaknesses, circumstances dictate the pursuit of a legal strategy. However, allowing a legal strategy to become the standard response to an industrial dispute guarantees the long term decline and defeat of the union movement. The risks, costs and other exigencies of court action all exert pressures that point in the direction of compromise and gradual concessions to the employer. To forgo real industrial and political struggle in favour of the courts is to accept that each new dispute will produce not the advancement of working class interests, but a reversal. Such reverses may sometimes be minor, perhaps less than the reversal that the employer wanted to inflict upon its workers. But, with each new dispute, there emerges a new compromise, in which some further concession is made. The employer is able to erode away, piecemeal, the conditions that working class solidarity has won for workers in the past. Indeed, the foregoing is perhaps an apt description of the history of the decline of the Australian trade union movement over the last forty or fifty years.

There is little doubt that the leadership of the union turned to court action in order to relieve itself of risks of a direct confrontation with the secondary boycott provisions. To this extent Employment and Industrial Relations Minister Reith was correct when he took solace from the fact that the strike did not spread to other wharf companies or lead to action from other unions. It seems clear, despite noises to the contrary, that neither the union movement in general nor the MUA in particular was prepared for the risks this strategy entailed. They had not undertaken the preparatory actions that corporations always do to put a legal veil around their entities or place funds overseas to escape Australian laws.

As direct action recedes further into history, the question arises whether future union leaders, nurtured on law and media PR, will even be able to effectively co-ordinate a rank-and-file campaign.

ACTU secretary Bill Kelty was aware of the resources that the government could put at the disposal of Patricks. He had seen at close hand how a Labor government under Hawke had destroyed the Pilots' Federation in 1989. Hawke made available the resources of the Office of the Prime Minister to the Director of Ansett, Sir Peter Abeles. About $100 million of public money was made available to the airlines through a moratorium on aircraft landing charges and airlines being undercharged for the use of military aircraft. None of this money was the subject of a parliamentary appropriation bill.

Hawke declared a'national emergency' on 23 August 1989 to justify the use of military aircraft to break the pilots' strike and then Sir Peter Abeles brought in the scabs.14 The strategy of Reith and Corrigan to train army personnel in Dubai was not that much different to the strategy Hawke and Abeles used against the pilots by having the air force provide essential passenger services and scabs to do the rest. Also Reith as Minister for Industrial Relations persuaded the government to fund the redundancies. The proposal was that the exporters would pay it back through a levy. Seven years later it remains unclear whether the redundancy money was actually recovered. Stevedoring costs were never lowered as promised by Patricks and the government.

The unions did not undertake any major political campaign in their own right, as in the 1950s, to confront the legislation to render secondary boycott legislation ineffective. This was so notwithstanding the fact that the legislation had been around for quite a period before the dispute and mirrored similar unjust legislation in other countries such as the UK where it had been used to great effect.

The risk of undertaking secondary boycotts without a legal veil was bankruptcy of the union, its leaders, and members. This was precisely why the legislation was set up – to diminish trade union rights. The unions, because of their recent history in Australia under a long period of social contract, had demobilised the rank-and-file. Rank-and-file unionists under the burden of Labor's social contract had become compliant. So even if the MUA leaders were confident of their own members, they were unsure of obtaining the necessary support from the ACTU and the rest of the union movement. The rank-and-file was not putting significant pressure on their leadership and the leadership responded accordingly by not expecting strong action from the rank-and-file. It represents a political failure in the sense that without an effective militancy to reinvigorate the union movement it fell back on the options offered to it by the capitalist system – compromise through the courts. The quid pro quo to the unions for their survival was reduced power and poorer conditions for workers. In return, the system recognised that though it could deliver punishing blows to workers and their unions, it could not deliver the knockout. There had to be a compromise and the compromise was to be this: if the union accepted the supremacy of the courts and the law, union coverage on the waterfront could continue but only if reform (read: loss of jobs and workers' conditions) was allowed.

For the union, success in the courts would allow continuation of MUA coverage of the waterfront and the reinstatement of the workers, but it could never prevent the redundancy push by Corrigan and the government. Further it could not prevent a worsening of work conditions for all MUA members. Only union power could stop this.

The courts then, while not supporting Corrigan's methods, were supporting his aims. Effectively, they ruled that workers should be allowed to continue in the union and the employer must pay the redundancies prescribed by law. They did not accept Corrigan's unfettered right to increase his profits but placed some limits on him. The court's position was portrayed as the middle ground– a theme taken up by the media. But a middle ground which meant that workers were always going to lose conditions and many would lose their jobs, albeit with some union input as to who would lose their jobs and into the size of the redundancy payouts.

Within this view of the courts is the belief, formed as a result of exposure to conservative propaganda, that the commercial success of industry is synonymous with the national interest and well-being of society. For example, in 1990, Margaret Thatcher and the port bosses made use of this conservative view to assist in the de-unionisation and casualisation of jobs at UK ports. Nicholas Finney, then director of the National Association of Port Employers, described how this was done in a speech to the Australian economic rationalist group, the H. R. Nicholls Society:

"We commissioned economic studies. One particularly important economic study was to try to prove that getting rid of the dock labour scheme (a scheme that guaranteed a union presence) you actually create many more jobs than you lose.

Benefits from this approach… (were) to make sure we could drive a wedge home to isolate dockers and describe them as a selfish, small group of workers who were actually stopping people from gaining jobs in unemployment blackspots."15

This being so, anything which detracts from industry's striving to enhance its commercial position must, therefore, detract from the national interest and the well being of society. Because the MUA's resistance to such 'enlightened' management strategies as redundancies, twelve hour shifts (if not longer), non-union labour on the wharves etc., the union is portrayed as acting against the national interest. No one should be in any doubt about the grudging attitude of the court to the irritating fact of workers insisting that they have rights which they are not prepared to relinquish simply to enable corporations to operate in a 'more commercial manner'. It was only with a great reluctance the judges were prepared to concede that 'export income' and 'efficient container terminals' were not such wonderfully desirable things as to be pursued by 'ignoble and unlawful means.'

Industrial Campaign

The focus of the industrial campaign was with pickets formed at Patricks-run ports around the country. In the international arena the International Transport Federation indicated its support. Members of the MUA and many supporters, particularly in Melbourne and Sydney, formed the pickets. In those cities they effectively closed down Patricks' operations. In Brisbane, police moved the pickets back from the Patricks' gates, a measure demanded by the Port of Brisbane Authority. Thus, the Patricks' terminals kept operating at a reduced level until put on hold by the High Court's decision. Workers around Australia supported the pickets through donations, and with symbolic shows of support. In Brisbane, the MUA effectively abandoned an industrial strategy, with picketing essentially a symbolic, political gesture. More generally, however, steep penalties associated with secondary boycott provisions of the Trade Practices Act caused the union movement and particularly the ACTU leadership to shy clear of mass industrial action.

In Brisbane an action by picketers on Tuesday, 21 April 1998, was not an indication of a broad-based determined campaign to close Patricks. Many workers were frustrated by their inability to shut down Patricks. The mass arrests may have given some credibility and moral high ground for those involved but they did not signal a campaign of mass civil disobedience, nor offer a significant impediment to the operation of the port. At the time of these arrests, scab drivers on scab trucks backed up by security guards, video surveillance and police intervention were driving past the pickets at the other Patricks' facility at Hamilton Wharf in Brisbane. The only impediment to the truckies crossing the picket line was a brief stop to listen to the abuse of the wharfies and their supporters. The charade was even orchestrated by the police allowing the state secretary of the Transport Workers Union, Hughie Williams, to speak with the driver for a few minutes prior to the truck being waved on by the police. The strategy of breaking the law near one of the Patricks' terminals was not part of a wider campaign of confrontation in Queensland.

Industrial action played a minimal role in the campaign following the union lead. As the dispute continued and rank-and-file determination increased, the leadership could have shown flexibility by returning to mass meetings for direction from the rank-and-file. The time was right to go back to the membership and consider a different strategy. The union found new confidence in the success of the pickets, particularly in Melbourne. Despite the threat of punitive government action, the union could have pushed for a better settlement. The lawyers could have been forgotten and the courts placed in a secondary role. The tired policies of the ALP disregarded, a popular industrial campaign could have been used to turn the dispute around. It was a time to shift the issue from crane rates and waterfront reform to confronting a government with its bad laws.

The Union leadership showed no flexibility. It held firm to the course it adopted at the beginning of the campaign and which had been endorsed by its rank-and-file. A strong socialist movement would have been telling at this point in its ability to give workers and unions confidence. Such a movement did not appear, because it is simply non-existent. Though tensions and doubt had grown between the rank-and-file and the leadership, the success of actions taken were sufficient to provide confidence in the union leadership. The workers continued to accept picketing as the secondary role to court action. There was no change from the original strategy.

Was the union movement ready for such a change in strategy and for its consequences? If it was not, and this is likely, why? Was it because the rank-and-file worker still hoped for the benefit of the social contract? Was it because the leadership had contained the movement? Were those who had dissolved the Communist Party contributors to this weakness? Were the lack of unity and ineffectiveness of the remaining socialist forces contributors? The answer lies in all of these.

The leadership of the union certainly showed inflexibility. Australian workers have in recent years lost sight of their collective responsibilities. However, the pertinent question is: who could the rank-and-file have turned to as an alternative leadership without the existence of a coherent and united socialist movement?

As stated earlier, a proposal to confront the secondary boycott legislation was not accepted by the rank-and-file at a Brisbane meeting early in the dispute. No doubt it was put forward in some form or other at other meetings throughout the campaign. The rank-and-file, however, without a clear alternative offered by a coherent socialist movement, was never going to toss aside its leadership or even demand its leadership to follow such a difficult course.

Was an alternative leadership able to step forward as John Coombs had done and state they would be back to accept the consequences of their campaign strategy? Certainly the failure of any new strategy, now that the stakes had been raised so high by Corrigan and the Government was going to have disastrous consequences for ordinary workers. Workers' lives would be shattered like the lives of the SEQEB workers had been in Queensland in 1985 or the lives of many meatworkers since the defeat at Mudginberri. Remember that the MUA dispute was driven by many of the players from those earlier conflicts.

To adopt a strategy put forward by a loose coalition who were not involved in day-to-day union activity within the MUA and represented a weakened political force in society at large has its own problems. Nowhere was this group able to show it had developed political strength through united and effective organisation such that it would inspire the confidence of rank-and-file workers. As such, the criticisms correctly levelled at the current leadership in pamphlets like War on the Waterfront16 while accurate, are simply not telling, as the socialist movement could not really provide an alternative to that leadership. In a sense it was largely a call for the existing union leadership to change its ways. Why should the union leadership have considered these criticisms and ideas ahead of the legal and political advice of Labor Party politicians?

Socialist critics of current union leadership should accept that rank-and-file workers will not stand up and change union leadership when the socialist movement that proposes such changes is weak, divided, and ineffective.

This is not, in our view, an argument in favour of the (reformed) CPA criticism of those who dared to challenge the union leadership. Rather, it is a recognition that part of the problem lies with the socialist movement. If the socialist movement does not put its own house in order to return to past successes achieved by the communists, we will continue to see Tom Bramble's lead in the saddlebags, characterised by a reliance on the courts, a deference to the ALP and unions with top down leadership. It is naivety to think that rank-and-file pressure alone, without a political focus, will turn this around (even if it were allowed to flourish, unchecked by existing union leaderships). Current union leaderships are simply not under pressure from their rank-and-file to change. In fact, rather than strengthening unions, workers are allowing them to decline.

Neither the courts nor industrial action alone should be relied upon to defend workers' rights. It is the workers' political struggle which must lead the way.

Political Campaign

The political campaign conducted by the MUA was unimaginative. It was largely conducted through the media. It pandered to suburban TV audiences; Coombs was painted as a folk hero. Therefore it was inherently conservative, no different from a normal ALP political campaign. But for the union it was not a sausage sizzle, as Coombs said from the outset, this was the 'big one'. The union was drawn in by the lure of the simplistic argument over crane rates. The MUA was drawn away from the real argument. The government reduced the argument to that of individual work performance; i.e. crane rates, downplaying the real attack on workers' collective rights. The failure to recognise the Government's ploy early on in the dispute was one of the problems of the union leadership. The union allowed Patricks and the government to dictate the terms of the political debate, forgoing the opportunity to identify broader issues that could have widened the dispute into a general political campaign.

The actual political campaign centred on the parliamentary processes, the divide between Labor and Liberal. The minor parties and independents receded into the background during the dispute, even though all political parties were strongly lobbied by a delegation of MUA officials and rank-and-file delegates in early March 1998 (when the lockout appeared imminent). Not surprisingly, from the outset, the Labor Party pursued its own interests, that is, election to government, while not facing up to their previous failures while in office. It was opportune to side with the workers because of their mass support, but as the history of the Labor Party shows, it is perfectly capable of turning on workers in different circumstances. The levels of popular support for the wharfies put a bit of backbone into the Labor Party, but the preference for them was to resolve the dispute at a negotiating table.17 They were the 'peace makers'. For them the outcome was secondary. They wanted to be 'statesmen' and win government down the track.

The fortunes of the Labor Party are often tied to defeats in the industrial arena. Historically, the formation of the Labor Party was a direct result of the union defeats in 1890s and consolidated with the massive defeat of the workers in the 1912 Tramways Dispute. The Goss Government in Queensland came to power on the back of the defeat of the SEQEB workers in 1985 and ruled from 1989 to 1996. Within the Labor Party, there is a belief that workers cannot win in the industrial arena, only in the political arena. And the Labor Party believes that it offers the best deal by working out arrangements between labour and capital for the efficient functioning of capitalism.

A defeat in the courts may have brought attention back to the industrial and popular struggle. This would have required the leadership look hard at ways of circumventing the secondary boycott laws and using the most powerful weapon at their disposal, the withdrawing of labour. The flaw in pursuing a narrow political strategy focussing upon mobilising public support for the Labor Party is the same flaw inherent in a legal strategy: such methods put the fate of workers into the hands of people (judges, ALP politicians) whose interests are different to those of workers. Industrial action and broad working class political action have the important advantage of enabling workers to maintain control over their futures, rather than becoming dependent upon the assistance of institutions whose basic function is to protect capitalist enterprises from workers' demands.

A compromise was always the best option for the ALP. Coombs hinted at the strategic use of the strike weapon to determine the outcome early in the dispute. The problem for the leadership was how to use this weapon without it backfiring and bringing down repression through court orders, injunctions, fines and police actions. One possibility was to marry the industrial campaign to a political campaign to circumvent the Trade Practices Act, a political campaign directed against the very laws that prevented the wharfies and other Australian workers from advancing their interests.

Socialist groups were barely in the equation, still recoiling from the dissolution of the Communist Party and unable to break the isolation caused by the collapse of the Soviet Union. They had few members, lacked unity, had little influence and low credibility among both the rank-and-file and the leadership of the MUA dispute. This was a big turnaround in the leadership of the wharfies. In the past, communists have had both influence and credibility in this union. After the dispute was over, the reformed CPA18 and the International Socialist Organisation (ISO) conducted "we were right – you were wrong" in their respective newspapers. Yet, both groups were so marginal to the dispute this went largely unnoticed.


A lesson to the 1998 MUA dispute from the 1954 WWF dispute – an industrial and political campaign

The 1954 Dispute.

By contrast, under communist leadership, the recruitment dispute of November 1954 was the most decisive industrial action ever taken by the WWF.19 The national strike ran from 2nd – 15th November and involved 27,000 wharfies in 60 ports, including members of the AWU. The Menzies government through its Minister for Labour and National Service, Harold Holt, wished to recruit non-union labour because of "slow turnaround times and slow loading rates". The Federation asserted that there was a conspiracy between the government and the Australian and overseas shipowners. The WWF obtained the support of the leader of the ALP, Dr Evatt, and the ACTU. On the 4th November 1954, the entire Australian waterfront was idle and Menzies made an address to the nation:

"The laws are to be made, not by your elected representatives, but by the Communist-led Waterside Workers Federation. This is more than a challenge to employers. This is a challenge to Parliament and the whole conception of parliamentary democracy – a precious thing which does not exist in Moscow but is passionately believed in here."

No bluff about crane rates here. Menzies attacked the leadership head on. The WWF was not cowed by the rhetoric. They put their faith in the workers' ability to win the strike. The union was well prepared for the strike. The union branches around the country set up committees with responsibility for picketing, publicity, relief and entertainment (to ease hardship and to foster camaraderie). Solidarity flourished as rank-and-file members and their supporters were drawn into these activities. Speakers went to factories to put the union's side of the issue, thousands of leaflets were distributed, and donations and support flowed from other unions.

When Holt called a conference of shipowners, the ACTU and WWF in February 1955 to draw up a new agreement on recruiting, it was an admission of defeat. The wharves would be unworkable unless the WWF maintained the right to recruit labour. The WWF Film Unit named its documentary on the strike, November Victory. Under the headline, 'Costly Defeat on the Waterfront' the Sydney Morning Herald chided Holt for mishandling the dispute. The paper printed the following indictment –

"For the time being the Government has no option but to retreat, but nothing can conceal the humiliating terms of the surrender. The Government's handling of this matter must count as one of the worst blunders of the Menzies Government."

This failure did not prevent Holt from becoming Prime Minister and taking Australia all the way with LBJ into Vietnam, using conscription.20

The 1998 Dispute.

The MUA has succeeded in holding on against the aims of the government to get rid of the union, at least till the time of writing this book. However its legal strategy was at best brinkmanship and never guaranteed success. The union won the legal battle because of the power of the demonstrations in favour of the MUA in Sydney and Melbourne and the quality of the intelligence that was fed to it. Nevertheless, the conservative nature of the judges, the financial cost, and the ultimate wearing down of the rank-and-file support made a legal strategy high risk.

Political and industrial strategies waged alongside each other may have produced a more favourable result as in the 1954 recruitment dispute. For legal strategies to continue to be given the primary focus by the industrial and political support groups increases the risk that disputes may either be lost completely or be won at a price too high to pay. We may well ask if the waterfront redundancies were too high a price.

Nevertheless, running an industrial/political strategy at the forefront has its own dangers. The trade union movement's struggles against the Penal Powers provisions of industrial legislation in the 1950s and 1960s showed the financial cost against the unions could be enormous. Union officials involved will be held in contempt of court and the financial penalties awarded against them as individuals could be considerable.

Finally, those people who were filmed by Patricks and police while picketing the wharves in the 1998 dispute could have had fines brought against them under Reith's industrial relations legislation in the same way members of the Transport Workers Union have faced such charges in their own industrial campaigns.21

The agreement between Capital and Labour can never be just. The only social force possessed by the workers is numerical strength. This force, however, is impaired by the absence of unity. The lack of unity among workers is caused by the inevitable competition among ourselves, and is maintained by it. Trade unions were established to bring unity to labour, or at least to improve it. Unions are our day to day defence against Capital. And it is for this reason we must defend our unions.

It is important to defend our unions but it is not enough to merely shut out criticism. Constructive effort must be made to strengthen all levels of union organisation starting with worker solidarity.

Our criticism does not target any one group within unions to blame for their decline. We hope what will happen is that we will see an end to bureaucratic style unionism and a return to shop floor unionism and the growth of workers' political organisations.

  • 1The Dubai Debacle from The War on the Waterfront published by the MUA on its website at
  • 2Under the Hook: Melbourne Waterside Workers Remember, 1990-1998 (with Tom Hills) 1982, updated 1998. Page 224 (price $30 Book Workers Press post cheque to PO Box 1033, Hawksburn 3142).
  • 3The Defectors from War on the Waterfront published by the MUA at[/url]

    He told them this was the hardest dispute in his memory and in the memory of the old timers who were around for the 1954 and 1956 disputes. "This is the big one," he said. He warned of the weaknesses that could destroy the union. He said that there are different kinds of scab but the worst kind was the one sitting in that very room with his mates. He said:

    "I can understand the scab who I met yesterday who said that he was just out of prison and had no prospect of a job and had a wife and kids to support, they are still fucking scum, but they aren't nearly as bad as the scab that is in this room today."Some of Coombs intelligence came from scabs employed by the NFF

  • 4
    This tactic was learnt by employers from two disputes:
    Nestles. John Button in the Hawke Labor government previously advocated the sacking of the entire unionised workforce at Nestles.
    Cobar. With the support of the Howard government, a multinational mining company locked out all of the unionists at the Cobar mines.
  • 5See War on the Waterfront by Tom Bramble, Brisbane Defend Our Unions Committee, 1998, Chapter 3 Lead in the Saddlebags for an extensive analysis of this situation. For copy contact the author by phone (07) 3365 6233 or by email (t.bramble[at]
  • 6Under the Hook
  • 7FairWear is a campaign exposing companies who disregard the rights of their workers and outworkers and to demand that companies treat their workers ethically.
  • 8Ibid Under the Hook
  • 9See Under the Hook by Wendy Lowenstein and Tom Hills at page 224, where Greg Combet expressed his confidence that court action got the conspirators ‘on the defensive.’
  • 10‘Sweet Justice’ in War on the Waterfront at
  • 11One interesting sidelight is that Howard, Reith & Co (‘the Australian government’) were represented by a Melbourne barrister by the name of Tony Pagone. He made the case for the Commissioner of Taxation against the elaborate tax avoidance schemes in Spotless. It was this kind of advocate needed to defend such a conspiracy. See North J’s judgement:

    “This (the sacking of the entire Patricks workforce) was the result of the effects of a complex transaction (by Patricks) which occurred in September 1997. As a result of the transaction, the administrators had a workforce but no work. The applicants (the MUA) only learned of this transaction on 8 April 1998.”

  • 12Allegations that the Qld ALP used the sacked workers’ strike fund in a subsequent Federal election campaign have never been adequately refuted.
  • 13A deed of arrangement is a contract between all the parties so that the companies can trade out of financial difficulties. This is the end result that Corrigan left when he set up the deal with the government to sack the wharfies.
  • 14A Pilot’s Perspective of the Australian Pilots’ Dispute of 1989 by Alex Paterson @
  • 15From MUA Here to Stay! – a Democratic Socialist Party pamphlet, at p.17.
  • 16Written by Tom Bramble and published by the Trade Union Support Group after the 1998 MUA Dispute
  • 17There is speculation that there were mediators between Coombs and Corrigan at the end of the dispute. It is likely that one of them was a prominent ALP figure like Hawke.
  • 18The Communist Party of Australia liquidated itself in the early 1990s after the fall of the Soviet Union. This made the name available to the group (the Socialist Party of Australia) that had split from the CPA in 1971. The word reformed does not suggest a political reformation merely the taking of the name by the Socialist Party of Australia.
  • 19The Waterside Workers Federation (WWF), together with the Seamen’s Union of Australia, is the precursor to the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA).
  • 20Beasley, Margo Wharfies – The History of the Waterside Workers Federation Halstead Press, Sydney: 1996, pp.168-175
  • 21S45D & E of the Trade Practices Act (the secondary boycott legislation) has been used against the Transport Workers Union and two rank-and-file members of the same union have faced Federal Court action under the Workplace Relations Act. (B. Dowling in Big Rigs published by Queensland Times on 1 May 1998)