The Waterfront Crisis

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Workplace Relations Act

The Waterfront Crisis was a conflict between the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) and Patrick Stevedores, which captured national media attention during 1998 and directly involved tens of thousands of Australians through mass picket lines and community rallies in support of the union. It captured the attention of the world as workers all round the world waited in anxiety and impatience for a result that had far reaching implications. For many Australians, it was as though Berlin Wall of the waterfront had fallen. Patrick Stevedores in a late night surge, dismissed about 1400 of its workers registered with the MUA. In a bitter and constitutional altercation, the MUA and Patrick Stevedores fought, before the result was announced 5 weeks later.

John Howard had won a very closely fought election beating incumbent Keating to come to office in March 1996, appealing to those sections of the working class and middle class deeply disenchanted with the Labor government and the cuts it had imposed in the standard of living. ( 1998). He promised to improve efficiency and the labour market by substantially restructuring industrial relations. At the core of this agenda was the "waterfront reform", involving nothing less than the dismantling of the industrial relations system, based on a centralised system of regulations governing wages and conditions, supervised by the Industrial Relations Commission (IRC).

For corporations facing heightened competition at both a global and national level, this system had become completely incongruous increasing the need for daily flexibility in the hire of labour -- constant downsizing, contracting out, the use of part-time and casual labour and flat-rate working to eliminate overtime payments.

However, after August 1996, when 5,000 workers squalled the parliament, breaking away from an official Australian Council of Trade Union (ACTU) rally, to protest against the government's barbarous Budget cuts, the government was in a quandary and there was need for quick and clinical action. Both sides had a common stake in ensuring that the social and class tensions revealed in the Budget eve clash were stifled. The Liberals were worried with the prospect of the rapid disintegration of their unstable vote bank, while the ACTU leaders dreaded that the development of a political movement that rose up against the government would disrupt their plans to secure a position in the new industrial relations system. So in a masterstroke, it struck a compromise with the ACTU over the Workplace Relations Act. The WRA protects forewarned industrial action, i.e. a process in which employees of an enterprise seek an agreement with their employer.

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Significantly, it made it an offence for employers to discriminate against workers on the basis of their membership of a union (

The Buildup

The base of the controversy was the productivity crisis & the subsequent establishment of special squads by the federal government in conjunction with employers to manage the fracturing of the growing menace of union and union activities.

The WIRA (Waterfront Industry Reform Authority) ...

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