The Waterfront Crisis
Table Of Contents
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. (WSWS.org 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 (dewrsb.gov.au).
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) and the SIRA (Shipping Industry Reform Authority) created in 1983 tried to create some kind of a bond between the unions and the employees working in conjunction with bureaucracy. There was a conscious effort to create a positive sentiment by working on activities that were very unconventional to typical trade unions such as reduction in industrial actions, authorizing mass redundancies, etc.
With passage of time and with reform of the shipping industry there was a major restructuring in all departments of the waterfront. New competitiveness and advances in the technology threatened to undermine the consortium of the maritime unions. This was the nativity of the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) that would have a critical and profound effect on one of the most malignant industrial disputes ever in Australia. The MUA was a concoction of the Waterside Workers Federation of Australia (WWF) and Seamen’s Union of Australia (SUA). The SUA had been prevalent from the 1930’s and had fortified its hold, thus exerting unusual capability in matters over wages, work conditions, etc. Closed Shop arrangement was one of its major achievements, certifying job guarantees to members of Union. As in the case of WIRA, SIRA the early stages of the waterfront reform were almost as “honeymoon period” with unison between employers and trade unions. However with efforts to lay out surplus staff and downsizing other segments, the employer –employee cooperation era started to wade into rough seas. Market pressure and cut throat pricing for shipping started to give indications of a forthcoming storm and the next few years would be the uneasy calm before the storm. In 1994, the Government sold Australian National Lines’ (ANL) stevedoring interests to Jamison Equity and to Lang Corporation (Patrick) (Nov. 1994) which had planned a major overhauling of traditional work practices followed by the wharfies. There was a sudden surge in major disagreements between employers and the MUA as the relations soured. With the return of the Liberals back in power things were beginning to look ominous for the workers, with the govt. indicating and hinting at a crackdown leading to sweeping reforms. In September 1997 a small port operator in Cairns Queensland, International Purveyors, attempted to bring in non-MUA labour employed under Australian Workplace Agreements. But the MUA sought international union support through the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) to hamper the port operations. The company quickly reverted to employing its former employees. Allegations between Patrick and MUA started to fly thick and fast till 28th January 1998.
On 28-29 January 1998, waterfront events escalated when Patrick locked its employees out of its Webb Dock operation in the port of Melbourne at midnight (The Australian 1998). This had a domino effect with ideological clashes being the order of the day as things went from bad to worse.
On 2 April, another union, the Australian Workers Union, threatened to shut down oil refinery operations in support of the MUA members locked out of Webb Dock. However caution prevailed and the union did not carry out its threats (Dept. Of Parliamentary Library 1997 – 98)
On April 7, the dispute escalated massively. It proved to be a long and a winding night in which, without any warning, all dockworkers employed by Patrick (a total of over 2000 people) were dismissed. Security guards with dogs were moved into the facilities to remove workers forcibly (The Age, 1998). There was legal wrangling as the dispute reached High Court and the Federal Court. The verdict was a commingled one as both parties claimed the victory.
Maritime Union Of Australia (MUA)
All the workers that were sacked were members of the MUA. After the Federal Court ruling, MUA and Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) officials pledged to make the operations of Patrick's labour hire companies "commercially viable". The leaders championed the resultant judicial rulings as signifying a victory for ordinary people against big corporations and government. It stated that it was the clear victor in the dispute as the court ruled that Patrick Stevedores had to re employ the workers it had dismissed.
As the company that initiated the acrimonious and radical measures, the company received a lot of flak from worker unions worldwide. In an astonishing move, Patrick within hours of sacking MUA workers called upon the scab, non-unionized workers of the NFF to work. Patrick's CEO Chris Corrigan claimed victory since the share price of Patrick's parent company Lang Corp, more than tripled in the months after the dispute and it reported a profit of $36 million for the year ending September 30, 1999, compared with a loss of $63 million in 1998. (Purvis 2000)
Dept. of Workplace Relations and Small Business (Australian Federal Government)
The government provided moral and legislative support as well as arranged redundancy payments for dismissed workers. Transport Minister John Sharp, who had been in charge of "waterfront reform," and eight other cabinet ministers and parliamentary secretaries, were removed. Political commentary in the media turned to a discussion of Howard's weaknesses and the possible alternatives. The government was of the view that MUA workers were not suffering at all; and that they earned more than the deserved and their constant strikes and obstructive work practices penalized Australian business.
The government's gamble that the public would support its action seemed to pay off; the first polls after the sackings found a majority of respondents in favor of the move.
National Federation Of Farmers (NFF)
Executives of the National Farmers' Federation set up companies to employ and train non-union labour at Webb Dock, Melbourne. The National Farmers' Federation stevedoring operation had everything to do with union busting and little to do with introducing 'competition' on the wharves and cutting costs. Their main aim was to supply non-union labor to replace MUA members at Patrick sites. As a representative of the farming constituency it developed a keen interest in waterfront operations. They were party to the talks about recruiting and training a substantial scab dock workforce in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
Roots Of the Crisis
- The break-up of the political conditions and class relations that prevailed over the past 50 years had a confound effect on the scheme of things that led to the hostilities.
- Attempt by Patrick Stevedores to eliminate the ‘closed shop’ was a trigger to the collapse of relations.
- The seeds of discontent were laid by breakdown of approach to industrial relations that stressed more on the dispute free relations.
- Finally the sale of ANL ships to Patrick Stevedoring which placed great accentuation on reducing labour costs and reform on the waterfront, conditions not acceptable to the MUA ‘opened the Pandora’s box and the skeletons came tumbling out’.
- With matters concerning illegal conspiracy, freedom of association and breach of employment contract issues, there was serious mistrust among the warring parties, which continues today.
- It brought to the fore, the monopoly and the oversupply of labour at the Waterfront leading to over pricing that caused Patrick Stevedores to pull the trigger.
- The protracted nature of the dispute had very costly short- term consequences; e.g. export of perishable items was stalled leading to rotting of consumables as the relations (SMH, 14th May 1998).
- The waterfront dispute had significance because of the in-depth debate on waterfront efficiency and productivity and because of its implications for the conduct of general industrial relations.
- The settlement on the docks denied the great conspiracy trial (Adams 2000).
- It was a story of ex- military men, treachery among comrades, family feuds, clandestine meetings, lies, deceit, back door negotiations & dirty mud slinging.
- On the basis of the High Court judgment of May 4, 1998 supposedly securing reinstatement, at least half the workers were told there was no work for them.
- The final judgement ordered Patrick Stevedores to pay 7.5 million to small businesses damaged by the boycotts during the dispute. (SMH, 1998)
- The crisis, for the first time since the 1930’s brought non-Union labour on the wharves though only briefly.
- The dispute with the Australian waterfront workers brought to the surface the deep-seated crisis of political perspective in the workers' movement.
Phillip Adams – ‘Waterfront, The Battle That Changed Australia’ by Helena Trinca 2000.
Journal Of Department Of Parliamentary Library Brief 15, 1997-98
Journal Of Michael Purvis Australian Services Union - 4th June 2000
The Australian 30th January, 1998 – page 1
Sydney Morning Herald, May 14, 1998
Sydney Morning Herald, September 3, 1998
The Age April 8, 1998 – page 1
http://www.dewrsb.gov.au link –Work Place Relations Act
http://www.WSWS.org World Socialist Website– Statement of the Socialist Equality Party (Australia May 14 1998)