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Australia: Wharfies still under attack
A Government organised strategy
International support
Hullabaloo over the New Year
More attacks on the way

Australia: Wharfies still under attack
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In Australia the dockers are affectionately referred to as wharfies - the bosses have much more derogatory terms for them! The concerted attacks of last year, the attempt to remove an entire work-force, had failed to dampen the fighting spirit of this section of the Australian workers.

The bosses offensive against the wharfies has been largely coordinated and organised directly by the Australian Government, determined to put into effect «waterfront reforms». These reforms, the concerted assault on dockworkers conditions of employment and rates of pay, were not some idle whim of a particular political party, but a long-term strategy to cut the costs of dockside operations. The Australian docks are in the process of going over fully to containerisation, where the majority of the work can be done away from the docks themselves. For the ruling class such economies must be at the expense of the working class, but never from the sacred profit levels.

The reorganisations had followed what had already taken place in Britain many years before. The old «pooled labour system» under which workers were hired for the day, as needed, seems reminiscent of the old British Dock Labour Scheme. The union was then called the Waterside Workers Federation, the predecessor of the MUA. This daily hire system is a double-edged weapon - it places the workers under great uncertainty, but allows tremendous possibilities of developing demands for additional payments, bonuses, otherwise the ship(s) concerned get delayed. Like the much vaunted «decasualisation» in Britain, the dockers in Australia were taken on by separated stevedoring companies. But one reform and reorganisation is never enough for the bosses, and they demand more and more.

The Canberra Government has adopted the strategy from New Zealand of backing moves of dock companies in replacing the existing organised workers with a more pliant workforce. In New Zealand the then existing dockers trade union was broken in the early l990s. Similar union busting took place in Mexico, this time at gunpoint, in 1991.

The new workers (organised strikebreakers) would be hired on individual contracts, rather than having any form of «collective bargaining» with unions. The replacement of existing workers, if done in an orderly fashion through redundancies (and the famous 'natural wastage'), would be paid for through massive Government funds put to one side for sorting out the dockers.

To reinforce this strategy on the docks, the employers were demanding new and tougher laws to be used against strikers. The new Workplace Relations Act, banning secondary boycotts, with the seizure of union funds through fines, came into operation on January 1st 1997, building upon previous anti-strike restrictions.

The first attempt at implementing this strategy took place at the Port of Cairns, in the North East of Australia. This was easily defeated by some bureaucratic manoeuvring of the two unions involved in Port operations, the Maritime Union of Australia [MUA], and the Seafarers' and Dockers' sections of the International Transport Federation [ITF]. Their main effort was to advise the owner and managers of one of the ships which would be loaded at Cairns by the replacement workforce, that they would become an «innocent party» in the conflict between the unions and the Government. The displaced workers picketed the terminal gates, the ship concerned was held at anchor outside the Port, and finally a deal was done and the unionised stevedoring company was rehired, and everything was back to where it was before.

A Government organised strategy
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This confrontation with the wharfies is one directed by the Australian Government, especially that of the present Conservative administration of John Howard. In any case it is merely the same attacks of the previous Labour Governments of Paul Keating and Bob Hawke. Their Conservative election promise was for confronting the dockers, declaring that they would break the power of the MUA, as it was supposedly standing in the way of economic prosperity. Lower wages paid to dockworkers would boost profits, increase exports (especially agricultural products) and there would be general prosperity for all - if of course there isn't a trade recession, stock market collapse, or dramatic fall in the value of currencies, which have a nasty tendency of bringing economic misery!

But Patrick Stevedores, the second largest hirer of dock labour, had not finished with ideas of attacks on the wharfies. Initially they engaged in negotiations with the National Farmers Federation, who were looking for alternative Port arrangements for exporting agricultural products. The NFF had heard that Patrick's were losing money at its Webb Dock in Melbourne and were considering whether they could use it directly for exporting purposes. But capitalists have essentially competing and conflicting interests, with the NFF also started to look at Brisbane facilities, before deciding on using a unionised company at Adelaide. Patrick went ahead with the first lockout at Webb Dock, at the end of January 1998 anyway. It was operated by a company associated with the NFF, Producers & Consumers.

For maximum effect the entire Patrick workforce was to be replaced in a military-style operation. Plans were afoot to train a new workforce in Port operations, in supposedly secure conditions in Dubai, in the Middle East. It was led by a former army officer and much decorated Vietnam veteran - he must have got used to defeats by now! The planned date for this operation was to be April 1st 1998 (known as April Fools Day through much of the English speaking world!). The five-month long Dubai operation leaked out before the first contingent flew out, and finally the operation was put into effect on April 7-8. The entire MUA organised workforce of 1,400, along with 600 casual workers, were dismissed in Sydney, Australia.

While the whole operation was expected at any time, the MUA was busily making all manners of concessions over productivity - why go to all the trouble of lockouts, when the whole matter can be dealt with in discussions with the union, was the official MUA line. The national secretary of the MUA, John Coombs, was busily declaring that the wharfies shouldn't upset anyone, and that the interests of the workers, employers and the farm exporters could be met by increased productivity.

When employers go «union busting», it is not the union bureaucrats they wish to get rid of. It is the old workforce, usually seen as recalcitrant and uncooperative. «If only we can get rid of the unions» is the employers' cry, the workers are bound to see sense and come into line. They will recognise the economic reality and shoulder the burdens in order to eve the desired profitability. That at least is the fevered delusion which bosses usually have. Usually peace is made with the union bureaucrats, with the workers remaining dismissed and the subject of abuse in the media, and intimidation on picket lines!

The sacked wharfies were not prepared to give way and conducted robust picketing of the terminals. They won immediate support from workers in neighbouring building sites and factories - an injury to one section of workers is an injury to all sectors! A legal ban on picketing was met by a mass demonstration of more than 5,000. The bosses and the MUA were in and out of court is a series of hearings. In any case the real battles were being fought out on the picket lines, and support being given in other ports.

One advantage in the resistance of workers to increased mechanisation of production is that there are more workers available for the fight! When agreements are done to mechanise and computerise, the easier it becomes for the employers to get rid of a smaller workforce. That has certainly been the lessons of the tragic defeats in Britain, from the printers in Fleet Street, the miners and finally the dockers. Collaboration with the bosses leads to a few rewards for Trade Union bureaucrats, and dismissal for large numbers of workers.

The support of fellow workers in Australia was immediate and substantial. Support on the picket lines was swelled by organised delegations of teachers, nurses and health workers. The solidarity on the picket lines was matched with donations of money, and more importantly secondary actions. The solidarity strike action involved not only trucks refusing to cross picket lines, but spread to vitally important oil sites and car production. Such action was spurred on, not dampened, by Court decisions. After all, if the wharfies are defeated, who will be next! The officials of other unions put in an appearance, to pledge support, more to prevent the movement escaping completely out of union control, than any newly found desire for class struggle.

International support
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Solidarity support from outside Australia was quick in coming. Dockers in Fiji and Papua New Guinea pledged action, vitally important money, one million yen from Japan, to support the dockers families, and threats of boycotts from the West coast of the United States, all helped the campaign to resist the lockout. All this support, rather peculiarly, was confined to the Pacific Rim, but maybe was a reflection of the economic interests of the sections of the bourgeoisie involved.

The boycotting of ships by the dockers, the famous Longshore men of the USA, was timely, effective and looked to be thoroughly efficient. Ships loaded by scab labour in Australia were boycotted, sometimes staying offshore for a couple of weeks (like the vessel the Columbus Canada) before returning to Australia, to be unloaded again. At one stage up to 23 ships (loaded between April 7th and May 4th) had been identified as having been loaded by strikebreakers, the detailed lists having been sent over to web-sites on the West Coast. The solidarity action was well organised on the West Coast, with sympathetic activists providing picket lines for Longshore men to refuse to cross, if they needed the excuse, while the union officials rather lamely relied upon Health and Safety issues to prevent unloading. Where cargoes had been mixed, that is ships having called into new Zealand for loading as well, the cargoes were identified, the New Zealand goods were unloaded, and the strike-breaking cargoes duly returned to Australia, to be unloaded there.

The boycott on the West Coast of the USA was really biting during the whole of May. This led to the employers, and Government ministers, doing whatever they could to threaten the strikers. They used legal threats as a way of intimidating the strikers. Court actions to deregister the MUA, with claims for damages, was used by Patrick and the state-sponsored Australian Competition and Consumer Commission in an effort to bring the union to its knees. The MUA responded in an equally legalistically threatening way, alleging a conspiracy between Patricks and Government ministers. Further actions against the administrators of the subsidiary stevedoring companies were put into action, obscuring the real issues confronting the workers. Much work here for lawyers and accountants, obviously.

By the beginning of June Patrick was warning the MUA that if it did not commit itself to «workplace reform» then the dock operations would be so mechanised that it would only need «a small number of computer operators». The assistant national secretary of the MUA, Vic Slater, poured scorn on the suggestion that machines could be operated with hardly any workers there to operate them. He would do well to reflect on the experience in Britain, where collaboration in installing the latest technology, to protect the jobs of the workers, in Liverpool, led to the removal of the entire workforce.

While the final stages of the negotions were being, readied, the boss of Patrick, Chris Corrigan, showed video footage of the dispute to representatives of international container companies. He first showed the secret training camps where the strike-breakers were prepared for their «military-style» operation - then scenes of pickets banging and rattling the dock gates. He then announced that he had just been informed that stevedoring was going to be included as an Olympic sport at the Sydney Games. Those whom the Gods wish to destroy?

By mid-June the deal was done between Patrick and the MUA. In a Memorandum of Agreement, a working relationship was struck between the bosses and the union, whereby half the jobs were to go, with almost 700 being made redundant. About 200 ancilliary jobs, such as security, maintenance, cleaning, etc, would be available. The cosy relationship between the bosses and the union had been reestablished. Patrick then denied that its intentions had been to break the union monopoly on the docks. With such cooperation, why go in for conflict. It remains to be seen whether the ordinary wharfies are happy about this continuing courtship!

The end result of the key battle against Patrick was that the workers objected to being removed from the docks, and being replaced by strikebreakers. It that, they clearly won. By a resolute fight, by confronting the issues and refusing to be distracted by arguments over the future of the industry, and nation, they won clear support inside and outside Australia. But this is only a further stage in the ongoing struggle between the Port bosses and the wharfies. Vital lessons had been learnt by both sides.

Hullabaloo over the New Year
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The loss of half the workforce at Patricks had failed to defeat the fighting spirit of the wharfies, as shown by the events over the New Year. As everyone is aware there is a tendency for workers to celebrate the change of year. The wharfies in Australia are no different. Work normally grinds to a halt, with only the most «essential» services being maintained. Ports and shipping are invariably affected in some way, except those ships, which are still at sea.

The wharfies decided unofficially, in practice, that they would not be working on New Year's Eve. They just didn't turn in for work! The bosses were furious, called them all the names under the Sun, and denounced them to the world as lazy, unreliable, etc, etc. Even the MUA, who were cooperating fully in ensuring the efficient working of the docks with a halved workforce, were blamed. Some word was heard that some union representatives were supposedly advising the dockers on how to deal with the situation of not turning in, such as phoning in sick, and so on. Just as if the dockers, with their long tradition of militancy and strike action, need to be cajoled into looking after their own interests.

More attacks on the way
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Another stevedoring company, P&O Ports (a subsidiary of the UK conglomerate), now wants to get in on the act by slashing its 1,362 workforce by 40 per cent. They had set a target of 600 jobs to go, but were only too happy to enter into negotiations for a new enterprise agreement with the MUA. This is actively being pursued from the end of January onwards.

The Australian Federal Government has a substantial ($250 million) waterfront redundancy fund to pay for this reduction, should it be achieved. The cosy relationship between P&O Ports and the MUA led to both being confident that the confrontations of last year's Patrick stevedoring dispute could be avoided. After all, the union officials who negotiate the redundancies are not themselves faced with having their jobs being terminated. The determined opposition of the workers, especially those who will be «going down the road», will always disrupt this easygoing mutual friendship.

The MUA's supposedly militant central New South Wales branch stated that 40 per cent target as «sadly out of tune», and declined to rule out strike action during the bargaining over redundancies. The P&O Port bosses will not be having sleepless nights about the official reactions from the union branches.

P&O chairman and managing director Richard Hein refused to confirm the redundancy target saying only that many workers wanted to exit the industry. An MUA spokesperson said the union was «supremely disappointed that negotiations we were about to enter with maximum goodwill were opened via the media».

Source: «Communist Left», No. 12/13, Summer 1999

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