Bastards then, bastards now

Issue 

Bastard Boys

Sunday May 13 & Monday May 14, 8.30pm

ABC TV

It is still regarded as a war down on the waterfront. The scenes of April 1998 at Patrick's stevedoring terminals around the country still evoke strong emotions and memories of scabs, security guards and Rottweilers; of mass sackings of waterside workers; of row upon row of coppers with helicopters piercing the night with floodlights; of tangible union solidarity; of tens of thousands roaring commitment to defend a powerful union from annihilation.

The Patrick dispute has been described as one of Australia's biggest industrial battles. It affected tens of thousands — from those directly involved, to even more who took sides in it and felt the passions it stirred. It has all the hallmarks of a war epic, a political thriller, a human feel-good story about common solidarity, and boardroom and court drama. It was destined to be brought to our screens sooner or later.

To their credit, the producers of Bastard Boys have captured the many facets of the Patrick dispute. From the complex legal strategies employed by Patrick, the Liberal government and the union movement, to the raw emotions of hardened wharfies facing an uncertain future. The drama weaves a potent story from the beginning.

"So John Le Carre", declares Josh Bornstein, a lawyer acting for the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) as a conspiracy emerges to sack 2000 unionists and replace them with industrial mercenaries or other scabs. The Australian Council of Trade Unions' Greg Combet, at that stage emerging as the ACTU's future secretary, foresaw the government/Patrick attacks as a "brave new world" in industrial relations and began to shape the ACTU and union movement to face it. For second-generation wharfie Tony Tully, the future was to be a "job with no heart, and a union with no soul".

Using real and fictional characters, the two-part, four-hour drama unfolds on many fronts. The power that even a small union like the MUA can muster is palpable. A pressure-cooker atmosphere permeates not only the many physical confrontations that occur on the picket lines, but also the families and relationships of the thousands involved. The drama of the courtroom and the battles in union boardrooms are compelling viewing.

There is underlying tension between union officials and many on the waterfront trained and skilled in traditional "old school" methods of fighting employers. There is no doubt many of these issues will again be argued and discussed as Bastard Boys airs. These debates will also be fuelled by current battles over Work Choices and the capitulation of the ACTU to the IR vision of Kevin Rudd's Labor.

In some senses, Bastard Boys' portrayal of these different strategies and tactics by the Combet's and the Tully's, with MUA national secretary John Coombs attempting to straddle both camps, is a little too black and white. The use of courts and commissions, and convincing a disciplined union membership when and how to take industrial action have always been in the arsenal of the MUA and its predecessor, the Waterside Workers Federation. And it is obvious the massive protests generated by the dispute were the major factor in securing the MUA's victory on the ground, not just the cleverness of courtroom tactics and having a pinot with the MUA's archenemy, Patrick's Chris Corrigan.

Although beyond Bastard Boys' reach, the subsequent changes that accompanied the victory on the ground still reverberate on the waterfront. Casualisation is now the prevalent form of employment, and productivity has increased at the expense many conditions waterside workers once fought for and enjoyed.

However, the dispute did result in the MUA staying as the wharfies respected and proud union organisation, and the union still has the power to claw back some of the conditions compromised in the hard negotiations with Corrigan after the MUA walked back onto the job in 1998.

Bastard Boys is a superb, gripping drama. Nobody watching this could remain aloof from the passions it stirs. Wonderfully acted, skilfully written, and set to the backdrop of jackboots and snarling dogs, even the container straddles and quay cranes make the production awesome.

It remains to be seen whether the union movement can finish the job that started in nine years ago and defeat the Howard government and tear the heart and soul out of any anti-union laws that governments and stevedoring companies may feel inclined to introduce. Corrigan's Bastard Boys gave him a bloody nose then, and today's Bastard Boys are determined to fight on.