The Cockatoo Island Dockyard strike-occupation

November 17, 1993

John Tognolini

On May 10, 1989 the Cockatoo Island Dockyard shop committee, representing 13 unions, announced the occupation of the island in response to a decision by the Hawke Labor government to sell off the site. The dispute would last for 14 weeks.

Fifteen years after the strike was defeated, it is worth looking at this struggle against the background of the ALP-ACTU Accord years.

In the 1983 federal election, federal Labor leader and former ACTU president Bob Hawke campaigned against Malcolm Fraser's Coalition government at Cockatoo Island. Within a few months of Labor's election win, a thousand dockyard workers marched on the Australian Parliament in Canberra because Hawke had broken his promise to have a second 18,000-tonne naval supply ship built at Cockatoo after constuction of HMAS Success was completed in 1984.

Bob Galleghan, the federal secretary of the Ship Painters and Dockers Union said at this rally: "There won't be a second ship built unless you're going to do something about it." Hawke's decision would cost 1600 workers their jobs.

Galleghan was again in the thick of it during the 1989 strike-occupation. His leadership of the painters and dockers was in sharp contrast to most of the other union officials, including Pat Johnson, the organiser from the metalworkers' union, now part of Australian Manufacturing Workers Union. Galleghan was committed to saving the jobs and the dockyard, Johnson just wanted a decent redundancy package, which to me has always appeared to be a contradiction in terms.

A key factor in our ability to maintain the occupation for the length of time we did was that a large number of shipyard workers lived on the island for three months. They were from all the jobs in the dockyard — painters and dockers, electricians, riggers, metalworkers, clerks, firefighters. Some were fifth generation shipyard workers.

Support from the ACTU and the NSW Labor Council was token for a couple of weeks, and then turned into outright opposition to the struggle of the Cockatoo Island Dockyard workers to save their jobs.

Dockyard workers stormed a Labor Council meeting that voted down a motion for a 24-hour general strike to save the dockyard.

During a protest by the Cockatoo Island workers toward the end of the dispute the Labor Council officials locked themselves on the top floor of their building in Sussex Street. The dockyard workers had gathered outside. After hearing speakers condemning Hawke, defence minister Kim Beazley, the ACTU and the Labor Council, the workers found an open door up the firestairs and marched up to the floor below the Labor Council officials. While this was going on, the police attacked those remaining in Sussex Street, arresting six people who later faced trial.

After this, there was the last mass meeting, which had union leaders telling strikers on their 93rd day "on the grass" that they would be open to fines under section 45D of the Trade Practices Act. Bob Galleghan said: "Anyone with a 45D fine could stand on the end of the line with the other creditors to the union."

Isolated and ignored by the broader union movement, largely as a result of the hostility of the ACTU and the NSW Labor Council to the strike, the dockyard workers were forced to return to work. In June 1990, the federal Labor government reaffirmed its decision to sell the island.

The ALP and the ACTU don't like this historical period being discussed — it takes the spin-doctor gloss off the Hawke-Keating years. The bulk of the trade union leaderships preferred working against their memberships as Hawke and Keating Labor governments decimated large traditional blue-collar workplaces in the name of opening up the Australian economy to the rigours of the global marketplace.

Britain had Margaret Thatcher and the United States had Ronald Reagan do this to its workers. We had the ALP. With the prospect of another business-friendly federal Labor government being elected under Mark Latham, we should never forget this.

[John Tognolini is a life member of the Ship Painters and Dockers Union who was involved in the Cockatoo Island struggle. He is now a member of the NSW Teachers Federation council and the Socialist Alliance.]

From Green Left Weekly, August 11, 2004.
Visit the Green Left Weekly home page.

You need Green Left, and we need you!

Green Left is funded by contributions from readers and supporters. Help us reach our funding target.

Make a One-off Donation or choose from one of our Monthly Donation options.

Become a supporter to get the digital edition for $5 per month or the print edition for $10 per month. One-time payment options are available.

You can also call 1800 634 206 to make a donation or to become a supporter. Thank you.