Did Bastard Boys get the point of the MUA dispute?

May 18, 2007

If watching the ABC TV's drama Bastard Boys is the only information that you have about the Maritime Union of Australia lockout of 1998, then you would probably conclude that the dispute was won by the brilliant tactical skills of Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) secretary Greg Combet and former Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) national secretary John Coombes, and the legal talents of union lawyers.

At lunchtime on January 28, 1998, day-shift workers locked themselves inside onsite buildings after hearing that the National Farmers Federation was being issued space on the wharf. After being addressed by the MUA leaders, the workers instead decided to set up a picket outside the front gate.

Early on in Bastard Boys, just after the lockout at Webb Dock, Combet told Coombes that the dispute couldn't be fought in the old way, otherwise, under the Workplace Relations Act, the union would be fined out of existence. The "old way" that Combet was referring to was taking industrial action to severely disrupt production and trade.

The phoney war at Webb Dock went on for months. The union allowed scabs to go through the picket line unobstructed, allowing them to learn the skills they needed to eventually take over and run the much larger Swanston Dock and other ports around the country.

At that time I was unemployed and spent most days down at the picket line. The decision of the MUA leadership to not impede the scabs infuriated MUA members and the leaderships of other unions.

But then the situation changed. Patrick Stevedores upped the ante by locking out the Swanston Dock workers and taking out injunctions to keep many MUA members away from the picket line.

The militant wing of the union movement — the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union, the Electrical Trades Union and the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union — with the Victorian Trades Hall Council responded by taking charge of the picket line and encouraging all unions and the community to get involved. The battle was then fought the old way.

The picket was converted into a real picket line. Patrick Stevedores could not move gear off the dock. The police couldn't break the picket line unless they used extreme violence. Patrick could not win from there and everyone, including the banks, knew that the writing was on the wall.

Rumours spread across the picket that MUA members were going to be ordered back to work by the ACTU and their own leadership. The CFMEU leadership opposed this and urged the MUA members not to return to work until they had an agreement.

The MUA leadership responded by ordering the CFMEU off the picket line. MUA members were told that if they didn't return to work at Patrick Stevedores, the company would go broke and they would lose their jobs anyway. This argument swayed the membership and they returned to work with no agreement and no pay.

Months of being locked out for some of the membership, followed by weeks of no pay for the locked-out workers after returning to work, softened waterside workers up for the huge losses they copped in the end.

Combet and Coombes sold the workers an agreement that resulted in losses that waterside workers had not seen since the Great Depression. Casualisation is now rife on the wharves. A large section of waterside workers have to ring up every afternoon to find out if they will be working the next day. Some wharfies are forced to remain as casuals for years.

Then CFMEU president John Cummins advised the MUA that it did not matter if Patrick went broke, because whichever company replaced it would still need workers to unload cargo. Instead the MUA and the ACTU chose to "snatch a defeat from the jaws of victory".

As a result of these losses, seafarers and wharfies in Victoria and Western Australia elected new MUA leaderships in the following ballots.

The ultimate outcome of the 1998 MUA dispute was both a victory and a defeat. The victory was that Patrick Stevedore's boss Chris Corrigan failed in his mission to destroy the MUA. Corrigan began to lose the dispute once the pickets were converted into real picket lines that blocked the scabs and trucks.

However, the MUA lost the battle over wharfies' conditions. Many unionists blame Combet, Coombs and the lawyers' "clever" tactics for settling for an agreement that resulted in big losses for wharfies, once Chris Corrigan began to lose the dispute.

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