Employers plan to break waterfront union

Issue 

By Frank Enright

"The company's intention to extend the further utilisation of supplementaries [casuals] at the expense of permanent employees is yet a further example of the confrontationist tactics and policies within the stevedoring industry aimed at the casualisation of the work force and the weakening of the industrial rights of workers to seek strong union representation", announced the national council of the Maritime Union of Australia in response to the sacking of 55 Sydney waterfront workers.

"The policies of casualisation and enterprise-based unionism are consistent with the national and international agenda of conservative forces to weaken the labour movement and to reduce the rights and conditions of workers generally", the council continued.

The dispute has its origins in the decision of Australian Stevedores, one of the two major waterfront employers, to sack 55 workers from the Sydney waterfront on February 10, including 21 union representatives. The MUA says the move is a direct attack on the basic conditions of employment of stevedoring workers. The MUA, whose Sydney members remain on strike, is demanding the reinstatement of all sacked workers.

Since 1991, 57% of the waterside workers' jobs have been shed under Waterfront Industry Reform Authority (WIRA) process, which was supported by the union. Under the WIRA agreement, 3000 were to leave the industry voluntarily and 1000 new young workers were to be employed to rejuvenate the work force. Subsequently, the work force was slashed from 8872 to 3818.

"To date only 250 have been employed, and more than 4600, far in excess of the required 3000 figure, have voluntarily left the industry", explains Jim Donovan, Sydney branch joint secretary of the MUA.

Numerous concessions by the union doubled productivity levels between 1989 and 1992. Twenty-one awards were replaced with one, enterprise agreements were concluded in all major workplaces and days lost in disputes were reduced from 4% in the 1980s to 0.1% — prompting employers to speak glowingly of "the enormous gains in productivity and efficiency".

But it appears that the employers, having digested these gains, have developed an insatiable appetite for "reform". Their aim is now focused on destroying the concept of permanency in the industry and, ultimately, unionism on Australia's docks. A Financial Review editorial explains, "of course, 'world-best practice' is a constantly moving target", as the wharfies are discovering at the expense of their jobs.

"They are attempting to drag us back to the bad old days of the 'bull system' of pick up — the destruction of the roster system and the right of the employers to 'pick hands'. That degrading system was defeated in 1943. Permanency of the industry, embraced by the employers, came about in 1967 and has continued operating effectively ever since", contends Donovan.

"The introduction of a component of part time casual work was one of the reforms to come out of the WIRA process. Significantly, however, such casual labour was to be supplementary to the underlying labour requirement of each enterprise", says an MUA fact sheet.

This pool of casual labour comprises many of those wharfies who took redundancy and "left" the industry. Although the union has conceded the use of these casuals to top up the work force when needed, the system is now being used to undermine permanent jobs.

Peter Wilson, the Australian's industrial correspondent, confirms that the dispute was deliberately provoked: "The nation's worst waterside dispute this decade has been brought to a head in a deliberate, economic decision by the employer to tackle issues and attitudes now that could otherwise be much more expensive in the long run".

MUA's joint national secretary, John Coombs, told Green Left Weekly after a meeting of the NSW Labor Council, that the company wants to achieve the sackings before the introduction of changes to the industrial relations bill which will make summary dismissals more difficult.

Ultimately, the waterfront employers want to eliminate the waterside workers section of the MUA (the MUA is an amalgamation of the Waterside Workers' Federation, the Seamen's Union and the Merchant Services Guild). They have publicly expressed the belief that they can mobilise enough support on the wharves to destroy the union within three years.

An indication of the lengths Australian Stevedores is prepared to go to can be seen by the letter sent to its employees threatening that if they did not return to work immediately, "the company will take immediate steps to recruit a replacement". The company's managing director, Jim Sweetensen, the son of a former national secretary of the waterside workers union, revealed through an offensive remark back in December that he would consider "bringing in a jumbo jet full of Maoris" to break any strike.

The deal brokered by federal industrial relations minister Laurie Brereton, limiting, for the moment, the dispute to Sydney doesn't alter the employer's aims — it merely postpones the fight to save the jobs of the wharfies left in the industry.

The MUA says, "We kept our side of the bargain, it's time Australian Stevedores kept theirs!" Perhaps there's a moral in this story, one other unions would do well to grasp quickly.

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