Painters and dockers picket in Newcastle

June 26, 1991

By Stephen O'Brien

NEWCASTLE — "It was my job to paint 'Forgacs Floating Dock' over the old name", said Bruce Ryan. Ryan was one of a number of painters and dockers on day seven of the picket line outside the Muloobinba at Carrington, an industrial waterfront area in Newcastle.

The Muloobinba was formerly part of the old Newcastle State Dockyard, closed by the state Labor government in 1987 with the loss of 371 jobs. The highly profitable floating dock is now run by Forgacs, which provoked the current dispute by attacking the union rostering system.

Errol Porter, one of the pickets, explained that most painters and dockers work on a casual basis as ships come into port. Like seafarers and wharfies, they use a roster system to take turns to work and "share the available work around".

Forgacs now wants to employ only 20 workers as "permanents" hand-picked on the basis of their "attitude". The workers believe the bosses are also after their award. Through decades of hard struggle, the union has won conditions such as bath times, penalty rates, allowances and meals which partially compensate for the insecure, physically unpleasant and dangerous nature of the work. These are now threatened under the guise of "restructuring".

John Milne described the work P and Ds do as "the hardest and dirtiest". When a ship is in dry dock for refit or repair, P and Ds remove asbestos, apply toxic substances such as maritime paints, sand blast in confined spaces and clean out the bilges.

The workers laughed when John described cleaning the macerated cisterns, into which shipboard sewerage is pumped. For an extra 84 cents an hour, painters and dockers crawl down narrow holes into dark confines to scrape down the human excreta built up on the walls. The workers told us that they reek of the filth even after a shower and change of clothes. Someone added that Forgacs has argued about providing hepatitis B inoculations.

The P and Ds on the picket line were pleased with the support they had received, including funds from the wharfies and donations of food and drink from Carrington small businesses. Trucks were continuing to honour the pickets and take their loads back.

On June 20, Forgacs sent termination notices to all but 28 of the workers.

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