Patrick 'to sack all maritime workers'

April 8, 1998


Patrick 'to sack all maritime workers'

By James Vassilopoulos

There is growing evidence that Patrick Stevedores, the company on the offensive against the Maritime Union of Australia, plans to sack its entire work force in Brisbane, Sydney and Fremantle.

According to Jamie Meek, a former worker with the National Farmers Federation front company Producers and Consumers Stevedores (PCS), Patrick intends to lock out the entire work force on April 14 and have the wharves run by scabs. Meek's sources are PCS workers and executives.

The Daily Commercial News, the newspaper of ship owners and traders, on April 2 openly discussed an "Easter uprising".

The MUA has taken the claims seriously, applying to the Australian Industrial Relations Commission for protection from mass sackings. Michael O'Leary, national organiser with the MUA, told Green Left Weekly that Patrick refused to answer when asked if it was considering sacking the work force.

John Coombs, MUA national secretary, claimed on ABC radio that federal cabinet on March 30 approved the funding of waterfront redundancies.

The current industrial battle over an enterprise bargain also gives weight to the rumour that Patrick intends to get rid of all its wharfies.

Late last year, Patrick and the MUA, after months of negotiating, agreed on an enterprise bargain. The only thing that remained was for the two parties to sign it. The MUA signed and put the agreement into practice. Patrick did not.

Why would Patrick not sign the agreement, especially when this leaves them open to legal strikes? The suspicion is that it would be easier for Patrick to sack workers legally if an enterprise bargain has not been signed.

Other unions are also taking the rumour seriously. The Australian Workers Union acting national secretary, Sam Wood, on April 2 said that if MUA members are sacked, 1200 AWU members in the oil industry will strike in solidarity.

A meeting convened by the ACTU on April 3 discussed what financial, industrial and political support other unions will give if Patrick escalates the dispute. The ACTU decided to keep the dispute focused on Patrick and to provide only financial and moral support, not industrial support, to the MUA.

The April 2 Daily Commercial News alleged that strike-busting tugs are on their way from New Zealand and will arrive in Australia by Easter. The secretary of the NZ Merchant Service Guild believes that two tugs, Reinga and Rupe, are bound for Bell Bay in Tasmania. The tugs are to be used by North Forest Products (a division of North Ltd) in the event of a strike.

The NFF is also shopping around for its own tug fleet, having discussions in New Zealand and Singapore, according to the April 2 Australian.

Tony Papaconstuntinos, MUA deputy national secretary, told Green Left Weekly that he was "not taking the allegations lightly". He explained that North Ltd is linked to North Broken Hill, the company which attacked unions at Robe River and still is seeking common law damages against unions. He added that Tasmania is only 12 hours from Melbourne. The tugs could be used to bring ships into Webb Dock.

Peter Reith, minister for workplace relations, admitted on February 10 that the government had considered supporting the waterfront bosses if they sacked unionised wharfies.

One obstacle to sacking wharfies is the lack of trained, non-union stevedores. According to the March 26 Australian Financial Review, PCS has only 200 trained workers currently, and they are being turned out at about 60 per month. O'Leary estimates that 200 have already been trained. Patrick would need to replace 1300 workers.

Patrick's strategy may be to wait until more non-union ports are operating, train more non-union stevedores, and then sack the rest of the work force, then rehire them without union pay and conditions. PCS is having discussions with the Queensland and WA governments and state port authorities, to open up more non-union ports.

If Patrick attempts this strategy, the big test will be whether MUA members' commitment to militant unionism remains solid.

Director of PCS and ex-union official Paul Houlihan announced on April 2 that PCS would operate from berth six at Fisherman Island, Brisbane, within two weeks. He told ABC radio that 70 non-union stevedores who trained at Webb Dock but who live in Queensland would work the operation.

Green Left Weekly has evidence that a list of unemployed and non-union workers already exists, which could be used to staff a similar operation of this kind in Fremantle.

What is clear so far in the campaign is that when the MUA has used industrial action, Patrick and its Coalition government backer have felt weakened.

During the eight-day Port Botany strike in Sydney, which ended on April 1, Patrick boss Chris Corrigan claimed that the company was close to folding. The share price during the strike dropped from over $2 to $1.90, indicating a lack of confidence by capitalists in the outcome.

The AWU's preparedness to shut down the oil industry if MUA members are sacked is a significant development. The MUA needs the industrial support of other unions if it is to win the dispute. The severity of this dispute, and the growing evidence of planned mass sackings, demand an all-union response.

The Democratic Socialist Party has initiated a petition which calls on the ACTU to coordinate a national day of action, including a four-hour stoppage, to show support.

As O'Leary commented, "If you have an all-union national day of action you cannot lock up everyone in the country".

Meanwhile, the ongoing enterprise bargaining dispute seems no closer to settlement. In Brisbane, 250 MUA members employed by Patrick began a four-day strike on April 3. Pickets are being maintained at Patrick's two terminals.

Maritime workers in Brisbane are also under attack from the National Farmers Federation and the National Party-led state government. In the run-up to the state election, premier Rob Borbidge has accused the MUA of "holding the country to ransom". He offered to assist the NFF in establishing a non-union stevedoring operation in Brisbane.

A meeting of striking wharfies on April 3 heard Les Crofton from the Public Transport Union pledge his union's solidarity with the MUA. John Thompson, state secretary of the ACTU Queensland, pledged the support of the Queensland union movement. Organisers of the Australian Workers Union were also at the picket lines following the AWU's offer to shut down oil refineries across Australia if the MUA workers are sacked by Patrick.

MUA members at Sydney's Port Botany will begin another seven-day strike on April 7.

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