Solidarity with maritime workers: 'Our fight is your fight'

March 11, 1998


Solidarity with maritime workers: 'Our fight is your fight'

By Andy Gianniotis

BRISBANE — more than 4000 unionists and supporters marched and rallied here on March 4 in solidarity with the Maritime Union of Australia in its dispute with the National Farmers Federation and the Howard government. At short notice, 12 unions were represented. Many people attended in their lunch break to add to a very vocal rally.

From the MUA office, the 600-strong MUA contingent marched down to a heroes' welcome at King George Square. It was clear that the rally was not just about the MUA but also the defence of living conditions of all workers.

"If we lose this fight, it's not just us on the dole queue; everybody will be there", federal MUA organiser Mick O'Leary pointed out from the speakers platform. Other issues raised included native title, youth and mature-age unemployment and attacks on nursing homes.

A contingent of workers from the Gordonstone mine was present, travelling from Emerald to lend their solidarity. They were returning the favour MUA members had shown six months previously.

The rally ended with a march to the stock exchange to protest at big business support for the Liberal government, the NFF and its mass media allies.

A weary Jeff Langdon, branch organiser for the MUA in southern Queensland, was heartened by the enormous support from ordinary workers.

"The main message we wanted to get across was 'our fight is your fight'. Worker solidarity has to become as common as the politicians' broken promises. From here we go bush to explain to ordinary farmers that the NFF does not represent their interests and is using the hard-earned dollars of honest farmers to bust unions and lower wages and conditions", said Langdon.

"If we can't withdraw our labour, as a last resort, to defend our wages and working conditions, then we are all just slaves", Diana, a Telstra worker, told Green Left Weekly. She believed the outcome of the MUA dispute would determine what happens to all unions still prepared to fight for better conditions.

Solidarity also came from young people and university students. The socialist youth group, Resistance, sponsored a solidarity forum at the University of Queensland on March 3. The deputy branch secretary of the MUA's south Queensland branch, Col Davies, spoke.

Davies explained that the MUA has a long and proud history defending others when the chips are down — from Aboriginal pastoral workers demanding award wages to bans on Dutch shipping in solidarity with Indonesians fighting for independence.

Some supporters were sure that a few years ago the rally would have been much bigger. Rod Hamilton from the Communications, Electrical and Plumbing Union pointed to the ACTU's weak response to employer and government attacks as the cause of dwindling worker consciousness.

In Melbourne on March 1, reports Ben Courtice, 2000 people gathered at Burgoyne Reserve, Williamstown, to support the workers at Webb Dock. Speakers included John Coombs, the MUA national secretary, Leigh Hubbard from the Victorian Trades Hall Council and Jennie George from the ACTU.

The Trade Union Choir, Richard Dreyfus, Kev Carmody, and the Band Who Knew Too Much performed.

A representative of the Congress of South African Trade Unions also spoke, highlighting the important role played by the MUA in supporting the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa.

Helen Jarvis reports from Sydney that a motion of solidarity with the MUA was passed at a lively meeting of the National Tertiary Education and Industry Union at UNSW on February 26.

The UNSW branch executive had decided unanimously for the meeting and invited MUA speakers. MUA NSW joint secretary Jim Donovan outlined the background to the current dispute and the proud history of the MUA defending workers' rights in Australia and internationally.

Sydney branch secretary John Pullen described the difficult conditions in which wharfies are expected to work and rebutted the attacks on wharfies as overpaid.

A spirited discussion followed when several people opposed the NTEU motion. Some said UNSW NTEU members should confine themselves to defending their own conditions; one even attacked the wharfies as sexist and anti-intellectual!

A Liberal Party member who is a member of the union attempted to block the solidarity motion, which was eventually passed 15 votes to three. The vote signified a concern to keep expressing in practical terms the slogan "An injury to one is an injury to all".

A number of motions of solidarity with the MUA have been put to the Sydney University Student Representative Council executive by SRC vice-president and Resistance Club president Marina Carman. The motions were based on models taken from solidarity statements of the Democratic Socialist Party and Resistance and motions passed by the National Union of Students national executive and education committee.

The conservative Students First at Sydney University voted both motions down. They tried to differentiate between offering solidarity to students and to trade unions.

Carman responded that, with 80% of students working, strong unions are needed, and that defending student rights means uniting with others who are also under attack from the Liberal government.

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