Stakes high for all workers in wharf dispute

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Stakes high for all workers in wharf dispute

By Sue Boland

When Patrick Stevedores, with the support of the Howard government, locked 2000 waterside workers out of their jobs at 11pm on April 7, the government and Patrick gave the impression they were on a winner. But the strong community and union support for the maritime union has shown that many workers understand that the future of trade unionism is at stake in this dispute.

In the months before the lockout, Patrick, the Howard government and the National Farmers Federation (NFF) had massaged public opinion with a constant media barrage about "overpaid and under-worked" wharfies. They had also prepared the legal and technical aspects of the lockout thoroughly. Some newspapers initially reported that the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) had lost the dispute before it began.

Today, the government is not so sure it can smash the MUA and put waterside workers on individual contracts, and sections of the media are warning the government not to appear so gleeful about the sackings when so many Australian workers are worried about job security.

The government appears to have heeded these warnings and at least some of Howard's statements have been moderated. While he is still running the "greedy, overpaid wharfie" line, he now says "not all wharfies are bad".

What changed?

The important factor, which surprised the federal government and Patrick, is the extent of public support for the waterside workers and the MUA.

Before the lockout, the government conducted secret research which showed there was widespread public support for making Australian ports more "efficient". But many who believed the government's anti-wharfie propaganda were nevertheless shocked that workers in Australia could be evicted from their work site by security guards in military formation with dogs and mace, and that an employer could get away with a company restructuring scam to avoid any legal obligations to their workers.

There is also criticism of the government's integral involvement in planning the lockout. Prior to the lockout, the government established a company to lend the stevedoring industry $250 million to cover workers' redundancy pay.

Many people now understand what the MUA has been saying all along — that the dispute is not just about wharfies, but about the rights of all workers to job security, decent pay and conditions, to belong to a union and to take collective action against their employer to defend those rights.

Talkback radio and letters to the newspapers have demonstrated a huge level of support for the sacked workers. Despite the intense anti-wharfie propaganda campaign, opinion polls conducted by both the Bulletin and the Daily Telegraph indicate that public opinion is evenly divided for and against the actions by the government and Patrick. A majority seem to support "waterfront reform", but don't support the way it is being carried out. Twenty-eight per cent in the Bulletin poll said they would not vote for the Coalition because of its stance on the waterfront dispute.

This support for the MUA was also reflected in the quickly organised demonstrations in Sydney and Melbourne, and the thousands of supporters who have turned up to picket lines around the country. Within hours of the lockout, thousands of building workers were on the streets of Sydney and Melbourne, and the banners present indicate that the whole spectrum of unions is supporting this fight.

Industrial support

Even the assistant secretary of the right-wing Australian Workers Union, Sam Woods, said on April 2 that AWU delegates overwhelmingly supported a protest strike in the oil industry if Patrick moved to sack its workers. He added that the AWU would not take over any MUA coverage, despite approaches from the NFF's strike-breaking stevedoring outfit, Producers and Consumers Stevedores.

Additional support has come from warehouse workers in Franklin's food chain in Victoria, who struck for 24 hours in support of the wharfies, and a meeting of delegates called by the Victorian Trades Hall Council voted for a statewide stoppage and demonstration on May 6 (see article next page).

The high level of support for the wharfies is creating a problem for Patrick. While the company has been able to get ships slowly loaded and unloaded with scab workers who have been allowed through the picket lines, it hasn't been able to get any cargo in or out of its terminals.

The shipping industry's Daily Commercial News says Patrick terminals are filling up with containers it can't move. The worst affected are Melbourne's East Swanston Dock, filled to 90% of capacity, and Sydney's Port Botany, filled to 70% of capacity.

Anti-union laws

While Patrick's threat to use secondary boycott laws against the MUA has scared the union and the ACTU away from engaging in industrial action, the company's injunctions against the MUA picket lines have not been effective.

In NSW and WA, Patrick was granted a temporary injunction against the MUA picket lines, but other unions stepped in and maintained them. When the company asked the Supreme Court to ban all picketing by anyone, Justice James Wood responded that he couldn't issue an injunction against the whole world. He did, however, extend the ban to include John Maitland, national president of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union.

Each time police have moved in to arrest picketers in Fremantle, Melbourne or Sydney, hundreds or thousands more workers have joined the pickets. Patrick has been calling on the government and the police to take tougher action against the picketers and on April 17 and 18, Howard told the media that the government would not use the army to break through the dispute, indicating that it has been considering all options.

Sections of the media have been promoting a political climate which would allow the police, or even the army, to use more violence against the picketers. In Sydney, the media hysterically condemned sacked workers who "put their children in danger" by bringing them to the Port Botany and Darling Harbour picket lines. Of course, none of the media condemned the use of police against the picketers, and none mentioned that Patrick and the government have jeopardised the wellbeing of many children whose fathers are now unemployed.

Despite the obvious support for the wharfies, the ACTU hasn't yet called for industrial action or national rallies. It has relied on court action against Patrick and maintaining the picket lines. The legal action has been less successful, especially because of the Howard government's industrial relations laws and Patrick's complicated legal preparations for six months before the lockout.

Other companies, such as P & O Ports, are watching this dispute carefully. They are hinting that if the MUA agrees to massive productivity increases (i.e. cuts in working conditions) they won't go down same path. If, however, the MUA doesn't agree, they're keeping their options open.

It's clear that the future of trade unionism in Australia is at stake in this dispute. Given the level of support Patrick is receiving from the government and other employers, it is crucial that public support for the wharfies is not frittered away.

Large nationwide protests and a campaign of industrial action in solidarity with the sacked wharfies will build public support and inflict a real economic cost on Patrick, forcing it and the Howard government to back off. The Victorian union delegates have taken the lead by voting for a statewide day of action. This must be broadened into a national day of action for maximum impact.