At 11pm on April 7, 1998, Patrick Stevedores locked 2000 waterside workers out of their jobs. Following months of speculation, the "leasing" of Webb dock in Melbourne to the National Farmers Federation in late January and the abortive "Dubai affair" — where former soldiers were trained in secret in Dubai as strike-breaking scabs — Patrick opted for a frontal assault on the workers and their union.
The wharfies — all members of the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) — were unceremoniously sacked and "escorted" from their work sites by balaclava-wearing thugs, aided by dogs, mid-shift. The unionised workers were replaced with scabs. The "Patricks dispute" had begun.
The national response to the wharfies' lockout was swift and strong. In port cities across Australia, thousands of working people rallied to the MUA's cause. In Melbourne and Fremantle, "community assemblies" stopped the passage of trucks to the waterfront. Containers accumulated on the docks.
Less than a month after the sackings, the MUA achieved a victory in the High Court, but only on the back of the mass protests, and particularly the strong solidarity actions in Melbourne and Fremantle. The extent of the victory the wharfies won is a matter of contention. While the workers returned to work, Patrick forced huge "efficiency" concessions from the union, including the redundancy of hundreds of permanent workers and their replacement by casuals.
As part of the legal settlement in the High Court, the MUA won the right to pursue a conspiracy case against those involved in the campaign to exclude the union from the waterfront. In order to provide evidence that the government of former Prime Minister John Howard colluded with Patrick and others, the MUA is now seeking access to a report prepared for the Howard government by consultant Stephen Webster in 1997, the April 2 Australian reported. It is also seeking access to two government-commissioned reports on waterfront reform prepared by ACIL Economics, that it hopes will demonstrate the level of involvement of the Howard ministry in the conspiracy.
The three documents were blocked by the Howard government using "conclusive certificates", the Australian reported, to prevent them being released under Freedom of Information legislation. The MUA have requested that the new government of PM Kevin Rudd rescind the block, but the minister for workplace relations, Julia Gillard, has said that legal opinion offered to the government finds that the "conclusive certificates" mean the documents will remain out of access. The MUA has vowed to pursue the documents through legal channels.