If the Howard government thought that it's battery of anti-unions laws had completely intimidated workers not to take so-called "illegal" industrial action then they must be disappointed. For the first time in more than a decade all work on the nation's waterfront came to a halt on March 23 when more than 11,000 wharfies walked off the job. The stop work coincided with the Melbourne funeral of Bobby Cumberlidge, who died in an industrial accident at Toll's Westernport wharf on March 16.
There have been four deaths in four years on the waterfront, three of them in the last 10 months. Cumberlidge's death follows Peter Ross's at Melbourne's Appleton dock in January 2007, Dean Robinson's at Port Adelaide in June 2006 and Jeff Gray's, also at Appleton, in June 2003. The three most recent deaths have all occurred while handling bulk steel — such as pipe, plate and bar — widely acknowledged as one of the most dangerous cargoes. In each case the workers were crushed to death.
These deaths have added urgency to the Maritime Union of Australia's (MUA) campaign for a nationally legislated stevedoring industry safety code of practice. Such codes exist in the mining and construction industries, but not stevedoring. While the major stevedoring companies Patrick-Toll and DP World have agreed to the proposal, it has stalled because the Howard government will not meet with the MUA to discuss it.
On March 23 MUA acting national secretary Mick Doleman demanded that federal workplace relations minister Joe Hockey and transport minister Mark Vaile come to the table. "We've been calling for a national stevedoring safety code for the past six months, and absolutely nothing has happened."
Cumberlidge was president of the MUA committee at Westernport and came from a long-standing wharfie family known to many wharfies around the country. Memorial services and the laying of wreaths were followed up by special mass meetings in many of the major ports.
At the service in Fremantle, MUA WA branch secretary Chris Cain explained that a national safety code would be to the benefit of all maritime workers, not just Australian wharfies. He drew attention to the terrible fate of an Indian seafarer in January at the Kwinana bulk loading facility south of Perth. He was trapped under a mistakenly activated lift he was repairing for five hours before he died.
Cain pointed out that the national safety codes in the mining and construction industries were only won after concerted struggle by workers and the union movement. He said, "While we are sorry for inconvenience to small businesses, we do not apologise for taking this action. If the big stevedoring companies are not happy with the situation then they need to get on the phone to their mates in the Howard government and make them get on behind a national code." Cain continued, "If anyone thinks this is the end of the campaign they're wrong, it's the beginning".
In its official statement the MUA Victorian branch said, "We rally together … to avenge the death of our brothers, but always with the intent of ensuring there are none to follow. We want this code of practice to be our comrades' legacy and inheritance for existing and future stevedoring workers on the Australian waterfront."