Struggle continues as wharfies return to work

May 13, 1998

By James Vassilopoulos

After a month of mass pickets, wharfies are back at work at the major Patrick operations, following the Maritime Union of Australia's win in the High Court. Mick O'Leary, national organiser of the MUA, told Green Left Weekly that the verdict "was a substantial win not only for us but also for the trade union movement as a whole".

But O'Leary added, "We are not even half way through this dispute yet".

Patrick has so far refused to resume operations at seven ports.

Six judges of the High Court ordered that the MUA members be reinstated. The court ordered "the restoration of the labour supply agreements that were in force before April 7, 1998, if the administrators decide to resume trading".

However, the court also weakened the orders that Justice Tony North had given in the Federal Court. The majority judgment said, "It is a very different thing to fetter the discretion of the administrators (and of the creditors) in the exercise of the powers they possess under the Corporations Law".

In other words, the court resolved that the wharfies' future employment would be subject to the administrators' judgment of the commercial viability of the Patrick "labour hire" outfits.

The Howard government and Patrick boss Chris Corrigan have sought to sabotage the court's decisions. On May 7, as the wharfies were triumphantly walking through the gates, Corrigan black-listed 25 MUA members in Sydney, Brisbane and Townsville and slapped a two-page security protocol on the wharfies. The situation of the 25 will be taken up in the Industrial Relations Commission.

Earlier in the day, Corrigan had notified the administrators that he had given 14 days' notice to end the labour-hire agreement, because the wharfies were not yet at work. The MUA was trying to remove the security firm that ambushed the wharfies on the night of April 7.

Corrigan later withdrew the notice when the MUA adjourned its Federal Court appeal against the presence of the guards.

Spin doctors at work

The federal government has decided to brazen out its loss in the courts. Workplace relations minister Peter Reith even sought to portray the return-to-work conditions imposed by the High Court as a victory, urging the administrators to consider hiring non-union labour!

The establishment media have been waging their own campaign to undermine the MUA victories on the picket lines and in the courts. The May 6 editorial of the Australian Financial Review stated, "The administrators need to cull several hundred of the 2000 under-utilised MUA members ... the administrators should seek to weaken the union monopoly by simply outsourcing to private contractors."

The May 5 editorial of the Sydney Morning Herald said, "The main effect of yesterday's ruling ... is not to make it any more certain that all 1,400 affected MUA workers will be back at work at the Patrick docks".

The editorial in the May 5 Australian stated that the High Court judgment is "potentially so advantageous that it could have been part of the Government's game plan all along", and "the administrators of Patrick have the power to determine the immediate future of the union and non-union workers on the waterfront".

'Bankruptcy' threat

Such opinions rest on two basic arguments: that the union has no choice but to negotiate away wages, conditions and jobs because the four Patrick labour-hire companies are virtually bankrupt; and that the administrators are omnipotent in determining the fate of the companies.

Neither of these arguments is true. Firstly, the bankruptcy of the front-companies is totally artificial. Seven months ago, Patrick drained $60-70 million from them through share buybacks, a fact noted in the High Court judgment. In addition, an estimated $315 million in assets was stripped from the labour-hire companies to pay off debts supposedly owed to other Patrick companies. Patrick itself valued what the stripped assets were worth.

Justice North's orders never went as far as forcing Patrick to put back all the cash and assets it shifted from the companies.

For the year ended September 30, 1996, three of the labour-hire companies made combined profits of $36,696,285. Patrick must be made to return the cash and assets to the labour-hire companies, and the books of all the Patrick companies and subsidiaries should be opened up to the workers to see what the real transactions were.

The other tactic to claw back the victories of the MUA is to state that the administrators can now call the shots. Using the sacred stones of corporation law, they are supposedly free to hire non-union workers, blackmail the MUA into accepting redundancies and, under a "deed of arrangement", set out the conditions under which they think the companies can trade viably.

But the independence of the administrators, Peter Brook and Bill Butterell, is a fiction. Firstly, their company, Grant Thorton, was chosen by Patrick.

Secondly, while they are meant to be independent of the government, Butterell is quoted in the Financial Review of May 5 as saying, "If we can get the deed [of arrangement] up and running, what would probably happen is that there would be a period of time where we as administrators might be given the role of ensuring that the Patrick group — if that's the way it works out — were complying with the benchmarks that the government wanted."

Enterprise bargaining

Now that the wharfies are back at work, the terrain of the struggle will shift to the enterprise bargaining agreement. According to O'Leary, the MUA has not yet worked out its position on enterprise bargaining.

Asked if the MUA was prepared to work with scab labour, O'Leary stated, "This was not a requirement of the High Court decision, so we do not have to address it at the moment".

The Coalition government, through its proposed $250 million fund financed by a levy on all containers, is planning redundancies. O'Leary said no wharfie would consider taking a package until all workers are back at work. Then, through negotiations, "A voluntary departure package may be agreed to".

O'Leary also stated that 1500 permanent, part-time and casual wharfies had all got their jobs back, but the other 500 were administrative workers. Only the wharfies were covered by the court orders.

The next key date is the next meeting of Patrick creditors, set for May 25. Here the administrators may try to put forward a deed of arrangement that includes many job losses or even liquidation of the companies.

This is why it is vital that other workers and unionists still organise support for the wharfies. Also, as the wharfies have deferred their wages, financial support is also crucial.

The huge success of the May 6 Victorian Trades Hall Council rally and stoppage shows that the trade union movement has the strength to beat back the next phase in the Howard-Reith offensive against the MUA.

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