The Patricks battle 10 years on

April 19, 2008

This April is the 10th anniversary of the mass sacking of hundreds of waterside workers around Australia by the giant Patrick Stevedores. The drama surrounding this event stirred fierce passions, generated mass protests and polarised society on a scale seldom witnessed.

Ten years on, no-one can forget the images of snarling Rottweilers, scabs wearing balaclavas, massed police lines facing thousands of picketers, helicopters buzzing overhead and the human solidarity expressed week in and out at the gates of Patricks.

The lockout was deliberately engineered with the collusion of the Howard government, which was determined to break the strength of the waterside workers' union, the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA). The conspiracy initially involved the secret training of ex-army mercenaries in Dubai to replace Patrick's work force and ended weeks later with mass sackings.

In the major centres of Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and here in Fremantle the battlelines were vividly drawn at the gates of Patricks. Picket lines were set up for weeks on end, at times drawing thousands of supporters. They came from everywhere, from other unions and community groups, individuals and in groups.

At the same time the battle was played out in the highest law courts in the land, where eventually a decision was reached ordering Patricks, and its CEO Chris Corrigan, to reinstate its work force and to sit down with the MUA to settle the dispute.

It was a defeat for the Howard government and led to the political demise of the principal architect — minister for workplace relations Peter Reith. However their hatred of unions remained. If they couldn't break the unions 10 years ago, then-PM John Howard and his government drew up a new strategy, the hated Work Choices laws. What they couldn't win on the ground they would now attempt through legislation. The MUA was proud to help defeat the Howard government and is taking a stand against any remnant of Work Choices.

The aftermath of the Patricks dispute is still felt on the wharves. Despite the heavy defeat in attempting to sack the Patricks work force, stevedoring companies have introduced casualisation on a massive scale, which remains a sore point for many current waterside workers.

But the MUA remains strong, perhaps stronger than ever. The Western Australia branch has nearly doubled its membership in the past 10 years and we are proud of the fact that virtually 100% of wharfies belong to their union.

We have every reason to commemorate this anniversary.

But it was the bonds of solidarity forged in the battle that stand out even today, 10 years later. These are the lasting memories we share with the thousands of "ordinary" working people who rallied to the defence of the MUA and its members at Patricks. Ordinary people who showed courage in extraordinary times. Partners, family members, fellow unionists, retirees and pensioners — people from all walks of life that were horrified that the government and big business could treat workers as collateral in a push to maximise profits.

[Chris Cain is the WA branch secretary of the MUA.]

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