‘MUA: Here to stay!’ remembered at May Day dinner

May 14, 2023
Dave Ball, Assistant Secretary of the Victorian Branch of the MUA, speaks about the Patricks' dispute. Photo: Sarah Hathway

One of the most significant battles in recent working-class history was remembered at the annual May Day dinner to support Green Left at Geelong Trades Hall on May 6.

Twenty-five years ago, on May 7, 1998, Maritime Union of Australia members around the country marched back to work, chanting “MUA! Here to Stay!” They had just won one of the most significant battles against Patrick Stevedores, which was supported by the union-busting John Howard Coalition government.

Seventy people heard stories from the dispute from six Socialist Alliance members, who were either MUA members, or picket line participants and Green Left journalists, at the Melbourne and Sydney pickets.

The Patrick dispute began at Webb dock in Melbourne in January 1998 when the National Farmers Federation leased the port and trained strike-breaking scabs to replace port workers who had gone on strike.

In a rapid escalation, Patrick Stevedores locked out 2000 waterside workers on April 7: they were “escorted” from their workplace by balaclava-wearing thugs and dogs.

The MUA, with the support of other unions and community members in Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne and Fremantle, set up picket lines. Some were savagely attacked by police.

Thousands of people, horrified by Howard and Patrick’s tactics, supported the pickets. Sue Bolton, now a Merri-bek Councillor, and Tim Gooden, formerly Geelong Trades Hall secretary, recalled their time on the Sydney picket lines.

Perhaps the most famous picket was at the East Swanston Dock. MUA member Ross Smith recalled how, on April 17, 4000 picketers linked arms all night facing down 1000 police.

Mick Bull, a member of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union at the time, recalled how 2000 building workers, led by the legendary John Cummins, surrounded police, forcing them to make a hasty retreat.

This broke the back of the boss’s campaign.

Justice North of the Federal Court finally ruled on April 21 that Patrick had deliberately restructured with the sole intention of dismissing its unionised workforce. This was illegal, and the ruling was upheld by the High Court after Patrick challenged it.

The MUA had won but in the ensuing months there was much disquiet about the industrial outcomes as about 1000 jobs were lost and casualisation led to reductions in working conditions and pay.

Dave Ball, Assistant Secretary of the Victorian Branch of the MUA, told the dinner that despite everything, the struggle was a magnificent display of solidarity by thousands of brave supporters — across Australia and internationally — and that this is why the MUA is, victoriously, here to stay.

The dinner marked the wonderful role Green Left played throughout the dispute, when dozens of comrades wrote from every picket line and solidarity event.

Bronwyn Jennings, who was a university student at the time, recalled how the 750-strong Asia Pacific Solidarity Conference, which was meeting in Gadi/Sydney at the time, marched down to the Darling Harbour picket on April 13. The sacked workers welcomed the international solidarity with their struggle.

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