This year marks 20 years since the 1998 waterfront dispute—John Howard’s first attempt to break union power. Writing on the ten year anniversary, Mark Gillespie looks at the lessons.

In the middle of the night on April 7th 1998, security guards, some in balaclavas, emerged from rubber dinghies and buses with dogs and barbed wire, entered Patrick Stevedoring terminals across the country and escorted the night shift from the wharves.

Between 1400 and 2000 wharfies, all members of the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA), were abruptly sacked. “We were loading a ship, two gangs of workers, when security guards jumped on the moving cranes and grabbed the keys out of the ignition. The place was crawling with them, about 100 men and dogs,” said job delegate Jake Haub.

The wharfies’ jobs had been outsourced to the non-union company Producers and Consumers Stevedores (PCS), set up and funded by the National Farmers Federation (NFF) and staffed by primarily ex military personal. Patrick and the NFF had the full backing of the Howard government. “Our government promised it would fix up the waterfront…And we meant it…We will fully support employers who share our reform objective,” Peter Reith, the Workplace Relations Minister, told the Federal Parliament on 8 April. Behind Patrick stood the corporate media who did their best to demonise the wharfies as “overpaid bludgers”.

This was the most significant challenge to trade union power in Australia since the jailing of Victorian tramways union secretary Clarrie O’Shea in 1969. The Australian waterfront had been fully unionised since the 1950s and the MUA was at the heart of Australian trade union power. If they could smash the wharfies, they could do it to anyone!

How would the union movement respond? During the 1996 election campaign the ACTU National Secretary Bill Kelty warned of a massive industrial upheaval if the MUA was attacked. “If they want to fight, if they want a war, then we’ll have the full symphony, the full symphony, with all the pieces and all the clashes and all the music”.

The “full symphony”, however, never happened. The Workplace Relations Act introduced by the Liberal government in 1996 outlawed industry wide strikes and solidarity between unions and exposed unions to being sued for massive damages. The MUA, with backing from the ACTU, were determined to avoid breaking the law at all costs. When workers from Sydney’s P&O terminal walked off the jobs in solidarity with their Patrick counterparts, the MUA officials directed them to return to work.

The MUA’s strategy was to confine the dispute to Patrick; support the sacked workers financially; while fighting the legality of the dismissals in the courts.

Union supporters were told at a public meeting in Brisbane on 16 April to expect a long dispute that could take years. Even the pickets, which later developed into mass blockades, were meant to be “community pickets”, peaceful and within the law. Trucks could be approached but not hindered. In Queensland union leaders even went so far as to approach the police to ensure they had “sufficient” numbers at the wharves to keep the peace.

This timid response was a great relief to Patrick and the government. Two national strikes in September 1993 and November 1995 had demonstrated the enormous power of the MUA as a whole flotilla of ships soon assembled outside every port in the country and ground the national economy to a halt. Although there was widespread public and industrial support for the wharfies’ fight, the new laws successfully intimidated the MUA from taking such action. The value of Patrick shares climbed by 30 per cent in the first week of the dispute as the employers celebrated.

The employers confidence grew even higher on 12 April when the Australian Endeavour, an MUA crewed ship, berthed at Patrick’s Port Botany terminal in Sydney and was serviced by scab labour without retaliatory action. This was the first ship serviced by non-union labour on the Sydney waterfront since the 1930s and Peter Reith interrupted his Easter break to gloat, describing it as a “decisive and historic moment”.

The mass pickets at the docks were key to stopping the attempt to break the MUA

But the employers were celebrating the demise of the MUA too soon. Just one month later the MUA workers marched triumphantly back to work while the scabs were dumped. An ABC radio broadcast captured this historic moment:

“It’s great scenes of excitement here, as now they’re standing at the gate. And we’re hearing the chant-‘The Workers United, Will Never Be Defeated’. They’re moving very slowly through the gates, no doubt, just savouring the moment…”

The MUA made enormous concessions to get its members back inside the gate—more than 600 full time jobs were lost, some delegates were never re-employed, take home pay was cut through the annualisation of salaries; maintenance, cleaning and security and other jobs were outsourced; while a productivity based bonus system was introduced.

It was none the less a significant political victory considering the catastrophic defeat they faced. The Australian waterfront today remains fully unionised.

How was the MUA able to claw its way back onto the docks? It’s become almost folklore amongst union leaders and others that the dispute was won in the courts. The ABC dramatization of the dispute Bastard Boys, for example, focuses almost exclusively on the courtroom drama while Terry Evans from the Queensland Teachers Union, for example, concludes; “The Maritime Union dispute was won in the media and in the courts without involving industrial action”.

The problem with this version is that it writes out of history the importance of the militant mass picketing that shut down every Patrick terminal in the country. The MUA did win favorable decisions in the courts, but these decisions were only possible because of the solidarity of thousands of trade unionists, joining MUA members on picket lines in defiance of the law.

Picket line justice

The MUA’s legal argument was simple. Under the Workplace Relations Act it was illegal to sack workers for being in a union. Patrick attempted to get around this law with an elaborate and secret corporate restructure.

The Patrick workforce were restructured into ‘in house’ labour hire firms whose only asset were contracts to supply labour to the Patrick mother company. When the MUA engaged in legal industrial action in pursuit of a new enterprise agreement, this was the trigger for the Patrick mother company to simply cancel these contracts, leaving these companies with no income or assets and placed into receivership.

The MUA produced evidence that this restructure was phoney and was done for no other reason than to injure the workers—an illegal act. The MUA’s legal arguments were watertight but the weakness was the judges weren’t compelled to order reinstatement. They could just as easily have ruled that the workers should be compensated. Such action would have effectively allowed Patrick to pay to get rid of the union.

This is why the pickets were crucial. By blockading the Patrick terminals until the workers were reinstated, the picketers took the compensation option off the table.

The authorities knew how important the picket lines were and tried desperately to break them. Patrick received court injunctions in three states restricting the pickets. But the workers not only defied the court orders, but also the police who came to enforce them. In Sydney they faced mass arrests. In Fremantle they faced police with riot shields and batons, but still held their ground.

The most dramatic battle, and a turning point in the dispute, occurred at Melbourne’s East Swanston dock, one of Australia’s biggest container terminals. To break the picket here would have been a demoralising blow for workers everywhere. Patrick, too, thought they could rely on Jeff Kennett, the right wing Liberal Party Premier with a reputation for being tough on unions and demonstrators.

On 16 April, the Melbourne Port Corporation obtained an injunction banning the MUA from obstructing the Corporation’s land. The government began talking tough with the Police Minister, Bill McGrath, warning of a “bloody battle”. Rumours circulated that a police crack down was imminent as hundreds of police began assembling at the dock.

The trade unionists, however, were not intimidated. Barricades—dubbed a community art project—were assembled across the entrance using old car bodies, containers, welded railway lines and more. More than 4000 protesters stood determined that night to defend the barricades.

At four in the morning, police began lining up at the gate as a helicopter circled above constantly shining a light on the picket. The phone lines ran hot and more MUA supporters headed to the docks. At 5.30am a Police Inspector informed the crowd that they were trespassing and it seemed the confrontation was on.

But it was all over at 8am. A march of 2000 construction workers arrived to reinforce the picket, sandwiching the police between the construction workers and the picket line. The cops “reconsidered” and beat a hasty retreat. This was the last serious attempt to use force to break the MUA pickets.

This was a crucial turning point in the dispute. The authorities knew it would take massive force to remove the blockade, force which they weren’t prepared to use in fear of provoking wider industrial action. A Melbourne delegates meeting had already voted for industrial action if the picket was removed.

These were the “facts on the ground” as judges in Federal Court and later the High Court deliberated. Patrick was shut and the authorities had lost the will to try to smash the picket lines. The courts had no option but to order reinstatement pending a full trial.

But the courts were no friends of workers. They ordered Patrick to cancel its labour supply contacts with PCS and re-engage the Patrick shelf companies, but they didn’t order Patrick to reverse the sham restructure.

These shelf companies were still technically insolvent and whether or not they continued to trade was in the hands of the administrators—effectively forcing the MUA to negotiate with a gun to its head. MUA leaders even instructed wharfies to work for nothing during negotiations to prevent the administrators from liquidating the firms.

This gave Chris Corrigan an enormous advantage that allowed him to extract massive concessions and ultimately benefit from his illegal activity. Corrigan still crows about the productivity increases he won from the dispute.

Lessons for today

It’s important to draw out the right lessons. While the union was not smashed and the 1998 dispute was a great political victory against the Howard government, it was an industrial defeat that still has repercussions for the union movement.

This was not a victory for the model of community campaigning. It was the courage and determination of ordinary workers who defied the law, shutting Patrick down which made this victory possible. Using the industrial power of the wharfies backed with union solidarity action could have won much more.

Some unions did take unprotected industrial action to support the MUA and in spite of threats, no union was fined or sued.

Had the unions used the “full symphony”, not only would the MUA workers have got their jobs back with full conditions, but the anti-union laws would have been made obsolete.

Unfortunately that has not been the lesson most union leaders have drawn. They put the victory down to the MUA’s strategy of “boxing clever”, avoiding industrial action and using the media and the courts.

While the government did not resort to open confrontation again, they did proceed to introduce more and more draconian anti-union legislation (culminating in WorkChoices), gutting awards, banning strike action, cutting allowances, and favouring individual contracts and non-union agreements.

But it was the “community campaign” model of the MUA dispute that informed the ACTU’s strategy in the fight against WorkChoices, and does so again today in the Change the Rules campaign. Industrial action was avoided while millions of dollars were spent on TV commercials and getting Labor elected.

Labor’s “Fair Work Act” introduced in 2009 maintained most of the Liberals’ anti-union laws. Unions still can’t legally strike to support one another; pattern bargaining is illegal; industrial action remains illegal outside bargaining periods; there is still ‘prohibited content’ in agreements; not all workers have access to unfair dismissals laws; and the draconian Australian Building and Construction Commission still stalks the building industry. For unions to fight effectively, these restrictions will have to be broken.

The MUA strike shows that the law can successfully be defied and reminds us that the power of workers is not in the ballot box or the courts, but at the point of production. As Rosa Luxemburg wrote in 1918, “Where the chains of capitalism are forged, there they must be broken.”