Australian Wharfies - What are the Lessons? [July 1998]

The fight of 1400 Aussie Wharfies locked out by Patrick’s Stevedores has led to some losses and some gains for the labour movement. What are the lessons?

Round one: Dubai debacle

The port of Dubai was planned to be used for the training and development of a scab workforce. The scab workforce was to be recruited and to be trained through ‘Fynwest company’. The plan was to recruit through advertisements in military magazines, and train serving and former army officers as scab labour on the waterfront.

The Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) found out about this plan in December 1997, and stopped it through threat of international boycott. The International Transport Federation (ITF) threatened to boycott the port of Dubai as a whole, and the port backed off allowing scabs to be trained.

The chief executive of Patrick stevedores, Mr Chris Corrigan admitted in February he masterminded the Dubai affair. Ian MacLachlan, the Defence Minister disclaims any knowledge of serving military personnel being employed by a private company. Prime Minister Howard has disclaimed all responsibility,.. or knowledge of the whole affair. Minister for Workplace Relations, Mr Reith, said that he had no knowledge of the Dubai training scheme. He has also said his staff had no knowledge of the plan.

The ABC revealed that Mr Harris, has bought the Fynwest company and was offering it and its documents for sale. "The documentation I have clearly indicates the government official was aware of all the activities of Fynwest, Container Management Services and Patrick stevedoring from before June last year," he said.

In a sworn affidavit Mike Wells of Fynwest, claims a Government adviser (Dr Stephen Webster) rang him about the exercise last July. Dr Stephen Webster, was last year a consultant on waterfront reform, and is now an adviser to Workplace Relations Minister, Peter Reith. Mike Wells says Dr Stephen Webster, told him he was doing a "special job" for the Prime Minister. Passports for the scab-recruits were arranged by the Prime Ministers Office.

Round two: PCS Stevedoring.

When the Dubai plan was blown open the government, with the National Farmers Federation (NFF) tried to hire a few experienced waterfront workers, to train the scab workers they wanted.

The National Farmers Federation gained access to the ports through the PCS Stevedoring leasing Webb Dock from Patrick. This move was timed to be simultaneous with the night time operation which raided the ports and installed private security and locked out/ made redundant, the 1400 Patrick waterside workers. This allowed them to start training scab labour for the waterfront. Those workers, although poorly trained, have had direct experience as scab labour. Behind the picket lines they have loaded and unloaded the ships that docked. This scab labour from the National Farmers Federation company, PCS Stevedoring is still waiting in the wings.

Round three: Corporate stripping

A restructuring last september(1997) shifted almost $300 million worth of assets into other legal entities within the Patrick group, leaving the ‘labour’ companies with a mountain of debt and no assets.

The syndicate of seven banks led by Citibank is owed more than $130 million by Patrick Stevedores. The money was secured against hard assets they owned. Events such as this ‘restructure’ normally would have banking syndicates threatening legal action and moving to protect their security. But they were strangely quiet.

The MUA’s John Coombs accused the banks of being involved in a "conspiracy" with Patrick and the Government to break the MUA. Public funds were critical to making the companies viable, as the corporate restructure left them with no funds to pay for redundancies.

Patrick restructured and became simply a ‘labour-hire’ company. It was placed in the hands of ‘specialist’ administrators. These administrators mission is to ‘keep alive’ a company which has been stripped of all it’s assets -it’s capital base. This mission is ridiculous and sets them up to attack the permanent workforce, to make redundancies and slash wages and conditions.

Round four: the show legal side

Patrick has sworn to break the MUA. Its boss, Corrigan has promised to bankrupt the MUA through court actions. For the MUA to compete on an equal footing with Patrick, it would have to restructure itself in order to sidestep the legal challenges. To protect the actions of it’s officials and members they would have to be put out of reach of the law in another organisation.

MUA lawyers have alleged conspiracy between Patrick, the farmers and the Government to break the union. "The union will be pursuing massive damages as a consequence of this conspiracy."

When the MUA was locked out, and responded immediately with pickets, Patrick and the courts tried to smother the union with injunctions against picketing. However mass workers pickets defied the injunctions. Mass pickets out numbered police by heaps, and the cops had to back down.

After the threat of a nation-wide general strike, judges began to decide in favour of the MUA.

Unless we let it, a court order can't decide the struggle. The solidarity of teachers, construction workers, miners, nurses and other workers shows that unity in the class struggle is more powerful than law.

Round five: Mass Pickets

Workers defied the Workplace Relations Act, built union solidarity, and mobilised families and communities for support. United working-class-led solidarity and action as displayed in the last three months has faced down vicious attacks from the company thugs, and the state’s cops. There is no denying that united workers who were prepared to fight back successfully defended picket lines.

700 farmers resigned in protest of the actions of the NFF and gave their dues to the MUA defence fund. Farmers have joined the union pickets, bringing them food and donations.

The Sydney Morning Herald reported the "biggest May Day" in years in Sydney and towns throughout Australia. Workers and their organisations rallied to support the wharfies.

In Newcastle the Maritime Union (MUA) says Patrick’s is responsible for the delay in unloading the Bay Bonanza, in Newcastle. Patrick has sub-contracted P&O to handle the ship, and shut its workers out. Patrick employees are picketing to defend their jobs. P&O workers have refused to cross the picket line.

Patrick management has blacklisted three workers in Townsville. The local MUA members have refused to unload a ship carrying 500 cars.

Round six: International solidarity.

Scab loaded ships have been met by union & community protests, all around the world. Several ships have been delayed in New Guinea. The CGM Gauguin has been diverted from Bombay.

We hear that the scab loaded ship, the ‘Columbus Canada’, continues to anchor off Long Beach, Los Angeles. It attempted to berth on Saturday and was met by a 1500 strong community picket. The picket at the Matson terminal in Los Angeles continues while the Columbus Canada is anchored off shore. Community and union activists have also been alerted at other ports on the West Coast of the U.S.A., to mobilise community protests if any scabs ships attempt to dock and unload.

Propaganda war.

Howard’s government has consistently taken up and tired to spread the propaganda, that Australian workers have been lazy, inefficient, and ripping off the ‘system’ (rorting). They have tried to spread these myths through any means possible. They have kept up a steady production of ‘expert reports’ on the ‘in’-efficiency of the Australian waterfront.

However waterfront productivity is higher than claimed by the Government. An international report prepared for potential port investors says that Australia container rates are slow compared with other countries because ships unload less cargo at each dock, stopping at several ports, instead of just one. If we take into consideration the type of port, Australian productivity levels are relatively high. Singapore or Hong Kong unload all of the cargo of a ship at the one port. They can shift 25-30 containers per hour. In comparison, Australian ports only unload part of a ship at each port, on average 16 to 20 containers moved per hour.

In Australia, the ports are owned by private capitalists. As a consequence, the development of ports in Australia has not been planned. The standards of maintenance are low, with more delays caused through mechanical faults. Private capitalists are interested in profits, which does not always mean investing their capital in the latest technology. During this very public propaganda war, the Howard government wanted a scab workforce, and they have proven that they are willing to do anything to get scab workers.

A struggle against the ruling class

The response of the Australian ruling class to the deepening world capitalist crisis has been an offensive against the organised workers of Australia.

The loss of the Australian Labor Party and the installation of this Howard coalition government has brought open attacks on the working class. While the Australian Labor party did not protect the interests of workers against the international capitalist class, the Howard government campaigned, and promised outright attacks upon workers organisations, and on the working class in general.

Prime Minister John Howard's right-wing government began its offensive by giving capitalists legal ammunition. They introduced a ‘Workplace Relations Act’(1996), which strips workers of powers to unite to strike, and gives the state new powers to bankrupt unions through court penalties. This act is parallel to the Employment Contracts Act(ECA) here in NZ. It prohibits union solidarity under threat of multimillion-dollar fines. An International Labour Organisation (ILO) judicial committee has previously criticised the Australian Governments Workplace Relations Act. (Similarly these toothless UN "labour" bureaucrats have also criticised the ECA.)

Australia's government had planned and continues a ruling-class offensive against organised workers. Mr Howard has said "I don't have any regrets about anything the Government has done", in relation to his attacks on the MUA. Separately, the "Workplace Relations Minister", Reith moved to step up pressure on the MUA accusing the union of making an agreement which was in breach of the WRA. Mr Reith has also referred the shipping accord between the MUA and the New Zealand Seafarers Union to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission for investigation.

The Australian Labor party supported the strike and "waterfront reform" meaning they want to attack the wharfies by peaceful means through bureaucratic co-operation.

In Australia the capitalist ruling class have been actively using the laws, the police and the courts to attack the MUA workers and to legalise their attacks on the working class. The Labor party’s normal methods of making bureaucratic alliances with capitalism, has resulted in labour leaders selling out workers. All of this is further proof that the state is fundamentally a capitalist state.

The Howard coalition will try again, and due to the isolation of unions, the balance of force is on the side of the ruling class.

Trade union leadership

The MUA and Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) leadership has pursued a legal strategy which has depended on court victory. This strategy follows their idea that Patrick’s boss Corrigan, is a bad capitalist.

The MUA officials were boasting that they will co-operate boosting productivity on the waterfront (an improvement of 247% according to their leaflet) and how that they have co-operated in reducing the level of the workforce. They concede that about 500 will have to be laid off and appeared to be willing to co-operate. This shows the officials are willing to co-operate with "good" capitalists.

The Union officials also boast of their co-operation with police and are totally oblivious to any attack by the state. Australian workers have not faced the full force of the state upon them. They have not had the experience of military attacks, which would develop the need for workers defence squads, and the arming of the working class (see the article on the Bolivian General strike).

Union officials have prepared some solidarity, but because of the Workplace Relations Act which outlaws secondary boycotts the ACTU has not done this actively and openly. The Transport Workers Union (TWU) has supported the community pickets, and not crossed them. The AWU told a picket line rally that the overwhelming majority of their members support a general strike.

While the MUA leadership act narrowly firstly in preservation of their own union organisation and jobs and secondly on behalf of their own membership. They neglect the fact that this is first and foremost a class struggle. The pickets have been spirited, however the MUA has not tried to break scab workers and has discouraged workers and activists who do. The MUA has held the mass pickets off the docks, which could have been re occupied by the working class.

The ACTU has held back calls for a general strike, but was forced into a one day general strike in Sydney. The actions of union officials show how they hold back and limit the working class struggle. They are the labour lieutenants, partners with capitalism.

Nobody won! But it's not over yet!

The bosses wanted, and got a scab workforce trained. They are continuing to force redundancies and concessions from the MUA. They have the backing of their own laws, the WRA. They have successfully mobilised the ruling class against the MUA, by blaming the disruptions to other capitalists on the picket line action of the MUA.

The Union kept it’s jobs. The members, well they "returned to work", but for most of them Patrick is still able to ‘restructure’ their jobs out of existence.

The working class mobilised in defence of the MUA workers. The working class communities proved to itself that we can build mass pickets, and we can overwhelmingly out-number the cops at short notice. The gains of strength in (behind the scenes) workers organisation are the most important gains for workers. But they will evaporate unless the big lessons are learned by the 'left'.

Revolutionary leadership.

"MUA here to stay" "The workers united will never be defeated"

The role of the left has basically been to support the MUA. The Socialist Alternative are closely identified with the union bureaucracy. International Socialist Organisation(ISO) has at least been prepared to attack the leadership court strategy. But all they argue is that effective picketing can win. Which is all their New Zealand branch, the Socialist Workers Organisation (SWO) can do.

The chanting going on is not analysis of the MUA struggle. Unless you think that the struggle can be won without a break from the union bureaucracy and within the framework of defence of national capitalism ‘Australia First’. Those workers who have a privileged position to defend, may believe so.

Working class spontaneity cannot provide the solution, a revolutionary vanguard is necessary.

The tactics that are needed are working class international rank-and-file solidarity that is expressed in mass illegal pickets. Workers in Australia have entered this road, but have been held back by the leadership and the nationalist fiction of the "good" (Australian) capitalist who will give them a "fair go".

To be effective unionists in the US and NZ for example, must use the mass illegal pickets to bring the production and distribution of scab labour to a dead halt. The revolutionary left must expose the reformist union leadership by encouraging workers to take the next step. Union officials will be shown up when they refuse to act on the rank-and-file demands. This will raise the question of class rule, but without a serious revolutionary leadership, such struggles will be contained by the bureaucracy and won by the bosses.

Form rank-and-file strike committees!

International Mass Pickets against Scab ships!

For indefinite strike action!

Prepare for a General Strike!

Build a new Leninist-Trotskyist Party!

From Class Struggle No 22 June-July 1998

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