BY MARNIE KENNEDY AND RON POULSEN
MELBOURNE, Australia - Approaching the picket lines on the East Swanson Dock April 24, we were struck by the sight of barricades - an upturned shipping container and massive steel "sculptures" of crisscrossed railway tracks welded together. They had been constructed by picketing workers on the night of April 17, standing as a reminder of the confrontation when hundreds of police tried to intimidate and disperse thousands of peaceful protesters blocking the dock.
The picket camp here includes first aid, information, a kitchen, other tents and shacks, as well as a sound stage.
Defying cops and court orders, mass picket lines continue to block access to and from Patrick Stevedores' wharves across the country in support of sacked Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) members. The company dismissed its unionized workforce of 1,400 permanent and 700 casual workers April 7 - with the open backing of the Liberal-National coalition government of Prime Minister John Howard - and brought in nonunion labor.
On Thursday, April 23, a Federal Court upheld an earlier court order to reinstate all the sacked workers, known as wharfies. This was watched live on TV by millions and received with jubilation on the picket lines. A festive air permeated the picket lines all weekend, with unionists and other supporters and well-wishers "from every walk of life" coming and going, as Peter Blight, a sacked MUA member who has worked on the wharves since 1958, put it. More than 200 of the sacked wharfies at East Swanson staged a symbolic march April 25, flanked by similar numbers of supporters, up to the locked main gates of the Patrick terminal. Victorian Trades Hall Council secretary Leigh Hubbard told the crowd, "This dispute will be won here on the picket lines.... Court decisions do not solve industrial disputes.... Next election, make sure we get rid of this government!"
Immigrant Maori construction workers spent all that day preparing a hangi, a feast prepared in an earth oven, for the hundreds of pickets.
The standoff has continued, with the reinstatement order frozen while Patrick Stevedores appeals to the High Court. Peter Reith, federal minister for workplace relations, called reinstatement "unworkable." Prime Minister Howard said, "Court decisions will come and go but nothing will alter the determination of my government to reform Australia's waterfront."
Through these delaying tactics, as Blight said, "they've been trying to weaken our resolve but it's only got[ten] stronger." On April 23, the Labor shadow minister for transport, Lindsay Tanner, called on Howard to act on "one last chance to pull the nation back from the brink of a massive social confrontation."
National Farmers Federation president Donald McGauchie upped the ante April 20 by threatening to use farmers' trucks to bust through picket lines, saying all that was needed is "guts." Two days later, MUA national secretary John Coombs met with farmers representatives, at a meeting chaired by New South Wales Labor premier Robert Carr, and offered to allow containers with perishable farm products through the picket lines. A similar meeting was held a few days later in Fremantle. The National Party urged farmers to reject this offer in order to bust the MUA on the wharves.
In Brisbane, police waded into picket lines April 21, arresting and charging 184 people.
In a reflection of the pressure for wider action over the last week, the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) threatened industrial action in response to attacks on the right to picket. Doug Cameron from the ACTU national executive reported to the Port Botany picket line April 22 that the top union body had decided to "defy bad laws...as the African National Congress did in resisting apartheid in South Africa."
On the night of April 17, police attempted to break up the main picket line on the Melbourne docks, only to be met by swelling numbers of disciplined but determined protesters. Brendan Mooney, a builder's laborer from the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union, described how he and about 40 other CFMEU members had rushed from their nearby construction site to reinforce the wharfies' picket line. "The cops really tried to block us," he said. "They even had a helicopter, with a searchlight beamed on us. But nothing was going to stop us."
Doug Bailey, a young sacked MUA straddle carrier driver, described the impact on the picketing wharfies and their massed supporters of the arrival of thousands more building workers. With the reinforcements, Bailey said, he "went from hopeful to confident." The workers carried the day.
Reflecting the rulers' growing concern about prospects for the attempt to break the MUA, stocks have taken a dive at Lang Corporation, Patrick's parent company.
Despite court delays, determination on the picket lines remains as strong as ever. In Sydney on April 28, some 3,000 union delegates and activists met to discuss continued support for the MUA. May Day marches around the country are expected to have the biggest turnout in years.
Ron Poulsen is a member of the Textile, Clothing and
Footwear Union. Marnie Kennedy is a member of the Australian
Front page (for this issue) | Home | Text-version home