The Militant(logo) 
    Vol.62/No.20           May 25, 1998 
Triumphant Workers Return To Australia Docks  

SYDNEY, Australia - At 9:30 p.m. on May 7 more than 500 supporters, including members of many different unions, families, and students, lined the street leading to the main gate at Patrick's Port Botany terminal in Sydney. Banners declared "Victory to the Workers!" The crowd chanted, "MUA, Here to Stay!" as wharfies, returning to work one month after being sacked, walked on a red carpet through the gates.

Earlier that evening, at 6 p.m., a large crowd of supporters cheered as Australian Council of Trade Unions president Jennie George led the first workers through the gates at Patrick's East Swanson Dock in Melbourne.

The crowd at Sydney's Port Botany was addressed by Maritime Union of Australia New South Wales Branch Secretary Robert Coombs, who explained that while the return to work is a real victory for the union, the fight is far from over. He said that Patrick continues to act aggressively, putting obstacles in the way of the union.

Earlier that day MUA officials agreed to halt moves in the Federal Court to have Patrick security guards removed from the docks. Instead, an agreement was struck with Patrick requiring the guards, who used batons and dogs to forcibly remove the unionists on April 7, to remain a safe distance from the returning workers.

Patrick has labeled some 25 workers "unsuitable," accusing them of threatening terminal bosses and their families. They have been blocked from returning to work. The list includes wharfies from Townsville, Brisbane, and Sydney. The MUA is fighting to have them reinstated.

A backlog of 10,000 containers at Patrick's terminals are testament to the effectiveness of the picket lines during the month-long dispute. The bulk of the containers are on the docks in Sydney and Melbourne.

"Ships are turning around pretty quickly," Peter Blight, an MUA member at Patrick's East Swanson Dock, told the Militant after a few days back at work. "The biggest problem, as it always has been, is management. They're pinpricking us-but the attitude of the workers is buoyant." He described conditions when he returned to work: "The lockers had all been broken into and a lot of personal things stolen." The departing scabs had done a lot of damage to the cranes and other equipment, "anything to slow us down," he said. Patrick was forced to remove its scabs prior to reinstating MUA members to their jobs.

In Newcastle and Port Adelaide wharfies are back on the picket lines. Patrick has announced that seven of its terminals including Newcastle and Adelaide would remain closed. The disputes in those two ports are over ships that Patrick has subcontracted to the largest stevedoring company in Australia, CTAL, a subsidiary of P&O Ports. MUA members who work for P&O have joined the picket lines.

P&O Ports currently controls 70 percent of the workload across Australia's wharves-up from 55 percent prior to the dispute. Enterprise agreement negotiations between the MUA and P&O were due to start on May 11, with the bosses demanding massive job cuts and work-practice changes.

Further fallout from the fight waged by the MUA and supporters has been the release to the press of documents that tie Patrick's chairman, Christopher Corrigan, and the office of Workplace Relations Minister Peter Reith to the attempt last year to train Australian ex-military personnel in Dubai to be strikebreakers on the wharves.

When the Dubai scheme failed, nonunion labor was introduced on Melbourne's Webb Dock by an outfit set up by the National Farmers Federation (NFF). On May 10 a dozen farmers from East Gippsland, Victoria, drove down to an MUA barbecue at Webb Dock to donate 200 kilos of meat in solidarity with the wharfies and to show their opposition to the antiunion actions of the NFF.

Up to 100,000 people led by sacked Patrick workers and other members of the MUA marched in Melbourne on May 6 in solidarity with the MUA and in opposition to the Howard government. This was the biggest union march since 1992 protests against the Victoria state government's antiunion laws.

Workers from more than 50 unions staging a one-day statewide strike joined the rally with banners supporting the wharfies, like "Meatworkers support the MUA." Many at the rally were workers who had been or are currently involved in fights against their own bosses. A number of rank-and-file unionists addressed the crowd and spoke of attacks on cleaners, teachers, and public sector workers.

At the rally an official of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union called for construction workers to strike on May 20 in defense of their conditions, against the Howard government's industrial relations policy, and in support of the MUA.

The Melbourne protest was another confirmation of the widespread support for the MUA. At the picket line on Melbourne's Webb Dock, Paul, an MUA mechanic with 21 years' service who did not want his surname used, explained, "The government and employers weren't counting on [the MUA getting] much community support. They thought they'd go in quickly and get a moral win. The attack on the MUA is not the political winner Howard thought it was going to be. He thought he could do a Margaret Thatcher and say he busted the MUA," Paul continued, referring to the former prime minister of Britain. "But he's shot himself in the foot. This has strengthened the union movement. This dispute has cemented a lot of people's camaraderie. They know they'll never break us because we've been toe to toe on the picket line with each other."

U.S. dock workers, members of the International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union, refused May 9 to handle a ship loaded by Patrick's scabs in Australia. Some 1,500 longshoremen and supporters joined a picket line at Los Angeles's Matson terminal (see photo story on page 15). As of May 11, the ship was still sitting in the harbor with its cargo of frozen meat and other products, as union members refused to unload it.

Linda Harris is a member of the Australian Manufacturing Workers' Union. Malcolm McAllister in Auckland, New Zealand, and Ron Poulsen in Sydney contributed to this article.  
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