The Historic MUA Struggle
by Anna Pha
This article is based on a report by Anna Pha to the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Australia on May 23, 1998
The attack on the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) is part of an all-out, world-wide offensive by capital against the working class.
In Australia, productivity bargaining, massive reductions in workforces, bench-marking and various other employer-driven measures to intensify exploitation and maximise profits have been foisted on unions. In many instances, there was little resistance and even co-operation for quite a long period of time. In the eyes of the employers, the union movement was weaker than in former days.
Under propagandist slogans intended to help force workers to submit to the employers’ agenda, slogans such as “reform”, “world’s best practice”, “competition” and “productivity”, an environment was built up in which conflict and confrontation were presented as evil and undesirable. Class struggle should be replaced by “harmonious relations” (in reality class collaboration) between unions and employers. Trade union membership declined sharply in this period. The MUA remained one of the few where 100 per cent trade union membership prevailed.
In the 1980s and early 90s, there were some serious attacks on the union movement such as Mudginberri, Robe River, SEQEB and Dollar Sweets. However, the unions were not destroyed, the award system remained intact, and individual contracts did not spread widely.
In this period, the New Right developed, taking over the leadership of the National Farmers’ Federation (NFF) and coming to the fore in the Liberal and National Parties. Leading New Right figures such as Ian McLachlan, Peter Reith, Peter Costello and David and Rod Kemp are now Federal Government Ministers.
When Peter Reith became Workplace Relations Minister, he declared war on the union movement and identified four industries for “reform” and four unions for destruction – meat, building and construction, maritime and miners.
The Government and employers targetted what they saw as the strongest points of the union movement rather than starting with the weakest. If they could knock off the strong, the rest, they believed, would be easy.
The Workplace Relations Act and amendments to the Trades Practices Act were introduced. Targetting the MUA, the Howard Government spent $1.2 million on consultants for advice on how to destroy the union, de-unionise the waterfront and abolish award conditions and all the gains won in a century of struggle.
A master plan was mapped out. Patrick Stevedores and P&O (the other major stevedoring company) were consulted and involved. P&O was not prepared to sack its workforce since its large shipping line would suffer from international solidarity action that would inevitably follow de-unionisation. But P&O did join in the discussions with the Government and recently opened a second front in the war against waterside workers with demands for massive retrenchments and changes on the waterfront.
The first blow using the new laws was struck against the miners at Rio Tinto’s Hunter Valley No 1 mine. Rio Tinto’s objectives were clear: de-unionisation and individual contracts. The CFMEU Mining Division fought a tactical struggle, avoiding breaking the new laws and preventing the dispute spreading to other mines or other unions.
This was a marked change from past struggles in which the principle of “one out, all out” was the norm with other mines taking solidarity actions and other unions becoming involved by not crossing picket lines, refusing to load coal on the docks, etc.
These new tactics, adopted in response to the new legislation, caused concern among some union members. However, they trusted their leadership and endorsed its recommendations. Rio Tinto has not achieved its objectives.
New legal framework
The new tactics were dictated by the new draconian legislation governing labour-capital relations. There has been a shift from industrial law to corporate and common law. Reith’s legislation is relegating the Industrial Relations Commission (IRC) which could take into account economic implications and could conciliate and arbitrate.
Almost all the court hearings in the MUA dispute have not been in the IRC but in the Supreme and High Courts where the nature of hearings and decisions are significantly different and legal costs are extremely high, with some lawyers costing $10,000 a day.
The Government’s changes have put labour-capital relations on a commercial footing, based on the idea of a contract between two parties: one selling labour and the other buying it. Workers are assumed to have the same rights as BHP, Rio Tinto or Patrick Stevedores. The new situation actually pits an individual worker against his or her employer (unless they have trade union backing) as though the two have the same ability to access courts if the other party breaches the contract.
Conciliation and arbitration, which has operated for over 90 years, has been replaced by a system based on injunctions, damages actions, sequestration of assets, fines, deregistration and jail penalties. Unions, their individual members and officials can be sued for millions of dollars and face the threat of losing homes, savings – everything.
Secondary boycotts, such as solidarity actions by other unions in support of striking workers, are illegal. Truck drivers refusing to cross pickets or workers and their unions taking solidarity action in support of the MUA or another union come up against the full force of Peter Reith’s Workplace Relations Act and the Trade Practices Act. The legality of requests for international solidarity action (for example, asking the International Transport Federation and its affiliates to ban handling scab cargoes) is also in doubt.
Reith inserted a special clause in the Trades Practices Act (Section 45DB), commonly referred to as the Maritime Union clause, which outlaws industrial action against an employer (primary boycott) which has the effect of hindering trade or commerce involving the movement of goods between Australia and places outside Australia.
Strikes for political demands may be legal but not strikes in support of industrial issues unless they are so-called “protected action” in support of demands during negotiations for enterprise agreements.
The Workplace Relations Act outlaws discrimination on the basis of union membership or non-membership. This was intended to help employers prevent unions taking action against the recruitment of non-union labour. However, the MUA successfully used this povision against Patrick when the company sacked its entire workforce because they were members of a union. Consideration of this clause in the Act led the Supreme Court to order the reinstatement of the MUA workers.
Successful court actions obviously do not eliminate the importance of the struggle on the ground. The point here is that the forms of struggle and the tactics being used by both sides in this class struggle are changing.
The Trades Practices Act’s anti-trust provisions – competition law – outlaw what is known as “monopoly behaviour”. The fact that all wharfies belong to the MUA is alleged to be harmful, monopoly behaviour which infringes the law. Employers and the Government are attacking the MUA’s coverage because it means workers are not competing with each other when they negotiate industrial agreements.
The Government argues that there should be more than one union on the waterfront or, better still from its perspective, a pool of non-union labour. This is what the NFF attempted to create by introducing a non-union workforce onto the waterfront.
Concepts of “world’s best practice” and “benchmarking” are other devices to pit workers in one country against workers in other countries.
A formidable armoury of laws – industrial, corporate, civil, competition – now seriously threaten the trade union movement with fines and damages for infringements. They are also serious because they hide behind arguments that may seem to be plausible.
Finding the right tactics
Unions and the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) have had to take these new circumstances into account. Unions cannot ignore them and face the possibility of fines and property sequestration which could bankrupt them and make it impossible for them to function. Is the union movement strong enough to take on the laws and defeat them at the present time? The union movement must aim to block government and employer aims, make these laws inoperable and force their repeal. That will not be achieved quickly or easily.
The MUA faced a choice: to remain within the law and avoid massive damages actions and sequestration of assets or to disregard the new laws and take actions which might be strong enough to defeat the laws – as happened in the Clarrie O’Shea case in the 1960s.
The MUA and ACTU initially remained within the law and confined the dispute as far as possible, much as the miners had. However, they were prepared to widen it and conduct an all-out struggle backed by other unions. Such a situation may have been approaching when the High Court ordered the reinstatement of the Patrick workforce. If the High Court decision had not gone in the union’s favour, the struggle might have escalated and broadened. The ACTU was already surveying its affiliates to see what level of action they were prepared to carry out.
Are the MUA tactics containment of struggle or the correct approach in the current circumstances? Our view is that they are not an abandonment of class struggle but the best and most effective way to wage the class struggle given the new industrial legislation, the rising but still not high level of struggle in the aftermath of the years of Accord class collaboration, the influence of reformist social democratic ideology in the working class, and the current balance of class forces.
The new tactics have won the re-instatement of the sacked MUA members at this stage (see end-note) but have created further problems. For example, it is not always possible to publicly reveal the reasons behind a decision because public statements and printed leaflets may be used in court actions against the union and its members.
A similar problem arose in the miners’ struggle at Hunter Valley No 1. The understandable demand for information and explanations had to be off-set against the necessity to avoid common law actions and punitive damages. Anything put in print could become evidence and in the MUA dispute both sides made extensive use of video cameras.
At times the membership have not received the same information or been involved in decision-making as they would have been in the past. Decisions have been made by the leadership, with some wider consultation. To have done otherwise would have been irresponsible but it led to justified concerns. Some members felt frustrated by lack of information and concerned that their elected leaders did not trust them.
The nature of the struggle meant that it needed to be centralised. It was not possible to fight such a campaign if each area was making independent decisions. It was conducted nationally, conducted with a consistent uniform approach providing the basis for unity in action and the building of a united front of the MUA and the whole trade union movement. This has laid the basis for stronger and effective struggles against the Government and employers.
The fundamental question is how to conduct the struggle in the new industrial relations environment while protecting the union’s democratic processes and structures. This is not restricted to the MUA struggle but is a wider question that the entire union movement will have to face and resolve in an evolving industrial situation.
Role of state
The role of the state in the MUA struggle is one of its significant features. The Federal Government has been complicit from the start. It has been planning, driving and organising the attack on the workers and has not hidden its support for Patrick Stevedores.
There are close ties between the Government, government bodies and the employers. Employment National (formerly the Commonwealth Employment Service) is headed by a former Patrick employee. One of Reith’s staff has links with the maritime industry and government money was used to draw up the strategy for the stevedoring companies.
The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Immigration Department and the Ministry of Defence were complicit in the Dubai affair. It would be impossible in a few days to organise 73 passports for military personnel to travel to Dubai without such involvement.
The Department of Social Security through Centrelink had instructions to discriminate against MUA members and their families and report to the Minister any applications they received. They got into hot water when CPSU members objected and queried the legality of their instructions. The Government was forced to pull back.
State governments have been involved to varying degrees. In Victoria, Jeff Kennett’s Liberal Government supplied batons, shields and mace gas for use on the waterfront against wharfies.
On the other hand, NSW Labor Premier Bob Carr played a better role, particularly in the instructions given to the police. Speaking on the MUA dispute in State Parliament he supported the right of workers to belong to unions. However, he also criticised confrontation, claiming that “reforms” could be achieved by co-operation.
With an election in sight, the ALP wanted to maintain the maximum possible pressure on the Liberal Government and to differentiate themselves from the conservative parties. This encouraged them to support the MUA struggle and identify themselves with the unions and working class voters — who had been deserting the ALP in droves.
The role of the police has been interesting and at times unexpected. Police have a bad reputation for their role at picket lines, but during the MUA struggle consistent efforts were made to establish friendly and good working relations with the police.
Policemen and women are unionists; they are facing privatisation, individual contracts and retrenchments. Private “security” forces are being set up. There are more and more private prisons.
Many police were sympathetic to the MUA. One commented: “My son is a worker too, it could be his job next.”
In Victoria, police took industrial action during the MUA dispute and placed bans on attending demonstrations. They won a wage rise quickly. Their union has since affiliated with the Victorian Trades Hall Council.
We recognise that if the police force had been given orders to forcibly break up the pickets, they would have done so. The bourgeois state will always use the police and other agencies to maintain their power, by force if necessary. However, this is not the end of the story.
It is worth remembering that it was a former military man in the management of Fynwest who issued the affidavits which have done much to expose the Government’s involvement in the preparations for the attack on the MUA.
We have to look at the individuals in the police force and find the appropriate ways to work to neutralise them or, better still, to win them to our side.
This is nothing new, of course. The police and military have come over to the side of the people in the past, in the French and Russian Revolutions, for example. The role of the police in Indonesia recently — some chanting with the demonstrating workers and students — and the role of the military in Portugal when fascism was overthrown show what can be achieved with patient, determined work.
Battle in the courts
The courts have been a main battleground in the MUA struggle, together with the picket lines and the media. More than 20 court cases, some of them quite substantial, are being conducted at both State and Federal level and costs run into seven figures.
The MUA conspiracy case and the alleged breaches of the Workplace Relations Act are yet to be heard. The MUA has a good chance of winning a damages action which is also pending. There have been court injunctions prohibiting MUA members and officials and in some instances the public from going within a certain distance of Patrick’s dock gates.
The Australian Consumer and Competition Commission (ACCC) is moving for deregistration of the MUA, opening the way for massive damages actions by Patrick and anyone else who wants to jump on the bandwagon.
There have been victories and frustrations in the Supreme Court and High Court. Delays in handing down decisions did affect morale on the picket lines.
There is a danger that too much faith will be placed in the courts. People on the picket lines were confident they would defeat Patrick in the courts. While the courts are an arena of class struggle and it is possible to win victories in them, courts ultimately uphold the interests of the capitalist class. The fight outside the court remains decisive.
In this dispute, Patrick Stevedores have implemented one of the most sophisticated and deliberate strategies of any industrial struggle in Australia. Their plan was thought out step by step — demonising the MUA, the secret restructuring of the company so the legal employers of MUA labour had no assets, the training of a non-union workforce, the advance preparation of Federal Government legislation, the relegation of the Industrial Relations Commission, and so forth.
They expected the struggle to be short and sharp with the sacking of the entire workforce the fatal blow. If the MUA had responded with a general strike call, the union would have been hit with punitive court action under the Workplace Relations and Trade Practices Acts. As the scabs were moved onto the waterfront, Patrick boss Chris Corrigan proclaimed victory as did Workplace Relations Minister Peter Reith.
However, the conspirators underestimated the sophisticated response of the MUA, the extent of support from the trade union movement and the widespread public support for the MUA. This employer “class blindness” is undermining the Government and employer plans.
The media propaganda war
The media has been predominantly anti-union, although at times it has appeared even-handed in publishing court decisions and reporting developments. This has varied from paper to paper.
The Age has played a fair role, criticising the Government at times and running the Fynwest documents. The Sydney Daily Telegraph, which has a large working class readership, has been the most scurrilous, running lies about alleged MUA rorts, low productivity and overpaid wharfies. It has not hidden its anti-union colours. The Financial Review, read by business people, provided more detailed information than other papers.
The ABC presented the most balanced and informative reports of all television channels, with the 7.30 Report providing the best coverage.
None of them gave the wharfies’ perspective provided in the The Guardian’s committed partisan position. MUA members were hungry for information and were appreciative of The Guardian which gave extensive coverage to their dispute, from their side of the story. “You’re the only paper that’s on our side,” sacked workers told us.
Peter Reith and Prime Minister Howard repeatedly pushed lies about wharfies rorting the system and being “overpaid” and initially many people had little sympathy for “overpaid”, “low productivity”, “rorting wharfies” — the demonising campaign had been effective.
However, images in print media and on TV were powerful in the dispute. According to opinion polls, the sight of guard dogs and balaclava-clad “security” guards helped changed public opinion. When people saw the mass sacking of Patrick’s workers and realised that it could happen to them too, public opinion swung to support the unionists. Many people who were not pro-union were shocked by the fascist-like treatment which was labelled unfair and un-Australian.
MUA National Secretary John Coombs played an important role in the information and propaganda war. He was impressive at press conferences or speaking to his members and effective answering the continuous barrage of media questions.
At the pickets
Interesting and effective tactics were developed during the dispute. One is “shielding”, another the idea of “peaceful assemblies”. After injunctions were won by the employers, MUA officials and members could not continue to organise and lead the pickets. They were shielded, replaced by officials from other unions and volunteers from the community. The use of the term “community picket” or “peaceful assembly” was also used to shield the MUA from the full force of Reith’s laws. It also reflected the broad participation in the defence of the MUA.
Significantly, the people joining or visiting the pickets, bringing donations or sending messages of support came from a section of the farming community, small business people and students as well as workers. The MUA and ACTU leadership contributed to the breadth of support that was developed during the dispute.
ACTU President and Assistant Secretary Greg Combet won the respect of union members for the role they played and this was evident when they addressed meetings on the picket lines.
The community assemblies at the wharf gates were like mini-cities. Morale was reinforced with concerts, other entertainment and events. Regular reports on activities in other ports and other developments were provided. Delegations of unionists from other areas, sporting heroes, TV stars and politicians paid visits. Meals were supplied with much of the food donated. Telephones were installed and televisions hooked up. Visiting postal workers suggested that the Port Botany picket should be given a post code.
The atmosphere of comradeship, determination and commitment had to be experienced to be understood. One woman had taken her annual leave and was living at the picket line in a tent. She had never been on a picket before but had decided she must do something when she saw what was happening to the wharfies.
Raising $250 a week for every family of the sacked MUA members has been a huge task. In Brisbane, for example, with sacked workers at two ports, they had 247 families to support and 360 children. MUA members still at work struck a levy while members of other unions made voluntary contributions on a regular basis. Financial support also came from many other organisations and individuals.
The International Transport Federation (ITF) has been crucial in the dispute, demonstrating once again the power of international working class solidarity.
ITF action nipped in the bud the first attempt to introduce non-union labour onto the waterfront in Cairns; it knocked Dubai out completely.
The full impact of the ITF response to Patrick’s use of non-union labour may come as the ships loaded by non-union labour move around the world. The Canada Columbus spent a few weeks on the US west coast where American dockers refused to unload her scab-loaded containers. This ship is now going to New Zealand to unload and re-load and then return to the US to discharge its cargo.
Upsurge in activity
The MUA not only proved it has the capacity to fight but its discipline under extreme provocation has been impressive. The Government’s draconian legislation has actually strengthened the determination of the union movement to resist and fight.
In Western Australia unions and the Trades and Labour Council have fought three waves of State anti-union laws. They have developed what they call “community unionism” with training programs on how to conduct peaceful actions, handle police methods and avoid unnecessary violence.
In South Australia there is an upsurge in struggle in other areas. Nurses are waging a big campaign and taking industrial action. There is a biscuit factory where the workers had never been on strike. The boss put an agreement on the table and instead of signing it, the workers had a meeting and held a ballot. The vote against was 98 per cent.
There is other anecdotal evidence that workers who have been passive for years and some who have never taken action before have seen what the MUA is doing and now they too want to stand up and fight. There has been an upsurge in marches and rallies and attendances at events like May Day have increased.
One wharfie said: “They’ve woken a sleeping giant.” John Coombs in his May Day speech said: “We might have been benign for a few years but we haven’t lost the capacity to fight.”
Pushed against the wall workers will fight. Economic insecurity and attacks on people’s living standards, jobs and social services are bringing more people into the class struggle.
Negotiations and compromises
From time to time there is media speculation about a “deal” or trade-offs in the negotiations. This is intended to drive a wedge between the leadership and the membership of the union.
Some criticism of the MUA has come from “leftist” elements, pitting the leadership against its membership. They do not see the union as a unity of leadership and membership.
In negotiations there will inevitably be some compromises. The question is: what sort of compromise in whose interests. Lenin pointed out:
Every proletarian — owing to the conditions of the mass struggle and the sharp intensification of class antagonisms in which he lives — notices the difference between a compromise enforced by objective conditions (such as lack of strike funds, no outside support, extreme hunger and exhaustion), a compromise which in no way diminishes the revolutionary devotion and readiness for further struggle on the part of the workers who have agreed to such a compromise, and a compromise by traitors who try to ascribe to outside causes their own selfishness (strike-breakers also enter into “compromises”!), cowardice, desire to toady to capitalists, and readiness to yield to intimidation, sometimes to persuasion, sometimes to sops, and sometimes to flattery on the part of capitalists.1
There have already been compromises. For example, MUA members returned to work even though some security guards remained. They did, however, hold out on all dogs being removed. Priority was given to getting back in the gate, and the MUA almost got its terms.
In writing about compromises, Lenin went on:“It would be absurd to formulate a recipe or general rule (‘No Compromises!’) to serve all cases. One must use one’s own brains and be able to find one’s bearings in each separate case.”2
There are a number of issues on the table: jobs, wages and other entitlements, trade union rights, productivity levels, use of non-union labour, individual contracts, collective bargaining. The question is: what is negotiable and what is not?
What are the key issues in this struggle? What is most important to the working class and MUA members? Two issues stand out as being at the heart of the whole struggle. They are the questions of union labour and collective bargaining. The aim of Patrick and the Government is to de-unionise the waterfront and replace enterprise agreements and the award by individual contracts.
Compromise on these questions would represent a serious setback for the union movement. If these principles are defeated, reductions in wages, poorer working conditions, loss of jobs and lower safety standards will follow. But the MUA is standing firm on these two questions.
The Communist Party
Communist Party members have been on the picket lines around Australia. Some have put in long hours and hard work. They have been involved in the rosters and telephone trees, and assisting in many other ways. Various Party bodies, including the Central Committee, and individual members have indicated the Party’s support in writing and through financial contributions.
The Guardian is giving extensive coverage to the dispute, recognising it as one of the most important working class struggles in Australia this century.
How can we, as communists, ensure that the struggle, the militancy and emerging class consciousness continue and grow?
We have to do more to restore communist influence on the waterfront. A worker said: “We need communists on the waterfront again. Look what happened – we have all these double-headers, we have all this enterprise bargaining nonsense. We’ve got to do something.”
At the same time, we need to build the unity of the working class in action around the interests of workers — what Dimitrov called the united front.
To do that we have to work with other political forces in the working class, including Labor Party members and supporters. That does not mean neglecting the struggle against social democrat and other forms of ruling class ideology. We do this through the policies we fight for, the way we work, the support we give and our ideas.
There are a number of demands in the interests of the working class which should be taken up. They already have widespread support.
Repeal the Workplace Relations Act.
- Repeal the sections of the Trades Practices Act which apply to trade unions. They should not be transferred to another Act, as proposed by the ALP.
Return to a centralised system of deciding wages and working conditions, to collective bargaining and an end to individual contracts. ALP policy appears to support the award system but contradicts this by condoning the continuation and spread of individual contracts.
The right to strike without qualifications.
Public ownership. The ports and stevedoring operations should be publicly owned and controlled.
A shorter working week with no loss of pay.
Opposition to privatisation which is killing jobs, robbing governments (and hence the people) of revenue, pushing up the cost of services and reducing quality and access.
Opposition to the GST which is regressive, reactionary, unfair and unjust. It will result in a massive transfer of taxation from the rich to the poor and will push up the price of nearly all goods and services.
Defeat the Coalition Government and support a genuine left and progressive political alternative that would implement these demands and other policies in the interests of working people.
There is an all-out offensive by corporate capitalism, an attack on the sovereignty of nation states posed by the globalisation agenda of transnational corporations, and the re-emergence of neo-fascist and extreme right-wing forces which threaten existing democratic rights.
When Dimitrov spoke in 1935 he was also dealing with the struggle against an offensive by capital, against fascism and the threat of war. The situation now is not the same, but there are similarities.
In Australia we have Pauline Hanson’s One Nation, the League of Rights and other neo-fascist and extreme right forces and the big corporations behind them.
With the help of much free publicity in the media, One Nation has gained support among small business people, farmers and some working class people who are frustrated and disillusioned with the main political parties. One Nation is tapping their fears and insecurity. Using demagogy and populist policies, they mislead their listeners into believing they can offer an alternative, a major part of which is racism.
Communists have a heavy responsibility in this situation. Dimitrov identified three main conditions to prevent the growth of fascism and its rise to power.
The first and foremost condition is the united front — “the militant activity of the working class itself ... welded into a single militant army combating the offensive of capitalism and fascism.” Building working class unity is one of our Party’s priorities. It is as important today as it was in 1935.
Dimitrov called for “the vigilance and timely action of the revolutionary proletariat. The latter must not allow fascism to take it unawares, it must not surrender the initiative to fascism, but must inflict decisive blows on it before it can gather its forces”.3
The second condition is “the existence of a strong revolutionary party, correctly leading the struggle of the working people against fascism”. Dimitrov said that a party “which calls on the workers to retreat in the face of fascism or permits the fascist bourgeoisie to strengthen its positions is doomed to lead the workers to defeat”.
But the Communist Party has to win support through its work, its ideas and organisation.
The third condition equates to what we today call the political alternative. It is the “correct policy of the working class towards the peasantry and the petty-bourgeois masses of the towns. These masses must be taken as they are, and not as we should like to have them. It is only in the process of the struggle that they will overcome their doubts and waverings.”4
Lenin spoke about the same tasks when he wrote of “taking advantage of every, even the smallest, opportunity of gaining a mass ally, even though this ally be temporary, vacillating, unstable, unreliable and conditional. Those who fail to understand this, fail to understand even a particle of Marxism, or of modern scientific socialism in general.”5
The MUA struggle provides an excellent opportunity to develop these conditions. It provides an opportunity to build unity at the different levels. It is an opportunity to raise class consciousness and politicise trade union struggles. Our task is to offer sound policies and support to the MUA and other unions in their struggles and to build the Communist Party through our activities and policies.