The Guardian • Issue #1988

The IR myth

The circus of lies and propaganda about waterfront productivity and reform has resurfaced in debate across the Australian media. Kicking the wharfie is a long-held practice of the Australian ruling class. It is carried out dutifully and without restraint by the bosses’ propaganda machines (SMH, Australian, ABC etc.).

Waterside Workers are somewhat used to the jaded and time weary lies being told about them, but the overwhelming power of the ruling class is clearly focusing directly on smashing union power on the waterfront, inevitably in the process of the continuous destruction of all working people’s rights.


It is a terrible lie to portray wharfies as not under the oppressive control of their employer like any other worker. Wharfies are stood over, victimised, bullied, and harassed by bosses daily, no different from the rest of the working class. Yet, wharfies do not cry victim; they fight back. That is their terrible crime, a worker, or even worse, a whole collective that dares to say no. That is what the bosses are trying to remove. Not just on the waterfront but everywhere.  The seek to remove resistance and any barriers to their obscene profits. Stevedoring companies are currently enjoying twenty per cent profitability – and they talk about greedy workers.


The latest employer attacks are based on “restrictive work practices” in the main, focusing on a select few negotiated and agreed conditions that have raised the ire of the parasitic and selfish employer organisations like the Australian Industry Group (AIG).

The bosses’ campaign is being carried out behind the falsified narrative about waterfront delays being caused by wharfies. There is no evidence of wharfies causing delays on the waterfront. It is just parroted falsely and without basis. At the same time, the real problems of “Australian waterfront delays” lay entirely with the shipowners who have been on a spree of monopolisation that has increased the power and influence of shipping lines above other industry stakeholders.


Shipowner profit-seeking and their monopoly control cause shipping shortages and create delays of goods across the Australian waterfront. It is far from an industrial relations (IR) problem. IR is an easy and opportunistic way out for the selfish and greedy bosses whose agenda has nothing to do with the waterfront productivity in the least. It is a structural problem created by the very nature of state-monopoly capitalism.

The increased monopoly power of the shipping lines is not amenable to a planned and structured supply chain or society, for that matter. Profit gouging by shipping lines has created industry uncertainties and is behind the delays on the Australian waterfront. These facts are borne out by a recent Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) report on the container stevedoring industry.


While the ACCC report can’t deny the many attributable delays caused by shipowner monopolisation, privatisation of ports and indeed a near two-year period of the COVID pandemic, it still tries to blame wharfies and the MUA for delays. The ACCC failed to do so except by association with the ports themselves as waterfront productivity has now reached such spectacular heights easily compared internationally as best practice performance.

Despite claims of stagnating waterfront productivity, the figures tell a different story. It should be noted the ’20/’21 period was wholly affected by the COVID-19 Pandemic where wharfies as essential front line workers maintained the 24/7 operation of Australian ports. The slight drop in productivity is quite remarkable considering the nature of COVID-19 and the extraordinary measures put in place (only after struggle) to protect workers from COVID transmission.


The old restrictive work practice bogey is nothing but ideological rhetoric against workers who want restrictions on employers cutting their wages, superannuation, redundancy provisions, long service leave and anything else that makes a quick buck at the expense of the workforce.

If not allowing bosses to cut your wages, reduce your conditions, or attack your job security is an example of restrictive work practice, then bring on the restrictive work practices. It sounds like unless you have a job where the boss can dictate your conditions, wages and job security you are not contributing to society and are a barrier to productivity and an obstacle across the supply chain. While at the same time, the captains of the maritime industry are presented as some form of victim while they continue to gouge huge profits, which are taken out of Australia and provide no national benefit.


The chorus of whining employers in the media lately has identified a couple of main issues for bosses regarding wharfies’ “restrictive work practices.” In doing this, they spring off the ACCC report, which sadly didn’t have any understanding of the issues, but saw the ACCC adopt an intensely political report which got its dictates from Shipping Australia Ltd (SAL), the peak body of the shipping cartels who treat their crews like animals and have forced their underpaid and highly exploited seafarers onto vessels for over twelve-month periods straight during the pandemic.

To be attacked by such moral vacuums as SAL and AIG mean you are automatically on the right side of the social ledger.

The ACCC report identified issues around recruitment and automation as major “restrictive work practices.” Unfortunately for the ACCC, the new Hutchison agreement that was the basis of their comments was not even registered in the ACCC reporting period. So this is a  massive beat up.

If waterfront productivity was truly the issue, the government should be banning productivity reducing port automation which the stevedores all have a fetish for at the moment. Automation reduces productivity, but its main tool is that of union-busting. Why else would you want a less productive business except that it provides an opportunity to rid yourself of pesky union members and gives more control to the employer? Every time a stevedore automates in Australia, they not only get less productive terminals they attack the scope of jobs carried out by union workers and try and transfer wharfies roles to management who never go on strike and live under complete corporate control. It’s a union-busting tactic straight out.

The mythical issue of recruitment is blown out of proportion to create an image of unbridled union power. The Maritime Bulletin can report that where family and friends recruitment provisions exist, they were almost exclusively put in place as an employer offer to the union. It’s not like the union picks the candidates. The boss still does. It’s like there’s this big crisis being created about a worker putting in a resumé for someone to be included in a selection process controlled by the employer for a vacant job. The hysteria being created around this distortion of fact is laughable.

The Guardian can also be viewed/downloaded in PDF format. View More