Australia's Labor War on the Docks

— Barry Sheppard

THE BATTLE BETWEEN the Australian "wharfies" and the Patrick Stevedore company, backed by the right-wing coalition government of Liberal Prime Minister John Howard, became a test of strength not only with the National Maritime Union (MUA) but with a wide section of the working class.

The workers won the first round, but the struggle continues as both the government and shipping owners refuse to give in and have shifted tactics to continue to try to weaken if not smash the MUA.

The background to the fight begins with the previous Labor Party government, which was in office over a decade.  Like social democratic parties around the world, that government began to carry out the "neoliberal" policies of world capitalism, instituting an "Accord" with the unions to keep wages stagnant.  It broke two unions, the Builders Laborers Federation and the airline pilots' union.

In 1996 the present right-wing government passed a new labor law that increased restrictions on the unions, for example outlawing "secondary boycotts." It also made it a crime for a union to solicit international solidarity.

Thugs, Scabs and the Government

After a series of skirmishes against the MUA in 1997, this year the battle was openly joined on the night of April 7.  The Patrick company brought hired thugs onto its docks, and with clubs and attack dogs cleared the workers out, announcing that its entire MUA workforce of 1,400 full-time and 700 part-time workers had been fired and would be replaced.

An indication of what was to come, on April 8 some 4,000 people demonstrated in Sydney in support of the wharfies.  The MUA set up picket lines outside the gates at Patrick docks around the country.  Significantly, these pickets were joined by thousands of other workers.

Scabs did get into the docks.  In Sydney, we saw some scabs come in buses, with curtains draw across the windows to hide any MUA scabs.  We also saw the company bring in scabs by helicopter.

Many workers thought most of the scabs were military or ex-military personnel.  What fueled this suspicion was a disclosure in February that, in the small Mideast country of Dubai, the company was training ex-military people to become scabs The government, caught with its pants down, denied any knowledge of the operation, a claim which was met by general disbelief.

Publicly, the anti-MUA campaign was led by government spokespeople.  They tirelessly attempted to portray the wharfies as overpaid, lazy feather-bedders, hoping that the fact that the MUA members have higher pay than most workers would isolate them.

The government was wrong.  While scabs did get into the docks, and were able to unload and load ships, some seventy to eighty percent of goods on the docks could not be brought into or off them, due to the mass picketing.  Most of the leakage occurred in Brisbane, where cops were able to push back pickets for a time.

Solidarity: The Workers' Weapon

In ports like Sydney and Melbourne, virtually nothing moved.  Melbourne saw the highest degree of mobilization.  Picket lines there were sometimes three, four, five thousand.  In one major confrontation, about 1,000 police in riot gear faced off against 4,000 pickets.

The cops decided to retreat, only to be met by 2,000 construction workers who had left their jobs and were marching down to join the picket.  The workers eventually let the cops go. The day after the cops retreated, workers erected a barrier of welded I-beams at the gates.

These massive displays of solidarity were held in violation of court injunctions against other workers or even members of the community supporting the picket lines.

On May 6, 100,000 marched in Melbourne in support of the MUA and against the 1996 anti-labor law. (The entire population of Australia is only 14 million!) Many workers understood that if the MUA was smashed, the rest of the labor movement was in grave peril, and the wages and conditions of all workers were at stake.

Even the top leaders of the national labor federation, the equivalent of the AFL-CIO and with the same class-collaborationist perspective, came out strongly behind the MUA, and urged support in spite of the new anti-labor law. Indeed, there were threats of a general strike if police or troops were used to break the demonstrations.

In this atmosphere, a federal court (equivalent to our Federal Appeals courts) ruled that the firing of the wharfies was illegal, and ordered them rehired.  That ruling was appealed, and the High Court upheld the ruling on May 3.

The wharfies went back to work, but Patrick refused allow forty-five workers in, charging they had committed violence during the battle.  These cases are in court.

Initially, the workers were not getting paid by Patrick, which claims it is bankrupt.  (As part of its preparations for the fight, Patrick unloaded its funds into other legal entities.)  On June 11, the company paid $5 million to its four labor-hire contractors, who can now pay the wharfies most of what they are owed.

The largest stevedore company, P&O, has joined in the struggle, attempting to force the MUA to accept a major cutback in its workforce.  These and other harassing tactics by the company and government show that the battle is not over.

But the wharfies and Australian workers in general have demonstrated an important lesson that also applies here and in other countries: Working-class solidarity and willingness to break unjust labor laws in militant mass action can effectively neutralize those laws. Capital's worldwide assault against labor can be beaten back.


Barry Sheppard participated in dockworker pickets while attending an Indonesia solidarity conference in Australia.  He is a member of Solidarity in the Bay Area.


ATC 75, July-August 1998

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