Assessing the Wharfies Strike

There is something of a dispute going on here in the Brisbane Left as to whether the MUA have had a victory or not in their dispute over the lock-out. This is mirrored in a debate on Marxism-International between Tony Hartin and Dave B. The latter claims this is a defeat and Tony disagrees. I think I have a position in between. However as I have posted my last post to Marxism-international I will not intervene in that debate there.

However it is I think an important question and one that needs airing. Hopefully there are some on this list who are interested enough to reply. The union, the MUA, claimed victory when the High Court of Australia ordered their reinstatement. But there was some fine print to that order. The administrators of the hire companies, who employed the sacked workers, were given economic discretion. They could hire unionists or non-unionists as they wished. They have subsequently made clear that they have no commitment to the union and that they want massive reforms to work practices. When the workers cheered the High Courts announcement on the 6 May they were not aware of these details.

Nor were they aware how the Parent Company, Patrick, would proceed. The company has drawn up a black list of 23 militants. They empowered the security guards to require every worker to identify themselves against the list. The union at first refused to return to work and it looked like the dispute was on again. But from the beginning the union fight has been organised along minimalist lines. The union fought not for the reinstatement of the sacked workers but for the continued rights of the union leaders to negotiate, to mediate between the workers, the companies and the government. That they secured through the High Court decision. So following their initial resistance to the black list they have started work again. As far as I can determine the black listed workers remain unemployed. The situation is reported this way in The Weekend Australian May 9-10

"The MUA had agreed to sign security protocol documents to allow the return to work. Workers were required to have photographic identification to gain entry to docks and also found themselves working alongside security personnel responsible for their ejection on April 7."

The Assistant Secretary of the MUA, Vic Slater a former member of the now defunct Communist Party of Australia, actually said

"Considering the problems we've had with this company since day one, we've had a pretty constructive return to work." (weekend Australian May 9-10, 1998 page 18)

The "constructive return" of course entails the most abject betrayal of militant workers but it is in keeping with the policies of the current leadership of Australia's union movement. The attack from the employers terrified them. They succeeded in beating it back, but they never at any time contemplated the possibility of making advances in the struggle. Thus at the very outset they conceded the ideological ground to the government and the capitalist class. They agreed that "reform" was necessary. They agreed that productivity must increase and above all they agreed to redundancies. Their sole demand was for the right to negotiate the surrenders.

So is it a defeat? Is Dave B. correct? Well only partly. For a moment we were faced with an all out assault from capital. The sacking of the 1400 wharfies represented a serious attempt to break the stalemate that has characterised capital-labour relations since the ending of the Long Boom. If the government had succeeded in crushing the MUA, then we would have been quite close to a de-unionised Australia. Everyone knew this. The bureaucracy too understood that this was their Waterloo unless they stood and fought. As I have said repeatedly to fight they needed to rouse up the workers and the community. They succeeded so well that they frightened themselves. Being up on the tiger's back is a scary experience and the working class on the move frightens those who, like the union officials and the Labor Party, are deeply committed to the status quo. If only I had a dollar for every time I heard a union official use the word "discipline". But discipline it was and now we are back with the stale mate.

Patrick, the stevedoring company that sacked the workers, is bitter and is seemingly trying to provoke the workers. But the union cannot be provoked. They will take any shit that pours down on them. They will as now even work for nothing. They will also allow the stevedoring companies to collude against the workers. In the port of Newcastle P&O and Patrick are collaborating to deprive the sacked workers of jobs. Jobs that should have gone to the Patrick work force are going to P&O.

The point is that the MUA scrupulously avoided taking all its union out on strike. That meant that some ships were loaded by scab labour at Patrick terminals and then went to P&O terminals where MUA workers unloaded the cargo. That is the truth. The MUA allowed workers to unload black cargo even though they asked unions outside Australia not to do so.

So again is it a defeat or a victory? My good friend Brian Laver in the Anarchist movement says it is a terrible defeat because in Brisbane the workers did not try to shut down the port and so they did not learn anything from a struggle. My friend Jim McIlroy in the Democratic Socialist Party (Green Left Weekly) says it is a great victory because we were facing a most awful defeat and that has not happened.

Jim of course was born with an excess of serotonin so I tend to take what he says with a grain of salt. But in Melbourne Tony Hartin is also optimistic. His organisation has recruited and he took part in the greatest struggles of his life. For it was in Melbourne that the Australian working class turned and decided to fight and thus surprised all of us. We now know the workers will struggle and they will also do so with a determination the officials may not always be able to contain and betray.

I take heart from this and also from a 1961 tribute to the last great Australian union leader - Jim Healy of the then Waterside Workers Federation. (_In Memory of Jim Healy_, Current Book Distributors, October 1961, CPA Pamphlet) The wharfies were totally defeated in a brutal struggle in 1928. In 1937 they had an election and Jim Healy a communist defeated the incumbent, A. Turley. The election took place in Sydney but Healy did not have the money to get to the union Headquarters in Melbourne. None of Healy's supporters had the money to send the new secretary to take up his job. The union too was bankrupt. A friend then produced a five pound note and that was enough to get Healy to Melbourne and for him to live on in his early weeks as the Federation's secretary.

When Healy died in 1961 the union was at the height of its power. Since then it has abandoned its radicalism and its commitment to socialism and communism. Moderates rule the roost. By contrast with Healy the current wharfies' leader, John Coombs, is a man of some affluence owning as he does a wine farm. But the example of Healy shows that just as there is a tendency to moderation, economism and accommodation within the working class there is also a tendency to revolt and it is never predetermined which tendency will win out. Another Jim Healy will come.

The Australian wharfies battle may be over for now, but it is safe to predict that the transportation industry will continue to be a battle zone between First world labor and capital.

Since transportation systems cannot be exported to third world countries, and technological change makes possible brutal job rationalization, we will see more explosions soon. British rail workers just elected a member of Scargill's Socialist Labour Party to head up the engineers union.

European transportation employers look to the US model, they would love to shift more freight to rail, to take advantage of containerization, but multiple borders and lack of double stack capacity leave them far more dependent on trucks than their US counterparts. More confrontations with their truck drivers is likely.

The Teamster's election in the US, however it may come out, will see a rise in expectations from a restive membership, driven long hours and stagnating pay. Hoffa will carry the weight of his father's glory days, Hall the mantle of the UPS strike. The shortage of truck drivers adds an element of confidence either leader will have to contend with.

--Gary McLennan


In rail, where I work, productivity continues to soar, with freight levels at record rates. Class 1 employment has dropped another 12,000 jobs since 1996, even as railroads take back more freight from the trucking industry, with share now around 40%. After years of record profits, the next round of negotiations with the mega carriers left in the field by the last round of mergers, will see, in my opinion greater pressure for wage increases than in any time since the 1970's. The two to three percent rises in the last twenty years have left rail workers with little to celebrate.

The Surface Transportation job statistics for Class One railroads reproduced below show one other interesting item. Elimination of professional and administrative jobs, ie. low level management, and a twenty percent increase in Executives, officials and staff assistants. More evidence of class polarization, if we needed it.

--Jon Flanders


Number of Employees Mid Month| % of Change From

February 1998 February 1997 January 1998
Total - All Employees 177,042 0.98% -0.69
Executives, officials and staff assistants 11,324 20.16% 1.15%
Professional and administrative 20,418 -10.26% -0.32%
Maintenance of Way and structures 37,898 3.08% -1.00%
Maintenance of equipment and stores 35,446 1.92% -0.57%
Transportation (other than train and engine) 8,372 -6.80% -0.43%
Transportation (train and engine) 63,584 1.53% -1.06%