The actions of the Howard Government in the current maritime dispute are a matter of serious concern to all decent Australians says Jennie George, ACTU President.

These actions include:



  • Applauding the sacking of Australian workers because they are union members.




  • Applauding the manner of that sacking which took place with security men in balaclavas accompanied by savage guard dogs in the dead of night.




  • Applauding a company rearranging its corporate structures so that it avoids its legal responsibilities.




  • Preparing to financially support a company that has undertaken these actions.



These are not the actions of a responsible government. As Max Gillies said in Melbourne on Sunday – addressing the protesters at East Swanson Dock – “this is a cause for great shame. “


As Max said, in the past we have thought that it was only ever a ratbag fringe in the community who seriously advocated violent division as a means of settling political disputes – now it is the Australian Government doing so.


Make no mistake about it this is a political dispute. It’s not about productivity on the waterfront. That is a red herring. As a political dispute it demands a political response. And I am pleased at the strong support we in the trade union movement are getting from the ALP.


This is a cynical political exercise that has been carefully planned over many, many months.


As Lawrie Oakes of the Bulletin said – and I apologise in advance for the language but this is a direct quote:


“The Government has never been interested in genuine talks with the MUA about improving productivity on the waterfront…


The aim was to create a public issue where the Government could be seen to defeat the MUA…


It was all about provoking a shitfight with the wharfies’..


Mike Steketee writing more recently in the Melbourne Age said the same: ‘it always has been more about politics than productivity.”


And Shawn Carney in The Age the weekend before last wrote:


“the real motivation behind the war on the Maritime Union [is] this Government sees itself understandably as the standard bearer for business people … the source of 20th century unionism was the waterfront and before the century was out this Government wanted to kill unionism at its source.”


Every worker in Australia must be fearful of such a government.


Because this Government has gone to extraordinary lengths to provoke this dispute.


Let me take you through what it has done.



  • In May 1996 the Government engaged a conservative consultancy with previous experience in New Zealand to provide advice on options to improve `reliability and productivity’ on the waterfront. No proper tendering process was utilised in the selection of the consultants.




  • This company (ACIL Economics) reported to the Government on the 18th of September 1996. It was given another contract in June 1997.




  • The reports provided to the Government have never been made public despite requests in the Senate that they be made available.




  • There have been meetings between Peter Reith and key players from the consultancy and Patrick’s throughout 1997.




  • A document prepared in Peter Reith’s department in March 1997 advised stevedores to be ready to `activate well prepared strategies to dismiss their workforce and replace them with another’ as quickly as possible and in a way designed to avoid the Commission ordering reinstatement.




  • In August 1997 the Government undertook polling on community attitudes to the waterfront. This was undertaken by the pollsters used by the Liberal Party.




  • In September 1997 Government Ministers Reith and Sharp and their departments met with the NFF in relation to a new stevedore entering the waterfront.




  • In October 1997 we saw the failed Dubai fiasco. Which you will remember involved hired “industrial mercenaries” including serving defence force personnel being actively supported to go to Dubai to train as waterside workers.




  • In January 1998 we then had the leasing by Patrick of Webb Dock to the National Farmers’ Federation.



All of this culminated with the action of the Company, supported by the Government, on the 7th of April 1998 when we saw the sacking of Patrick’s entire workforce in the dead of night.


We saw crane drivers being pulled out of their machines in mid shift and surrounded by savage dogs and security guards.


It was a shameful act and horrified most Australians.


Even more horrifying to many was the sight of Prime Minister Howard and Minister Reith’s back-slapping performance in the Parliament about how clever they had been in promoting this action by the company.


What makes it worse again is the company reorganisation that had been undertaken by Patrick in September 1997. This ensured that its employees were employed by subsidiary companies that were at the time of the sackings insolvent.


This means that the workers having been sacked in this extreme way were also left with at least one week’s wages owing to them as well all annual and long service leave and redundancy entitlements.


The scale of this rort against working Australians is extraordinary.


As Tim Colebatch, writing in the Australian Age said “That is bringing the techniques of tax avoidance into workplace relations. It is a weapon that desfroy4s any job security.”


It is pleasing to see Kim Beazley on the Sunday programme on the weekend committing Labor in Government to tacking action against this sort of corporate behaviour.


In the meantime our only recourse has been to the courts.


The MUA and a representative group of members have taken action in the Federal Court seeking injunctive and substantive relief, including reinstatement and damages. The action is based on the following matters:



  • breach of the award and agreement in respect of consultation and provision of security of employment;




  • breach of the employment contracts by acting so as to destroy the relationship of confidence and trust and by making it impossible for the contracts to be performed;




  • breach of section 298K of the Workplace Relations Act by dismissing employees for reasons including that they were union members, and were entitled to the benefits of the Award;




  • breaches of Corporations Law in relation to the buy backs and the appointment of an administrator;




  • conspiracy to injure the union and its members;




  • conspiracy to injure the union and its members by unlawful means.



What is extraordinary about this dispute is that at the time these workers were sacked they had been operating entirely within the law and within the legal framework created by Minister Reith himself.


They were working to their award and Enterprise Agreements.


In two sites – Botany and Brisbane – only two sites out of all the Patrick worksites – they had taken protected industrial action under the specific provisions of the Workplace Relations Act.


They had not breached any order of the Industrial Relations Commission.


At Webb Dock when the National Farmers’ Federation took over workers were locked out. They then maintained a peaceful protest.


They abided by a Supreme Court Injunction in respect to East Swanson Dock.


The union and its members have at all times acted lawfully and honourably.


The Company and the Government have not.


That is why all around Australia we are getting such widespread support – 2,000 Australians responded with 24 hours to a request by the ACTU to sign a letter to the Prime Minister.


That letter states in part: –


“The role of Government should be to minimise conflict and to encourage resolution of differences through negotiation or mediation. Without a framework for the resolution of industrial disputes, conflict between employers and employees can only deepen and develop into serious social division.


When a Government chooses to support the employer rather than to encourage resolution, the confidence of Australia in ‘a fair go’ is badly shaken.


The creation of irreparable division in our community, with the potential to split families and communities and to exacerbate economic and social differences, is not in the national interest.”


It is neither in the national interest in social terms nor is it in the national interest in economic terms.


Let me deal with the furphy of productivity improvement on the wharves of this country.


Here are some facts:



  • 75% productivity improvement in 8 years.




  • 23.8 twenty foot equivalent unit (TEU’s) of cargo an hour (previously 13.4)




  • Excluding time lost 30.8 TEUs per hour (previously 16.1).




  • 18.5 containers per hour (an increase of 16% in two years).




  • Shipping cost have fallen from $625 to $560 per containers for exporters since 1994.




  • The workforce has been reduced by 57%.




  • Cargo handling rates have increased by 50%




  • Stevedoring charges dropped by 20% to 25%




  • Annual savings of at least $300 million from a reduced workforce and a faster turnaround of container ships.




  • In Burnie workers were dealing with 33 containers an hour during the week before they were sacked.



The biggest productivity improvement occurred at the port of Melbourne with a 90% increase in TEUs per hour.

Comparative Performance

All of this in a context in which companies can profitably work on Australia’s waterfront. For example P&O made $180 million profit from their Australian ports in 1997 and achieves 24 lifts an hour.


There is also a great deal of misinformation being spread around by Mr. Corrigan and Mr.Reith about how much waterside workers earn.


Again let me give you the facts.



  • Crane drivers earn a base rate of between $31000 and $32000 for a 35 hour week.




  • To earn around $70, 000 would require working an extra 30 or 40 hours in overtime.




  • The figure of $90, 000 claimed by Patrick’s included employer superannuation contributions.




  • Overtime is compulsory as employers prefer to have that than additional people employed.



We have had hard productivity improvements on the wharves.


Wharfies have been subject to the same pressures as other workers.


They have seen their numbers greatly reduced resulting in harder and longer working hours for those remaining.


So why did the Government act as it has?


Some would say it is seeking a diversion from more significant national issues facing our economy. In particular the threatened impact of the Asian economic crisis.


Access Economics was reported in the Financial Review yesterday predicting Australia’s current account deficit was facing a return to “banana republic” levels.


Access Economics is warning the “Australia faces its most hostile environment in over a decade.” The Financial Review reports that according to Access Economics “1999 is looming as a particularly dangerous time for business – domestic demand on the decline, Asian growth at its weakest, the US economy losing steam and the possibility of rising inflation placing pressure on local interest rates.”


Is this the time for Mr Howard and Mr Reith to be pursuing some petty personal ideological war with the wharfies.


It is specifically contrary to the national interest for them to be closing down the docks at this time.


They are doing so for a narrow ideological and party political ends.


This is government for sectional interests against the majority. This is government for the strong at the expense of the weak.


If a company like Patrick is allowed to do this to the Waterside Workers who are a strong union – just think what other unscrupulous employers will opt away with in dealing with more vulnerable groups of workers.


The Government has condoned:



  • corporate skulduggery of the highest order;




  • the wholesale sacking of workers regardless of their individual circumstances – regardless of the consequences for people and their families;




  • the use of balaclava clad security guards accompanied by savage dogs escorting workers away from their ordinary places of work;




  • while performing their work in a proper and orderly fashion.



This is unprecedented in Australia.


It is quintessentially “un-Australian”.


It is not in the national interest – either socially or economically.


It is breeding deep divisions in our society.


It is a diversion from impending serious economic problems.


You don’t get productivity using dogs and mace – by beating people into the ground.


But productivity has nothing to do with this – the most productive workers on the waterfront were sacked on the 7th April 1998.


As I have said all around Australia since the Government escalated this dispute – if the waterside workers lost this who will be next?


This is as I said at the start a defining moment in the political life of this country.


I am sure that Steve and all of you who support him will be contributing to the campaign to protect workers rights in the country.


If you and I do so effectively I have no doubt we have a very good chance at wresting government from those who are currently showing us how government should not be exercised in this country.


Address By Jennie George ACTU President. Lunch for Steve Georganas, Labor Candidate for Hindmarsh. Tuesday 21 April 1998