The 1998 Waterfront Dispute was described by John Howard as “a defining moment in Australia s industrial relations history.” Do you agree with this statement? Support your view by discussing the events and outcomes of this dispute.
John Howard s comment on the 1998 Waterfront dispute between the Maritime Union of Australia and Patrick Stevedores was a hypocritical and ignorant description of one of Australia s worst industrial relations disputes.
The Australian Government considers that Australia is poorly served by its waterfront industry. The serious inefficiencies that have persisted on the waterfront, despite previous reforms, have acted as a brake on economic growth and international competitiveness.
“The globalising strategies of both Labour and Liberal governments have intensified the pressure on Australian employers to maintain international competitiveness by cutting costs and increasing productivity.” (Wiseman p1)
In the lead up to the 1996 federal election, the Coalition advocated the prohibition of union preference with Mr Reith arguing that “where union membership was genuinely voluntary, unions are more likely to be responsive to the needs of their members.” (Thorpe & McDonald p24) However, it is more logical to conclude that unions would be less responsive to members where membership to unions is not truly voluntary.
The 1998 waterfront dispute concerned the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA), Patrick Stevedoring, Australia’s second largest waterfront company and the Federal government. It began in early 1997 when the Workplace Relations Act came into effect. Officials representing the government, the National Farmer s Federation and the chairman of Patrick Stevedoring, Chris Corrigan, devised to discard the total firm s staff and replace them with non union labour who were employed by nine different contracting companies. Some MUA members were locked out of Webb Dock in Melbourne on 28 January 1998, where a picket line was set up. On the 8 April 1998, Patrick Stevedoring locked out its 1400 permanent staff and 600 casual MUA workers. Technically the workers were not dismissed, were still employed but unable to enter their workplace.(Griffin & Svensen pp 200-201) The worst evacuation of union labour was when security guards with balaclavas and guard dogs forced the workers out. The MUA took Patrick Stevedoring to the Federal Court where temporary reinstatement orders were issued delivered. There was tremendous support for the MUA from the public, due to the media coverage of the conflict. A blockade was forced upon Patrick Stevedoring so that non unionised labour found it difficult to enter the wharves, and although they were instructed to move the backlog of cargo, they were met with an international boycott.
The National Farmers Federation (NFF) colluded with the government because they too had a hidden agenda which was to reduce costs for themselves. According to Dr Wendy Craik, Executive Director, National Farmers Federation, “the low levels of efficiency in our ports has frustrated Australia s farmers for decades, because they demanded to know what happened to that efficiently produced and world best standard product, once it left the farm.”
Dr Craik also claimed that “the cost of getting rural produce across the waterfront constitutes over 4 % of the export price of those goods and this cost has been directly attributable in large part to the existence of too much labour.” (www.nff.org.au/speech99/waterfront.html)
When the Federal Court awarded the MUA with an interim injunction instructing the reinstatement of the sacked workers, Patrick Stevedoring and the government appealed unsuccessfully. The Federal Court had concluded that Patrick Stevedoring had been in breach of the Workplace Relations Act 1996, by violating the employment contracts and conspiring against union labour.
The final agreement included the destruction of 626 jobs; cuts to over 100 working conditions, including overtime and penalty rates; activities such as cleaning, security and line marking were to be given to contractors. Those made redundant would be given preference for the contract employment positions so that job losses could be decreased. The workers were no longer permitted to work consecutive 8 hour shifts and crane rates were to be increased from 18 containers to 25 per hour, in line with the target set by the government.
The government s aim is to support and facilitate the urgent restructuring of the stevedoring industry. The objective is to boost productivity, lower costs, improve reliability, emphasise skills and training and introduce an effective occupational health and safety regime. The government in its ambition to reform Australia s waterfront must remember that in order to increase productivity and be more competitive, it cannot simply clean the slate and start over, but instead give workers and employers alike income security. It is fair to aim to become internationally competitive and have an edge over other countries in our industries, however, the government must look at the full picture, achieve long term goals by establishing short term changes that can aid both the employee and employer.
One aspect that the government should contemplate is that of over time rates and regulations. For example, if the workers get paid double time when working over 40 hours, there is no incentive to work competently during those 8 hours per day but as soon as they start getting double time their efficiency increases. Reform of working hours should be considered, either regulating how often workers are permitted to work overtime or introducing shifts so that even if shifts overlap, the amount of containers cleared per day will increase.
“Actions taken must be lawful, in Australia and internationally: Throughout the current reform process, there is no question that the Australian Government will continue to act within the law. Equally, the Government expects that unlawful action will not be taken by any party, particularly industrial action that involves interrupting Australia’s international trade and commerce, or violating Australia’s federal, State or Territory laws. The Government is taking advice on legal redress available to it to deal with any threats against Australia’s shipping
interests overseas.” (www.dwrsb.gov.au/mreform/main.htm)
This quote taken from a government website is in total contradiction with what transpired on the Australian waterfront in 1998. The government itself was in breach of its own laws, as too was Patrick Stevedoring, and instead of increasing the productivity of the industry, brought it to a sudden halt. However, the public did not see the government, or Patrick Stevedoring, given any kind of punishment from the legal system.
John Howard – conspirer or criminal? Did the Prime Minister conspire to sack 1400 workers across Australia, who were coincidentally union members, and bring in a new and non-unionised workforce? Or was it that he was breaking the very laws that his government had implemented in the 1996 Workplace Relations Act. The changes to the Act directly conflicted with the previous government s commitment to make Australian labour more internationally competitive. Australia is a free and democratic country and although John Howard may be Australia s leader, his title gave him no right to lend a helping hand in the deterioration the waterfront worker s lives, nor did his co-conspirers Chris Corrigan, Peter Reith and John Sharp.
Alexander, R. and J. Lewer (1997) Understanding Australian Industrial Relations,
5th Edition, Harcourt Brace, Sydney.
Howard Government” Labour and Industry Journal. 9 (2):61-78.
Griffin, G. and S. Svenson (1998) “Industrial Relations Implications of the Australian
Jamieson, T. and H. Trinca (1998) “Patrick Sacks Entire Union Workforce” Sydney Morning
Herald 8 April, in Readings in Introductory Employment Relations, UWSN, p 254.
Lee, M. and D. Peetz (1998) “Trade Unions and the Workplace Relations Act” Australian
Bulletin of Labour. 24 (3):5-19.
Thorpe, M. and J. McDonald (1998) “Freedom of Association and Union Membership”
Labour and Industry Journal. 9 (2): 23-41.
Wiseman J. (1998) “Here to Stay? The 1997-1998 Australian Waterfront Dispute and Its
Implications” Labour and Industry Journal. 9 (1): 1-13.