The following has been written by members of the Media Arts and Entertainment Alliance (MEAA), who are taking part in the growing support movement for the new battle on the Australian waterfront.
For some weeks now, supporters of wharfies involved in industrial action at Webb Dock, have been maintaining a round the clock presence. They are doing this, because under the existing industrial relations regime, the Supreme Court has prevented the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) from doing it. Other unions are also prevented from being directly involved.
The writers of this article are proud to have joined the ranks of community volunteers and we are taking our own turns at the pickets, located on both road entries to the dock. Together with the others, we are making sure that nothing is going in or coming out.
This dispute is over victimisation and an understanding that behind the employer’s action, is a plan to get rid of wharfies standing up for themselves and their workmates. Behind the actions of this employer, is a determination to push down pay and conditions and to eventually de-unionise the workforce.
Those of us who are giving some of our time to help, know that the Turnbull government is looking for a diversion, to take attention away from the scandals that it is facing. It has already signaled that industrial relations reform and an offensive against the unions is going to be the way to do this.
But an opportunistic motive to find a diversion is not the whole story. It fits in with long standing government policy.
A range of recent disputes and some that are now taking place, show a common theme. This is that they are about the same extension of casualisation, massive cuts to wages and conditions and the aim of eventually removing union representation from the workplace. These disputes show that this is not the making of just one or two employers, but the execution of a strategy combining many of the largest corporations operating in Australia and the Turnbull government.
There is a push for new industrial legislation, the imposition of more restrictions on the capacity of unions to represent their membership, more policing of unions and bigger fines for non-compliance.
The recent and obviously politically inspired raid on the offices of the Australian Workers Union (AWU) and the involvement of the minister’s office, is an eye opener that should shed all doubt that an offensive is gathering pace.
The present battle at Webb dock is part of this bigger picture. It may even evolve into an epic battle on the scale of famous Patricks battle that began on the same dock in 1998. At that time, the employers and the Howard government closed ranks to take on the MUA and the union movement. The scale of public antipathy over what the employers and government were doing, caused an explosion of support for the union and the rest is history. The Howard government was forced into a humiliating backdown and its plan to de-unionise the waterfront came undone.
Webb Dock may now become the catalyst for a second epic battle. The makings of it are already evident. Concern about what is happening about job security and the reward for a day’s work is deeply entrenched through Australian society. Just about every family is feeling the pinch and this is building tinder. Tinder tends to ignite once a match it put to it.
Two differences between this battle and 1998, are that this time round, former Labor Senator Lindsey Tanner was found to be a director, sitting on the board of Victoria International Container Terminal, the company at the centre of the dispute. It is understood that Lindsay Tanner has now resigned from this board.
Former MUA official, Mick O’Leary, is the Human Relations Manager of the same company. This has left union members feeling betrayed, angry and determined to do something about it.
A meeting of thousands of supporters a the scene last Friday made it clear just how strong the determination to take up the battle has become.
At the community picket the mood is very positive. Participants come from all industries. Many are union members. Pensioners and students are also taking part and there is a strong representation from the Port Melbourne community.
A stint or two on the line is an education. Veterans of 1998 and the battle against WorkChoices, which came a decade later and saw the downfall of John Howard and his government, draw comparisons and point out to the lessons learned.
Conversation often turns to the building broader offensive of employers and the government and focuses on what is needed to answer this challenge.
One of the older picketers expressed the view that the “unions should be less concerned about obeying the rules and finds ways to defy them together”. Another agreed and added, “the trouble with accepting the rules. The government keeps on shifting the goal posts. For the unions, this has meant an ongoing retreat, which has resulted in them being undermined, loss of membership and for the workers, this has often meant a backsliding in working conditions”.
This is just a smattering of the sort of thing people talk about on the picket, interspersed within conversations about every day topics. It does not stop with the talk. There is much more. In addition to sharing experiences and opinions, by coming together, the picketers are getting to know each other and building bonds, get to feel that they are sharing in something important, and this builds resolve to press on.
In this way, we are becoming like an army, honing for the battle before us. As time passes, the preparedness improves and shapes up to a formidable force, when linked up to the union movement. For this movement, we are shaping up to be an important focus to draw in public support.
Below are some selected photographs on the supporters meeting last Friday.