15 years since the Cockatoo Island occupation

Submitted by AWL on 26 July, 2004 - 12:20

From a speech by Claude Sandaljian at a meeting sponsored by Solidarity, Socialist Democracy and the Workers League on 24 April 2004.

Claude Sandaljian worked as a boilermaker at Cockatoo Island Dockyard (in Sydney Harbour) for 17 years. At the time of the occupation he was the Convenor of the Amalgamated Metal Workers Union (AMWU) and Chairman of the Cockatoo Island Shop Committee, which represented all the workers on the island.

It's very hard to put 14 weeks of industrial struggle into a ten-minute talk, but I'll give a resume.

In 1987 there was a White Paper on defence and the Hawke government decided that they should have their submarines and ships built in WA because they launched the two oceans policy.

Through the ACTU they advised us that the government would no longer provide work to Cockatoo Dockyard. At that time the dockyard was run by Australian National Industries (ANI) was not interested in commercial work. All they were interested in was naval work because they are lucrative contracts.

We went to see the ACTU and there was a blunt message by ACTU secretary Bill Kelty that the decision had been made and that was the end of it. We didn't have any agreement for severance money because the practice in the industry was that we would get ships for six or seven months and there would be sackings every 18 months or so.

We were always concentrating on saving jobs and there was a policy not to accept severance money, and sometimes not even superannuation, so we could keep up the work.

So if the dockyard was going to shut down we decided to ask for some severance money and after we went into dispute for a couple of weeks they came up with a maximum of 26 weeks.

So the Shop Committee said: "We've won something when we had nothing and a lot can happen between 1987 and 1992 in terms of the closure so we'll leave it at that for the moment."

Things went alright until 1989 when it was suddenly announced the dockyard was up for sale. We didn't know what was going on - we just discovered the ad in the Sydney Morning Herald. The island was advertised as the jewel in the crown for real estate in Sydney Harbour.

The Shop Committee met straight away and we took the ferries and marched to Parliament House to protest the proposed sale. At that time the Greiner Coalition government was in power.

There were 13 unions represented in the Shop Committee and we got into consultation with them. They told us we should go and have more negotiations with the federal Minister of Defence, Kim Beazley.

Then we realized that we had to do something about the situation. So the Shop Committee Executive came up with the idea that we should start an industrial dispute to preserve the jobs on the island and that the dockyard should not be closed.

That dispute was going to be a long one and we had to have 100% support because we were not going to muck around and have picket lines because someone was going to come to work. So the idea was to occupy the island because in the past there had been a sort of class distinction on the island. The white collar workers up the hill never joined the Shop Committee and never joined the strikes.

The foremen and the quality controllers kept on operating the island. We had that experience in 1981 when we went for shorter hours. So we said the decision would apply to everybody.

It was my job to convince the white collar workers that they should join us because we didn't want picket lines because we were going to make sure that nobody would work in the dockyard.

After some discussion they saw wisdom and they joined us. The foremen didn't join the strike but they agreed not to cross the picket line. If the foremen stayed home then the problem of the apprentices would be resolved. The apprentices were under contract and couldn't strike, but if there is no supervision then they can't work.

So we had 100% support and we mobilised the troops. On 10 May at 9.00 in the morning we called a mass meeting and we announced the occupation of the island. We hadn't told the union but went straight to management.

I said: "Your island is under occupation." He said: "But that's illegal, this is Commonwealth land." I said: "Well, we'll see what's going to happen."

There were nearly 2000 people on the island and everybody stopped work. We knew we couldn't keep that many on the island so we had contingents ready so that at least one to two hundred would remain on the island at any one time on rotation.

I had a phone call from Pat Johnston, who was a national organiser for the Amalgamated Metal Workers Union, a shipwright and an ex-member of the Cockatoo Shop Committee.

He didn't know anything about what had happened and I told him to come down straight away and bring the support of the AMWU because the occupation was on.

Johnston came across to the island and was against the occupation but by that time it was a fait accompli and all the television channels were coming to the island. In union struggles the leadership may be reluctant but they will support the dispute if it is on.

A dispute like that is tremendously hard to organize. You've got 2000 people and you have to organise hardship money for them, you've got to organise people to go to different sites to collect money and speak about the dispute. At the same time you try to build up support from other unions and that is the most difficult thing to do.

We had an office at the AMWU and another office in Balmain at the Painters and Dockers Union. The Painters and Dockers Union was very, very supportive because if the dockyard closed the union was finished. In particular they supported us with food.

On the day the occupation began there was no food on the island and we had feed about 400 people that night. We had to bring food across from Balmain.

We knew that the media would come and talk to any body so we made it a rule that the media could only speak to approved spokespeople. We did it that way because sometimes the media will put words into your mouth.

The dispute went on for 14 weeks. In the tenth week of the dispute I had a call from the miners union in Queensland saying that they had heard about the dispute and they wanted us to go up and speak to them and collect a lot of money they had raised. In 1975 the miners in central Queensland went on a big dispute for housing and Cockatoo workers helped financially. We had a reputation for always helping people in trouble and so we had a lot of support.

We needed $20,000 a week to support the occupation. It was a nightmare to raise this amount of money.

We tried to lobby the Labor Council to call a general stoppage in Sydney but to no avail. The only thing that happened was that twice the whole of the waterfront stopped for 48 hours in support of the occupation.

We realized then that the tactic of the trade union leadership was to isolate us so we would eventually bleed to death and eventually go back to work. So we began to negotiate with management. They said we would have to restructure but we never gave away any working conditions.

We got the redundancy money increased to 52 weeks plus another four weeks if you were over 55. Nobody would retire and everyone would be retrenched so they could get the retrenchment money. The apprentices also got retrenchment money. That's not common because the apprentices work on contracts. We also won a $3000 bonus on completion of the two submarines.

Finally, when the dockyard eventually closed there was a pool of money in the superannuation fund and we insisted that it be shared by everyone in the dockyard, rather than just to the executives.

We lost our jobs but we learned a lesson. You've got to force your union into dispute. They will never endorse a dispute of this magnitude without pressure.

Every week I had a meeting with the AMWU National Executive. George Campbell, now an ALP Senator, was the national secretary. Every week it was the same: "Call it off Claude, call it off." He didn't want to be seen calling it off, he wanted me to do it, but we wanted to keep going.

For young trade unionists here I say that the union is the body that you've got to work through. Don't attack it, but try to pressure the leadership into supporting disputes.

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