Australian dockworkers win a first semi-victory

Submitted by AWL on 18 August, 2015 - 4:22 Author: Martin Thomas

On the evening of Thursday 13 August, the Federal Court ordered reinstatement of 97 dockworkers whom Hutchison Ports summarily sacked with immediate effect at their Brisbane and Sydney container terminals by email at 11:30 p.m. on Thursday 6 August.

It was a first semi-victory, but only that. In the small print the Federal Court decision says only that the 97 must be on payroll until 31 August, not that they get back into the workplaces. And it looks now as if Hutchison is trying to move out all the containers they have in the terminals so that they can shut down the business temporarily or sell it off.

Resistance inside the terminals, and at the terminal gates, will continue. On 17 August, the day shift went in as usual, but raised safety issues which resulted in the management sending back almost all the trucks which have arrived at the terminal without loading them.

Since the morning of 14 August, a crowd often of hundreds and never of fewer than two dozen has sustained a community assembly at the terminal gates in Brisbane. A large proportion of Brisbane's 41 sacked workers (and many of the workers not sacked, too) have been there, together with workers from the other two container terminals in the Port of Brisbane, large contingents from other unions — the ETU (electricians), CFMEU construction and mining divisions, AMWU (manufacturing), United Voice (the former Liquor, Hospital, and Miscellaneous Union) - students, and left-wing activists.

Although the container terminals are 20-odd km from the city, on reclaimed land at the mouth of Brisbane River, the community assembly was quickly well organised, with vans provided by the ETU and AMWU, an electricity generator, an efficient kitchen, toilets, marquees, tents, entertainment for children. The main marquee illustrated the breadth of support: supplied by and emblazoned with the name of local state Labor MP Nikki Boyd, it was festooned with union flags from many unions and, for a while, an anarchist flag and a placard from the University of Queensland Queer Collective. Local singer-songwriter Phil Monsour has written a song and come to perform it.

Jackie Trad, deputy premier in Queensland's Labor state government, and Curtis Pitt, Treasurer, has come to bring support from the state government. John Battams, president of the Queensland Council of Unions (QCU) and no left-winger, and QCU secretary Ros McLennan, have been there a lot of the time.

Tactics have been a little different in Sydney, but in Brisbane, the dockworkers rostered on for each shift have first joined a meeting at the community assembly at the terminal gates, then marched in to work cheered by the other workers and supporters and carrying union flags. In work, they have monitored the refrigerated containers, but insisted on safety and union negotiations before doing other work.

The first day, management returned every couple of hours to try to instruct the workers, but from 10 to 13 August the managers just went through the motions of instructing the workers at the start of the shift and then retreated to their office. Trucks have turned back on seeing the community assembly at the terminal gates.

The first semi-victory was won by astute industrial resistance and splendid solidarity. Negotiations will follow, and the workers will have to struggle — with the support of their local officials in Brisbane — to ensure that they control the negotiations. In Sydney, some workers were refused entry when they tried to resume normal work on Friday 14, and that leaves unresolved issues.

The background to tactics is Australian labour law. Industrial action is "protected" from legal reprisals only if it is about the terms of an enterprise bargaining agreement, and at agreement renewal time. "Unprotected" industrial action is common, but usually brings court orders to return to work, maybe fines on individual workers or the union, and often then a climbdown by the union.

The Brisbane tactics, apparently more "moderate" than a conventional strike, but as effective or more so in asserting union power, and less vulnerable to being countermanded by the national union leadership under legal pressure, have been possible only with an unusually strong workforce and an unusually strong local union leadership.

The dockworkers have met at least twice a day at the terminal gates.

They have elected a committee, though in practice that hasn't get much further than being a list of people responsible for different jobs. After each dockworkers' meeting, the union's new state secretary, Bob Carnegie, elected only weeks before the dispute, has reported its decisions to the community assembly.

The contrast between the way Bob ran the meetings, and the way union officials usually run meetings, brought to mind Leon Trotsky's comment in his pamphlet Whither France? "Agitation is not only the means of communicating to the masses this or that slogan, calling the masses to action, etc. For a party, agitation is also a means of lending an ear to the masses, of sounding out its moods and thoughts, and reaching this or another decision in accordance with the results. Only the Stalinists have transformed agitation into a noisy monologue. For the Marxists, the Leninists, agitation is always a dialogue with the masses".

Unusually astute and democratically-minded leadership has helped. But just as remarkable has been an unusually united workforce. Almost all the 84 workers at Hutchison's Brisbane terminal (there are 110 in Sydney) are members of the union, the MUA, Maritime Union of Australia. That high union density is not unusual on the waterfront. Unusual was the solidarity which enabled the action to be "carried" by small groups of workers who hadn't been sacked going into work and defying management pressure.

Men and women (yes, there are women dockworkers, two at Hutchison in Brisbane, seven in Sydney: one of the Brisbane women, Hannah Matthewson, has been a leading activist in the dispute); European-Australians and Maoris; workers of more than 20 years experience on the waterfront, and workers who had come into the industry only since Hutchison started up in Brisbane in early 2013 - all treated each other with respect, and insisted the bosses treat them all with respect. Every Brisbane Hutchison's worker I have talked with has said, yes, they knew no other workplace so free from the faultlines frequent even in militant unionised workplaces, where one group of workers thinks itself a cut above another.

Maybe the fact that everyone is relatively new in the terminal (operating only since early 2013), and so everyone has been part of developing it, helps. Maybe the fact that in normal times the job is organised by the workers themselves, with managers mostly staying in their office to do admin. Maybe the fact that all workers are trained to do a variety of jobs in the terminal, so there are no sharp "craft" divisions. In any case, this group of men and women have not been made united just by circumstances; they have made themselves united.

The one serious division in the workforce before the dispute was between operations workers and maintenance workers, created by the fact that the maintenance workers had different breaks, were based in a different building, and had a separate lunchroom.

That division was partly healed in the action: maintenance workers on each shift joined the operations workers in their lunchroom.

The Hutchison workers have also been open and welcoming to other workers coming to support them, without the attitude historically common in strong unionised workforces, of thinking themselves self-sufficient and uniquely stronger and tougher than other workers.

Hutchison, based in Hong Kong, is the world's biggest container-terminal operator. From about 2004 Australia's official Competition and Consumer Commission (set up under the Keating Labor government in 1995) had been pressing for the introduction of a third stevedoring company on the Australian waterfront, otherwise dominated by DP World and Patricks. Hutchison was named as the third operator for Brisbane in April 2007, and for Sydney in December 2009; the two new terminals opened in 2013.

The investment decisions - over $700 million by Hutchison in the two terminals - were conditioned by an assumption on all sides that the rapid increase of container traffic worldwide and through Australian ports which had escalated since 1980 would continue. In fact world trade slumped in 2009 and has recovered only slowly since 2010.

Hutchison responded by trying to "crash" its terminals. In the run-up to the sackings, it subcontracted all its work out to other operators. Its plan must be to break the union and then either restart with lower labour costs and worse working conditions or sell off the terminals.

Solidarity spoke to two of the dockworkers on the picketline.

Damian McGarry: I came from a wharf in Sydney where, while we were strong unionists, there was an us-and-them attitude. The older men had been on the waterfront thirty years, and we were only a year or two in. They did not let us have the same rights as then when we came in the gates. We were the casuals.

I was one of the first ones to come up here to Brisbane, and I decided that I would never let it get like that again. I wanted everyone who came into this place to be on an equal level. Yes, I had twenty years experience, but with the new kids coming in, we did not go down the path of "I'm the crane driver, I'm the team leader, I'm better than you".

A lot of the new workers were non-union. I said to them: you've heard a lot about unions, but it's what we do in here that will define us as a union. The type of people we are, we will look after each other. We've got to work the joint, and we will work all as one. So we've got a good close working relationship with everyone. We worked to keep this place going because we saw it as our future.

That rug has been pulled out from under us now due to gross mismanagement. It all started six months ago when they brought new managers in. Now we know what their plan is: it is to get rid of all of us.

I think this is a Free Trade Agreement blue now. I think Hutchison are heading down the path of "when we invest in your country, we expect the same results as back home. Do they get their own way back in China? My word, they do".

Solidarity: Not entirely. The Hong Kong port workers had a big strike in 2013 and won some things, and although proper unions are illegal, there are probably more strikes in mainland China than in the rest of the world put together.

DM: Ok. But it worries me. There's so much Chinese investment in Australia now. If they get away with this here, then they're going to do the same thing in the mines and all the other places where they invest. While it's our blue, it's also a blue for everyone in Australia.

What now? We've made a decision to abide by the court orders. My view, on the ground, is that we keep those containers in there. If there comes a time when we don't have many containers in there and we're at risk of losing our bargaining power, I'd put a stop to it. We will see whether they're working in good faith if they start running boxes in. If they just run out, and they don't bring any exports in, the game has changed.

Hannah Matthewson: There are a lot of strong individuals in the workforce, and not just people who have been in the industry a long time. We've always seen the first 18 who started, the Phase 2 boys, as seniors, but they don't look down on us. We're all multi-skilled, and everyone was being trained at the same time. No-one is better than another person here. We're really lucky with that.

I've talked with other women on the waterfront, and here is completely different. There are two girls, me and Crystal, and we don't get picked on or anything like that. We're treated the same because we work the same.

Before, I was a vet nurse for seven years, and this is so much better. I loved vet nursing, but here you have the camaraderie, you feel you are part of a collective, whereas before I was a head nurse at the university and it was very divided. Here, we're all one, and the managers are... up there. Here, the work is hard, but you're working with your mates every single day. And the money is so much better.

What next? I reckon we just have to show a presence, make sure the company knows we're still here and we're not going anywhere. I don't think the company understands how strong people are here.

Solidarity: We're socialists, so the big picture, as we see it, is that all this stuff should be owned by the community, democratically controlled by the community, and the workers should decide how things are done in the workplace. Does that make sense to you?

HM: A hundred per cent. At first, when we said we were going to go on picket, I thought it would be twenty of us, sitting out in front. Never in my wildest dreams did I think all these people would turn up. Before we started, I didn't understand how close-knit unions are. I've never been in anything like this before. I've only been on the waterfront two years, and I wasn't in a union when I was a vet nurse.

Solidarity from the UK

At a recent Right to Strike protest about the new anti-union laws outside Iain Duncan Smith’s constituency office, campaigners also took some time to show solidarity with Hutchison workers.

Forty people of all ages attended a sports day and picnic held by Lambeth Left Unity in Brockwell Park, South London, on 15 August, to raise money for the Greek Solidarity Campaign's Medical Aid for Greece initiative. In addition to football (including a Workers' Liberty team) and rounders, we did sack races, three-legged races and egg-and-spoon. The event raised about £100 and also took a solidarity photo for the Hutchison port workers in Brisbane and Sydney. Well done to Lambeth Left Unity – this is a positive example of socialist organising.

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