Good morning ladies and gentlemen I am here today as the head of the ACTU to talk to you about what really happened in the 1998 industrial dispute between Patrick stevedores and the Howard government and the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA). In response to poor working conditions on the waterfront, in the past, there was a need for strong unionism to develop so that they could protect themselves from these poor working conditions.
Conservative governments have often been at loggerheads with the wharfies throughout most of the last century. The MUA was previously the Waterside Workers Federation (WWF) and the Seaman’s Union of Australia (SUA). In 1996 it was made clear by John Howard that he intended to pursue industrial reform in trade unions especially the MUA.
On the 28th of January in 1998 Patrick Stevedores cancelled the twilight and nightshifts at Webb dock, in Melbourne, and guards were brought on to the dock to remove the workers and to ensure that no riots occurred. Over the following months tension continued over the proposed use of non-union labour.
The biggest blow came at Easter when black hooded security guards with vicious dogs were used to remove the union members from the stevedore premises in the middle of the night shift and replaced them with non-union labour. The rest of the workforce was dismissed in the middle of the night.
The government had been planning this event for at least a year beforehand, in cahoots with Peter Reith, the Minister for Workplace Relations and Small Business, and Mr. Corrigan, the then chief executive of Patrick Stevedores.
Throughout the government’s campaign against the wharfies, during which period, they tried to create perceptions to you, the public, that the Australian waterfront was overstaffed and the waterfront training was out of date and the workers resisted training initiatives. They claimed that they were overpaid and constantly engaged in ‘rorts’ and that the Australian waterfronts were inefficient by international standards, due to MUA labour practices and they were strike prone and that they must reform as they were impeding Australian international trade performance. All of these perceptions were and still to this day are false.
In accordance with the governments claims that the union was overstaffed they are wrong. In 1989 a program called WIRA (Waterfront Industry Reform) was put into place by the Hawke labour government. This program was designed for reform due to a need for technology and improved productivity. Under this process stevedoring employment was reduced by 57% between 1989 and 1992, this was over 4,900 employees who left the industry. While all these people were being sacked the amount of containers being lifted at ports increased by 64%. The new workforce at the end of the process was on average ten years younger than the previous workforce.
In accordance with the governments claims and furthermore Peter Reith’s claims about wages they are once again mistaken, and from someone who let his son run up a $53,000 phone bill I can’t understand why he’s the one talking about being overpaid and inefficient! Mr Reith claimed that the wharfies were overpaid; he said that in one instance a crane driver in Melbourne was receiving $90,000 per annum for working a 50.3-hour week on average. This claim was grossly exaggerated. The stevedoring award is only $30,000 for 35 hours worked per week. To earn $50,000 per annum a wharfie would have to work a 43 hour-long week. To earn only $70,000 per annum a MUA member would have to work a 60-hour week including nights and weekends. The work that employees at Patrick stevedores do is often difficult, and dangerous. People who operate cranes have a high level of responsibility in operating them, and therefore they are paid in accordance with this responsibility.
The government has claimed that Australian ports were behind their international counterparts in terms of efficiency and productivity. However analysis shows us that there is some difficulty in international comparisons. Some factors even show that some Australian ports are internationally competitive. Australia has low terminal charges, which is supported by high labour productivity and capital utilisation to give a very efficient labour force?
There are a number of reasons why container terminals can’t be internationally compared due to the following factors: the number of containers at a port; how up-to-date the equipment is; the dockyard layout; the cargo layout; the average ship sizes; the number of cranes in operation at one time on a ship; and the types of containers (20ft. and 40ft.).
I admit that we are disadvantaged, in that we have a low volume of containers to handle. However despite this setback our productivity is very close to international standards. In Australia on average we lift 18.5 containers per hour, while the international is 19.1 containers per hour. In some ports around Australia we actually exceed the international benchmark, with Adelaide reaching 21.4 containers per hour on average.
In Australia the government has set the benchmark at 25 containers per hour. For many people this would be considered unattainable, as it fails to take into account the most important influence on crane movements: which is the containers handled in proportion to the capacity of the vessel. This government target is inconsistent with Australian geography?
These waterfront measures advocated by the government on reform and productivity were simply a smoke screen in a political strategy to discredit the MUA, as they did not take into account the real productivity rates under the circumstances.
In relation to the amount of industrial disputes of late, it may be said that the government was exaggerating with what they said. The facts show that the number of industrial disputes inside stevedoring (Australia wide) has fallen markedly within the last two decades. In the 1960’s (1963-69) the number of industrial disputes was 233, and in the 1970’s (1970-79) the number of industrial disputes was 239. In the 1980’s (1980-89) the number dropped significantly to 77, and in the 1990’s (1990-96) the amount dropped even further to 30 disputes.
However in 1996 stevedoring accounted for only 25% of disputes in 1963. However by 1996, when the Howard government was scheming against the MUA, the stevedoring employees only contributed to a tiny 4.6% of industrial disputes Australia wide.
The government and Patrick stevedore claimed that the reason for waterfront reform was that Australia needed to expand exports. Australian bulk export terminals are among the most efficient in the world.
Professor Quiggin from the HSBC said that even if the federal government achieved total victory over the MUA in the dispute the savings as a proportion of total imports and exports would be less than 0.1%.
One way in which this dispute may be solved is that they could improve working conditions on the waterfront, which would in turn encourage the wharfies to increase productivity and efficiency.
Today I have talked to you mainly about the issues of employment/wages, productivity, industrial relations and international trade. I have focussed on an examination of the facts, which show that, the government’s plan was a political one that opposed the MUA, in comparison to a plan based on improving economic criteria such as efficiency, productivity, employment or the current account deficit.
There are a lot of ways in which economic efficiency and productivity can be improved in all industries, including the waterfront. For example the WIRA process in Australia showed what could be gained from consultation and negotiation. The WIRA process is also an excellent example of how labour management relations can be kept at a respectable rate.
However, in the dispute in 1998, the federal government chose industrial and political confrontation, corporate and legal manipulation, and an approach against MUA employees and members of the community.
In the future, when such disputes are to arise, the Howard government’s approach should not be adopted as it is potentially damaging to the Australian economy, national social cohesion and Australia’s democratic traditions.
Thankyou for listening I hope I have enlightened you on what really happened in the industrial dispute of 1998 between the MUA and the Howard government in cahoots with Patrick stevedores.