Sunday 22nd Apr, 2018

1998 Waterfront Dispute: The life of a manager in 1998

Photo: Centre for Supply Chain and Logistics
Photo: Centre for Supply Chain and Logistics

AS AN operations manager at East Swanson Dock Peter van Duyn got a close up look at the dramatic events of April 1998.

Regular DCN readers will know Mr van Duyn as a maritime logistics expert who works for Deakin University’s Centre for Supply Chain Logistics and regularly comments on issues of the day.

He can smile while discussing those events but also acknowledges it was an intensely stressful time for many people.

Painting the scene, he notes there had been a considerable lead-up, with the well-documented case of non-union labour being trained in Dubai and several strikes and ‘go-slows’ by workers.

“So the situation was unsustainable and senior management thought we had to do something,” Mr van Duyn tells DCN.

“Labour costs were that high and some of the rosters were that restrictive it was very difficult to make a quid and the rates of production were so low (Patrick) were just losing money so that is what brought it all on really.

“You couldn’t sustain a company like that.”

Labour costs essentially came down to what management said was ‘overmanning’.

“So they started negotiating the EBA to become more productive and sustainable so that sort of brought it all on, it all sort of escalated,” he recalls.

“Only a very small core of people knew what was going to happen (with the lockout), but there was a lot of speculation that something was going to give.”
The lockout occurred at 11pm on April 7 (in Melbourne and Sydney) at the end of the twilight shift and at the time Mr van Duyn was tucked up in bed.

“So I spoke with the terminal manager (next day) and was told to take it easy and sit tight for a few days.”

Later he was charged with directing the non-union workforce, however getting to work became an effort in itself.

“We couldn’t just drive in due to the picketers outside the gate. Some managers arrived by helicopter, but most of us arrived by speedboat.

“We were picked up by the old World Trade Centre,” he says.

“I can laugh about it now, but it was a very stressful time for a lot of people. There were lots of threats being made and it wasn’t very pleasant.

“Some people’s children were abused at school and in some cases property of the managers was damaged so it wasn’t a fun time.”

But he believes the final settlement was a good one.

“In the end, everybody won out. The company reduced manning and was profitable again while the MUA retained coverage on the wharf,” he says.

“There are still some hard core union people – those who accuse others of being ‘scabs’ – which is unfortunate.

“Things happen but we as managers had to do our job and they as a union did their bit to try and get back into the gate.

“In the end, as in most negotiated disputes, there is a compromise.”

Mr van Duyn says productivity ultimately increased after a settlement was reached, although it took a while for things to settle down.

So where were the areas of improvement?

“So in the manning scale there were gangs of 12 (workers) reduced to about eight so they were quite sizeable reductions as well as overall better productivity.

“Then a lot of workers, especially the older ones, got very generous redundancy packages so in the end it wasn’t too bad,” he says.

“Nobody was sacked as such.”

Mr van Duyn noted the efforts of the non-union labour who he said were “very keen to do well”.

“It was obviously difficult for them to achieve high productivity rates as it was a completely new workforce and while they had some previous training they needed more ‘on the job’ training,” he recalls. “They were obviously very disappointed when the negotiated outcome meant that the MUA labour came back in the gate.”

So could such a dramatic industrial dispute reoccur in Australia?
Mr van Duyn notes the pre-Christmas picket outside Victoria International Container Terminal in Melbourne and some confrontations across the Tasman at Lyttelton, New Zealand.

“With the MUA/CFMEU now joined they’re a very powerful union but let’s hope not,” he says.

“I believe in having a union as long as they don’t get too powerful. Especially for workers who are at the lower end of the scale and who haven’t much bargaining power I think it’s important for them to have an association or a representative body.

“But if they get so strong that they can actually use, in some cases, thuggery tactics and bullying to get their way then that’s not the right way.

“But having said that there are also employers who do the wrong thing.

“You just hope we have matured and can get sensible negotiated outcomes in the future.”

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