MEMORIES of 1998 dispute remain fresh in the mind of Maritime Union national secretary Paddy Crumlin.
The snowy-haired firebrand spent the dispute in Western Australia rallying wharfies and supporters at Fremantle (and where the state government of Richard Court was decisively behind the company).
It doesn’t take long for him to get into gear when asked about his clearest memory.
“I think it was just the depth of the involvement of the federal government. As it emerged with the secretly trained people in Dubai, the involvement of (workplace relations minister) Peter Reith and the inner cabinet,” Mr Crumlin says.
“The whole thing was a shock when (security guards with dogs) came in with military timing. But really the shocking thing for everybody was what the High Court found was a probable conspiracy at the highest level.”
While the waterfront has always had a reputation for robust industrial relations Mr Crumlin said the unions (the MUA was only formed in 1993) had been responsible players during the so-called ‘Accord’ (the industrial regime that existed under the Hawke/Keating Labor governments in the 1980s and early 1990s.
“It’s never perfect in industrial relations but there had been a long period of cooperation and functionality so (April 1998) was quite shocking,” he says.
The MUA of course knew a conflict had been brewing. Plans to train a non-union workforce in Dubai had made national headlines and wharfies had picketed Melbourne’s Webb Dock where the National Farmers Federation had set up
P&C Stevedores (a non-union operation).
Politically a document had been tabled in parliament detailing government plans to reform the waterfront while a report from the Productivity Commission put container port efficiency under the microscope.
“So we knew it was coming but had no idea of the legal complexity (involved) and we didn’t expect the whole of the workforce to be sacked and to be set up with the sort of two dollar companies without assets,” Mr Crumlin says.
“Also the size of the preparations about bringing in the stevedores at that time to take over the operations… those things couldn’t have been countenanced by anybody I don’t think and that’s part of the reason the Australian community went into shock.”
John Coombs’ leadership
While based in the west Mr Crumlin kept in close contact with then MUA national secretary, the legendary John Coombs.
“He was a consummate trade union official and tried very hard to get the enterprise agreement (before the lock out),” he recalls.
“He was part of a long-term generation of stevedores who introduced containerisation and were part of the Waterfront Industry Reform Authority in the Hawke and Keating years. He was calm and professional, a very strong fellow, very understated,” Mr Crumlin recalls.
“You might say he was a very avuncular character, good humoured but tough the way Australian maritime workers, wharfies and seafarers are.
“He was very articulate in his blue collar way, very articulate about values and what was important. He was a very humble man.”
At the time Mr Coombs had been dealing with the additional strain of his son’s poor health.
“But he never used to wear any of those family problems. He retired two years after because his son had greatly degenerated. He really didn’t stay on to enjoy the prominence of his leadership because he was a person of great labour authority,” Mr Crumlin reflects.
“He was a recognisable and greatly respected and admired figure who really was committed to it for the right reasons. He was never a politician and never sought to have a political life – he was a wharfie and as he always said ‘that’s the greatest occupation on earth.”
Representing the MUA in court was the so-called ‘beak team’ made up of the barristers Herman Borenstein (later QC), Josh Bornstein, Julian Burnside QC and Mordecai (Mordy) Bromberg (later SC and a Federal Court judge).
“They were sort of civil rights lawyers and did quite a bit of work pro bono. And when they saw and observed what was going on it was shocking to them in terms of their intellectual, political and I guess professional views about the law,” Mr Crumlin says.
“So we were blessed by having such a strong and formidable legal team.”
Senior union figures also leant their support including ACTU secretary Bill Kelty and ACTU assistant secretary Greg Combet who “could quite easily have been leader of the Opposition or even Prime Minister”.
“Greg Combet’s strength of character and sort of understated reserve and his toughness and superior analytical skills and great leadership folded in well with John (Coombs’).”
He also noted the support of people like Bob Carr, the Labor Premier of New South Wales.
“But the real strength was the membership. Those wharfies were made a number of offers to leave including later stages redundancy but they were determined to have justice in their own right,” Mr Crumlin says.
“The fact those guys stayed there under tremendous emotional and psychological and material duress for that period of time was an extraordinary feat of courage and determination.
“I think they were the real heroes of the peace because of their determination.”
Mr Crumlin says workers ultimately made “a series of mature and balanced decisions I think, ironically, in the corporate interests of the company”.
“The real heroes were the wharfies who did the work, returned to work under extraordinarily difficult conditions without an enterprise agreement and I guess for the last 20 years have continued to be vilified by certain parts of the press,” he says.
He concedes there was a redundancy package but denies the final outcome was anything other than a decisive union victory.
“They (the government and Patrick) went into a catastrophic industrial and adversarial war, almost a class war over something that we had been accommodating for generations which was technological change and productivity,” he says.
“In Australia in the last 20 years we have continued to negotiate productivity agreements and never hid from it.
“We never were sacked by P&O Stevedoring – we negotiated outcomes as part of a bargaining process. This was an attack on unionism, it wasn’t an attack to promote productivity.”
One point Mr Crumlin is at pains to make is the level of support they received from the broader community “many of who may or may not have been in a trade union or even agreed with everything the trade unions did”.
“But they knew that what the Patrick Corporation and the federal government was doing was really not part of the Australia that they believed they wanted to live in,” he says.
“Their only political mistake was they thought a relatively small union like the MUA – because productivity increases had greatly reduced the numbers of stevedoring and seafarers in the country – they thought an icon union like the Maritime Union would have been easy meat.
“As it turned out, they couldn’t have got the politics any worse.”
Mr Crumlin says the MUA has been proactive in negotiating agreements to accommodate new technology.
“The only problem with the stevedores is there’s no consistency. They continue to be bought out and Patricks has been owned by three or four companies,” he says.
“The real problem in the waterfront is we haven’t had a social partner to negotiate with and every time they come along they have to reinvent the wheel.
“But the guys out there continue to deliver the crane rates and the box rates. They do it because they know job security is about productivity. These are just honest hard working men and women… who understand productivity equals job security.”