Wednesday, April 27, 2005

MUA struggle: how we beat Howard last time

"Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) state secretary Martin Kingham pointed out that the government made the battle easy. It announced its targets well in advance. The CFMEU, traditionally a militant union, considered the struggle an opportunity to train new activists and develop new industrial tactics."

As the federal Coalition government broadens its attacks on unions, militant unionists are looking back to the 1998 Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) battle for lessons on how to defeat the new industrial relations legislation.

A panel of three Melbourne union leaders discussed these lessons at a seminar organised by the Union Solidarity Group on March 19.

“It’s never been a better time to be in a union”, declared MUA state secretary Kevin Bracken, suggesting a “slogan for the times”. Despite a well-prepared campaign against it, the MUA found a reservoir of support in its members and in the community. The union began the defence campaign on a restrained note, ignoring provocations to start fights with scabs, and settled in for a long fight.

This victory was won after years of attacks on wharfies’ conditions. The 1990 restructure of the waterfront got rid of 3000 workers, and only a few hundred new young workers replaced them. An overtime culture developed among wharfies. In 1996, an unpopular enterprise agreement involving productivity bargaining began to ignite dissatisfaction among members. When the first attack came in 1997 — a non-union operation established in Cairns — it was defeated with solidarity boycotts by local truck drivers and the US International Longshore and Warehouse Union. This gave workers some confidence to begin a fight.

Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) state secretary Martin Kingham pointed out that the government made the battle easy. It announced its targets well in advance. The CFMEU, traditionally a militant union, considered the struggle an opportunity to train new activists and develop new industrial tactics.

The CFMEU established a roster to organise picket attendance across construction sites instead of relying on the big jobs all the time. This spread the load between sites (and employers) and sustained the dispute for the long haul. These same tactics were used during the battle around the royal commission into the construction industry, to survive a drawn-out dispute.

The broader community, well beyond the militant unions, was vital to the defence of the MUA. Bracken related the story of an older woman who caught the train from the outer suburb of Dandenong, then walked several kilometres from the station to deliver picketers a cake she had baked. Other visitors to the pickets included various ethnic, religious and other communities that MUA members belonged to.
Workers First team welding barricades at East Swanston Dock
Textile, Clothing and Footwear Union Victorian secretary Michele O’Neil defined one of the central aims of union-community organising as mobilising the maximum number of supporters. She described the tight organisation of unions that made this possible. MUA members had the final vote on actions in the dispute, but other union leaderships were involved in nightly meetings to coordinate the campaign.

The campaign was able to mobilise thousands in a couple of hours with a phone tree. This was vital, as there were very real possibilities the police could dismantle the pickets at any time if the numbers on the picket line dropped too low.

Through all the twists and turns of the campaign, the “decisive night” of April 17 was the stand-out event, according to Bracken. Several thousand East Swanston Dock picketers stood through the night, facing off all of Victoria’s available police, until thousands more construction workers arrived at dawn, forcing a nervous police retreat.
Standoff: Dawn breaks at East Swanston Dock, April 18 1998
The campaign carefully built its public case: Support was canvassed. The scabs, and their handlers, were exposed as balaclava-clad thugs. Other unions were drawn in. When it came to the April 17 showdown, the unions won — the biggest mobilisation of police from all over Victoria could not break the union pickets, because they were too large. “Never underestimate the capacity for ordinary working people to be mobilised!”, declared O’Neil.
Melbourne solidarity strike and mass rally for MUA, May 6th 1998
Just as some unions have learned from the MUA dispute, so too has the government. The frontal assault and telegraphed punches of former workplace relations minister Peter Reith’s campaign have not been duplicated in the assault on the CFMEU. We have yet to see the form in which the new attacks will be presented. But by mobilising the diversity of the working class in militant action, this government can be beaten back.

Originally published in Green Left Weekly issue 624, 27 April 2005.
Photos by Ben Courtice

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