History: The 1998 waterfront dispute

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The 1998 waterfront dispute was a massive class battle that took place between Patrick Stevedores and the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA).

It was in 1997 that the Howard government first decided it was going to attempt to destroy the MUA. Howard sought help from Chris Corrigan, who was the owner of one of Australia’s biggest stevedoring companies, Patrick Stevedores. The MUA / Patrick dispute has been described as one of Australia’s biggest ever industrial battles and there are still many lessons we can learn from it today.


Howard and his Industrial Relations minister at the time, Peter Reith, wanted to smash the MUA and introduce a non-union workforce on the wharves. This would open the way for them to introduce further “productivity gains” in the form of cuts to wages and conditions. The hope was that if they could smash the MUA it would encourage other bosses to take on union power in other industries.

Under the Labor government of Hawke and Keating, in the name of boosting productivity, the MUA had already made concessions to the tune of $200 million a year and 4000 jobs. This however was not enough for Howard who saw the waterfront as a union stronghold and a key area to attack if he was to push through his neo-liberal agenda.

After winning the federal election in 1996 Howard introduced a piece of anti-union legislation called the Workplace Relations Act. Amongst other things, it curtailed workers ability to strike and had provisions to fine unions for “illegal” industrial action. In July of 1997 after this legislation came into effect, and after months of discussions amongst the ruling class, the Howard government cabinet voted to support Patrick and take “radical action” against the MUA.

In September Patrick began restructuring its operation and outsourced its workforce to several labour-hire companies. In December about 30 former and serving military personnel were flown from Australia to Dubai to train as scab wharfies. Patrick wanted to use these scabs on Australian docks but was later forced to abort this operation after the Dubai government withdraw trainee visas fearing threatened international industrial action. The MUA had made a successful appeal to the International Transport Workers Federation for support.

Ruling class strategy

The tactics of the ruling class in the dispute were clear. The government could not use either Patrick or the other major stevedoring company, P&O, to sack MUA members and bring in non-union labour as this would break legally binding agreements held between the companies and the MUA. This would open the door for the MUA to take legal industrial action and breed massive sympathy for the union.

Instead a new company was set up called P&C Stevedores. This company received massive financial backing from employer groups including the National Farmers Federation. The federal government also weighed in with political support and then financial support, offering tax revenue to help pay for redundancy packages for wharfies. The plan was to set up this non-union company as an island of scab labour in a sea of MUA labour aiming to undercut union organised wharves.

In late January 1998 Patrick sub-leased part of its Webb Dock facilities in Melbourne to P&C Stevedores and locked out its unionised workforce. This sparked union protests across the country. The MUA also began to take limited protected industrial action in Sydney, Fremantle, Melbourne and Brisbane to put pressure on Patrick to sign new union enterprise agreements.

April 7 was the day many say full-blown war broke out. Following late night raids on port facilities around Australia by security guards with dogs, Patrick sacked its entire unionised workforce of 1400 permanents and 300 part-time workers and locked them out of the premises. The company announced that it would “outsource” a range of its services including to its own labour hire company, P&C. Workers promptly set up picket lines at every major Australian port.

Union strategy

The strategy of the MUA and the ACTU was also clear. Because of the Workplace Relations Act the union was fearful of taking mass strike action. They were afraid of the threat of fines and union deregistration. The union had a strategy where they would engage in “legal” industrial action and lean on international solidarity by calling for a boycott of P&C Stevedores across the world. They also had a strategy of fighting the dispute in the courts with the help of some high profile lawyers.

They planned for a long campaign. Instead of testing the law they would fight in the courts, run a propaganda campaign against the government and hope for a Labor Party victory at the next federal election. They hoped the Labor Party would be less vicious towards the union and at least involve them in the process of “reforms”.

In response to the lockout the Victorian Trades Hall Council (VTHC) organised a mass delegates meeting on April 16 to discuss the dispute. In this meeting the delegates voted to organise a state-wide day of action on May 6. This was a massive boost to the locked out wharfies especially in Melbourne.

In the first taste of the lengths the government was prepared to go to, 140 riot police smashed up a protest camp in Fremantle, Western Australia, during the middle of the night. In the first act of mass solidarity during the dispute, 2000 supporters gathered at the picket line within hours to stop all trucks moving in and out.

Mass pickets that were held in Melbourne on April 17-19 at East Swanson Dock signalled a turning point in the dispute. Many workers attended the picket lines every day but on Friday April 17 thousands came out as the union was tipped off that 1000 police would attempt to break the line. It is estimated that by 3am over 4000 people were on the picket. Rows and rows of workers, students and unemployed standing firm with arms linked. There was a tense stand off right throughout the night as the police antagonised the picketers.

At 8am the cavalry arrived in the form of 2000 construction workers who marched towards the picket and encircled the police. This led to the police being forced into an embarrassing retreat. This action in itself was a massive moral and physical victory. Both Corrigan and the government realised this and it was at this time that they started to waiver. Never again were large numbers of police used at the pickets.

At the same time 186 people were arrested on the picket lines in Brisbane. A day of action in Brisbane and a mass delegates meeting in NSW was organised.

Direct action gets results

In early May the MUA also had a legal victory in the courts which forced 370 scab workers off the docks. The MUA members were then reinstated to the wharves. In Victoria the VTHC Day of Action went ahead on May 6 and over 80,000 people marched through Melbourne in support of the MUA and against the Workplace Relations Act.

The victory on the picket lines in Melbourne coupled with other mass actions around the country and the legal victories put Corrigan and the federal government on the back foot. The union movement was winning the propaganda war and the bosses realised that they had perhaps overestimated their strength. Corrigan decided to back down and start the process of negotiations. He realised that he had to engage the union in the process of achieving so called productivity gains.

In late May as the workers were back in the gates, and negotiations were progressing, the picket lines were disbanded. In June Patrick and the MUA finalised the framework agreement for resolution of the dispute and P&C terminated most of its scab staff. Meetings were then held amongst MUA Patrick members who voted in favour of the framework agreement. There was some opposition in Melbourne however where 25-30% of members voted against the agreement. Elsewhere the agreement was accepted with only a few votes recorded against.

It wasn’t until August however that a settlement was reached between Patrick and MUA and new enterprise agreements were endorsed. In September the final settlement was drawn up which unfortunately included many redundancies and massive levels of previously unseen casualisation on the docks.

So who won?

It is fair to describe the settlement to end the MUA / Patrick dispute as a victory but also as a lost opportunity. The MUA dispute had many positive aspects. Firstly the MUA proved that they were still a serious force to be reckoned with on the docks. The bosses realised that it was not worthwhile for them to attempt to introduce counter reforms on the waterfront without the involvement of the union.

The dispute was also perhaps a turning point in terms of the revival of many great working class traditions. Some of these included the mass picket, the barricade and of course solidarity action from other unions and the community. In fact community involvement and participation of students, unemployed and many people who had never been to a picket line was second to none. The dispute demonstrated that workers in their thousands were prepared to go to extreme lengths in order to protect jobs and conditions, whether it was in their own industry or not.

In the sense that the Howard government wanted to smash the MUA, introduce non-union labour to the wharves and demoralise the rest of the union movement in the process, this dispute was a total failure. The active movement of thousands of people at the pickets stopped the Howard government in its tracks. Even the combined forces of the government, Patrick, the police and private security was not enough for them to win this dispute.

The main slogan of the dispute was “MUA here to stay”. This slogan became part of popular culture and is still in the consciousness of many workers today. But this slogan meant different things to different people. To the workers it meant that no boss would crush their union. To the union leaders it meant that restructuring had to happen but they wanted their seat at the negotiation table.

In effect the final deal maintained the MUA’s presence on the wharves and was a morale boost to workers everywhere. It is fair to say the likes of Howard, Reith and Corrigan received a bloody nose. But the settlement led to 629 voluntary redundancies, the working week was increased to 40 hours, and the highest rate of pay was up to 30% less than before the dispute. Massive levels of casualisation were also introduced. So much so that many workers on the wharves now live hand to mouth forced to ring up computer answering machines on a daily basis to find out if they are rostered on.

Alternative strategy

At the time Militant (forerunner to the Socialist Party) argued for the unions to adopt a different strategy. Militant said that the MUA should prepare its members and the entire labour movement for mass industrial action to shut down Corrigan’s sham operation. If all unions had of acted as one, it would have been impossible for the government to implement its anti-union legislation in any effective way.

The main reason this strategy was not taken on by the union leaders was the fear of massive fines and the fear of losing control of the situation. People like Greg Combet, later a Labor Party MP, cut their teeth in this dispute and used many of the same lines they used in the campaign against the Work Choices legislation in 2007. Lines like “We need to be clever”, “We need to box smart” and “Strikes are a thing of the past” were used to convince workers that some smooth media personalties, some fancy lawyers and an orientation to the Labor Party were our best chance for survival.

Militant argued against this strategy, just as the Socialist Party argued against the similar strategy to defeat Work Choices. We said that if the law says it is illegal to undertake the democratic right to strike in order to defend a union and hard won wages and conditions then it is an unjust law and deserves to be broken. As long as class divisions exist there is no other effective replacement for workers withdrawing their labour.

Union leaders have no alternative to capitalism

The problem was, and is still the case today, that there had been a massive shift to the right in the union movement. During the previous Labor government of Hawke and Keating, and the introduction of the Prices and Income Accord, the union movement was forced to rely on doing deals with the government and to a certain extent had forgotten how to fight on the ground.

Another factor was that there was no large socialist party to the left of Labor, unlike in earlier times where the Communist Party had provided an ideological alternative to capitalism. There was no left group that was big enough to act as a pole of attraction to an important layer of workers and youth.

Given this situation most union leaders and most workers saw no alternative to the capitalist market system. They accepted the arguments of the bosses who said that productivity gains (i.e. profitability gains) were required and that the only way for Australian wharves to survive was to cut jobs and conditions. It is unfortunately the case that most union leaders think that in an era of capitalist globalisation it should be workers wages and not bosses profits that are cut.

This is an absurd position to have given that all statistics point towards the fact that the divide between rich and poor is widening. Never before have profits occupied such a large percentage of GDP, while workers wages are continually being squeezed. With no alternative to capitalism most union leaders thought it better to at least be consulted and involved in this process. The dispute centred on the fact that initially the likes of Corrigan and Howard wanted the unions completely removed from the process.

Whilst the MUA secured a partial victory in the 1998 Waterfront dispute the one thing that it proved is that you can’t win more in the courts than you are prepared to fight for on the ground.

By Anthony Main

The above article was originally published as a centre page spread in the April 2008 edition of The Socialist newspaper marking the 10th anniversary of the dispute.