Australia: War on the Docks

— The Editors

AS WE GO to press, Australia faces its greatest labor confrontation in a generation. The struggle exploded April 8, after the Patrick Stevedore firm fired the entire 1400-person union work force and replaced it with scab labor recruited for the purpose.

Dockers and their supporters responded with a blockade of the ports. Emily Citkowski, a Solidarity intern who was visiting Australia for an Indonesia solidarity conference, reported: “With the government’s knowledge, Patrick Stevedores was training scab labor in Dubai, many of whom are ex-military personnel or military people on leave.”

At the port of Sydney, Citkowski told us, mass picketing is generally peaceful, with hundreds of people blocking the gates to stop trucks from bringing cargo. “The cops have been arresting people on the picket, putting them into police wagons, taking them 500 meters down the road and releasing them. The picketers then walk back to the picket line, sometimes to get arrested again.”

In Melbourne, where the state government was more prepared to try to stop pickets, 4000 picketers confronted 1000 police wearing riot gear. “Police assessed the situation, decided they were outnumbered, went to turn around and were boxed in by 2000 building workers who had walked off the job to marxh down to the picket!”

While various court injunctions are being issued—some to stop the firings, some to halt picketing—the Victoria Trades Council has called a 24-hour work stoppage for May 4. A few years ago, a right-wing Australian government brought in American-style legislation that prohibits labor secondary boycotts. The struggle over the ports offers the unions the opportunity to challenge these restrictons, at a time when they enjoy considerable public sympathy.

Obviously, events are likely to move with explosive speed in this battle, which is a crucial one for labor internationally.

The Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) has a long history of working class internationalism. During the 1930s and `40s it refused to load scrap steel on vessels for Japan during the Japanese invasion of China, and banned Dutch shipping during the Indonesian war of independence. In recent times the union banned handling any ships delivering troops or war materiel for the Vietnam war, carried out strikes against South African apartheid, and banned the unloading of Third World rainforest timbers.

For updated information on the struggle and how to send support, contact MUA, 46 Ireland Street, West Melbourne, Victoria 3003, Australia. FAX 011-613-9328-1682.

ATC 74, May-June 1998