MUA---Here to Stay ...Today!


NR Evans

This set of papers comprises an important addition to the on-going debate about Australia's labour market, and the impact of trade union privilege on the effectiveness of that market.

One of the most important political battles in the history of Australian trade unionism began just before Easter, 1998. The union at the centre of this struggle was the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA), an organisation formed from the Waterside Workers Federation (WWF) and the Australian Seamen's Union. Both of these unions had had a long history of Communist leadership, and had established over many years a regime of complete union control of the labour force in the stevedoring and shipping industries. From this position of power they were able to extract huge monopoly rents from the Australian people. What was more significant than the actual amount of money which was extracted as rent, was the economic damage done to these industries, and to Australia, through the enforcement mechanisms which these unions used to maintain their monopoly power.

On the other side of the battle was Patrick Stevedores Ltd, a stevedoring company with a very long history of acquiescence in the union monopoly but now under new management, and in particular, now with a new Managing Director, Chris Corrigan, a man who had achieved fame and fortune in the banking industry.

Corrigan had invested much of his own capital in Lang Corporation, of which Patrick Stevedores is a wholly owned subsidiary, believing that negotiations with the MUA, conducted in a rational and dispassionate manner, and focussing on the future of the stevedoring industry, would enable significant productivity gains to be made, and that this would lead to the rejuvenation of the company. As the months went by he was to become sadly disillusioned.

During 1997 it became apparent to Corrigan that unless a very dramatic change in the MUA's attitude took place, or alternatively, unless the MUA was deprived of its monopoly power on the waterfront, Patrick Stevedores would, before long, become insolvent.

All previous attempts to persuade the WWF, the Seamen's Union, and now the MUA, to give up some of their monopoly rents, or to diminish the economic damage caused through their enforcement processes, had ended in complete failure. But there were two new factors on the waterfront which allowed Corrigan some hope that he might be successful when every previous attempt had failed. The first was that within the Kernot--Reith Act of 1996, there were some new provisions which made illegal industrial action by other unions in support of the MUA, and which imposed substantial fines on law-breakers. The second was the possibility that the farmers, under the leadership of NFF President Donald McGauchie, might be able to provide alternative waterfront labour to the MUA, which up till now controlled, in toto, all trained and certificated waterfront labour in Australia.

It was in this context, then, that Chris Corrigan initiated the tumultuous trial of strength which has, eight months later, resulted in huge productivity gains on the Melbourne waterfront, but at the same time, no gains at all at Port Botany in Sydney. The MUA still retains its monopoly but the monopoly rents (at least as far as Patrick is concerned) have been reduced by perhaps 75%, and the fact that Chris Corrigan, having gambled everything on this historic contest, can now look at his bankers and shareholders with a beaming smile means that life, for the MUA, will never be the same again.

This conference was focussed on the struggle on the Australian waterfront and on the issues which have emerged from that struggle. One issue that will resonate for some time to come is the role of the Victoria Police during that dispute. Melbourne barrister Stuart Wood presented a paper which is of seminal importance.

Other papers covered unemployment---again---and the problems associated with anti-discrimination legislation. Also noteworthy was the opening address by the Federal Minister for Industrial Relations, Peter Reith, who seized his opportunity to defend his Workplace Relations Act of 1996 which has been subjected to considerable criticism by the H R Nicholls Society.

These papers will provide important material for students of the Australian labour market as well as the general reader.

Ray Evans

November 1998