A magnificent struggle at the Sydney Patrick docks, backed by community pickets, has stalled Patrick’s attempt to fragment the workforce and put cheap labour on the wharf.

Over 200 Patrick workers have been named in Federal Court documents, 124 of them for directly refusing work orders to load or unload containers from a newly-fenced off empty-container yard, staffed with non-MUA labour. Patrick workers have been threatened at tool-box meetings and by text messages. Some have also been handed letters threatening them with fines and jail if they defy the court orders.

The dispute started around 9 April after fences went up around an area Patrick says it has sub-leased to Qube, although Patrick is owned by Qube. Non-union labour began handling containers in the area. On 9 April, wharfies and activists staged a community blockade of Patrick at Port Botany, shutting it down when workers on afternoon shift voted to go home.

During the industrial action, the union was challenging the non-MUA operation of the Qube container area in the Fair Work Commission on the basis that there had not been proper consultation with the MUA regarding changed work practices as required by the current EBA.

On 20 April, the Fair Work Commission made orders against industrial action and finally ruled decisively against the union on Wednesday 3 May. In the face of orders from Fair Work and the Federal Court, Patrick workers lifted bans on handling the containers. On 4 May, although a community blockade had stopped trucks entering Patrick for a couple of hours, Patrick workers did not vote to go home and cancel the shift, but went into work once the community blockade dispersed. However, with overtime bans still in effect, the dispute isn’t settled.

Qube say they offered to negotiate a “binding enterprise agreement” with the MUA to cover the workforce in the new area some time ago and that the union rejected the offer. But it was obvious that the company was determined to fragment the workforce, establishing an area working for far less and with worse conditions than the current Patrick EBA. Such an agreement would set a precedent to undermine conditions right across the waterfront.

Patrick bosses still say they intend to sue the MUA for damages of $500,000 for each day of industrial action. That will need to be fought too. But with the union and workers facing threats of fines, there have now been discussions between Qube and the union about an MUA agreement.

The Qube workers should be covered by the Patrick EBA. Any other EBA might keep the MUA coverage across the Patrick terminal, but it would mean the bosses have got the upper hand.

Lessons

We need to look at the lessons so far, so we are better prepared for the fight ahead.

It seems Patrick’s workers and the MUA union officials have known for some time that Patrick had plans to open a container yard. There had been discussions with the company since late last year. Every wharfie should have known about the discussions and the company’s plans. Preparations for the fight with Patrick should have begun much earlier, at Patrick, at DP World and Hutchison’s.

It is an old union saying that ‘you don’t win in the Commission what you can’t win on the ground’. The Commission is a graveyard of disputes and is no friend of the workers. Arguing in the Commission is no alternative to industrial action that builds the confidence of the rank and file and hits the bosses where it hurts. There is only one language that anti-union Patrick bosses like Chris Corrigan understand.

It was fantastic that Patrick workers stopped work when the company stood down the three workers in the rail section on 20 April. Patrick is still moaning about being shut down for a whole day.

The key to winning is preparation and a willingness to spread the dispute. The stand-downs should have been the trigger to escalate and spread industrial action. If any containers from the Qube yard came into Hutchison or DP World, wharfies should have been ready to refuse to handle them. Community pickets have a role to play when there are such draconian laws against striking and picketing. There has been great support for the MUA from all sections of the union movement and from activists around refugees, women, LGBTI and Aboriginal rights. But it is industrial action that has the power to win.

New ACTU secretary Sally McManus made headlines when she said that unjust laws have to be broken. Her words were a breath of fresh air for the union movement. Defying the law will be necessary to fight any attempt to fine the MUA or any port worker. If Qube or Patrick takes the union to court we should respond with strikes and demonstrations at the court. Patrick and the other bosses need to know that it will cost them more in lost production than they can ever hope to gain by fining the union or its members.

More action may be needed to make sure that the Qube workers are covered by the MUA with an EBA with stevedoring conditions. The union needs to make contact with the Qube workers to unite the workforce and actively draw them into the fight.

Strong rank and file organisation on the job has been crucial in this dispute. Rank and file strength in the workplace has been key historically. We also saw this during the Hutchison dispute in 2015 when workers staged an illegal strike and defeated mass sackings. And we need rank and file networks across all Port Botany docks and around the country.

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