Communist Party of Australia

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Journal of the Communist Party of Australia


Some reflections on the CPA’s Participation in the MUA Dispute

by Eddie Clynes

This article is based on a contribution by Eddie Clynes to the CPA Central Committee meeting in May, 1998.

The MUA dispute has tremendous significance in the fight for unionism and workers’ rights. It has played an outstanding role in lifting the fighting spirits of the working class across the country and internationally.

There was a massive underestimation by employers and Government of the working class and wider response in solidarity with the maritime workers. Frustration had built up in many workers through the years of the Accord, of take-backs, of seeing unionism weakened, years of being on the back foot.

At last, someone was having a go! The MUA was representing all workers in their disciplined, organised, fighting way! Others were encouraged by the lead of the MUA and they stepped forward. The whole union movement was mobilised.

Younger workers, many of whom had never been in a real class battle, had their first taste of picket lines, of class struggle, of political education; from union leaders who have lain dormant for years right down to the 16-year-old daughter of an MUA member at Port Botany who wrote and sung a song in support of her father and all MUA members.

The Communist Party participated in the MUA dispute, in the first place through its members who work on the waterfront, including some who were sacked along with the other 2,000 workers.

The CPA also gave solidarity to the MUA members through messages of support, through money raised for the strike fund, through members being on the picket lines helping to stop freight being moved in or out of the wharves.

The CPA’s newspaper, The Guardian, also gave an extensive and consistent coverage of the maritime dispute and it was widely distributed to the workers and supporters, and well-received.

Our participation had many strengths, including the fact that our party President spoke at the Sydney May Day rally, the biggest for years and held at one of the MUA picket lines on the waterfront.

There were also some weaknesses in our participation and we should discuss them.


The attack on the MUA was presented as being driven by the need for “reform” on the waterfront.

The concept of “reform” has been hijacked by bourgeois spokespeople. We need to reject “reforms” which attack workers’ conditions, jobs, wages and rights. We must be more forthcoming in talking about reforms which benefit workers, for example the need for a shorter working week, which is a reform to bring less stress and more leisure, to stop the bleed of jobs, to look after workers’ health and safety.

If we look historically at the drastic reductions in the number of maritime workers, surely the shorter working week has an important role to play in protecting maritime jobs.

“Let’s reform co-operatively” was the basis for much of the social-democratic support for the MUA, especially the politicians such as Bob Carr in NSW and some prominent union leaders.

We have to challenge the Government and social democratic concept of capitalist reform. Bob Carr cited examples of “co-operative reform” in NSW (the water and electricity industries). Many jobs have been lost and commercialisation and privatisation has taken place, but there’s been no confrontation!

Expose profits

In exposing the class nature of their call for reform, we must expose the profits of the stevedoring companies and the shipping lines. They can pay for reforms to benefit workers. Justice North in his judgement favouring the MUA, exposed Patrick’s profitability.

Justice North's judgement says:

Until 7 April 1998, the employees constituted Patrick’s workforce. That is the status quo which existed when the application for interim relief was commenced. Although Patricks made generalised complaints about the employees’ work practices, there is no material which would justify the conclusion at this stage that the workforce was unsatisfactory. Indeed, the company accounts for the year ended 30 September 1996 show that the first respondent (Patrick Stevedores No 1 Pty Ltd) made an after tax profit of $10,911,000 for the year ended 30 September 1995 (the first year) and an after tax profit of $20,431,000 for the year ended 30 September 1996 (the second year). Mr Corrigan wrote in the directors' report, dated 31 December 1996, that:

“The trading profit represents a significant improvement over the prior year as a result of improved efficiency of operations.”

There are other sources of funding too, to pay for pro-worker reforms.

What can socialists and communists bring to this struggle?

Communists have a specific role to play in important class battles, a role which of course includes but also goes beyond support for the demands of the workers.

We have to engage in discussions of policy, convincing people about policy, taking people’s understanding further, winning them to new demands.

For example, we want a new type of government. We have to win support for public enterprise. We know privatisation, the sell-off of Australian Stevedores and the push to sell ANL are the wrong direction!

As socialists a central demand of ours must be the need for the wharves and shipping to be run as public enterprises. That’s the only way to guarantee real job security and that workers retain benefits from reforms. It’s the only way to securely implement a shorter working week.

We must go further than calling for Patrick’s lease to be cancelled because the company had disqualified itself as an employer. It was essential during the dispute to bring in longer-term solutions, such as the need for government-run enterprises, the repeal of the Workplace Relations Act and the 45D&E secondary boycotts provisions of the Trade Practices Act, as well as tackling the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission and its role and ideology.

These issues have to be raised as an integral part of our discourse about the MUA, raised as part of the politics we present to the MUA members and supporters.

We should not be apologetic or timid in raising these demands. It’s vital they be put before the workers.

The party shows solidarity and unity but our role must include presenting real alternative policies to build new levels of unity with a higher political content. Raising such demands at a time of intense struggle is the most effective time to win acceptance for them.


To really combat social-democratic ideology, to challenge the ALP, we have to expose the drive for productivity, for world’s best practice, for what it is. All workers are referred to as “unproductive” when an employer attack is being launched against them. Workers being called “unproductive” means the expected level of profit is not being made by the employer. The call for more productivity is a call for increased exploitation.

Increasing productivity is one of two ways (along with increasing the length of the working day) by which capitalists increase exploitation, increase the amount and rate of surplus value. The call for increased productivity never ends. We should expose exploitation and profit-making.

The MUA (previously the SUA & the WWF) have been involved in productivity negotiations for decades and jobs have massively disappeared. Longer hours have been introduced (de facto) and stress is rampant. Before the dispute another 200 jobs losses were being negotiated.

Many union leaderships in the main accept the imperative of increasing productivity and efficiency and international competitiveness, on capitalist terms. We should seek to expose the ideology underpinning these concepts. Along with this goes the hankering after a confrontation-free industrial relations environment. Indeed, a major criticism of the Howard Government made by many in the union movement is the Government’s re-introduction of confrontation into industrial life.

Real life will impose confrontation on the working class. It is our job to try and lift the blinkers, sweep away the cobwebs, expose the illusions of co-operation, collaboration and trickle-down economics.

We can only do that if we have alternative policies, thereby exposing the futility of pursuing Accord policies, or policies which are acceptable to capitalism.

We don’t accept that there should be further job losses and we need to challenge the idea.

We know wharfies are working double-headers (two shifts in a row), so we can’t be satisfied that “some jobs will go” and accept that as an acceptable compromise! Across the world, workers are fighting for a shorter working week and they're winning. This demand could well be raised in the MUA dispute, and wider.

We know that a typical response to this demand is that it’s “not realistic”, but we’ve got to campaign to put it back on the union movement’s agenda.

Our work

If, as we say, “conditions are ripe for us to do our work”, what is “our work”? Of course, we must explain the struggle, relate the details, but importantly, we must raise policies.

We raise class consciousness by raising strategies and tactics, but also by winning support for policies, generating struggle around them.

Struggling against social-democratic ideology means winning people to alternative policies and building the struggle around them, getting them accepted. There is no such thing as “raising the ideological level” in general when we are formulating our approach to workers in struggle.

Building the united front, in Dimitrov’s words means unity of the working class, in the interests of the workers, that is, around policies which benefit the working class.

If we want to get the supporters of the ALP to come to us instead, which policies of ours will we win them on?

The Maritime Union dispute contains many valuable lessons for the communist movement and it is essential they be discussed. This is the way to strengthen the party and so strengthen the ability of the working class to engage in struggle and win.

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