The Guardian 25 May, 2005


Corrigan still Howard’s union basher

The move by the Howard government to take over the regulation of ports from the states is in part to extend the reach and power of one of their leading anti-union employers, Chris Corrigan. As head of Patrick Stevedores, Corrigan, in collusion with the government and the National Farmers’ Federation, led the infamous attack on the Maritime Union of Australia in 1998. Since then Corrigan has expanded his transport empire, into rail, road, and air as well as the waterfront.

That he is currently at odds with the chief executive of the Sydney Airport Corporation (SAC), Max Moore-Wilton, over airport fees and charges is not the result of a clash of wills but of a push for profit priorities: between Corrigan’s profits from the Virgin Blue airline of which he is the majority owner and chairman, and the profits of Sydney Airport Corporation.

Moore-Wilton, it should be recalled, was Howard’s most senior public servant, the Secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, from 1996 to 2002, when he resigned. It soon became clear why.

In January 2003 Howard appointed him chief executive of the newly privatised SAC. In his role as chief public servant he was a ruthless job cutter known as “Max the Axe”. He has continued to deserve that title at the SAC where he has slashed the wages, conditions and jobs of airport staff. He and Corrigan are simply two favourites fighting over the spoils. The two will play a major part in the government’s attack on the union movement come July after which new legislation will be passed by a government-controlled Senate, bringing into law police state powers to hit the rights of workers and their unions.

The two are set to watch profits soar in the transport industry, and they see most of that increase in wealth coming from cheap labour as a result of getting rid of the transport unions.

If the Howard government succeeds in using its constitutional powers to take over port facilities, the ports will become, as in 1998, a major battleground in the war on the unions.

This time the attack will be under cover of a formal legality through the new laws, with use of brute force by the police and military rationalised by claims the law is being breached, in much the same way that asylum seekers are imprisoned because simply by coming here they have broken Australia’s draconian immigration laws.

Already Corrigan is setting in motion an attack on Virgin Blue workers. The airline has three enterprise bargaining agreements to negotiate this year, and Virgin Blue chief executive, Brett Godfrey, pointedly stated last week that management wants to “trim the fat” and increase productivity. Alluding to the current agreements as irrelevant, he said, “We will be very forceful in our views that we need greater flexibility”.

Under federal administration the ports, like the airports and any other major public assets and infrastructure controlled by Howard and his privateers, will be sold off to the private sector. Corrigan, no doubt, will be first off the blocks with a bargain basement offer.

The extent to which the Howard government is willing to go can be seen laws that are to be introduced to give the Building Industry Taskforce, set up to police the building industry as part of war of attrition against the building unions, powers to take away from workers fundamental freedoms, such as the freedom of speech.

They were also demonstrated in the 1998 attack on the Maritime Union. In some respects it was an experiment, a test of the strength and organisational capacity of the unions. The unions should have taken many lessons from it, not least the importance of unity and of involving the community at large.

The government will also have noted its lessons. Not all employers are on-side with the government’s plans and it is important to know which employers are willing to go to whatever lengths deemed necessary to achieve their ends. Corrigan and the servile but ruthless Moore-Wilton have demonstrated they are willing do whatever it takes to increase profit margins. Cometh the time, cometh the men.

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