As some of you may know, (some serving staff members lived through it) CPA Group was established in the lead up to the Patrick water front dispute 20 years ago, in 1998.The events of the time attracted a great deal of media and government attention and as such I thought it might be worth sharing some of the detail on how it actually happened.
1998 was the year of the famous waterfront dispute.
The Australian waterfront dispute of 1998 was an event in Australian industrial relations history, in which the Patrick Corporation undertook a restructuring of their operations for the purpose of increasing the productivity of their workforce. The restructuring by Patrick Corporation was later ruled illegal by Australian courts. The dispute involved Patrick Corporation locking out their workers after the restructuring had taken place, with many of these workers members of the dominant Maritime Union of Australia. The resulting dismissal and locking out of their unionised workforce was supported and backed by the then Australian Liberal/National Coalition Government.
Major events in the dispute occurred in four major ports, where the Patrick Corporation had significant operations, Melbourne, Brisbane, Fremantle and Sydney. It revolved around attempts by Patrick Corporation and the federal government to improve efficiency on Australia’s wharves; primarily by reducing staffing numbers and the power of the Maritime Union of Australia.
For CPA Group, the Waterfront dispute started some months before as plans were developed to send ex Australian army personnel to the middle east to learn how to operate container handling equipment. On the eve of the dispute multiple briefing sessions of thousands of guards nationally took place, media scrutiny was high and the chance of a leak was probable should so many people know for any prolonged period prior to the operation. Security was supplied by four different security providers Australia wide (600 staff in Brisbane).
At 23:00 hrs on the 7th April 1998, four busloads of security personnel (in Brisbane) were deployed to take control of all Patrick operations. The sites were working and we had to clear and evict all Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) personnel including the manned gatehouses, this became colloquially known as the night of the dogs. We were the headline the following morning and made national news every day over the following months. The MUA had been founded the year the infamous Painters and Dockers had been disbanded and enjoyed a reputation of being strong men.
As the dispute unfolded the damage to buses used to transport our workforce and that of the non- unionised stevedores through picket lines had us quickly revert to watercraft to transport staff on and off the wharves. Sometime in the first few days we received a rather alarmed phone call from Thrifty Rental Cars enquiring about the damage done to one of their 21 seater buses. It was rather obvious as we had boarded up the broken windows and the pink spry paint down the side was somewhat hard to disguise. Not to mention the windscreen wipers which were the first casualty. I think they soon worked out it was cheap prime time news advertising.
We were also tasked with the close protection of the non-unionised labour at their hotel and all senior Patrick managers residences. We had to alternate car parks and mobilisation points and guard them against reprisals from members of the MUA. Among the many skirmishes there were cars and massed assaults on fences and gates, fires were started in all Patrick car parks. One of the most memorable moments was of a man’s finger being bitten off in an altercation.
There were more comic moments when police intervened to ask if it would be possible that we did not spray the picket line chairs down with CO2 fire extinguishers in the middle of the night (after days of shouted insults abuse and threats one guard thought it would be appropriate) . Another respectful request was for us to stop playing the bagpipe soundtracks at full volume (our still CPA team member anex SBS and Scottish supervisor) The MSQ (Maritime Safety Queensland) launch was tasked with one of the first waterside moves and was found to be over loaded transporting more staff than registered at one point. Every one (scab) gets a nick name of which many were witty – grasshopper, lunchbox thief, pixie scab and boss scab to name a very few.
As a company we went on to conduct security at most of the biggest IR disputes and IMG (Issue Motivated Group) protests held over the twenty years including jobs at Port Headland (multiple), Bowen Basin (multiple), Rockhampton, Karratha (multiple), Townsville, Port of Newcastle, Fremantle, Hunter Valley, Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne. We have just finished the longest ongoing dispute which lasted for 236 days in Central Qld and of course Abbot Point still rolls on.
There have been several books, mini series and documentaries made regarding this dispute along with a play and a song.
‘Roll on’ the hit song by Australian group Living End probably best sums up the dispute, although having gone through every day, the “we’ll protest in peace and keep the whole thing quiet” far more resembled the “wage fuelled riot”:We’ll roll on with our heads held high Our conscience in the gutter Our dreams up in the sky The ship yards are deserted on the docks on Melbourne town The wharfies standing strong They gathered round to see what the union had to say There’s too much work and not enough pay Say! We’ll protest in peace keep the whole thing quiet The last thing needed is a wage-fuelled riot ‘Cos they don’t really care They’re always standing there Running from the outside From the outside Running from the outside world Do you really care? Why are you standing there? Filming for the outside world Do you really care? Why are you standing there? Filming for the outside world Five weeks had passed when the union made it clear Spirits slowly faded and the end was getting near You see you’re all expendable And when all is said and done You’ll go back to work tomorrow Or meet your new replacement son Roll on We’ll protest in peace keep the whole thing quiet The last thing needed is a wage-fuelled riot ‘Cos they don’t really care They’re always standing there Running from the outside From the outside Running from the outside world