The most important industrial disputes that I’ve been involved in were the 1985 SEQEB (South East Queensland Electricity Board) dispute; the maritime dispute of 1998; and the 63-day Queensland Children’s Hospital construction workers’ dispute of 2012, after which I had a long battle against both criminal charges and litigation for civil damages.
A more important strike that I had a little bit to do with was the British miners’ strike of 1984-1985. The Seamen’s Union of Australia in those days put on a complete ban on any coal to go to Britain during the strike. Not one ounce of Australian coal was utilised to break the miners’ strike during the 1984-85 dispute. As a young rank-and-filer, I was exceptionally proud of that.
The SEQEB dispute lasted from early February 1985 until probably September of that year. Australia had had 62% unionisation in the mid-1950s, and the rate was even higher in Queensland. By the mid-1980s, unionisation had dropped to about 50%, mainly because of a shift in employment from highly-unionised blue-collar to less-unionised white-collar jobs, but unions were still very strong in basic industries. (The unionisation rate is now only 17%). Queensland had a long history of Labor governments. In 1957 the trade unions expelled Labor premier Vince Gair from the Labor Party in 1957 because of his refusal to follow a party mandate. That was a signal of the unions’ confidence and strength, but Gair led a split which was sizeable for a while.
The right-wing National Party ran the state from 1957 to 1989, and the ultra-conservative Joh Bjelke Petersen from 1968 to 1987. Petersen Bjelke Petersen was not confident to take on a major union until conditions changed — under a federal Labor government. Bob Hawke’s government, from 1983, pushed through much of the adaptation to world-market capitalist competition which Thatcherism imposed in Britain, but under cover of an “Accord” with the union leaders. Of the three disputes I’ve mentioned, two of them were under Labor governments, only one was under a Conservative government in Australia.
The economic argument is there whether a Labor or a Tory government is in power. Class struggle doesn’t stop because the Labor Party forms the government. Often it intensifies. In 1985, Bjelke Petersen’s state government felt confident enough to de-unionise part of a major unionised industry. In February it sacked over 1,000 workers who maintained the transmission lines and who had been involved in a long-running dispute about wages and conditions.
The dispute escalated immediately and had a major impact. For 15 days, in the middle of a very hot summer, there was one hour of power and one hour of outage. The power operators were heavily involved in supporting the SEQEB people. A lot of pressure was brought to bear by sectors of the conservative labour movement, as well as by employers and the state government, upon those power operators. A deal was struck that saw the power go back on. Once power supplies were restored, we had to fight a guerrilla war, against the forces of the state. From then on it was always going to be difficult to win that dispute. Many workers were arrested.
Active in the dispute as a seafarer supporting the SEQEB workers, I was the first to be arrested. As the dispute went on, I was arrested another eight times, and jailed for 22 days in a maximum security prison. As revolutionary socialists, we learn lessons from disputes, we take those lessons forward. Even if we’re knocked down, we get up again, dust ourselves off, and go to rebuild our industry even under great difficulties.
It is to the historic credit of the Electrical Trade Union that though the scab-herding in 1985 was very successful, in the end the union has been able to fully unionise that industry again. The government wanted to contract out all the work on the transmission lines, but the union now has everyone under union contracts where they earn wages and conditions like any other permanent worker. That took many years. People thought that the ETU would never achieve re-unionisation of that industry after the defeat of 1985. But they did.
I was involved in the waterfront dispute of 1998 as an elected organiser for the Maritime Union of Australia, which had been formed by the merger in 1993 of the Seamen’s Union of Australia and the Waterside Workers Federation. There had been a couple of years of build-up. Then on 7 April 1998, the Patricks Corporation, then one of two major operators in Australian ports, locked out 2,000 members of the Maritime Union in the ports and tried to replace them with scab labour which they had trained up in secret overseas. Patricks had strong support from John Howard’s conservative federal government. Huge picket lines, or “community assemblies”, were quickly set up at the ports.
In Brisbane, on 21 April, we had a mass arrest of 186 workers, some blocking the road outside Fisherman Island, some supporting workers chained across railway tracks. But the pickets remained strong. That same day the Federal Court made an order reinstating the unionised Patricks workforce, but Patricks immediately appealed. On 4 May the reinstatement order was finally upheld by the High Court, and Patricks was forced to dismiss the scab labour. I have often described that dispute of 1998 as a matter of the leaders of the Maritime Union and the Australian Council of Trade Unions snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. What we won on the picket line was lost on the negotiating table. The workforce was reinstated, but with numerous sackings and victimisations, and eroded conditions.
The great tragedy isn’t so much erosion of wages and conditions as the systematic destruction of the culture of dockworkers in Australia. Sometimes, from an employer’s viewpoint, that is the most important thing that they can achieve. Once a strong culture of solidarity is broken, you get atomisation, people think only about themselves, and the employers can gain control. There was once a strong culture of solidarity on the docks in Britain, and that was largely broken by Thatcher in the 1980s. The culture of solidarity has not been entirely broken in Australia, but it has been fractured.
Casualisation came in in a huge way after 1998. For decades before 1998, almost everyone who worked on the Australian waterfront had a permanent job. A few casuals had become a part of the culture from 1992, but it took off after 1998. We have regained some ground in some places since then. We now have an agreement at the Patricks container terminal in Brisbane where all the workers are permanents again. But in most areas in the ports there are many different grades of workers now, from permanent full-time through semi-casual to casual.
Over the decades, I have become much more cynical about the trade union leadership. I used to be very wide-eyed about it all. But through quite bitter personal and organisational conflicts that I’ve encountered in dealing with trade unions and trade union leaders, I have gained a much more realistic view. In some respects the trade union movement has lost its way. The trade union movement, as well as being the focal point for workers when they have problems, as an organisation to defend and improve workers’ conditions and wages, should also improve and heighten the culture of working-class people. The unions have abandoned that. Certainly in Australia they have, and in Britain there doesn’t seem to be a huge amount of work done on cultural matters by trade unions.
The neoliberal attack over the last 30 years has created a very defensive-minded trade union bureaucracy. You get what I call bricks-and-mortar officials, whose stand is that they will do anything to defend the bricks and mortar of the organisation and its bank accounts. We all understand that unions need money and offices to operate, but it matters what they do with those assets. By making excuses about why unions can’t do anything, instead of going out and defending the rights of working people, trade union leaders have sold the pass. I don’t buy the story that it’s just a neoliberal attack from the right that has seen union membership collapse. This conservative outlook that has developed in the trade union movement has also contributed to the massive decline in union density.
With the rise of a very aggressive state, and emboldened employers, in the early 1980s, the union leaders’ response was mainly to go and hide their heads in the sand. Not all of them: to their eternal credit the National Union of Mineworkers in Britain took on a struggle to save their industry. But how many other unions went into battle to save their industry and to make sure that there would be decent full-time work for other generations of Australian workers, of British workers, German workers, French workers and whatever? The union leaders have been asleep at the wheel. It is definitively a political question.
When I talk about cultural matters in trade union organisation, it is a political element, but also an element of working “family life” and how workers relate to each other as people. Patricks before 1998 was the closest-knit group of workers that I had ever encountered. They had created a type of working where the boss made sure that there was money put in the bank each week, but had nothing to do with the job: the workers could run the job themselves, and well. After the dispute, the level of management on the docks grew quickly. Staggeringly so. You found new layers of management where there weren’t before. You found workers in some cases being timed going to the toilet, or being told how many toilet breaks and having to swipe in and out for them. It turned the job from one where workers would break their neck to get to work so they could do a bit of work and see their mates, into a job that was just a job.
In 1998, the Maritime Union of Australia leadership and the ACTU wanted the dispute stopped because it was starting to get out of hand. The West Coast longshoremen were doing amazing work in California, which was one of the finest acts of trade union internationalism I have ever encountered. Wharfies in Los Angeles refused to unload a scab-loaded ship, the Columbus Canada, and eventually it had to sail back to Australia, still loaded. The pickets were still growing towards the end of the dispute. So it wasn’t like the dispute had run its course. But the leadership of the Maritime Union were bewildered by such an aggressive campaign from the government in support of an employer. If you didn’t know that the Patricks boss, Chris Corrigan, was going to attack the union and be heavily supported by the government, you must have been living on another planet. But the leaders were unprepared.
I had been the branch president of the Queensland Branch of the Seamen’s Union from 1988 to 1993, and I also worked as acting assistant secretary in the port of Brisbane, unpaid. In 1993 I was elected assistant secretary, and the post became Branch Organiser of the newly merged Maritime Union. So, five years as a full-time official, and then I had a disagreement and I resigned in 1998. I was having continuing problems in debates with, mainly, the Stalinist section of the Maritime Union of Australia, which was mainly organised around the seafaring part of the industry. I was thinking more and more about revolutionary socialist politics — people such as Orwell and Serge, and eventually Trotsky. And that was like putting a red rag in front of a bull.
I didn’t handle things well. I had known the leading union people from when I was a young man, and I felt that really I couldn’t go against them. Instead of going to the membership with the problems I was having, I internalised them, and thought that the noble thing to do would be to resign. That was the single most stupid decision I have made in my life. It cost me dearly. It cost me five years of my working life. It also shows the importance of being a member of a socialist organisation so that you can talk to your comrades about problems. I found it virtually impossible to talk to anyone in the union about the problems, as they would run straight to the leadership and tell them that I was against them. I just thought they were completely on the wrong track — but I left instead of taking them on in a political struggle.
In the three big disputes I’ve mentioned, I was a worker or union official in the industry only in one, the Patricks 1998 dispute. I had worked briefly on the Queensland Children’s Hospital site before the 2012 dispute, but I was out of work at the time of the dispute. I got involved out of principle and because I was asked to get involved. There was a story spun that I was just “a community activist” to try to deflect the injunctions which banned union organisers from the vicinity of the construction site. But I was doing what the workers wanted. In the end I did not precisely coincide with what the union hierarchy wanted, though they had wanted me to get involved when their own organisers were hit by the injunctions.
In the end we had a significant victory, but with some heavy casualties. I don’t cry over spilt milk, but it’s a worry that I might not ever find regular paid employment again in Australia. I had a few jobs on construction sites after the dispute, but when the employers sacked me, as they did, the union officials looked the other way. The only way I can see myself getting a job is if a union picks me up — and I am regarded as an uncontrollable leftwing radical. Charles Manson would be better received. It’s a concern.
My next job will be my 77th in my working life. Everywhere I go I get moved. Even if I don’t open my mouth, I’m moved. I didn’t throw myself into that QCH dispute thinking that everything was rosy within the construction union, the CFMEU. I was a former official in the Builders Labourers Federation [which has merged into the CFMEU], and I knew what things are like in construction trade unions. But when I was asked to go and help with the dispute, there were agreements made about helping me find work — not work in the union, just simple work in the industry.
I had disagreements with some of the leadership, and that disagreement means that that offer has dried up. That’s that, and they know full well that I’m not the sort of person that’s going to make a big case out of it, so I have to try to find work, and that worries me.
I’ll go right back to give you an example of the problems I’ve had with Stalinism since I was a young man. I knew something was wrong, but I refused to admit it at the time, because I wanted to be a union official and I knew that you had to play a certain game. When I was jailed after a very violent arrest in the SEQEB dispute in 1985, I spent 22 days in maximum security prison. I was trying to set up a house with a woman. I’d not worked for several months because I wanted to be around to support the electrical workers. I had the mistaken belief that my union, which had collected well over $120,000 for various things, might help. But I soon found out that I had overstepped the mark in the union.
When I got out of jail, there were lots of people saying “oh great Bobby, you’re free”. I spoke to a union official. I hoped that maybe, as I hadn’t worked for so long, they might have a few dollars. Not full-time pay for the time I was in prison, but a bit of something. But there was nothing. So I had to get a bus from the Magistrates’ Court to go back to the prison, to get a letter from the prison, to go to the dole office so that I got a dole cheque. And that was more or less my old union saying, you might have principles, young fella: but you’ll have our principles, you will not step outside. That was a lesson I learned.
In that dispute I was always looked upon as a bit unsteady. I ended up becoming a maritime union official because they knew that if it went to an election I’d have won it. I stood in an election from eight people for four delegate places to go to a conference in Sydney, and I got 348 out of 352 votes. I had a bit of standing with the rank and file. Of course, swimming against the stream for a long time, is tiring. It is exhausting. I battle depression. I lost five years of my life to it. It was because I didn’t handle a character assassination campaign by a group of Stalinists, and I let that take over my entire life. That was a tough time. I attempted suicide — I shouldn’t be here, it was a miracle I lived.
The episode was used in a 2010 election campaign in the Maritime Union. They said I was nuts. The fact that I had suffered severe depression was used savagely. What’s kept me active is that I believe in workers. I believe not in workers as an abstract idea, but I believe that we have to live in a society that’s based on human need and not human greed. I believe it has to be based on what the old guys used to talk about, a co-operative commonwealth.
We need a society that is based on a fair distribution of the world’s wealth, it has to be humanist in its nature. I hope that I’ll be able to say, at the end of my life, that I did a little bit towards building something better than what we have now. If we don’t start changing what we have now, from an ecological viewpoint we’re not going to be here. If China and India reach the same mode of living as Britain and Australia, we’ll need another earth, because that’s the amount of consumables that’ll be needed. If we’re going to have a sustainable world, it needs to be socialist. The competitive nature of capitalism, the dog-eat-dog society, is not compatible with sustainability.
My message to young people who want to fight for a better society is: find a group of good people who you feel meet the interests of what you’re thinking about politically. Try to integrate that work, the politics, with the fact that everyone should be in a union. It’s not enough just to be in a union to change society. So it’s important that young people today in particular realise the very real political need to change society. People of my vintage, and ones who are older, are probably seeing the best of what capitalism can give. Now we’re in an age of neoliberal austerity which, unless we can combine our forces, is going to extract further and further concessions from the body and the blood of the working class.
That’ll include students. They will finish university owing so much money that they may as well have never done a university degree, because they’ll have such a huge debt over their heads. If I could at will rouse the left and the union movement to do one thing, I would have the most massive campaign against outsourcing and agency work. I see that as the front line of the neoliberal agenda.