SYDNEY: The battle lines in Australia's bitter waterfront dispute hardened on Tuesday as police arrested picketing dockers forming a human barricade to stop cargo going in or out of the non union Patrick port terminals.
Police at Sydney's Port Botany dock have arrested , but not charged, 22 peopleat the Maritime Union picket line who were attempting to stop a truck getting through.This is the first time that the police have taken sides in the battle against the rogue stevedoring compay. Australia's biggest stevedore, P&O Ports, has continued to use union labour.
Hundreds of dockers and their wives locked arms and turned around several trucks at Sydney's Port Botany and Darling Harbour wharves operated by Patrick Stevedores, which sacked 1,400 fulltime dockers last week.
"They have not been successful anywhere with trains or trucks at any port and I doubt they will be successful anywhere," said John Coombs, national secretary of the Maritime Union of Australia, after turning around a truck at Port Botany.
The company sacked its entire workforce last Tuesday in a move it said was necessary to improve waterfront productivity. But Coombs said that non-union labor at Port Botany was moving only 2.5 containers an hour.
"Ship owners are not going to subscribe to this sort of nonsense. They are contemplating doing something to relieve these idiots from the scene and to enable a sensible process of waterfront productivity to be assessed," Coombs told ABC radio.
The legal fight in the waterfront dispute is growing, with further protests on the nation's docks and the Maritime Union (MUA) taking unprecedented legal action against Federal Workplace Relations Minister Peter Reith. The Federal Court will hear allegations that Mr Reith conspired in the mass sackings of Patrick Stevedores' employees.
MUA lawyer Josh Bornstein says tomorrow's Federal Court case in Melbourne raises conspiracy allegations involving Mr Reith, and will argue last week's mass sackings were part of an unlawful plan beginning early last year. Mr Bornstein says the case will be complex and historic.
"[It will be] involving allegations of breaching of the contract of employment of the workers, and breaches of Peter Reith's own act - the Workplace Relations Act - and breaches of the corporations law," he said.
The Australian Government has been accused of breaching international labour laws through its actions in the current waterfront dispute. Senior lecturer in Industrial Relations, Jim McDonald, says the Federal Government has obligations under two ILO conventions that it protects the right of employees to establish and join organisations of their chosing, that it protects them against acts of anti-union discrimination and promotes collective bargaining and effective collective representation.
Mr McDonald says in supporting the non-union National Farmers' Federation stevedoring company and Patricks, Industrial Relations Minister Peter Reith appears to contravene all three. He says that agressive support has political risks, potentially damaging the credibility of the government's labour market reform program
Unions have charged Patrick of being involved in a union-busting conspiracy with the conservative government of Prime Minister John Howard. It was the government that announced the sackings and a $163 million line of credit to pay for docker redundancies.
The Federal Opposition says the Government should refer Patrick Stevedores to the Securities Commission for investigation, as it has the directors of Cobar Mines and the Grafton Meatworks. Opposition Industrial Relations spokesman Bob McMullan says it is alleged in the lead-up to the sacking of waterside workers, Patrick directors stripped subsidiary companies of assets.
He says those companies are now seeking Government help to fund redundancies, while Patrick's parent company's shares are gaining value. Mr McMullan says the allegations against Patrick are the same as those against the directors of Cobar Mines and the Grafton Meatworks and same rules should apply.
"We're saying: act consistently, provide assistance to those people
if you're going to provide it to any," he said. "Investigate Mr Corrigan's
company the same way you're investigating the others."