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On the waterfront: the continuing process of reconstruction and reform of work practices

LIZ JACKSON: Today, we are going down to the waterfront to see what the wharfies think about micro-economic reform. For over fifty years they have been the most militant, most colourful, the most intractable union. They have basked in the dubious reputation of the most feather-bedded industry in the country. Everybody has got a story about rorts on the docks. Whether that reputation is wholly deserved is no longer really the issue because everyone now agrees that reform of work practices is essential. The critical question is whether the agreement that's recently been struck between the Governments and the unions will deliver real reform, and at what price. Have we moved into a new age of micro-economic reform or has the Government wimped out. This report by Jeune Pritchard.

TOM HILLS: This is a story about the wharfies' dogs, a wharfie's dog. Four members of different unions were talking about how smart their dogs were. The first, a Vehicle Builders Union member and his dog, said his dog could do mathematics. Its name was T-Square, an appropriate name for a dog. He told his dog to go the blackboard and draw a square, a circle and a triangle, and the dog did it easily, no worries. The Metalworkers' Union bloke, his dog was named Sliderule. This dog was ordered to fetch a dozen biscuits and divide them into equal lots. No problems for that dog. The Liquor Trades Union man's dog was named Measure. He was asked to get a stubby of beer and pour seven ounces into a ten-ounce glass. After this was done without a hitch, the three turned to the waterside worker and challenged him, what can your dog do? My dog is called Teabreak, said the wharfie. Show these bastards what you can do, mate. Teabreak went over and ate the biscuits, drunk the beer, pissed on the blackboard, and screwed the other three dogs. Then he claimed he had injured his back, and got compo for it.

JEUNE PRITCHARD: Tom Hills, wharfie and waterfront historian. The wharfie's dog was a story he cooked up on a midnight shift in the late 1920s on the Melbourne waterfront, and it's become part of wharfie mythology. But there was nothing mythical about the work conditions on the waterfront in the 1920s, they were primitive and horrific. Tom Hills is 87. He was a Communist and a militant wharfie for nearly fifty years. For all waterfront labour, it was a long and ugly battle between shipowner and wharfie.

There has been an extraordinary transformation on the wharves since Tom Hills first set foot on the Swanston Dock, but even now in 1991, wharfies and employers are still brawling. The weapons have changed. We are more than halfway through a three year waterfront reform proposal, the eleventh since World War II. It was brought down by the Interstate Commission in early 1989 and an in-principle agreement was reached by the end of that year, between the Federal Government, the waterfront unions and the employers, the stevedoring companies. There is a lot hanging on this one because it's often billed as a litmus test for the Government's micro-economic reform. The major objective has been the rejuvenation of the waterfront industry, and to achieve it, a big buy-out, a commitment of $300 million from employers and the Federal Government, to say goodbye to the ageing wharfies. It's meant the shifting of a hard won balance of power. The negotiations have been painful and painstaking. Waterfront work has changed forever over the negotiation of enterprise based agreements. The sticking points are over the conditions and awards for the remaining 3,000 wharfies. As of this week, only two enterprise based agreements have been implemented, and with two more likely over the next two weeks; 520 employees have left the industry, at a cost of $43 million. It's the size of these redundancy packages that draws the most spleen.

Captain Richard Setchell from Conaust, a subsidiary of the PO shipping company, is the most combative of that cosy cartel, the employers of waterside labour.

RICHARD SETCHELL: We are committed to waterfront reform. We are the ones that are pushing it along, we are the ones that are delaying releasing or disengaging 30-odd percent of our work force. We haven't sought radical reforms. We put together enterprise based agreements that were very carefully thought through. We have submitted detailed documentation to the Government, the ACTU, and every union involved, and nobody has been able to insinuate that we are forcing on the remaining work force, unfair, harsh or stressful work practices. Our deal was with the Government that for $300 million, we would make efforts to rejuvenate, restructure, reform the waterfront, so that we could provide the level of reliability, productivity and flexibility that was demanded in the 1990s. Now 300 million was the payout. Now we are being asked to give more for those that are going to remain.

TAS BULL: I don't know that the unions are really in the business, and I certainly hope that I am not, of walking up to employers and telling them, well we want to give back to you these ten or twenty conditions which we have established over the last thirty, forty or fifty years. If that's Captain Setchell's view of the role of the officials of unions, well, I must say it is not mine, and anyone who imagined this was going to be a speedy or easy task, perhaps understood it a little less well than we did.

JEUNE PRITCHARD: Tas Bull, general secretary of the Waterside Workers' Federation. But the real battle:

ABE DAVID: Yeah, well I think there has got to be some honesty about what's really gone on. The waterfront has significant political importance, as well. I mean, the historic position of the waterfront unions in relation to the labour movement, is very important to understand, and in many ways, the overhang of that importance is now being played out today, where the old favours are being called in. And of course, the Prime Minister, who was in many ways the creation of Charlie Fitzgibbon, is very much involved in the deals that are going on, on the waterfront, and I mean, I can understand and I have got a lot of respect for what waterfront unions have done for the Australian labour movement. But it's really quite incredible when you look at a Government that puts, what, $350 million into money set aside for redundancies and reorganising the waterfront in a soft way, yet there's very few other sections of the Australian economy that are getting that sort of treatment.

JEUNE PRITCHARD: Abe David, ex-wharfie and economist. There are long memories of the abysmal conditions on the wharves. The economic and social realities are transformed but the relationship between wharfie and ship-owner, wharfie and politician, has always been volatile. Tom Hills takes up the story, with a prelude to the disastrous 1928 strike on the waterfront.

TOM HILLS: A commission was set up, Judge Beeby was the head of it and he was investigating around the waterfronts to see the conditions of the waterfront. I think his maximum time that he put on on the Melbourne waterfront was a half an hour. He had a look at our headquarters down at Bay Street, Port Melbourne, the Port Phillip Stevedore Club, and then enforced the two pickups a day, which we refused to attend.

UNION MEMBER: Alright now, brothers, we have got two choices. We either accept this dog collar act as Maxie said, or brothers, we strike until they scrap the bloody thing. I move a motion that we strike until the Beeby award is rejected.

TOM HILLS: Because there was an economic depression coming on and there was a need to reform the waterfront to cut what they considered the dead wood and to cut down the ...... because they were getting .... the ships were coming up empty also.

UNIDENTIFIED: No Prime Minister worth his salt can stand by and see his country tyrannised by a small minority of militants. From today, the Government will be appealing to patriotic Australians to step forward and volunteer to work as labourers on the waterfront.

UNIDENTIFIED: Thank you Mr Prime Minister.

Oh Lord above, send down the dove with wings as sharp as razors To cut the throats of bloody scabs and cut down poor men's wages.

UNIDENTIFIED: Stop whingeing and get back to work, you red raggers.

UNIDENTIFIED: Just remember you've got to come out this way, shitface.

TED ROACH: The Whittaker affair, was actually we were moving away from the police at that time. That was the stupid action of the sergeant, I forget his name now. And the police said, he fired on us because the thing, you see, they were at the gates of the Princes Pier there and we were walking back to them, and Whittaker was shot in the back. It was a loss, a tremendous loss to us. Many never went back to the waterfront. Others, like myself, I never got a dog licence. I was never issued with one of them because I was blackballed and couldn't get one.

The bulls were those that ..... regular then, had followed that company. They done what they were told, they never rocked the boat as far as conditions were concerned, and then he would need extra gangs or extra men, you see, so then he would pick up what was left out of the others. So after he finished that picking up his bulls, well he would look around and he wouldn't recognise any of the faces. He might have a dozen tickets left and these tickets you had to present to the time keeper when you started. And he would throw them up in the air and say, 'here, whack these up between youse'. Now, there might be two or three hundred men, or four hundred men at a pick-up, vying against each other for say fifty jobs, or less than that perhaps. So you could understand the feeling of these men that hadn't got anything in for the week. They would be scrambling, standing on one another's hands and everything, to get these tickets. That's what the pick-ups were like.

UNIDENTIFIED: People used to leave the money in various little containers in pubs with different coloured wool on them, for different people who used to drink in the waterfront pubs. There were cases when foremen would pick up wharfies and they'd go home and spend the night at home with their wives, and this was such an ordinary, everyday sort of occurrence.

One bloke, little bloke, he saw nothing wrong with it. He was magging away on a team of blokes and he said, and this Dick, I won't mention his name, he was a foreman of one of the big companies, tall, skinny bloke, he said, 'I went home. we knocked off early last night, I went home', he said, 'and you wouldn't believe it', he said, 'there's big Dick in my bloody pyjamas'. He said, 'Gee, he looked a sight'. 'Gee, he looked a sight', that's all he could .... that's the way it used to go in those days.

JEUNE PRITCHARD: That was Ted Roach, or Rolling Roach, as he was known. Communist and militant, he led the Port Kembla strike in November 1938 when the wharfies refused to load pig iron for Japan, on the British tramp steamer 'Dalfram'.

TED ROACH: The morning of the pick-up, I held a pre-pick-up meeting that I addressed and pointed out our policy, that we had been .... our local policy was banning all things Japanese. And I pointed out that the bombs were raining fast on China today and could possibly rain on Australia tomorrow. A resolution was carried on my advice, that we refuse to load the pig iron. The ship stopped and to a man, the four gangs walked off the ship.

BOB MENZIES: And I am coming to the conclusion that these chaps don't like me very much, and I don't like them very much, so it's .... I don't mind a scrap. As a matter of fact, when I first arrived here tonight, I was delighted to find that they were calling out 'Pig Iron Bob'. Now come on boys, give him a cheer, 'Pig Iron Bob'. Yes. Because of course, that was a reminder to me that there was a time in Australia, when the late Mr Lyons was Prime Minister and I was his Attorney-General, when we had a Government that didn't allow a handful of communists on the waterfront to control Australia's foreign policy. Those were the days.

UNIDENTIFIED: November, 1954. From the constant struggle, suddenly a new landmark emerged. It was the victory of the Waterside Workers Federation and the whole labour movement over the ship-owners and the Menzies Government. Jim Healey, secretary of the Waterside Workers Federation.

JIM HEALEY: In 1954, the overseas and Australian shipping companies secretly got together with the Menzies Government. Proof of this conspiracy is contained in this letter from an overseas shipping company to its Australian representative. The object of the conspiracy was clear. They planned to isolate the Federation from the rest of the trade unions, deprive it of public sympathy and finally, to smash the Federation. The idea was to deal with the unions, one by one, and to make a start on one of the most active and successful.

UNIDENTIFIED: Their plan was to attack the union by trying to deprive it of one of its most cherished rights, held since 1876, the right to recruit the labour to the waterfront industry, a right held by all maritime unions.

UNIDENTIFIED: In the '50s, the late '50s and the '60s, enormous changes occurred on the Australian waterfront and indeed, on most waterfronts throughout the world. These changes were characterised by what was called the cellular container vessel. The essential difference between these classes of vessels and the earlier conventional ones was in the earlier conventional ones, in the main, cargo was carried in very small parcels and the men individually would life and carry those parcels. In that system, I have known a ship to work for three weeks in this port of Sydney, with 300 men working on that ship, right around the clock in three different shifts. With the other system, the loads were so large and could be handled so quickly and efficiently, that the same amount of cargo could be loaded and discharged from a cellular container vessel in perhaps less than one day, employing no more than a dozen men.

UNIDENTIFIED: Our union has a long history of accepting change. Thirty years ago we had 30,000 dock workers in Australia - wharfies. Today, looking at what we call the traditional wharfie, there's only 5,000, so I don't think it can be said that we haven't been able to come to grips with change. I think it's not change per se, that's the issue, it's the manner in which the change is brought about.

UNIDENTIFIED: It's been rather frustrating from somebody who really wants to get on with waterfront reform. These fellows don't. They want to keep what they got and frankly, once you have given a dog a bone, it's very difficult to take the bone away from the dog, he's going to bite you. These fellows have got terms and conditions that we are going to take away.

JEUNE PRITCHARD: Whichever way you look at it, the wharfies are in the giving up position and the negotiations are long and arduous.

COL COVENTRY: What the union is being asked to do is to change outmoded and indefensible in many cases, work practices; to lift an abysmal productivity rate. Now that's not an unreasonable request and the mythology that surrounds the hard won, hard fought battles if you like, of the past, is just that. A lot of the arrangements have their history in the folk lore of the past.

JEUNE PRITCHARD: Col Coventry, president of the Association of Employers of Waterside Labour.

ABE DAVID Well, the current reform at the moment, has become a political game. I mean, let's make it quite clear that the Labor Government's economic policies are in disarray, enormous disarray. There's no other word for it, when you have a national debt of over $130 billion; where you keep on running, even though you have got a trade surplus, you run a balance of payments deficit because of interest and dividend costs; you are in an economic mess. And in fact, my view is the de-industrialisation of the Australian economy, that is the manufacturing sector becoming less significant, is increasing, not diminishing. And the Labor Government's Accord strategy of tying investment into various areas of the economy, as a result of wage restraint, hasn't worked. And we've seen the entrepreneurs, and Bond being of course, the best example, pissing the money up against the wall. Of course, there were plenty of political favours done for that to happen but it hasn't developed a broad based Australian economy. Now, that meant people are now grabbing at straws and the simplistic view that micro-economic reform, I think in many ways, the best statement I ever heard from Paul Keating was every galah in the shop is parroting micro-economic reform. Well, we've got a tremendous, I guess you would call him a vulture now, saying the same thing, that Australia's problems can be solved by tinkering round at the edges.

JEUNE PRITCHARD: Abe David, ex-wharfie and economist. Tinkering around the edges it may be, but the Government are pinning reputations on it. The Minister for Shipping, Senator Bob Collins.

BOB COLLINS: You are quite right, it is vital that these reforms succeed for the country. It's an extremely important national issue. I am not saying that there aren't other national issues in terms of economic reform, that don't have bigger dollar signs attached to them, indeed there are bigger dollar signs attached to other reforms and I would certainly cite our national rail system as being one of the most appalling impediments to efficient transportation and economic management in Australia. But it's been come to be regarded as, to use that dreadful expression again, litmus test of micro-economic reform. There's no question it's taken that role and for that reason, and for the billion dollars a year that it's capable of saving Australia, it's extremely important that it gets back on track. Now there have been, unfortunately, a number of impediments to the process that have not been the direct responsibility of any of the participants in micro-economic reform, and the national wage case has certainly been the most fundamental of those.

UNIDENTIFIED: And while waterfront reform for itself, is important, it's not a panacea for the whole pulling the Australian economy out of the problems it's in. The Australian waterfront is extremely efficient in a number of areas. For instance, in commodity exports, I have worked myself personally, on the Hay Point coal loader, on the coal loader that's down in Wollongong. These are world class export facilities and that's one of the reasons why we are competitive in a whole number of raw materials. There's no argument about that, so what I see starting to develop is probably a rationalisation of maybe one .... maybe Brisbane for instance, becoming a major port for the eastern seaboard, I mean, or Sydney or Melbourne, having then the volume of goods to make the technology viable. The labour cost and labour inefficiencies are a marginal problem when you look at the bigger picture.

JEUNE PRITCHARD: Ten years ago, what would the scene have been like from the crane, what would the port of Melbourne look like?

UNIDENTIFIED: It would be entirely different now. There were very few vessels in port, probably six to ten years ago the whole .... just about every berth would be just about occupied, the larger berths that could take the larger ships. Now, today as a matter of fact, it's very busy compared to what it has been. We do have four vessels in at East Swanston Dock. Up until yesterday, we only had one, I believe, but if you look down the south side, there's only one vessel down there. Appleton Dock, there is no vessels at all, and we can look over to Port Melbourne and Station Pier, there's only one vessel down there, where ten years ago, that used to be full. So the shipping has dramatically dropped off, but it's also gone into containers, as well. There's very little general cargo now, compared to ten years ago.

JEUNE PRITCHARD: So what does this say about our economy?

UNIDENTIFIED: That's a good question. I am not an economist but I think if I could answer that, I would probably be the Treasurer now.

UNIDENTIFIED: Well, let's put the waterfront in the context of the internationalising of the Australian economy. What you have got is traditionally an Australian economy which has had a very important position in the world economy, as a supplier of raw materials; that means a lot of goods going out of Australia to other parts of the world. Now in the context of Australia and the waterfront, what you have got is basically a position where a number of industries, if they are going to survive in Australia and move into a global context, are going to have to have world class efficiencies in transport. I will give you one example to illustrate that. The auto industry in Australia is rapidly moving towards a complementation structure, where we are going to export quite significant amounts of components of autos into manufacturing operations in Asia. Now logically, if you are going to have that sort of structure, you are going to have to have the waterfront running at peak efficiency because what you are going to have is the just-in-time strategy, but instead of on a national basis, on an international basis. That means the production line in Kuala Lumpur, which is going to depend on engine blocks, or axles, or whatever, coming from the Australian components manufacturer, is going to have to have them on time and on schedule, otherwise the whole system falls down. So what I am saying is that the integration of Australia into the world economy is going to have to mean a far more efficient waterfront than we have seen in the past.

JEUNE PRITCHARD: There's just one other question I would like to ask you. There's always a comparison made with the amount of containers that are actually shifted in ports like Singapore, Rotterdam, Hamburg, where I think Singapore ships something like thirty containers an hour, and the comparison is made with Sydney and Melbourne, I think it's twelve to seventeen containers an hour. How come?

UNIDENTIFIED: All you have to do is just walk outside and look at the space that we have got to work in, you know. When you look outside, the trucks are queued up. Like, it took me ten minutes to get from .... Darling Harbour down to here, this morning, and actually get in the place, you know. But you go out there on the wharf, there's men walking everywhere around, very limited space, and the machinery that we've got, it's nothing compared to overseas. Like, they're got more space age ....

UNIDENTIFIED: All the machinery at Patrick's, especially here at the moment, should be on the next scrap job for Japan. Breakdowns of mechanical stuff costs a lot. You know, I think management should see a lot about that, because you make the job more efficient with good machines. You know, like everyone of us here has been on a machine and had to get off that and get on another one, and that's broken down. I think it's happened to all of us, hasn't it?

UNIDENTIFIED: Well, they regularly break down. Every shift, a machine will break down, be it a forklift, the old Coles crane, whatever. But if we had the right machinery, I think we'd do more than overseas, you know. It's not as though they're any more skilled than us. Like, we've done all the training and whatever, you know, but it's just the limited space we've got down here. The wharves aren't real big and the biggest thing is the machinery.

UNIDENTIFIED: We've got men with two arms, two legs, two eyes, who are driving exactly the same portainer crane, the same tractors and trailers, and yet they can do twenty-five to thirty-five per hour overseas. Our company exports stevedoring managerial expertise and technology overseas. We have successfully forged a market for that in the Philippines, in Malaysia, in Thailand and Vietnam, where we have been able to demonstrate significant improvements in the way of doing things on the waterfront. We can't do that here because of the centralised, regulated, unionised control of the whole of the Australian waterfront. We did adopt and change a computer system that operates in our terminal in Sydney and we exported it to a terminal now in the Far East, that is doing over 600,000 containers, that's half the number that are handled in Australia in a whole year, in one facility. So frankly, our technology in my view, is as good as anywhere in the world.

UNIDENTIFIED: It's attitude, it isn't technology at all, it is human attitude.

UNIDENTIFIED: I just find that the approach taken by this company, to be not all that smart. They are talking about wearing us down over years. Well, maybe it will come to that, we'll see. We have a .... Captain Setchell may consider he is the first person to ever come along and say he is going to destroy the union movement, but one or two people amongst his predecessors have said such things and the union movement has an interesting habit of being able to continue on. We have faced up to, dare I say it, people with better equipment than Captain Setchell will be able to marshal, I think, and we are still in business.

UNIDENTIFIED: And half the reason for any over-manning or that, down on the waterfront, is men that have been actually injured on the job. I mean, work was very hard and down in the holds, and it's still quite hard for the people down below on the ships. Instead of them just being pensioned off and a load on the ..... they're still employed down here in a meaningful job. There's still a job for them to do on the wharf. They may not be employed for the full eight hours of the day but they're still out there and they're doing a job rather than being, you know, pensioned and that. There's no real rorts in the over-manning regard. As you will see in the EBOs that are being out there, the manning scale's been reduced not much at all, because there's a job there for everyone to do.

UNIDENTIFIED: Every job you do, like, you need the actual men on it. Down below, like you could go down with a 20 foot container, well, you can't have just two men there pushing it around. Like, it's really heavy. You've got one guy driving the crane, like, but you've got to have the four men down below so you can get it in the holds and lock all the pins and you know, guide the spreader and that. Like, if you've just got two men down there, it's virtually impossible. And then out on the gangway, like you get a 40 foot container, you've got a man on, like, one on each end of it and pull the ropes down. You just can't .... all the men that are there, you need them, if not more. Possibly you need more men if, you know, I can't see them getting rid of men, you know.

UNIDENTIFIED: Especially down the holds in the ships and that, because ....

UNIDENTIFIED: Well, look at the average hours of average earnings of waterside workers, tradesmen, foremen, clerks in the industry; they are just so far ahead of industry generally, that it is not funny, it's quite serious. Maintenance tradesmen in this industry, compared with some of the highly skilled fitters and mechanical engineering tradesmen outside, in manufacturing industry, earning on average $1200 to $1300 a week for about thirty to thirty-five hours work. Now that's inconceivable, that's unreal, and people who earn that sort of money have got a responsibility, and that responsibility is to deliver the goods.

UNIDENTIFIED: That's what you have got to remember. It's an industry like mining or any other dangerous industry, and people are paid accordingly, you know, and if they have time off. And all those rates of pays are a fallacy anyway. The flat pay is $450 a week. Any extra money you get is worked through overtime or any shift allowance, like midnighters or .....

UNIDENTIFIED: That 450 is a basic pay. That's for mechanical operators such as ourselves, and that's ..... we drive every machine down here, you know, so I wouldn't say we were underpaid but we're definitely not overpaid.

UNIDENTIFIED: The waterfront has not had any degree of reform applied to it for fifty years. That is in effect, the entire working lives of most of the workers in the industry and when you expect to accomplish significant reform by negotiation and agreement, in a relatively short space of time, after half a century of total neglect, you can't expect all parties to gleefully embrace the prospect. And the other thing that needs to be said is that it's a hell of a lot easier for management to cope with these changes than it is for the unions and for the workers, because in almost every case where these reforms are introduced, they mean a loss for the union.

UNIDENTIFIED: Now I think we are at a very important stage with the waterfront reform, if we focus onto what is important rather than a few wharfies who are supposed to be bludging on the job, which is not true in many ways, and if it is, it's irrelevant in the bigger picture; if we really focus on the need for a national strategy on how we are going to make our economy link as efficiently and as productively as possible into the growing economies, particularly of Asia, I think it's a tremendous possibility. And obviously, waterfront and rail transport link together very well. I mean, still having trucks sitting outside of waterfronts, it would be far more efficient to have spur railway lines that run straight up to the shipping warehouses and container terminals, and move on rail transport, significant amounts of goods. And that could work both the other way, moves in and out, and that's how a number of other countries have organised their waterfronts.

JEUNE PRITCHARD: Describe to me that scene and why we are looking at that every day, on the wharves.

UNIDENTIFIED: Some of the drivers have been there since 4 o'clock trying to get a container on or off their trucks and it's caused .... a combination of things, mainly because they do get a three-day storage period once it's discharged from the ship. But a lot of them usually use that as free storage and don't pick their containers up until the last day, so it does create a problem. The other problem is ships are discharged twenty-four hours a day, but they only pick up containers for seven hours a day. So there has to be a backlog somewhere, so they really have to be able to pick their boxes up for twenty-four hours a day to stop any congestion, but it's very hard to get the trucking companies to work after 5 o'clock of a night-time, where the ....

JEUNE PRITCHARD: Maybe all this will change now, with the establishment of the first National Rail Freight Corporation and a National Road Freight Transport Commission, but no mention has been made of any integration with waterfront reform. Early in May this year, the reform process ground to a shuddering halt. The ACTU had declared reform was off because the Industrial Commission had rejected the Accord. The Prime Minister swept into Sydney and during an all-night session, he cobbled together the disintegrating waterfront pact. The jewel in the crown of micro-economic reform was looking pretty tarnished; enter the great negotiator.

JOURNALIST: Has there been any agreement yet, Sir?

BOB HAWKE: We have got the basis of settlement but you will appreciate that the parties concerned, except Conaust, who have said they accept the position, the unions and the employers have to take it to their constituencies but we have got the basis of a settlement, yes.

JOURNALIST: Is it within their IRC guidelines?

BOB HAWKE: Well, it involves going to the IRC.

JOURNALIST: Mr Hawke, what about going back to the Commission, is that some kind of win for them, does it restore confidence in them?

BOB HAWKE: I mean, as I have said before recently, in talking to some other people, I wish that it didn't always have to be seen as wins or losses, these matters, and the waterfront industry is very very important for the community as a whole, so I think it is a win for Australia.

JEUNE PRITCHARD: Not quite. The agreement was rejected by the Industrial Relations Commission; back to square one; another two months of stalling, the Kelty-Commission brawl was on again. But his campaign against the Commission faltered badly when the waterside workers accepted the offer of a 2.5 percent wage rise, and all this was being played out against the backdrop of the Keating challenge to Hawke. By accepting the Commission's offer, all bets were on again, and the Government claimed that waterfront reform was back on target.

BOB COLLINS: It's very easy, and I have had some extraordinary statements made to me in this period of time that I have had this portfolio, from Opposition politicians, are of the view that you .... and people have actually said this, you should sack the entire waterfront work force in Australia, start afresh, casualise the entire work force in Australia, and simply hire people off the street. That is the system that used to operate on the waterfront, the old bull-pen procedure. Now that was fine, now that was fine from the employers' point of view, when the only skill levels required on the waterfront were to be three axe-handles across the shoulders and no brains and a lot of brawn, and have a hook in your hand, and be able to lump bags on your back for fourteen hours a day. That was all that was required. That is not the kind of waterfront we have now, where there is a very high degree of skilled labour required on the waterfront, and the question of idle time in ports is a feature of all modern ports around the world, where you do actually have to have, for the purpose of efficiently moving ships through a port, a stable, skilled work force. And the casualisation, or the extensive casualisation of waterfront labour, particularly in the major ports of Australia, would be an efficiency disaster for the industry.

JEUNE PRITCHARD: Senator Bob Collins. For employers like Richard Setchell, it didn't stop him casting an envious eye at the UK solution.

RICHARD SETCHELL: We should have paid out all of the waterfront and maybe if we had enough money, we should have and started again. We should have done what they did in New Zealand and the United Kingdom.

JEUNE PRITCHARD: And the way it was done in 1989, Junior Employment Minister in the Thatcher Government, Patrick Nicholls.

PATRICK NICHOLLS: Now what made it possible for us to act was really three things. By far the most important was having a proper structure, a trade union law in place, so that if they tried to retaliate, as they always had in the past, by wildcat strikes, unballoted actions, secondary picketing, you know, the full panoply of unrestrained trade unionism, that the laws had to be in place which would make that sort of behaviour untenable. And therefore we had to get our trade union law right to begin with, before we even attempted it. That took time. It took a number of Trades Union Bills over a period of ten years, so we had to get that right, and that meant that we had to have the political will. Now the second thing, and you've touched on it quite properly already, was that we had to be certain, or as certain as we could be that the employers wouldn't break rank. And bear this in mind, that really for forty years, any employer within the ports industry operated within a complete straight-jacket, knowing that they could never put their foot down and manage, management was impossible. So again, to be frank, we were a little bit concerned about whether the employers really would stand shoulder to shoulder when the going got rough, and to their credit, they did.

And the final thing, we had to make sure that the redundancy payments for those dockers who certainly wouldn't want to take part in sort of a normal regime where they had to work, work for payment, that they had to be paid off, and pretty handsomely, and that meant #35,000 a time. And when you have those three structures in, the right framework of law, employers who would stand together to the end, and really attractive redundancy payments; when those three things came together, well then, you have the political will to act. But it certainly wasn't the sort of thing we should have been doing on our first day in office in 1979, there was a lot of groundwork to be done before then.

JEUNE PRITCHARD: And the big winners in the demolition of the national dock labour scheme were the stevedoring companies. Profits skyrocketed, despite redundancy payouts to 6,000 dockers. And what was the effect on the wages and conditions of those dockers who remained?

Peter Turnbull, economist and Lecturer in Industrial Relations at Cardiff in Wales.

PETER TURNBULL: I suppose the main effect has been that they all earn far less money than they used to before. I think, when you look at working practices, there's now .... in all the contract there is provisions made for compulsory overtime working in quite a few ports now. There's been longer working days for all the workers, new arrangements which have extended the working day, longer shifts. I mean, some of the operations in Liverpool, instead of working an 8 till 5 day, they work 8 till 9. There's much lower manning levels on most operations; gang sizes have been cut; allocation and transfer is determined by management rather than agreement; and at the real extreme, we have the re-emergence of casual forms of employment coming back into the industry. In a number of ports, people pick up on a day for a day's work or half a day's work, as and when required.

UNIDENTIFIED: In the terminals that are left, you are going to have a small, multi-skilled, highly efficient and very much company orientated core group of workers and they will be able to do a whole number of operations, and they will handle ultimately, very sophisticated technology. Around them, will be a floating group of periphery workers. Secondly, there would be a large growth of casual workers. Now, it's no accident that a company called Extraman, which is linked with one of the big Japanese shipping companies, is moving in to take advantage of waterfront reform. Now, I have actually worked for them and they hire out a large number of workers to unload containers. That sort of strategy is what I think the employers are after, and a lot of the talk and discussion is a smoke screen to be able to buy time to build that strategy in place. Now, part of that is to get rid of the industrial muscle of the existing waterfront unions, and that's where the Government has come in with the money. I mean, you know, they are willing to underwrite the buyout of the waterfront work force with taxpayers' money, and to make the sort of deregulatory strategy on the waterfront more acceptable to unions which have been incredibly principled in the way they have looked after the rest of the Australian work force. I mean, there's no union in Australia that's got a prouder history than the Waterfront Union, going back to Pig Iron Bob days, right through to the Indonesian struggle for independence, and it's .... I mean, I know from my own experience in work, everybody knew that if you were in trouble, the wharfies would give you a hand in one form or another. Now, that's why the price is so high, if you like. I mean, the historical leadership that the wharfies have given has put a very high premium on getting rid of them.

LIZ JACKSON: 'On the Waterfront' was produced by Jeune Pritchard. But let's give the last word to Ted Roach.

TED ROACH: It was a little more difficult to wage the campaigns like we used to, and it appears that the militancy that once existed is gradually disappearing. They appear to me to be quite tame cat, quite tame cat, to what the position was in the past.