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Industrial dispute between Australian Stevedores and the Maritime Union of Australia results in forced redundancies

MONICA ATTARD: Hundreds of wharfies have been sacked today in the increasingly bitter waterfront dispute. Australian Stevedores started carrying out its threat to dismiss workers who wouldn't resume normal duties early this morning, and the sackings continued throughout the day. Now the Federal Government has intervened. It's going to help move stranded cargo through the other major stevedore, Conaust. From Melbourne, Peter McCutcheon reports.

PETER McCUTCHEON: Over the past few years Australia's waterfront has been radically restructured, and much of that change was achieved without a single day's stoppage. Part of the reason for that was the fact that the Federal Government subsidised the whole program. It provided the money to buy out ageing wharfies from the over-manned industry. But now we've moved on to the next stage. Enterprise bargaining is here to stay and the parties have been left to their own devices.

This dispute has a history that goes back to July last year when Australian Stevedores announced it wanted to shed 317 staff. It managed to reach agreement on voluntary redundancies in all ports except Sydney, and last week pushed ahead with 55 forced redundancies, triggering a union campaign of bans and stoppages.

But the dispute is about more than that. The company said from the outset it had a right to determine the size of its work force, and both sides are testing the new post-reform balance of power. Australian Stevedores knew it was taking the union on when it locked out wharfies earlier this week after they imposed bans on overtime and casual labour, and today the company dismissed at least 200 wharfies around the country.

Industrial Relations Minister, Laurie Brereton, spoke out on the matter for the first time today, revealing he'd held private talks with the ACTU and the company yesterday and this morning.

LAURIE BRERETON: I want to stress today that we believe that the resolution of this must lie in negotiation between the parties themselves. The Government can't wave a magic wand and solve it, but we do urge both parties to use the processes available to them, through the Australian Industrial Relations Commission, that is conciliation to see a resumption of work.

We are concerned about the impact, both on Australia's reputation and indeed upon a number of industries that are already feeling the weight of the dispute. Accordingly, I've asked the Department of Transport to do everything possible to maximise the throughput of freight on the alternative stevedore, that is Conaust, who are not affected by this dispute.

PETER McCUTCHEON: Laurie Brereton. The Government was under some pressure from business groups to take a more active role. More than 20 ships and up to $100 million worth of cargo is being held up by the dispute.

But there's at least one person who doesn't know what all the fuss is about. ACTU Secretary, Bill Kelty, explained to journalists in Brisbane that there has to be the occasional dispute in a more deregulated labour market, and people shouldn't be so chicken-hearted.

BILL KELTY: What I find unusual in this country is the people have been begging for collective bargaining and enterprise bargaining for the best part of seven or eight years, and as soon as there's a dispute affecting an enterprise in the waterfront for one day -I mean, I don't think 24 hours ticks over and you've got a clamouring of people asking the Minister to intervene. I mean, I thought this was a brave new world that we're entering. It seems that some people are a bit frightened of the brave new world, and what they want is a brave new world to have a position where there's a dispute for 24 hours in the waterfront, or 48 hours, and clamouring, knocking on the door of the Minister. I'm, if anything, amused about it.

REPORTER: So are you confident, then, that the differences with Australian Stevedores can be worked out?

BILL KELTY: What I say is, that's what enterprise bargaining is ... enterprise bargaining is about the positive and some cases the negative. I mean, there's the good, the bad and the ugly. Sometimes the facts of life are that enterprise bargaining is very hard, very tough, very tough. I think the Federal Government, unlike other people, have always said that you've got to have a capacity to ensure that, whilst enterprise bargaining is promoted that there are still avenues to ensure that the public are not, at the end of the day, hurt by the process. And that's something that the Government has in the new legislation, a capacity to do that.

REPORTER: Well, how do you see this dispute being resolved? There doesn't seem to be much ....

BILL KELTY: Disputes are resolved, disputes are resolved.

REPORTER: Can you see it widening and other unions becoming involved?

BILL KELTY: I mean, I don't know how long you lot have been round, but this is not, so far it's in very early days. This is the early days.

REPORTER: Well, Jim Sweetensen, from Australian Stevedores, is talking about possibly 1,400 men laid off by tonight. That doesn't sound like negotiating talk, does it?

BILL KELTY: Well, that is negotiating talk. What do you think negotiation's about? What, do you think all enterprise bargaining is lovely, do you, think it's something that people sit down and they all just talk and smile, make cakes, cups of tea? It's not sometimes like that, sometimes it's very hard where unions are out for long periods, employers are trying to do nasty things. I mean, that's what sometimes happens.

MONICA ATTARD: ACTU Secretary, Bill Kelty.