Australia: picketing with the wharfies

Submitted by Anon on 30 June, 1998 - 4:56

Thursday 16 April 10am:
Victorian Trades Hall Council (VTHC) have called an all-union delegates rally. 3,000 turn up and the mood is militant. Speeches by the officials are more militant than expected, with Trades Hall Secretary Leigh Hubbard saying “Those prepared to break the Workplace Relations Act stand up” and the whole hall rising. The official resolution is not too bad calling for mass support for the picket line, on the job meetings and for a mass stoppage on 6 May.
The ISO (local affiliate of the SWP) have a leaflet endorsed by dozens of MUA (Maritime Union of Australia) members and delegates from other unions. It has an addendum calling for wider industrial action. The Democratic Socialist Party and Militant are calling for similar things. Speakers are allowed from both groups after the media have been asked to leave. The officials agree to incorporate parts of the left addendums, the left groups agree to drop rest of what they are saying and the resolution is carried unanimously.

The Socialist Equality Party (Healyites?) have a disgusting leaflet saying that the attack on the wharfies cannot be fought through the unions. Workers should instead approach the SEP to learn what to do.

Friday 17 April, 7 pm:
I am getting ready for a night of dancing in the clubs when the phone rings. A woman’s voice says: “It’s the MUA here. We’re expecting the police to attack the picket line at Swanson Dock tonight and want people to get down there from 10 pm.”

The phones run hot as everybody calls everybody else — we get four more calls telling us to get down there.

9.30 pm: Plans for dancing having been discarded, (although I can’t help thinking that nothing will happen before 2am anyway and I could go and recruit clubbers), preparations are underway for a long night. Food, warm clothing, sleeping bags etc are assembled. Paula, co-parent of my son Alexei, is on duty for childcare this week. She decides to take him down to the picket.

We stop at a 7-11 store and pick up $15 of junk to share. When we get there, it is like a street party, except no alcohol or drugs are allowed. On the road to the gate, a barricade of torn up railway line has been constructed to inhibit the movement of police, horses and trucks.
Thousands of people are milling about meeting up with old friends and enemies from the labour movement.

It seems like the whole union officialdom is here. Left, right, centre — it doesn’t matter. The entire left of the front bench in State and Federal Parliament seem to be here. Treacherous union bureaucrats, soul-dead Labor pollies and knife-in-the-back apparatchiks gain some respect from those they have betrayed over the years. All the left groups are well represented, except the scabrous Socialist Equality Party.

Periodically speakers from the platform tell us the police are gathering, but it doesn’t seem very real. We run through drills of how to hold a picket line. We are standing, arms linked. Then we are backed up against the fence to form a solid mass, grabbing hold of the person in front by the belt etc. No violence is allowed. If police start to drag people away, we are told to resist passively. No one is to assist anyone else being dragged away, especially women. It is stressed that women are equal participants and will take equal risks. Anyone who can’t contain themselves is told to leave, or head to the back.

1.00 am: The CFMEU, who are well experienced on picket lines, are directed to the back. My union’s State Secretary explains that the police might try a “pincer” and come through the gate from inside the wharf. So the gate is “where it might get a bit willing.” By this stage Alexei is asleep on a couch in a tent.

3.00 am: Reliable info that police are on their way. People put their cars across the roadway to stop the horses getting through. When police arrive, the atmosphere becomes more and more tense as they dismantle the barricades and work their way forward.
4.00 am: A police helicopter circles overhead, its spotlight on the crowd. It seems only to make the crowd more determined. The chants “MUA here to stay” and “The workers united will never be defeated” are deafening, and every hand seems to be in the air, third finger extended to the chopper.

5.00 am: The police form into a double line in front of us. There are about 200. We are told that there are 600 in total, but they are changing shifts often. We stand arms linked for hours, it seems. There are at least 3000 of us. Jim Higgins keeps telling us that there are “5089” exactly and none of us are going anywhere.

An uneasy stand-off exists. Speakers direct talk and chants at the police rank and file. “You are just workers like us. The government wants to contract-out your work. You are in dispute over pay and conditions. Join us! or Go Home!” I understand the need to undermine police morale, but it is a bit rich saying that the people whose job it is to break picket lines are “just like us”!

6.00 am: We are told another gate has been breached by the police, but that our gate is where the MUA has chosen to make its stand. The lost gate is later regained after truck drivers blockade Footscray Rd (a major arterial link to the city) at the morning peak hour.
As first light comes, we hear that building workers on city construction sites have decided that today is not a good day to work overtime, but a good day to go to the wharf. Over a thousand are assembling behind the police lines. The police are now hopelessly outnumbered and surrounded.

7.00 am: After some thought, the police command approach the picket organisers and arrange to withdraw. Within minutes they are gone. Later, as I was leaving, I met Militant’s National Secretary Steve Jolly. He summed up the mood: “Isn’t that the most pleasurable thing you have ever done?”

The feeling is intensely military. A major battle between disciplined bodies of people, one armed the other not, has been fought and won without a single actual act of confrontation.
People who have been there all night start to leave in numbers. After a while the organisers, haggard and sleep deprived, warn that police are re-forming for another attack. As it turns out, that attack never comes, not that day, not that week, not at all.

The police explain that they have two duties: to maintain the law (by implementing Supreme Court injunctions, trespass laws etc) and to maintain public order. They say that they cannot do the second if they try to do the first. They were not prepared to use the tactics necessary to break the picket (horse and baton charges), because they would lose the war to win a battle. And they knew that rank and file police had no stomach for the fight.

There were many amazing things about that night. Solidarity was no longer an abstract concept, it was real, tangible, something you could reach out and touch. It felt like the rebirth of the labour movement — all us tired activists, revolutionaries or reformists, were brought back to the bedrock of class struggle. Working people uniting against the bosses and their state apparatus.

The continuing connection of the ALP to the working class could hardly have been more evident. Last, but not least, union officials were actually leading. There was a huge groundswell of support, but it was the work of officials that made possible the size and discipline. Imagine what a world we could make if our officials led consistently instead of once in a blue moon.

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