On the waterfront

Four years after the MUA settled with Patrick, Stephen Long reports on working conditions, Stuart Macintyre recalls the dispute and Christopher Sheil reflects on our own War on the wharves.

A pain for Patrick

Stephen Long

Chris Corrigan was exultant. "Imagine the reaction if I'd stood here last year and declared that by February 1999 at Patrick, 'the nick' [as in nick off early] will be gone ... almost all overtime will be gone and 800 of our workforce will be gone," he told a who's who of the shipping industry five months after peace was declared in the great waterfront battle. "And those who remain will be working one man, one machine, on eight-hour shifts with one break on far more flexible rosters."

"One man per machine" was pivotal to the reforms that Patrick Corp (formerly Patrick Stevedores) won in the titanic docks dispute four years ago. It allowed Corrigan to halve his workforce and boost profits while helping to lift labour productivity to record levels. But that system is now the subject of criminal proceedings brought against Patrick by the Maritime Union of Australia. Corrigan's company stands accused of five counts of criminal disregard of workers' safety because, according to the MUA, it knowingly made workers drive towering mobile cranes called straddles for dangerous lengths of time.

The union's barrister has brought before the court six workers with back, neck and shoulder injuries that the MUA claims are representative of some 120 other employees who suffered pain or disability after driving straddles. Some of the employee witnesses had pre-existing problems that doctors said were exacerbated by the work. Others had no prior history of injury.

Corrigan, who was accused of conspiring with the Howard Government to smash the MUA, could be forgiven for thinking the tables have now been turned. Usually, it's the State Workcover authorities that prosecute businesses under health and safety laws. This time, the safety police are conspicuously absent, but the MUA, a federally registered union, has taken on the role of prosecutor under NSW law