Workers rally to defend MUA
By Jane Beckmann
NEWCASTLE -- More than 2500 workers joined a spirited and confident rally and march through the streets in support of the Maritime Union of Australia on March 12.
A clear message was that the struggle of the MUA is a struggle for the rights of all workers to organise and, through their trade unions, to determine conditions at the workplace and in the community.
Each speaker referred to the MUA's defence of workers and other unions, and the progressive role it has played in fighting for the rights of communities in Australia and internationally.
A leader of the Japanese trade union movement received a loud ovation when introduced. Another highlight was the presence of retired unionists at the front of the rally.
Marchers appealed to the workers watching the march to join it because the outcome of the MUA's struggle will affect everyone. Many did join in, and the march took over an hour to pass through the city streets.
A large contingent of miners from the Hunter Valley attended the meeting. John Maitland, national secretary of the CFMEU, stated unequivocally that the miners would stand behind the MUA. He described how the MUA's presence on miners' recent picket lines had been vital in stopping the trains loading coal.
This coal, he pointed out, would go to the wharves to be loaded, which is one of the reasons the companies are trying to destroy the MUA. They know the MUA will never load scab coal.
Steve Hutchins, national secretary of the Transport Workers Union, stated that if the waterfront workers and the miners fall, then the TWU will be next in line for attack.
John Coombs, national secretary of the MUA, and Laurie Steen, assistant branch secretary of the Newcastle MUA, both spoke about the international strengths of this struggle. The MUA has always played an exemplary role in defending overseas seamen exploited on flag of convenience ships. International collaboration between workers, they said, will be important in winning this struggle.
The weakness of the message from the speakers' platform was their defensiveness about workers' right to a community and working life that reflects their contribution to society.
Workers provide the labour that makes economic and social life possible and should have the right to determine working and social conditions. However, the speakers' platform seemed to present the message that workers must do what the bosses want -- increase productivity endlessly to increase profits.
MP Peter Morris and John Coombs complained that the bosses were now attacking the union after it had been increasing productivity and profits for years. They said that these attacks were not about productivity, but about breaking the union's ability to defend working conditions and the community.
But why not increase productivity so that working-class people benefit as well? For example, so that the working week can be shortened with no loss in pay, so that workplace conditions can be safer, so that profits are used for the benefit of all through the creation of schools, hospitals, housing, environmental protection, improved facilities for children and so on?
Another weakness of the rally and march was the small number of women present. Hopefully, in the future, women affected by the struggle will be encouraged to attend meetings, rallies and marches and take a more active role.
Meanwhile, in Sydney, the MUA held a 48-hour strike at Botany Bay on March 11-12. A 333-strong meeting of wharf workers on the Botany docks afterwards voted to follow the strike with overtime bans.
On March 13, in Brisbane, around 130 people led by the MUA picketed the Liberal Party's national conference. The protesters denounced the Howard government's policies, in particular its attacks on union rights, its Common Youth Allowance, its attacks on women and the racist 10-point plan.
The conference was picketed throughout the weekend by students, pensioners and others angry about the government's attacks on living standards.
(Source: Green Left Weekly, Issue #310 March 18, 1998 )