Australian Financial Review. Opinion Section. Wednesday April 1, 1998
by Greg Combet, assistant secretary of the Australian Council of Trade Unions.
No company poisons industrial relations the way that Patrick Stevedores does, charges the ACTU's Greg Combet.
The chief of Patrick Stevedores, Chris Corrigan, recently declared that "we don't manage our business, the MUA does". But Corrigan's statement is a condemnation of the company's own management.
Are we supposed to believe Patrick's management has no responsibility for the problems confronting the company?
According to one such manager, Alan Knight, the real story is vastly different. Knight recently resigned in disgust over what he described as the continual company instigated confrontation with the workforce.
Knight said "I was fed up with senior management failing to act upon fundamental operational and maintenance matters which caused lengthy delays and reduced productivity ... it's easier to blame others".
Knight produced a wad of documents to back up his claims, including a letter from Patrick to Knight, at the time of his resignation, which appreciated "the 110 per cent effort you have put in to your job as a supervisor and the excellent results you have always managed to achieve". Rather than answer Knight's accusations, however, the company has continued to blame the union for the company's problems.
But any serious analysis of the waterfront dispute must look at management. At a time when modern management practice is to devolve authority, Patrick remains highly centralised. According to Knight, basic operational decisions could not even be made locally. Instead they had to return to the Sydney head office - which means local management had little authority.
In contrast, the more efficient SeaLand terminal in Adelaide is characterised by regular management/union discussion - in the workplace - of the profit and loss account and ways of improving the business. SeaLand general manager Andy Andrews recently accused Patrick of blaming the union as a smokescreen for Patrick's own poor management.
At a time when professional managemnet skills are increasingly required, one wonders about the formal business and human resource management qualifications in the upper ranks of Patrick. At the operational level, Knight says he was not once required to attend a local management meeting to plan more efficient operations - and he still carried direct responsibility for productivity.
This is an incredible situation, but Prime Minister Howard, Minister Reith, Chris Corrigan and the NFF argue that productivity is the sole responsibility of the wharfies.
Beyond these glaring deficiencies, the company has many other problems of its own making.
In the meantime the company flirted with the Dubai fiasco, an attack on employee award entitlements, and the discussion of mass sackings with Government representatives.
It is difficult to conceive management behaviour which could better poison the industrial relationship.
In these circumstances it is not surprising that the executive president of the Australian Peak Shippers Association, Frank Beaufort, has said that Patrick's problems are partly self-inflicted.
Indeed, to simply blame the union and the employees for the company's problems is dishonest. If the union similarly claimed that everything is the fault of management, the union would be pilloried.
The mess can only be cleaned up with an honest appraisal by all sides. The ACTU and MUA stand ready to negotiate on this basis - but where is Patrick Stevedores?