It really was a remarkable evening of standing around doing nothing, occasionally linking arms "in practice", cheering at speeches, laughing at jokes, catching up with people I hadn't seen for ages, discussing politics, ALP pre-selections and the like.
Around 4.55am the police helicopter started circling clockwise around the dock, something it kept up until just after 6.30am. Searchlights from the helicopter shone into the crowd most of this time and were met with raised fists or one-finger salutes!
After many false warnings that they were "nearly here", the police contingent arrived just after the helicopter. Two lines of police, numbering about 100 men and women, stretched the 30 yards or so across the entrance to the dock. Four policemen on horses took up position behind these lines. There followed over two hours of restrained confrontation, occasionally moving to a state of readiness, but mostly consisting of quiet, peaceful protest, singing and chanting.
The crowd, numbering now around 3000 according to the ABC radio news, but consistently maintained at 5089 by the superb operator of the loud speaker system, was variously concerned at the impending police attack, but mostly cautiously casual, many venturing along the side of the road to view the police at close quarters.
A quiet and serious mood developed when the police were invited onto the picket line by chants of "join us", a chant quickly replaced by "show us your badges" when it was announced that some police had removed their badges.
Around 7.00am it was announced the building workers from city sites were massing in Footscray Road, the numbers variously thought to be 500, 900 or 2000! Whatever the number, their arrival at around 7.30am was met with tumultuous applause and cheering, especially when it was realised the police were surrounded and cut off by the now massive crowd. When the police assembled in two lines facing back towards the road, it was obvious that the peaceful confrontation had been resolved in the MUA's favour. To raucous taunts of "left, right, left, right", the police took their leave.
News reports now suggest that the police have secured another smaller entrance to Swanson Dock. An eye-witness account I heard had the police arriving in buses and pouncing on picketers the moment they alighted. One woman has reportedly been taken to hospital.
What isn't in doubt as far as I'm concerned is that without the large numbers of people present at the main gates to Swanson Dock, the police would have secured it as well. It is a splendid victory.
As someone who spends his working life educating children about the political and constitutional processes in this country, I believe it was an important night and morning in a dispute not yet over. To see the forces of the state arrayed against some of its people is not something I will quickly forget. The intimidatory helicopter, an image straight out of a Cold War melodrama, is etched on my memory.
I'm glad I went.
(Source: Leftlink 18/4/98)
Yesterday I and some hundred other Canberra Union members made the 4&1/2 hour bus journey to Sydney to be with the waterside workers on the picket lines at Patrick Stevedores facilities. We got off the buses and marched to the picket line chanting our support for the wharfies. They greeted us with rousing applause. The police looked on from the side lines.
We were disappointed to be at Darling Harbour, according to the news, all the action was happening miles away at Port Botany. The police were busting picket lines to enable trucks to enter. In Melbourne the police minister was warning of, (or rejoicing in) the prospects of a 'bloodbath' as his riot squads were preparing to assault the picket lines at Swanston Dock. Presumably he was wanting to follow the lead of the West Australian Government who had launched a 3am attack on the dockers the day before.
Darling Harbour was tame compared to all that and we felt that we were not shouldering our fair load. Little did we know . At Darling Harbour there are 3 gates, 3, 5 and 8. We were staffing the main gate, gate 5. Gate 8 had been secured by the wharfies with high tensile locks and chains and a skeleton crew of picketers. Gate 3 was around the corner from us and out of sight.
At 3pm a paramedic on a motor cycle, siren blazing and closely followed by an ambulance sped past in the direction of gate 3. Then we got the word. Management and police had estimated the weak point of the picket as gate 3 and had sent 4 semi trailers to try and break the picket at speed. They attempted it and in the process hit a picketer and rammed a car carrying a dockers union official. Then they 'lost their bottle' and bolted, pursued by police who were forced to act on the violence which had been widely witnessed.
Back on Gate 5 the tension rose with the news. The 'security guards', who until a week or so were 'bouncers' at the seedy night clubs of Kings Cross were strutting about. After some abuse from the crowd, their leader, responding to the taunt of a young woman, held his testicles and gestured obscenely. The police looked on.
Next the word came for help at gate 8 where a truck had arrived and the scab crew was attempting to oxy acetylene off the chains to allow trucks entry. Two protesters covered the chains with their hands. The scabs responded by turning the blow torch on protesters hands. The police looked on and the picketers threw water and garbage at the scabs. One had to be restrained from trying to violently assault the scabs. As the organisers kept repeating this was what the company and the state wanted. They needed excuses for the use of major force necessary to bust the picket.
And then the buses arrived to take us back to Canberra. None of us wanted to leave and the drivers gave us another half hour, no more, as they can only be on duty for a maximum of 14 hours. I woke in the dark to the rhythm of the bus engine. All my comrades were asleep and the driver had turned off the lights, leaving only the strobe of approaching and passing vehicles. I wondered if those workers we had to leave behind were at that moment being bashed and carried off in police vans. I resolved to go back as soon as I can and to try and convince more of my fellow Australians to come too. This isn't about a labour dispute, its about those cliched terms, freedom, democracy and the right to organise.
I appeal to all civil libertarians and trade unionists here and all around the world to let their voices be heard in protest. Contact the Australian Government and the international press to let them know that you are aware of the neo fascist activities of the Australian Government and your intention to show solidarity with the Maritime Union of Australia. Picket and demonstrate at Australian embassies and trade offices. Boycott Australian goods. Give the Australian government a good demonstration of the power of international solidarity.
Peter O'Dea trade unionist Canberra, Australia 18 April 1998
(Source: Leftlink 18/4/98)