The one feature of the wharf dispute that distinguishes it from anything else in Australia's recent history is the blatant, unashamed declaration by the government and big industry that they are preparing the army (specifically the SAS) to move against wharf workers in a direct physical conflict. Although it began as a secret, since the scheme's exposure there has been a 'Well, so what?' attitude by its perpetrators. They were not merely desperate scab workers to be trained in Dubai - they are soldiers in the Australian army.
At the recent union delegates' meeting at Dallas Brooks Hall, the issue of the use of armed force by the State against workers was not discussed. Why? It is the most serious aspect of the whole dispute.
The unions' Fact Sheet No. 1 (3/2/98) - although informative and useful - omits mention of the Army role. The threat is much more serious than 'professional strike-breakers and a mini army supplied with truncheons and riot shields' - bad enough as this would be. The threat is guns - in the hands of professional soldiers whose special training is not only military, but highly political. These are soldiers who have no qualms about killing workers - they believe it's necessary.
The SAS are enjoying sudden star-status in the media. TV interviews play up their international 'achievements', they are celled 'diggers' and are given official fond farewells as they embark for the Gulf. It might not be coincidence that the SAS have been rushed into international 'duty' just now. Their reputation took a set-back after the Blackhawk crash, and the Government would be hoping to establish a good image for them preparatory to sending them in against workers.
How are we to deal with this? Most of us workers have no experience of facing the army. The Hawke Government used the RAAF to scab on pilots, but then the violence was implied rather than direct. The issue of the use of armed force against the workers should be brought into the open and discussed in pubs, street meetings, on radio, the internet, in markets, shops, transport stations, etc.
The MUA might gain breathing space by manipulating arbitration, but the bosses own the courts too. Ultimately the MUA will need thousands out in the streets and at the wharves. This can only happen if people understand the issue. People do not respond in numbers to last-minute pleas for help if the ground-work has not been done. That must start now. The unions' arguments are strong:
All these things the public needs to know. But above all is the blatant intention to use State armed force against organised labour.
Surely all this is more than just an ideological push by Liberal Party figures. Why do some union leaders repeatedly represent it as such? The big bosses behind very big Capital must be very desperate indeed to resort to use of the army. And we should be finding out more about why they are so desperate. Increasing the political awareness of the working people should be a major priority for the unions, even if only for bread and butter; and ultimately is essential if we want to change society to one in which we don't need bosses.
Written by the followers of the Paris Communards. Melbourne, February 1998.