It’s being called the biggest test of workplace relations on the docks since the bitter waterfront dispute of 1998, when Patrick Stevedores went about improving efficiency of the docks by reducing staffing numbers and cutting the power of the Maritime Union of Australia.

This week the MUA began rolling out protected industrial action in Sydney, Brisbane and Fremantle, grinding to a halt Patrick’s operations on the docks and causing friction between the two parties over a pay dispute.

While we’re yet to see the attack dogs, balaclavas and picket lines that became nightly news staples in the ’90s, the union is holding firm on its demands for a 6% pay rise for workers over three years, as well as increases in superannuation and staffing.

So how does the current docks dispute stack up with the savage industrial war of ’98? To get a handle on all things waterfront, Crikey spoke with workplace relations expert Professor Andrew Stewart from the University of Adelaide.

How long could this latest dispute last?

I would expect that matters would come to a head fairly quickly. I think either one side or the other will make a significant concession soon where they will both head back to the bargaining table and a renewed negotiation phase will begin.

If that doesn’t happen then industrial action will continue and you might see at some point Patrick will seek to use an option that’s available to them under the act, where they can have industrial action terminated and the matter sent to compulsory arbitration. For that to happen they have to convince Fair Work Australia that industrial action is causing significant economic damage.

As you can image when there is any prolonged dispute on the docks that holds up a large percentage of goods which are being imported or exported, there are many stakeholders with views on the potential economic cost.

Workplace Relations Minister Chris Evans issued a statement last night requesting the two parties “get back to the bargaining table and to negotiate in good faith”. Should the government be taking more of a role in resolving the dispute?

The government have the power to step in, but at the same time they are stressing that this is an enterprise bargain system.

The whole point of moving to an enterprising bargaining system, which began under Keating and was maintained by Howard, was to make parties responsible for negotiations. If parties know they can run off to an industrial tribunal or that if they grandstand for a while, then there is less ownership for the parties in the process.

That’s the theory at least. The government’s position is entirely consistent with the way current workplace legislation is framed.

The MUA is demanding a 6% pay rise for workers over three years and increases in superannuation and staffing. Patrick says the demands equate to an extra $32,000 a year per employee and aren’t sustainable. Who holds the upper hand?

At the moment you would say the union does. This kind of thing is always going to happen when an old agreement expires and it’s at a time when there is renewed economic activity — a lot of which is happening at the docks and while skills are in short supply. It’s hardly surprising that the workers are in a strong position.

Patrick also seems to be desperate to get the matter to arbitration. The union also knows there are costs for them in this process. Apart from the direct cost of the workers not being paid, they know if the dispute goes on long enough and we start to see a significant cost imposed on the community, the tide may turn against them.

How far removed is this from the 1998 waterfront dispute?

This is not 1998, when the union were able to quite effectively portray themselves as the victims of an aggressive company backed by a highly ideological government. This is just a pay dispute.

At one level it’s over similar issues: it’s essentially about productivity rates and pay. But there is no suggestion this time that Patrick is going to try and pull anything like the very complicated and expensive stunts they did last time — sacking the whole workforce, hiring a new workforce backed by the National Farmers Federation and the federal government and training them off shore. There’s no suggestion of anything like that happening this time.

The MUA gave up a lot to settle that dispute, they made quite a few concessions to Patrick on productivity, but at the same time they also entrenched themselves at the firm. So both sides could point to victories and losses from the 1998 dispute. Workplace relations on the docks have been much more stable since then.

Is this dispute a test of Australia’s workplace relation laws?

It will only become a test case if we go to the next step, if Patrick asks Fair Work Australia to terminate industrial action on the basis that it is causing significant economic damage.

We haven’t had many of those cases since this process was introduced. It will be a significant test case of the laws if that happens. Otherwise this is a just a regular pay dispute.

What happens if the industrial action is found to be illegal?

If Fair Work Australia find the union’s industrial action is causing significant economic damage then the matter will go to arbitration where the parties will be given one last chance to come to an agreement. If they can’t come to an agreement then it’s up to Fair Work Australia to impose a resolution.

Notwithstanding Patrick have been calling for that, they will be a little reticent to go that far because you never know what you’re going to get from that kind of process. It’s out of their hands.

Peter Fray

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