The Melbourne waterfront hasn’t seen a dispute like this for decades.

Nineteen days of round the clock picketing.

No containers in or out, in defiance of two Supreme Court injunctions.

A solidarity strike that shut down most of the waterfront in Melbourne, Australia’s biggest port, for the first time in living memory.

Solidarity from the local community and from hundreds of unionised workers from the waterfront, the construction industry and beyond.

And despite lies and threats from the company, the Herald Sun, Liberal politicians and other tools of the rich, the dispute got a result. Not a sweeping comprehensive victory, but a solid step toward getting a sacked union delegate back on the job and bringing a union-busting, wage-cutting company to heel.

The dispute

True to its international business model, the operator of the new, highly automated Victorian International Container Terminal has been attacking the wages and conditions of waterfront workers. It cooked up a shonky enterprise agreement with the association of ship captains, the Maritime Officers Union, which applied to all workers at the new facility.

Compared to standard union agreements, the agreement slashed the hourly rate for casuals by around 40 percent, did away with all penalty rates for shifts and overtime and lifted restrictions on using casuals.

The agreement is threadbare – and management refuses to abide by any provisions that might lower profits. One worker told investigators from the International Transport Workers Federation (the ITF):

“We work 12-hour shifts. Guys often work through breaks. They’ll do a five-hour run doing pinning [the hard physical work of knocking the locking pins to unlock shipping containers from each other]. They’re going to kill someone from the lack of breaks. The ship sailing is the utmost important thing … Safety doesn’t exist when it comes to the ship sailing time.”

The highly automated nature of the terminal makes these problems worse. The crane operator is not on site, instead looking at a screen at a remote location. Due to potential problems with camera blind spots, an on-site foreman supposedly has the final say over crane movements, for instance landing a container on a ship deck. But one worker told the ITF:

“We have all seen the dogman saying ‘stop the hook, stop the hook’ but it still keeps going … The CEO tends to sit behind the crane driver. Even when the foreman is out on deck telling the crane driver what to do, the CEO overrides. The foreman tells the crane driver to hold the box there, and the CEO will tell the crane driver to land the box … he’s always standing over people in the control room.”

The screen-based workers face the threat that, if they don’t push the machinery to meet arbitrary crane rates, their jobs will be offshored at a fraction of the current wage.

All of this was opposed by the Maritime Union of Australia. With a delegate in the facility rapidly signing up members, the union had legal options to challenge the agreement and the operation of the terminal. If it could organise the workforce into the MUA, there was the prospect of a dispute down the track to improve the agreement. This wouldn’t be the first time a new waterfront operator had started on a sub standard enterprise agreement and faced a concerted push from the union to improve it.

The company attempted to close these options for the union by sacking Dick Lunt, the main MUA delegate. It was at this point, in late November, that the picket line went up outside the Webb Dock terminal, with the key demand that he be reinstated.

On the picket line

Picket lines are always special places: waterfront pickets doubly so.

Old timers talk with first time picketers. An explanation of the colossal 1998 dispute becomes a rolling discussion involving veteran unionists, casual visitors and women with childhood memories of the dispute. I hear family stories of a funeral in the 1970s, when a workmate’s offer of a handshake was spurned by family members. “He scabbed in the ’20s”, is the explanation. Even half a century later, there’s no forgiving a scab.

There’s a large picture of a scab from the 1998 dispute at the picket camp on the Webb Dock truck gate, which a former seafarer uses to coach her young son in the class struggle. Pretty soon the three year old is yelling “scab!” and “lousy scab!” like an old timer, his mum glowing with pride every time he gets it right.

I’ve been on a bunch of community pickets, but this one had a lot more community than most. Port Melbourne has gentrified, but there are still plenty of retired and current wharfies, former painters and dockers, ex-seafarers and their families around. At 4am, at the darkest hour of night shift, an ex-painter and docker arrives to start cooking steaks.

A large sign advertising the sponsorship of a local sporting club by the terminal operators somehow finds its way to the picket. “They come into our community and splash all this money around, promise us the world”, declares the man who delivers it. “Well now they’re attacking the union and sacking the delegate so – here’s their bloody sign.” It comes in handy for temporary flooring in one of the increasingly permanent, and comfortable, picket tents. Couches, a letter box, fairy lights and the obligatory picket line Christmas tree all make an appearance.

With only a small and not fully unionised workforce in the terminal, much of the work of maintaining the picket falls to off-shift wharfies from nearby workplaces. The eternal picket line conversation keeps rolling as the shifts change. The state of the industry and the country, automation and conditions on the docks all get a good going over. The long tradition of class struggle politics in Australia’s maritime unions is renewed once again, in the way that only happens in a living, breathing struggle.

Injunctions, cops and pickets

It’s not legal to have this much fun – at least, not when you’re sticking up a $700 million facility owned by one of the biggest companies in the world. Sure enough, the company persuades judge McDonald to grant, first one injunction against MUA involvement in the picketing, and then another injunction, a sweeping “representative order” aimed at anyone and everyone who had attended the picket.

There has been a rash of these “representative” injunctions lately, as judge McDonald would be aware: he has prior expertise in the field. McDonald previously was a lawyer for anti-union employers such as Grocon. He was part of the legal team for stevedoring company Patrick in the 1998 MUA dispute, a case famous in legal circles for the sweeping injunction granted by the Supreme Court against the mass pickets blockading the company’s container terminal at East Swanson Dock. This was eventually overturned on appeal, with the court deciding it couldn’t injunct the world. Perhaps still chafing from this finding, 20 years later, judge McDonald can now write sweeping injunctions at his pleasure, attempting to conjure away the pickets with a stroke of his judicial pen.

The pickets, however, refused to be conjured away. The regular visits of off-shift and retired maritime workers, and many others, continued and even stepped up in the last few days of the picket. The line stayed solid.

There were often times when only small numbers of picketers were present. To the enormous distress of the right wing, however, the police didn’t attack the picket. There are a few factors here.

For several decades, the failure of Victoria Police to go in swinging at the first sign of industrial trouble has caused much wailing and gnashing of teeth among right wing think tanks such as the HR Nicholls Society. They are furious that a certain space for picketing has been won through past struggles. Famously, at the height of the 1998 MUA dispute, a major mobilisation of police to break the mass picket at East Swanson Dock ended in a fiasco when thousands of construction workers marched down to reinforce the picket. Surrounded, the police had to negotiate their own retreat.

Victoria Police no doubt has institutional memory of these events.

With Webb Dock, the police could have easily dispersed the picket. But it’s one thing to clear a picket line – it’s another thing to keep it cleared, 24/7, for weeks on end, when workers could march off the job from nearby waterfront workplaces to reinstate it.

This threat was given extra strength by the impressive stop work on Friday 8 December, when a coordinated strike shut down most of the Melbourne waterfront for the first time in living memory, with maybe 1,500 wharfies and supporters rallying at the terminal gates. Unionised construction workers were a big part of this crowd, again giving the police with long memories something to think about.

One additional factor is the relative isolation of the VICT terminal operator, the Philippines-based company ICTSI. It’s a relative newcomer to Australia, being handed the licence for a new container terminal at Webb Dock by the former Liberal government.

Though plenty of right wing forces took the opportunity afforded by the dispute to engage in union-bashing, this was far short of the whole-of-government, semi-public conspiracy that lay behind the 1998 dispute. That only one container terminal was out of action due to the picket – and even this wasn’t fully operational – meant that despite the howling in the Herald Sun, there was no big threat to core capitalist interests in Victoria. All of this meant relatively less pressure on the police to move in.

Finally, Victoria’s Labor premier Daniel Andrews, while happy enough for his police to go in swinging against African-Australian youth (and, more recently, pro-refugee protesters), would most likely not relish the prospect of sending in cops with batons and pepper spray against retired and off-shift wharfies and family members. It’s probable that the Andrews government wanted the dispute to go away rather than escalate, adding to pressure on the company to settle.

So the company had to deal with an uncomfortable industrial reality. The company might have expected any protests at Dick Lunt’s sacking to be short lived – as had been the case in 2013, when he was sacked from the nearby Station Pier facility run by Qube Logistics. Instead, VICT had to deal with a 19-day picket, the plausible threat of large scale solidarity to reinforce that picket and real damage to its business.

In response to these facts on the ground, the company shifted its position. VICT management offered to withdraw Dick Lunt’s letter of termination and to reinstate him on pay – though at this stage he wouldn’t be back on the job. This isn’t full reinstatement, but it’s a potential step toward that. And in the meantime, it gives the MUA standing to reopen various legal avenues against VICT. After 19 days of picketing, a solidarity strike and defiance of injunctions, the MUA was back in the contest at Webb Dock. The picket was dismantled.

The future of the dispute – and our unions

The dispute still has a long way to run. There’s the issue of coverage to address, to ensure the ship officers’ union doesn’t keep doing cut price deals on MUA turf. There’s the wage-cutting enterprise agreement to overturn or outlast, and a new one to win. There’s the threat of offshoring screen-based workers to the Philippines to deal with. There’s enforcement of the agreement on the job, and the issues of health and safety. There’s the rest of the workforce to unionise. And not least, there’s getting Dick Lunt back on the job.

What happens next is a series of overlapping negotiations and legal actions – never good terrain for any union. But these manoeuvrings now happen in an industrial environment shaped by the recent, dramatic dispute. ICTSI management previously might have dismissed the resolve, or the capacity, of the union movement and Port Melbourne community to put on a serious dispute: they can’t be dismissive any longer. The dispute would have done VICT no favours in building a reputation for reliability among shipping lines and their potential clients.

ICTSI also has to factor in the continuing interest in the dispute of the International Transport Workers’ Federation, to which the MUA is affiliated. ICTSI is a formidable opponent, but it isn’t unbeatable: the company has been forced to walk away from leases on port facilities in Rosario, Argentina, and in Portland, on the US west coast, following long and bruising battles with local unions.

So what can we conclude out of the dispute?

First and most obviously, an aggressive industrial strategy – including hard pickets and solidarity strikes – is still our side’s most effective weapon. Appeals to courts and tribunals, and behind the scenes manoeuvrings from governments, usually only have effect if they are backed by industrial power. Not for the first time, quite militant industrial actions have been required to give a union any chance of making a contest within the “proper channels” of Fair Work, the Federal Court, and legally protected industrial action.

The dispute also shows how quickly unions can revive. It’s been many years since Melbourne waterfront workers have been asked to be part of round the clock pickets despite multiple court injunctions. Yet hundreds of waterfront workers, and many others, responded to the call. The message is obvious: when there is a clear lead given through the official structures of our unions, workers are capable of a serious fight.

That the numbers weren’t bigger mainly reflects the fact we haven’t seen a lot of this sort of activity for a while. Traditions and basic organisation have both decayed from lack of use, though both were strengthened during the picketing. And a dispute involving only one employer, with a small workforce, was always going to be a smaller affair compared to the colossal 1998 dispute, with the vast semi-public government conspiracy in the lead up.

We have no way of knowing how the rest of this dispute will play out – or the ongoing effect it might have on the waterfront and beyond. But the Webb Dock picket had a lot of the elements essential in any union revival. Solid pickets. Solidarity strikes. Defiance of multiple injunctions. Industrial muscles, unused for years, being brought into play and getting stronger from their use. Traditions of defiance and class solidarity being remembered, strengthened, argued over and renewed.

With Australia’s union movement at a low ebb Webb Dock gives a glimpse of what’s possible, and needed, to turn our fortunes around.