On the picket line of Brisbane’s War of the Wharves
By Craig Braithwaite
April 1998. Around midnight, on anything but a random Tuesday night, ex-military security guards wearing balaclavas and armed with attack dogs unloaded from a convoy of vans and mini busses and stormed the waterfront tower at Hamilton Bulk & GeneralPort,Brisbane.
I was working next door at P&O where we heard shouts, and dogs barking and literal screaming under bright floodlights. We stopped work and as cranes shut down and forklifts stopped under the eery night silence we could hear fights breaking out everywhere. Little did we know all of them were one sided.
Later that night, startled and dishevelled Patricks workers came to us recounting the horror of being ripped out of their forklifts and cranes, punched, smashed with torches, hit with nightsticks and in some cases set upon by the dogs.
It was a carefully thought out plan from Patricks and our Australian government. It was a night carefully chosen in Brisbane where Patricks only had one ship in at port, and a skeleton staff working it – mainly older guys who were incapable of fighting off the young and physically towering ex-military and Polynesian security forces and their dogs.
Over the next few days, we would verbally war with that same security. It mainly consisted of hurling abuse, but it slowly graduated to hurling rocks and bolts and even in some cases bricks from over a 10-foot barbed wire fence.
Until one night – six nights into the dispute – it got way more serious than that. A meticulously planned raid, a once in a lifetime opportunity, will live long in my memory.
The plan was days of around-the-clock thinking which amounted to nothing more than a good old fashioned “let’s get ‘em”.
Under the cover of darkness, we would cut a length of shared fence between P&O and Patricks open at water level and out of sight of cameras and guards and storm Patricks and fight with security. Send them packing. Our instructions were simple. Everyone was to extract their pound of flesh from these scab maggots and fight like our lives depended on it.
I remember the briefing like it was yesterday. Gravel – a hardnut & feared third generation wharfie with a beard down to his navel and a crooked nose. I’d seen him have a few blues around the place. He’d always get things started with a well placed headbutt which always seemed to jolt and stun his foe onto the back foot, which at that point he’d rain down blows from every angle to the point where I’m sure the poor bastard on the receiving end, musta thought he was surrounded by two or three people.
Gravel was the unofficial boss of the wharf. This was a guy who would tell the supervisors and bosses what to do and where to go … naturally he led our assault. I still vividly remember his instructions. Smash the islander cunts in the face. Get them to see their own blood, and watch them fold like a cheap chair. You see, he had this firm belief that once a Polynesian sees his own blood, he quickly loses the heart for battle and retreats.
I wasn’t so sure … but in these pre internet days, it wasn’t like I could rip out my smart phone and fact check if Polynesians do in fact fear the sight of their own blood. Shit scared, I had to take Gravel’s word for it. Gravel was so ferocious in his delivery of his plan, that to be honest; I feared letting him down and those consequences, much more than I feared a 120-kilo Polynesian holding a Maglite.
The whole thing turned out to be a non-event. On the night it was going down, some 100 guys met at our smoko room, many of which I’d never seen before. With so many hired brutes invited to the mayhem I started to feel a whole safer being on their side, than I didn’t.
We cut a hole in the fence while four guys peeled the wire back and held it for everyone to get through. We squatted in the darkness until the last man was through the fence. The plan was quite simple. We were meant to carefully sneak up the Patrick wharf and take down each and every guard we came across. But as soon as we got to the very first wharf light, it turned into the final fighting scene from Braveheart. Everyone amped on adrenaline ran and screamed and charged the garrison. The garrison being the Patricks smoko room some 150-200 metres away.
This of course alerted the security to our presence, and gave them precious time for one of two options. Retreat with haste and lock themselves into the safety of the admin block, or stand where they are and be beaten senseless for $16 an hour. Every guard down to a man, chose retreat … which was met with joyful giggling glee from us.
This would be the first of many victories over the coming weeks and months for the MUA, but for many this signalled a turning point in the dispute.
The hired scab help had wilted – their leaders baulked. They flinched at their first test and showed they didn’t have the stomach for this battle. A week of having abuse and objects hurled at them every minute of every day and night, had already worn them down for this assault – which I’m positive they knew was coming.
We were there for a fight, and our will was greater. Once word had got out of this victory, the picket lines all over the country grew after this night, both in numbers and stature. Chants rang out through the country, the M-U-A is here to stay.
The dispute at a glance:
- The picket line; a tent city complete with toilets and BBQ’s and sleeping arrangements set up on the perimeter of the Patricks fence line, was armed with staff around the clock fighting for their jobs and our rights – weeks and weeks were spent hurling abuse, rocks, bolts, bricks at scab labour.
- The dispute was backed 100% by the government – John Howard & Industrial Affairs Minister, Peter Reith who declared they were going to, “smash the MUA and send them packing from the wharves.” Howard made no secret he was pushing his neo-liberal agenda.
- Patricks trained in secret over a hundred ex and current military in Dubai to work as the new scab workforce and as security.
- April 17th, word had trickled out that over 1000 police were going to swarm the Brisbane picket line and break it up. Hundreds of not just workers and unionists – the entire Brisbane wharf workforce P&O & Patricks, but also students and unemployed descended onto the picket line and linked arms and formed a human barricade about 10 rows deep. We shouted at police who charged the lines and made arrests.
- Reinforcements came in the form of over 2000 construction workers from the CFMEU who downed tools, formed a mob and marched onto the picket line where skirmishes had already started to break out. Effectively with us at the front and the CFMEU behind, we’d surrounded the police & forced them into an embarrassing retreat. The exact same events in Brisbane also played out in Sydney and Melbourne for the same results. Police retreat. Historically the Australian government has never used large numbers of police to storm a picket line ever again.
- Months later (mid-June) the High court eventually ruled the Patricks and the Australian government to have operated illegally and restored Patricks workforce back to MUA control.