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Long on Rhetoric, Short on Detail: The Communist Party of Australia and the Hutchison Ports Dispute

The dispute that began in August 2015 with the sacking of 97 dock workers has been resolved. After months of negotiations between Hutchison Ports Australia (HPA) and Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) representatives, a round of voluntary redundancies has occurred and a new enterprise agreement is now in place. The Communist Party of Australia (CPA), has printed its ‘analysis’ of this dispute, an analysis that is short on detail about the final outcome and long on windy rhetoric and Stalinist-style attacks against the so-called “ultra-left”.

Sean Robertson

February 16, 2016
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Photo: Brisbane Times

In an article entitled “Hutchison port workers win return to work” in their newspaper, The Guardian, the CPA is unequivocal in its praise for the MUA and its negotiated outcome. We are told that “the MUA achieved a fantastic agreement”, which is “a fantastic step forward” that “improves working conditions”. MUA Assistant National Secretary and leading Communist Party member Warren Smith is quoted as saying the outcome was a “major victory for the MUA and all Hutchison workers”.

The devil is in the detail

Given such high praise, readers would expect The Guardian to provide some detail about the final outcome of the dispute. But all we are told is: there was “no forced redundancy”; every HPA worker can return to work or “take an extremely generous voluntary redundancy package” which allows them to “come back as casuals and return as full-time employees as work volumes increased”; and the new agreement retains “the key components of the former agreement”.

It is now well known that the settlement sees no forced redundancies. This is no small achievement given the original sacking of 97 workers. But many questions still remain. How many workers volunteered to take the “extremely generous voluntary redundancy package”? What was this package worth in dollar terms? Has the 30-hour week been maintained in the new agreement? What is the new situation regarding casual employment?

An earlier Left Voice article has detailed the outcome of this dispute. In brief, 64 dock workers are said to have accepted an “Enhanced Voluntary Redundancy Arrangement” (EVRA) which includes a payment of up to $20,000 on top of standard redundancy entitlements. Workers accepting an EVRA are placed on a two year waiting list for the option to return as casual employees if shipping volumes increase. The new agreement also sees a move from a 30-hour to a 32-hour week and provides for casual employment at HPA for the first time.

Once these facts are taken into account, the claims by The Guardian of a “major victory” and the retention of “the key components of the former agreement” look very hollow. HPA originally tried to sack 97 workers – over 40 percent of its workforce. Negotiations have resulted in 64 redundancies – a 30 percent reduction. These significant job losses are hardly a “major victory”. Similarly, a new agreement that moves from a 30-hour to a 32-hour week and introduces casual employment for the first time is not an agreement that retains “the key components of the former agreement”.

The Guardian also fails to tell its readers that the MUA discontinued its Federal Court case against Hutchison Ports in early October. Similarly, the continuing investigation by the Fair Work Ombudsman into the MUA’s role in the first week of “community assembly” protests with its threat of multi-million dollar fines is not mentioned. Not such a “fantastic step forward” after all.

Critical turning point glossed over

Not only does The Guardian fail to mention these vital details, but it also glosses over the critical turning point in the dispute – the Federal Court rulings of August 13 and 14 and the subsequent decision by MUA leaders to direct all Hutchison employees to return to work.

The August 13 Federal Court order placed a temporary injunction on Hutchison’s sackings, restraining them from “terminating the employment of any employees on the ground of redundancy”. The Federal Court did not hand down an order to reinstate these workers. The August 14 judgment ruled that HPA was “required to continue to pay wages to those employees” but “not obliged to provide the relevant employees with work”. So while the sackings were brought to a temporary halt, the sacked workers were not required to go back to work. They were in effect suspended and paid their base minimum salary.

Despite this, MUA National Secretary Paddy Crumlin told the Sydney community assembly on August 13 that “the judge has made it clear that he is going to make an order that all Hutchinson workers will be reinstated until our court case is heard” and then directed all MUA members at Hutchison Ports to return to work the next day. On August 14, it became clear that the sacked dock workers had not been reinstated when three previously sacked maintenance workers were refused access to the Port Botany terminal (For further details, read here ).

Left Voice has previously described the confusion that Paddy Crumlin caused by directing MUA members to return to work, when the sacked workers had not in fact been reinstated. The important point here is that this changed the character of the community assemblies outside Hutchison terminals, with the vibrant, well-supported and effective protests that blocked all terminal traffic in the first week turning into smaller, symbolic protests that no longer obstructed traffic after August 14.

Let’s see how The Guardian describes these events. After commenting on the MUA’s Federal Court injunction, The Guardian writes, “While the workers who still had their jobs returned to work after the federal Court injunction, the pickets at the Brisbane and Sydney ports remained in place, pending the full hearing. This was a tactical position by the MUA which in the end was part of the key to its success in finalizing the dispute in a manner favorable to the workers.”

This paragraph hides more than it explains. Why did “the workers who still had their jobs” return to work? Because they were incorrectly told by MUA National Secretary Paddy Crumlin that the Federal Court had ordered the reinstatement of the sacked workers, and then directed by MUA leaders to return to work the next day. This so-called “tactical position” split the previously united workforce that had been out on strike and defying return to work orders.

The Guardian also tells us, “The pickets at the Brisbane and Sydney ports remained in place”. No mention here of how the character of the community assemblies fundamentally changed after August 14. As previously mentioned, the community assemblies went from large, effective blockades while the whole HPA workforce was on strike, to smaller, symbolic gatherings after HPA workers were directed to return back to work on August 14. The HPA workforce was now split between those sacked and still working, and the community assemblies wilted under a process of demoralization and demobilization.

Without a hint of irony, the description of these events by The Guardian appears under the sub-heading of “class leadership”. This is the kind of “class leadership” that MUA members can well and truly do without.

The red herring of the “ultra-left”

When a Stalinist organization like the CPA wants to divert attention from inconvenient truths, who better to point to than “ultra-left” and “anti-union” Trotskyists?

The Guardian warns its readers of the “anti-union mantra” of the Trotskyists that wrongly tells workers that “their union is betraying them because it has entered into deals” and promotes “misinformed notions of union sell-outs”. This is not just an attempt to portray Trotskyists as wild-eyed militants who simply cry “betrayal” at every opportunity. More to the point, it is an attempt to reduce the sophisticated Marxist analysis of the trade union bureaucracy to a matter of name-calling. Whether The Guardian likes it or not, the permanent apparatus of full-time union officials that control our unions forms a distinct social layer – the trade union bureaucracy. This layer is distinct from the union membership in a number of ways. While workers are paid by employers, union officials draw their wages from unions themselves, not bosses. Most union officials are paid wages far in excess of those of the workers they represent. The bargaining function of the union bureaucracy as the intermediary between bosses and workers subjects it to powerful pressures towards moderation. These and other factors place the trade union bureaucracy in a unique social position with interests that are different from, and sometimes in conflict with, the union members they represent.

The Guardian also warns its readers that the “lies and distortions” of the “ultra-left” (who only ever lurk “on the fringes of the labour movement”) would have “seen the dispute crash into a huge defeat”, led workers “into oblivion” and would have “destroyed the union”.

So what exactly were these dangerous “lies and distortions” that the “ultra-left” promoted during the Hutchison dispute? What disastrous tactics and strategy were the Trotskyists “screaming from the sidelines”? The Guardian does not say. Not one concrete reference is provided of anything the “ultra-left” did or said during the dispute.

The Guardian singles out two very different “ultra-left” organizations for attack: the SEP and Solidarity. The first, the Socialist Equality Party* (SEP, which The Guardian did not even name) is admittedly a soft target. The SEP holds that the traditional Marxist view of trade unions as defensive organizations of the working class is no longer valid and argues that unions are now simply the direct instruments of the corporations and the capitalist state. During the dispute, the SEP insisted that the “essential first step in defending jobs is a complete break with the MUA” which can only mean resigning from the union and becoming a non-unionist. The SEP also called for the establishment of “independent rank-and-file committees” which require “a new political perspective based on the fight for a workers government and socialist policies”. Limiting “independent rank-and-file committees” to those who already possess a “political perspective” based on “socialist policies” would of course exclude the vast majority of MUA members, who do not currently possess this “political perspective”. For an organization that describes itself as Trotskyist, the SEP’s calls to break from the unions and build rank and file committees based on socialist policies have more in common with Joseph Stalin’s ultra-left “Third Period” policies (1928-33) than they do with Trotskyism.

In an echo of “Third Period” Stalinist thuggery and violence against Trotskyists, the SEP claims that its members outside the Hutchison terminal in Sydney were abused, physically threatened and had their leaflets torn from their hands on various occasions. Those accused include Sydney MUA officials who are also members of the Communist Party of Australia. While the SEP has an atrocious, anti-Marxist position on the trade unions, the organization is still nominally a part of the working class movement. Any such thuggery and violence within the working class and labour movement must be strenuously opposed by everyone within that movement.

The other “ultra-left” organization singled out by The Guardian is Solidarity, part of the International Socialist Tendency based in the ‘state capitalist’ tradition of Tony Cliff. What has Solidarity done to so enrage The Guardian?

Solidarity’s August 16, 2015 article “Don’t let Hutchison’s divide and rule: restart the strike; fight for every job” says, “The court decision effectively meant that the workers wrongly sacked by Hutchison were left outside the gate. In this situation, it was a mistake to return to work [. . .] The only sensible approach is to keep the workforce united; restart the strike action [which] would mean defying the orders from Fair Work Australia [. . .] There is a risk of fines; but bad laws have to be broken [. . .] The union also needs to stop the sub-contracting that is allowing Hutchison to meet its contracts by diverting its ships to other companies. If that means solidarity action is needed from workers at DP World and Patrick, so be it [. . .] We need to defend every job. That means restarting the strike and the pickets now.”

The Guardian does not dare quote any of this, as it does not want to open up a discussion around tactics and strategy**. It is much easier to simply slander Solidarity as “ultra-left” and quickly move on.

The Guardian did not just attack these two “ultra-left” organizations at random. It has specifically targeted the one organization (we know of) that MUA officials and Communist Party members allegedly threatened and abused, and the one local organization that put forward a clear industrial alternative to that of the MUA leadership.

Trotskyists “have never delivered outcomes for workers”?

The Guardian throws a whole range of ridiculous claims at the “ultra-left”. Probably the most offensive is that Trotskyists “have never delivered outcomes for workers”, that is, have never led sections of our class in battles against the boss. This nonsense flies in the very face of history.

Trotskyists led one of the most important labour struggles in U.S. history, the Minneapolis Teamsters strike of 1934. This strike won union recognition and wage rises for the poorly-paid truck drivers and warehouse workers of Minneapolis, turned a notoriously open shop town into a union stronghold, and went on to establish organizing drives that unionized one quarter of a million workers across eleven states of the U.S. Midwest.

The Sri Lankan Trotskyists of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) led a successful two-day nationwide bus drivers’ strike in 1936 and played a leading role in the 1939-40 strike wave of exploited Tamil tea plantation workers. The party was central to the post-World War II labour upsurge, formed a number of important unions such as the Harbour and Dock Workers Union, and won over several Communist Party-led unions to the LSSP. By 1946 the Trotskyists had won the leadership of the Ceylon Federation of Labour.

Trotskyists have even made their mark in the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), a union long associated with Harry Bridges and the Communist Party.

Shaun “Jack” Maloney, who was shot and wounded by police during the 1934 Minneapolis Teamster strikes, was elected President of ILWU Local 19 in Seattle for five successive terms before retiring in 1976. Maloney was a leading critic of Bridges’ controversial “Mechanization and Modernization” Agreement which led to the loss of thousands of jobs.

Trotskyists Howard Keylor and Jack Heyman spearheaded the work bans campaign that targeted South African cargo aboard the Nedlloyd Kimberley in 1984, when members of ILWU Local 10 in San Francisco refused to unload this cargo in the face of legal injunctions for eleven days. As an elected ILWU Local 10 board member, Jack Heyman later played a central role in stopping the scab loaded Neptune Jade from being unloaded anywhere in the US and Canada during the Liverpool dockers’ dispute; the US West Coast ports stoppage in 1999 that demanded freedom for death row prisoner Mumia Abu Jamal; a 2003 anti-Iraq war protest that saw him beaten and arrested by police; and the West Coast ports shut down on May Day 2008 organized to protest the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

These few examples demonstrate that the claim by The Guardian that Trotskyists “have never delivered outcomes for workers” is simply untrue. This outrageous allegation is a slap in the face to the thousands of Trotskyist militants around the world who take on the bosses and union bureaucrats every day, and a slur on the memory of hundreds of Trotskyists who have lost their lives at the hands of fascist thugs, military dictatorships and ‘democratic’ police forces, the hired goons of strike breaking industrialists, and murderous Stalinist special agents.

Tail-ending the “left-wing” union bureaucracy

Why does The Guardian speak of a “major victory” and “a fantastic agreement” while refusing to disclose crucial facts about the Hutchison dispute? Why does the paper gloss over the role of the MUA’s Paddy Crumlin in the crucial days of August 13 and 14, when he told sacked workers they had been reinstated and directed them to return to work? Why does it throw up the red herring of the “ultra-left” and falsely claim that Trotskyists have never led workers in battles against the boss?

It is because the essentially reformist politics of the Communist Party of Australia sees them rarely step beyond the industrial and political bounds set by their allies – the “left-wing” trade union bureaucracy. They instead consistently fall in behind and politically tail-end these forces. The Guardian provides left cover for its bureaucratic allies, whitewashes their actions whenever they sell our struggles short, and politically attacks the genuine left-wing opponents of the union bureaucracy that the bureaucracy cannot be seen to do itself. It is this political subservience to the “left-wing” trade union bureaucracy that ultimately explains the ‘analysis’ of the Hutchison dispute put forward by The Guardian and the Communist Party of Australia.

With an anti-worker Liberal government on the offensive, ship owners stepping up moves to replace MUA seafarers with poorly paid Third World crew, and the onslaught of job slashing automation in the stevedoring sector, there is a dire need for MUA militants to adopt a genuine class-struggle approach and a Marxist outlook. But they can well do without the ‘Marxism’ of The Guardian and the Communist Party of Australia (For more information on the historic and current role of the Communist Party of Australia in the maritime unions, read here ).

* The SEP has its origins in the British ‘Trotskyism’ of Gerry Healy and his Socialist Labour League / Workers Revolutionary Party. The WRP is best known for receiving over £1,000,000 from oil-rich Arab regimes such as Gaddafi’s Libya and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq during the 1970s and 80s, which financed the WRP’s daily newspaper. In 1985, Healy’s sexual abuse of two dozen female WRP members came to light and tore the WRP and its international organization apart. Out of the wreckage, US Healyite leader David North and supporters formed Socialist Equality Parties in the United States, Australia and elsewhere. It has been revealed that David North is the CEO of a multi-million dollar printing business (and union-free workplace) in Michigan, which may explain the SEP’s non-Marxist position that trade unions are the direct instruments of the corporations and the capitalist state.

** The MUA also had the option of legal, protected industrial action by workers at the other two stevedoring companies. Under Australian law, such action can only be taken after an Enterprise Agreement (EA) expires. The DP World EA expired on June 30, 2014 and had not been settled in August 2015. The Patrick Terminals EA expired on June 30, 2015 and negotiations are still ongoing.

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