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Maritime Union of Australia elections: continuity and change

The Quadrennial Elections of the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) have just been finalised, with newly elected officials taking office on July 1. The election results in the union which covers the economically strategic areas of shipping, stevedoring and the offshore oil and gas industry were a real mixed bag. The Maritime Union and its predecessor unions have had a long association with Communism, an association which has left behind a contradictory legacy.

Sean Robertson

July 22, 2015
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Photo: The ‘Patrick dispute’ (1998).

Nationally, only one of the four national office positions changed hands. Among the union’s nine branches, only three in the states of Victoria, Tasmania and Queensland saw wholesale change within their leaderships. Aside from an unsuccessful challenge to one of four positions in Sydney, every other official in the remaining six branches were re-elected unopposed.

Nationally, the main contest was for the Deputy National Secretary position, which was previously held by Mick Doleman who announced his retirement late last year. Will Tracey from the union’s militant Western Australia (WA) branch was the first to nominate for this position. On hearing news of Doleman’s planned retirement, the WA Branch acted quickly to nominate Tracey, with his nomination being unanimously endorsed by a 500-strong WA branch meeting at the end of 2014. The WA Branch of the MUA has been controlled by Christy Cain and other members of the “Rank and File” ticket since they first won office in 2003. This branch, partly as a result of the boom in the offshore oil and gas industry, has grown from around 1,200 members in 2003 and reached over 5,000 before levelling off to around 4,000 members.

Tracey’s 3551 votes saw him easily beat two other candidates, Wal Pritchard with 1396 votes and Hugh Doherty with 1008. Pritchard is the former WA MUA Branch Secretary who lost his position in 2003 to the “Rank and File” ticket. He is also closely aligned to outgoing Deputy National Secretary Mick Doleman, both former members of the Maritime Unionist Socialist Activities Association (MUSAA) (see Communism and maritime unions in Australia).

The two incumbent National Assistant Secretaries, Ian Bray and Warren Smith, both comfortably held on to their positions. Bray was part of the WA “Rank and File” ticket back in 2003, while Smith is a leading member of the small pro-Moscow Communist Party of Australia (CPA). The only challenger Vin Francis, who was one half of the “Back 2 Basics” team, was beaten by margins of three to one.

Will Tracey, Ian Bray and Warren Smith were all members of the “MUA United National Team”, formed specifically for the elections and headed by National Secretary Paddy Crumlin [see: http://muaunitednationalteam.weebly.com]. Crumlin was once again re-elected unopposed. Since taking over from his predecessor in 2000, Crumlin has been re-elected four times without ever being challenged by an opposition candidate. He has also served as the President of the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) since August 2010.

The “MUA United National Team” is a reflection of the recent convergence between, on the one hand, a section of the traditional leadership around Paddy Crumlin and other MUSAA figures, along with their uncritical supporters in the CPA, and on the other, the more militant “Rank and File” leadership from WA.

The Victorian MUA Branch saw three out of four incumbents, including Victorian Branch Secretary Kevin Bracken, lose their positions to members of the “MUA Change Ticket” [see: http://www.muachangeticket.org]. This ticket now holds the positions of Branch Secretary (Joe Italia), Deputy Branch Secretary (Mark Jones) and one of the two Assistant Branch Secretaries (Jeff Hoy). Incumbent Bob Patchett held on to the second Assistant Branch Secretary position. One factor that helps to explain this result was the incumbents’ poor handling of the “Qube Two” case. In mid-2013 a number of “wharfies” (stevedores) were sacked by Qube Logistics in the Port of Melbourne as the result of a controversial safety dispute. Two of the sacked MUA members, Richard Lunt and Torren McMaster, waged a two year struggle for their reinstatement. Lack of initial support and later bungled attempts by the incumbents to offer some assistance left a dark stain on their record.

The “MUA Change Ticket” ran a glossy, well-funded campaign, but their election material was heavy on rhetoric and light on substance. Time will tell whether or not the new Victorian leadership will perform any better than their predecessors.

The island state of Tasmania saw the election of the first ever female MUA official, with Alisha (“A.J.”) Bull being elected to the Honorary Deputy Branch Secretary position. This is a milestone in a union where women make up no more than five percent of the total membership. The 2015 elections also saw the inauguration of a new Honorary National Women’s Representative position, which former Sydney wharfie Mich-Elle Myers won unopposed.

The Sydney MUA Branch in the state of New South Wales saw an unsuccessful challenge to the Assistant Branch Secretary positions by young Sydney wharfie Mick Stewart, the other half of the “Back 2 Basics” ticket alongside Vin Francis. The two Assistant Branch Secretaries, Joe Deakin and Paul Garrett, with 591 and 694 votes respectively, easily beat Stewart’s 237. Both Sydney Branch Secretary Paul McAleer and Sydney Deputy Branch Secretary Paul Keating were re-elected unopposed.

The Sydney MUA Branch is an anomaly within the MUA and the Australian union movement. It is the only branch of any union in the country where the majority of elected officials belong to the Communist Party of Australia. Despite its “class struggle” rhetoric, the Stalinists of the CPA function as little more than a cheer squad for Paddy Crumlin and other “left-wing” trade union bureaucrats.

For Marxists, the most exciting result occurred in Queensland. The Queensland Branch Secretary position was won by veteran socialist and union activist Bob Carnegie by a margin of 50 votes (see more below). It was a sweet victory for Bob, who in 2011 was defeated by Mick Carr by only two votes (504 to 506). This time round, Carr did not re-contest his position. Trevor Munday, the Queensland Deputy Secretary under Carr, was hoping to fill the spot. The final tally saw Carnegie win with 315 votes, Munday with 265 votes, seafarer Brian Gallagher with 170 votes and wharfie Steve Cumberlidge with 116 votes. Former MUA Gladstone (central Queensland) organiser Jason Miners comfortably won the Deputy Branch Secretary position by 588 votes to 277. Carnegie’s running mate Paul Petersen missed out on the Assistant Branch Secretary position won by Paul Gallagher (446 votes to 319).

Above all else, the results from this year’s MUA elections highlight the deepening industrial and political disengagement of the membership with their union. This is most clearly seen in this year’s poor voter turnout. The 47 percent voter turnout this year was little better than the 45 percent result from 2011, the lowest ever for the MUA. Maritime unions have traditionally prided themselves on their high participation rates. For instance, in 2003 the figures reached 64 percent nationally and 75 percent in WA. While much better than most Australian unions, this is a historic low water mark for the union. This situation will not be helped by the convergence in recent years of the traditional leadership of Paddy Crumlin with the more militant “Rank and File” leadership from WA. On the other hand, the election to office of radical socialists such as Bob Carnegie is a beacon of hope for the future.

* * *

“Revolutionary socialist” Bob Carnegie elected as MUA Queensland Branch Secretary

This year’s MUA elections saw veteran socialist and union activist Bob Carnegie win the Queensland Branch Secretary position on a radical program of militancy and rank and file union democracy. For over three decades, Carnegie has been centrally involved in all major workers’ struggles in the Queensland capital of Brisbane. Along the way, his political journey has taken him from his youthful Stalinism to becoming a committed Trotskyist and supporter of Workers’ Liberty*.

Carnegie’s election material included radical policies such as fighting to make a 30-hour week with no loss in pay to become MUA policy in the stevedoring industry, a sector facing massive job losses due to the introduction of automated machinery. Bob’s platform also included a call for the rotation of all elected official positions. Bob has pledged to serve no more than two four-year terms in office (a practice implemented by the leadership of the Builders Labourers Federation in New South Wales, best known for their “Green Bans” industrial action that stopped the demolition of historic buildings and parks between 1971 and 1975). During his election campaign, he demonstrated his commitment to internationalism by going on a speaking tour of Britain in mid-May and speaking at over a dozen meetings, including the national conferences of the Fire Brigades Union and the Public and Commercial Services Union.

Bob first got involved in politics when he joined the pro-Moscow Socialist Party of Australia (SPA) in 1979. One year later he was sent to the Soviet Union for six month’s political training. On his return, he became a seafarer and joined the SPA-controlled Seamen’s Union of Australia (SUA). When the SPA split in 1983 over the question of the class-collaborationist “Prices and Incomes Accord” social contract, Carnegie sided with the “industrial wing” of SPA union officials that supported the Accord. Some of these officials were expelled from the SPA. Others resigned in protest. When ex-SPA seafarers and wharfies formed the Maritime Unionist Socialist Activities Association (MUSAA), Carnegie was among their ranks.

Bob was on the frontline during the 1985 South East Queensland Electricity Board (SEQEB) dispute when the National Party government in Queensland sacked 1,000 electricity workers. Carnegie was arrested nine times and was the first person to be jailed, serving 22 days behind bars.

From 1988 to 1994 Carnegie was the SUA Honorary Queensland Branch President, and after the SUA amalgamated with other unions to form the Maritime Union of Australia, Carnegie served as the MUA Southern Queensland Branch Organiser (1994-98) and the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) QLD Co-ordinator (1995-98).

Bob started reading books from outside of the ideological starvation diet of official “Marxism-Leninism” by authors such as Gramsci, Orwell and Trotsky. MUSAA leaders started to see him as a “maverick” and a “Trotskyite”. Bob started to see the same things in the SUA that Orwell and Trotsky had written about.

Then the “Patrick dispute” of 1998 hit. During the lock-out, Carnegie worked with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) to launch a boycott of the scab-loaded “Columbus Canada”. This solidarity boycott, which defied secondary boycott laws for seventeen days, helped turn the Patrick dispute around. Bob also gained notoriety for having himself chained up and the chains welded to the railway lines outside the Patrick terminal in Brisbane.

For Carnegie, the negotiated settlement of the Patrick dispute was a political and personal crossroads. Bob was torn between loyalty to a union leadership he had known nearly all his adult life and loyalty to the union’s rank and file. He knew that the settlement would be a severe blow to the union. Bob could not bring himself to betray fundamental working-class principles and resigned from his well-paid job as a MUA official.

After 1998, Bob battled with both a debilitating bout of depression and his Stalinist past. In the process of getting back on his feet, he befriended leading Workers’ Liberty member Martin Thomas, a regular visitor to Brisbane, and later joined the British-based socialist group.

In 2003, Carnegie found work in the construction industry. One year later he became an organiser for the Builders Labourers Federation Queensland (BLFQ), where his militancy earned him the nickname “Comrade Hand Grenade”. In 2008 he resigned as a BLFQ organiser and went back to working in construction.

Bob later returned to sea. As a delegate on an exploration rig off the coast of Western Australia in 2010, Carnegie led a campaign that won the first ever AU$75 per day hard laying allowance and a three week on / three week off swing for MUA members on the rig. He was soon put on a “no-fly” list for air transport to the rig, making him the first worker to be effectively blacklisted by Chevron.

In 2012, Carnegie led a successful nine-week strike of 600 construction unionists at the Queensland Children’s Hospital site in Brisbane. After construction union officials were given court orders to stay away from the site, Bob was asked to lead the dispute as a community activist. Just days after this victory, the Abigroup construction company had Bob charged with 54 counts of criminal contempt of court. Every single charge was eventually dismissed after a 15-month legal battle.

Carnegie’s victory in this year’s MUA elections is one that the bosses are closely following. The Thomson Reuters employers’ news service “Workforce Daily” interviewed Bob for its June 25 edition, where he was described as coming from a “lost time of union working class militancy”, a “very solid revolutionary socialist background” and believing that “society should be based on human need not human greed”.

* Workers’ Liberty has moved from adherence to the positions of United States Trotskyist James P. Cannon to its present “Third Camp” position most closely associated with Max Shachtman. The group is informally divided between a “bureaucratic collectivist” wing led by Sean Matgamna and a “state capitalist” wing led by Thomas. Many consider Workers’ Liberty to have pro-imperialist positions on questions such as Palestine and Northern Ireland.

* * *

Communism and maritime unions in Australia

The Maritime Union and its predecessor unions have had a long association with Communism, an association which has left behind a contradictory legacy. On the one hand, there is a proud history of industrial militancy and action in the interests of world peace and working class internationalism. On the other, there is the reformist political legacy of Stalinism that has seen maritime union leaderships fall into line behind the anti-worker governments of the social-democratic Australian Labor Party.

Today’s MUA is a product of the amalgamation in 1993 of different maritime unions, the most important being the Seamen’s Union of Australia (SUA) and the Waterside Workers’ Federation (WWF). The influence of the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) is not hard to find. The longest-serving leaders of these two unions were CPA members. “Big” Jim Healy was elected General Secretary of the WWF in 1937 and led that union until his sudden death in 1961. Eliot V. Elliott was the Federal Secretary of the SUA from 1941 until his retirement at the end of 1978. Elliot was succeeded by fellow Communist Pat Geraghty who was the SUA Federal Secretary until 1993.

Maritime unions in Australia have a long history of taking internationalist action. One of the most famous was the 1938 “Pig Iron dispute” at Port Kembla in the state of New South Wales. After the Japanese army invaded China in 1937, WWF members launched a number of largely spontaneous actions where they refused to load Japanese cargo. The “Pig Iron dispute”, which was led by local WWF and Communist Party leader Ted Roach, lasted for nine weeks. For his role in attempting to break the boycott, the conservative, anti-communist Attorney-General (and later Prime Minister) Robert Menzies incurred the life-long hatred of militant unionists and the derogatory nickname “Pig-Iron Bob”.

Other actions of international solidarity include the 1946 boycott of Dutch shipping in support of the newly formed republic of Indonesia; the refusal during 1966-67 to load and sail on the “Jeparit” and the “Boonaroo”, two ships transporting bombs and munitions to South Vietnam during the Vietnam War; and the periodic anti-apartheid bans placed on South African shipping in the 1970s and 80s.

These actions often had a contradictory nature. For example, working class sentiment during the “Pig Iron dispute” was a mixture of genuine outrage at Japanese atrocities and solidarity with China, along with a racist fear of the Japanese “yellow peril” that threatened to invade “white Australia”. Similarly, these actions did not always have the initial support of maritime union officials or the Communist Party. Nevertheless, they all point to a real internationalist tradition that unions in Australia today would do well to rekindle.

The flipside of this internationalism is the reformist political legacy of Stalinism that is still felt in Australian maritime unions today. To fully understand this legacy, a brief look at the history of the Stalinist left in Australia is required.

Like most Communist Parties in advanced capitalist nations, the CPA had by the 1960s slowly drifted towards Eurocommunism, an uneasy mix of blind loyalty to Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin and adaptation to the domestic labour bureaucracy. What remained of the CPA’s Stalinist faith was put to the test in 1968, when Soviet tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia to crush the “Prague Spring” uprising. As opposed to their previous stance on Hungary in 1956, this time round CPA leaders came out in opposition to the Soviet invasion. The Party was soon polarised between a majority who denounced the 1968 Soviet invasion and the minority who supported it.

The pro-Moscow minority eventually split from the CPA and formed the Socialist Party of Australia (SPA) in 1971. Seamen’s Union leaders Eliot V. Elliott and Pat Geraghty were founding members of the SPA. In the WWF, the SPA could count on pockets of support from groups around WWF members Peter Symon in Adelaide and Harry Black in Sydney.

The SPA suffered its own split a decade later. In 1983, the newly elected Labor government introduced the “Prices and Incomes Accord”, a class-collaborationist agreement similar to British Labour’s social contract of 1974-79. This agreement had the overwhelming support of trade union officials from the Labor Party ‘left’ and the Eurocommunist CPA. Thirteen years of the “Accord” saw real wages fall by 15 to 25 percent, corporate profits soar and unleashed a wave of neo-liberal economic restructuring, all while union delegate structures and industrial strength collapsed.

The SPA and other left-wing groups correctly opposed the “Accord”. However, a large group of SPA union officials sided with the Labor Party government and the pro-Accord union officials from the CPA and the Labor ‘left’. The SPA expelled a number of these pro-Accord union officials in 1983, while others resigned in protest. They included SUA leaders Pat Geragthy and Pat Sweetensen, and Sydney WWF leaders Tom Supple, Merv McFarlane and Wal Jennings. A wave of resignations from the SPA quickly followed. These former SPA maritime unionists soon formed the Maritime Unionist Socialist Activities Association (MUSAA). MUSAA quickly developed a stronghold within the SUA, where it soon became little more than a vehicle for the election and support of “Marxist” trade union bureaucrats. The majority of MUA leaders, including Paddy Crumlin, Mick Doleman and Wal Pritchard, were all leading figures in the ranks of MUSAA.

The amalgamation of the WWF and the SUA to form the MUA in 1993 saw the coming together of two different unions, both historically led by Communists, but with two very different cultures of organisation. The WWF was a highly democratic and decentralised union with local branches in each port that exercised a good deal of autonomy. The SUA was a very different entity, with a very centralised and bureaucratic structure. MUSAA leaders helped to ensure that the MUA inherited some of the worst organisational features of the SUA.

Post-amalgamation, MUSAA leaders in the MUA have presided over repeated setbacks for maritime workers. In September 1994, after an initial five-day national maritime strike, MUA leaders reached agreement with the Labor government and its plans to privatise the Australian National Line (ANL), the government-owned shipping line.

In 1997, MUA leaders gave up union control of the seafarers’ industry roster. Equality of engagement was replaced by a system that sees seafarers at the mercy of shipping companies.

The famous “Patrick dispute” of 1998 saw Patrick Stevedores and the conservative Liberal government conspire to smash the MUA. Union strategy during the lock-out prioritised court room challenges and the avoidance of any escalation of the dispute, either from other MUA members or solidarity action from other unions. The victory on the picket lines was handed over at the negotiating table. The MUA got back onto the wharves, but at the cost of 600 permanent jobs at Patrick and a further 500 permanent jobs at P&O Ports a year later. The “Patrick dispute” resulted in a massive growth in casualisation and a weakening of the MUA that the union has never fully recovered from.

The Stalinist left in Australia has continued on its downward trajectory. The Eurocommunist CPA dissolved in 1991, with the aging SPA reappropriating the Communist Party of Australia name in 1996. Just a year later the “new” CPA entered into a formal alliance with MUSAA. Today, MUSAA appears to have all but collapsed, with most of its MUA leadership having long ago joined the Labor Party. Others have found their way into the “new” CPA, which has added numbers to the CPA’s one-off stronghold in the MUA’s Sydney Branch, and little else.

While it would be wrong to call today’s MUA a Stalinist-controlled union, residual aspects of Stalinism still remain. One that has refused to die is the MUA leaders’ use of the language and methods of amalgam used during Stalin’s Great Purge of the 1930s. Left-wing oppositionists during the show trials were accused of being “splitters”, “wreckers”, of being “anti-Soviet Union” and “agents of Hitler”. In today’s MUA, oppositionists are accused of being “divisive”, “anti-union” and of being agents of the employers, the conservative Liberal Party and the extreme right. Before they took office in 2003, members of the militant WA “Rank and File” team were regularly subjected to this type of abuse (which makes the current convergence between them and former MUSAA leaders all the more ironic).

MUA leaders still speak in the language of “class struggle” and even occasionally of “Marxism”. But the heady days of industrial struggle and political militancy of the WWF and SUA are long gone. Industrially, with the exception of the WA Branch, whatever limited industrial or solidarity action that does occur is generally called off as soon as the industrial courts threaten the union with fines and legal sanctions. Politically, the union is a bit player within the ‘left’ of the Labor Party, a ‘left’ that, aside from factional squabbles, is barely distinguishable from the mainstream ‘right’. Organisationally, its centralised, bureaucratic structure and occasional stage-managed conferences sees rafts of lofty policy aims adopted and the paying of lip-service to internationalism, but next to no concrete action being decided on. Today’s MUA might no longer be a Stalinist-controlled union, but it is still as far removed from being a genuine rank and file controlled organisation as it has ever been.

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