The Australian waterfront dispute of 1998 was a severe and protracted industrial relations dispute, primarily between the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) and Patrick Corporation, a stevedoring and transportation company led by chief executive officer Chris Corrigan. Patrick Corporation had the support of the Howard government, particularly the then Workplace Relations Minister Peter Reith. The dispute, which became the most contentious industrial relations dispute in Australia for many years, centred around attempts by Patrick and the Federal Government to improve efficiency on Australia's wharves, primarily by reducing worker entitlements and the power of the MUA. It also acted as a litmus test for the workings of the government's "new industrial relations" system.
A prospective employee must also be a card carrying member of the MUA. A non Union workforce was encouraged to compete against the MUA and required new legislative changes.
After the legislative introduction of Australian Workplace Agreements, a number of stevedoring operators toyed with bringing individual contract workers into their workforces, but abandoned their plans in the face of strident union opposition.
One company sought to recruit former and current Australian Defence Force members to counter the MUA. Fynwest Pty Ltd began an active recruiting campaign and employed former and current members of the SASR Australian Special Air Service Regiment, 3RAR Paratroopers, 4RAR Commandos and other military specialists to become stevedores. These men were later tagged as Industrial Mercenaries by the media and public.
On 8 April 1998, the Patrick Stevedoring Company made a startling and controversial decision to sack all its unionised workers and liquidate its assets (essentially becoming insolvent). As the media and general public were confronted with this development, it was claimed that the government had known about, and supported, this mass sacking. Minister Reith gave a doorstop interview at midnight as the private security guards hired by Patricks to evict their employees descended on the waterfront; Minister Reith reading from a prepared brief stated that they fully supported Patricks in their action.
The company cited lack of productivity and profit as the reason behind the sacking, as well as a desire to "clean up" the waterfront. They seized on the government's tentative Workplace Relations Act 1996 as a means to do it.
However, when the media turned up at the docks the following morning, they discovered that the docks were fully operational, with a full staff installed - The majority with lower wages and fewer guarantees of working conditions. These workers had contracts with a different company - a company owned by the same people as the recently announced insolvent Patrick Corporation. The original Fynwest Employees were also present, these former defence force men were on a far higher financial consideration.
This matter was soon seized by the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) as a plot to 'squeeze' them out of the workforce, part of the Howard Government's overall plan. They started a vigorous and eventually successful campaign to have this matter brought to justice, and the case made its way to the High Court.
The MUA and Patrick negotiated a new work agreement, which was adopted by the company and workers in June 1998. The agreement specified a near-halving of the permanent workforce through voluntary redundancies, the casualisation and contracting out of some jobs, smaller work crews, longer regular hours, company control over rostering, and productivity bonuses for faster loading. While the union retained the ability to represent maritime workers, the company achieved significant changes to work practices as it desired. Workplace Relations Minister Peter Reith stated at the time "There appears to be a number of reforms which will satisfy the seven benchmark objectives which is very important.
The non-union workers who had been employed to break the union were dumped by their employer at the conclusion of the dispute. Many members of this non-union group claimed they were still owed thousands of dollars in unpaid wages, and successfully sought payment of these unpaid wages through the courts-these ex non-union workers after having to take their previous employer to the courts to receive their unpaid wages, stood on the steps of the court after their win. The original Fynwest men walked away with bonuses and commissions of around $50,000.00 each on cancellation of their contracts.