‘The Long Night’ – a story from the 1998 MUA dispute

The pickets on East Swanston Dock in Melbourne were a telling factor in the failure of the strategy by the government and Patricks to crush the MUA.

At the point when the National Farmers Federation (NFF) were most keen to get their scabs on the docks they were unable to prevent ten thousand pickets massed at the gates of the East Swanston Docks. But more than that, when the Victorian police were preparing to remove the pickets they were outmanoeuvred by the building workers who marched up behind them. The CFMEU had answered the call of the MUA in the best way possible.

This incident became known as The Long Night and was the turning point of the dispute. Indeed, it was decisive. The police were unable to contain the pickets. Mass action had overwhelmed the coercive power of the state and the court system. It is described below by one of the participants who supported the union against the employer and the government.

‘The Long Night’

by Pamela Curr

– read by Ian Curr

The tension in the room was palpable as members of different unions spoke. It was 4pm on Friday 17th April and eighty of us were sitting in a circle in the MUA headquarters in West Melbourne. Information had been gathered from workers in different unions which backed up the belief that Kennett had delivered an ultimatum to police to clear Swanston Dock and open it up for Patricks.

The facts were gathered from union members and pieced together to reveal the plan. Members reported buses had been arranged to take a large number of police from a city railway station to the docks probably after midnight. Another union had been informed by their members that hundreds of warrants had been written up to expedite predicted mass arrests. No police from the local area around the docks were to be used in this operation. Then the barrister for the union revealed that the watch-house which was always chronically overcrowded had been magically emptied. The evidence was conclusive a move was to be made on East Swanston Dock that night.

I was there with women unionists as a community member to express support for the MUA and tell them that the community wanted to stand alongside the Wharfies. We recognised them as the frontline for workers. If the government could knock them off, we were all done for. Over 100 years of union struggle was not going to be wiped out. One of the male workers stood up and thanked me but said he did not want ‘ladies’ on the line. He felt this was men’s business to which a woman unionist responded, ‘This is workers’ business and women are workers too and want to stand up and be counted just like the rest of you.’ This finished the gender argument once and for all. The stakes were too high for division. Decisions were made fast and furious under pressure. Mobile phones interrupted with news as it came to hand.

It was agreed all unions would take turns in manning the picket. The women workers at the MUA were setting up a 24 hour phone service. They had mattresses in the office and would take turns bunking down for sleep and maintaining communication. Community Radio 3CR gave out MUA headquarters phone numbers so that any information could be forwarded quickly to where it was needed. 3CR also called up supporters to get down to the picket telling them when they were most needed. This was community radio’s finest hour – a direct link to the people. We left the meeting knowing a long night was ahead of us and that we could all be arrested by morning.

The crowd swelled steadily from 7pm down at Swanston Dock. The marshals called them to practice every half hour or so and we all learnt how to link arms and interlace our fingers so that the police would have to pry us apart one by one to break this line. We agreed that we would be arrested. We were not going to make it easy for the government. Fires were keeping people warm. Their spirits were lit from within with the resolve to win this fight. There was only one toilet just inside the gate and the line was long but practicalities had to be attended to. We knew to be locked in a paddy wagon with a full bladder would be murder.

As the night wore on the crowd grew more resolved. We were now assembled in front of the gates. The marshals on the speaker system letting us know what was happening as news came to hand. At 2am lookouts reported police getting into buses in the city. We knew the time was approaching when we would be tested. Next they were marching down to the dock. It was too dark to see much but we could make out the shadowy outlines of 400 police. Then the helicopters started buzzing us with bright search lights. Back and forth for 40 minutes. It was irritating but good humour and black jokes mitigated the intended effects which were to rattle us.

As dawn was breaking the seagulls wheeled in the rosy light. The marshals on the loudspeaker kept us informed and there we stood 3000 of us facing off 400 police, both implacable. The 7am news bulletin on the ABC informed us that many of the police had removed their badge numbers. A roar of disapproval went up from the crowd. It was too dark for us to see but the journalists were close enough to take in such details.

As light broke we began to see the police more clearly. Our legs were aching after hours of standing on the cold hard bitumen. At least the unpredictable Melbourne weather was being kind – no rain.

By eight o’clock in the morning we were exhausted. The camaraderie was strong; strangers were sharing laughs, mandarins, water, and chocolates, whatever we had. We were at a stand-off when a roar started. What a sight! Builders’ labourers marching down the road toward us. We waved and shouted and cheered them in. This put the police in a pickle. They were now sandwiched between weary but steadfast picketers and fresh building workers. Discipline held firm as we cheered the new recruits onto the picket line. Leigh Hubbard from Trades Hall led the police off the dock and they retreated to a Mexican wave and voices singing, ‘goodbye, farewell, sad to see you go.’ Like hell we were! We had won!

Tired and exhilarated we headed home to sleep leaving the picket in safe hands. This was the beginning of a remarkable period in Melbourne. Swanston Dock, which until then had been as foreign to most of us as Timbuktu, was to become as familiar as a second home over the next two weeks. Restaurants and theatres emptied as night after night Victorians gathered on the docks. On weekends country folk came down to join their city cousins bringing sausages and chops for barbecues. All the churches were represented standing in support of the wharfies. A Buddhist shrine was erected under some bushes with ‘MUA Here to Stay’ across the top. Tents sprang up to feed and tend the growing community. Young environmentalists came down from the forests and cooked community meals for the picketers. A stage was erected and singers and comedians entertained the community. This was the essence of community and it started on the long night when workers and community came out in support of a group of workers who have always been the frontline defence of the Union Movement. The government thought this would be a pushover. They never dreamt that the community would rally for the wharfies. They were proved wrong on that night and in the weeks to come as the crowds swelled every night at the Peaceful Assembly on Swanston Dock chanting the familiar refrain ‘Workers United, Will Never Be Defeated.’ – Pamela Curr, FairWear Campaign,[8] 5 April 1999

From After the Waterfront- the workers are quiet by LeftPress

3 thoughts on “‘The Long Night’ – a story from the 1998 MUA dispute

  1. i am a builders laborer i was there it was the construction workers cfmeu not just builders laborers.although it was the blf that got us all our conditions in the building industry.In the morning the cops came back and were marching in army fashion and tried to get a scab train in ,most people had gone home after a big night.i was rapt to see leigh hubbard threaten to rip the train tracks up .Two little old ladies talked the train drivers to go home sick that day.

  2. Thanks Bill for your comments – you may be interested in the book that this article came from – it is called ‘After the Waterfront – the workers are quiet’ and can be purchased for $5 from LeftPress – just send me an email with your postal address and I will mail you a copy. The book is also online at http://wpos.wordpress.com/

  3. Wendy Boyle says:

    I remember this night well, thank you. One thing many didn’t know, the police van parked at the gate monitoring that no picketers were going through the gates, were not being kept informed by police command and the unions knew more than they did, they basically threw their hands in the air in disgust and disappointment, believing they were to be considered collaterel damage when it all erupted which it didn’t. Many officers were supportive of the Assembly and not willing to have a confrontation and pleased when they were able to turn around and march out, although the van and it’s officers remained pleased with the outcome.

Please comment down below