Australian dockers claim legal victory

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Australia's waterfront war enters its fifth week, the 1,400 sacked dock workers at the centre of the dispute yesterday claimed a victory when the High Court ruled that they were entitled to win back their jobs.

After a month of one of the bitterest industrial confrontations Australia has seen, the High Court ruled yesterday that the workers sacked by Patrick, the second-biggest cargo handling company, could return to work. The ruling was hedged with conditions, meaning the dispute is likely to drag on and leave 11,000 containers stranded at docks around Australia.

Nevertheless, cheers erupted when the court's decision was announced to thousands of dock workers ("wharfies"), their families and supporters who have formed picket lines outside the gates of Patrick's wharves in Sydney, Melbourne and Fremantle, in Western Australia. Some wharfies wept; others declared the verdict a victory for Australia's working class. "I'm looking forward to getting back to work with my mates," said a wharfie in Sydney. Addressing the workers in Sydney, Jennie George, president of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, the union umbrella body, warned: "We've still got some way to go. It's not all over. We've had a great moral victory again today."

Patrick sacked the workers on 7 April after it announced that the subsidiary companies which employed them no longer had any assets and had been placed in the hands of administrators. The move stunned the workers, all of whom belong to the Maritime Union of Australia, which has had a monopoly on Australia's waterfront for almost 100 years.

Overnight, the company replaced the sacked wharfies with non-union men trained in secret and hired on contracts. The federal conservative coalition government, headed by John Howard, has supported Patrick's showdown with the union. It has treated the docks war as the decisive battleground to break Australia's biggest, and last, union monopoly.

But what started as a fight over waterfront reform has turned into a battle in the courts over the rights of dismissed workers. A fortnight ago the union took Patrick to the Federal Court. It delivered a landmark ruling that it should reinstate the workers and not hire others in their place. It also found Patrick may have broken the law, which forbids dismissing people simply because they belong to a union.

Patrick appealed to the High Court, the final appeal court, last week. Yesterday it upheld the ruling against the dockers' sackings, but said reinstatement would depend on whether the administrators of the hire companies are able to restore those companies to trading.

Peter Brook, one of the independent administrators, said the verdict did not guarantee the workers would be re-employed. Chris Corrigan, chairman of Patrick, offered the administrators A$3.6m (pounds 1.4m) to get the companies going but hinted there were conditions attached. "Any decision by the administrators must involve massive work-place reform, otherwise the companies will go into liquidation," he said.

Mr Howard's government has been damaged by the way the dispute has unfolded. While most Australians support waterfront reform, polls show they are unimpressed by the government's handling of the dispute. Mr Howard and Peter Reith, his Minister for Workplace Relations, boasted of a swift victory over the union when Patrick moved against it. Now the government looks badly outmanoeuvred. It still faces a case in which the union will seek to show Patrick and the government illegally conspired to dismiss the union workers.