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Issue #1644      June 25, 2014

Cockatoo Island strike and occupation –
25 years on

In a recent announcement the federal government let it be known that tenders for the construction of two navy supply vessels would be offered to Spain or Korea. The last major vessel built in the port of Sydney was HMAS Success. This naval supply ship was built at the now closed Cockatoo Island Dockyard.

The floating crane Titan being towed under the Sydney Harbour Bridge (northern shore in background). The crane is supporting the foremast of the light cruiser HMAS Sydney, which is to be installed at Bradleys Head as a memorial. In late December 1992, the old floating crane was towed from Cockatoo Island where it was operating, out through Sydney Heads, allegedly on its way to Singapore. Several kilometres off the NSW coast the tow rope detached from the pontoon and it sank in several hundreds metres of water.

In the late 1980s there were a number of magazine and newspaper articles questioning the continued viability of this maritime installation. The Island Codock had a history of ship building and ship repair going back over a century and through two world wars.

After the Labour government’s official confirmation that the yard would close a mass meeting on May 10, 1989 resolved to strike and occupy the Dockyard until the federal government reversed its decision. The 14-week campaign involved both white and blue collar workers. For the 1,400 men and women who took part the experience elicited a roller coaster of emotions as well as being physically and financially challenging.

To their credit, they fought those long weeks determined to save their jobs and their workplace.

This highly organised group first seized the administration block and fanned out across the island to take control of the entire installation. By the end of the process the workers not only held sway over the workshops and dry docks but were in control of two submarines and a navy supply vessel Jervus Bay. For the first time in Australian history300 armed forces personnel were forced to evacuate a defence installation on Australian soil.

The strikers formed what was effectively a workers’ soviet!

Initially, the occupation was a real novelty with lots of media coverage. The Labor Council of NSW and the ACTU passed resolutions of support and Cockatoo Workers were invited to address mass meetings on worksites and in every industry and regional gatherings.

When it became apparent that the workers were preparing for a protracted struggle many union officials started to waver, torn between their loyalty to the workers and their loyalty to the Labor Party not to mention their own career ambitions! Due in part to the Accord [between the ACTU and the government] a huge number of union functionaries had become corporatist and not only did no know how to organise or lead a dispute but did not know what the class struggle was all about.

Both union delegates and mass meetings were subjected to lectures from Labor Council and ACTU representatives, all determined to halt the strike. This culminated in a diabolical and treacherous resolution from the NSW Labor Council withdrawing its support and calling upon the Cockatoo workers to end the dispute. Throughout the industrial campaign the Painters and Dockers led by Bob Gallagher remained solidly behind the strikers.

The unions (Seamen’s Union and Waterside Workers Federation), which later formed the Maritime Union of Australia, also maintained their unflinching support. This was despite the threat by the Hawke federal Labor government to impose Liberal era fines and de-registration proceedings.

From across Australia and from around the world encouragement and financial support flowed in and helped to sustain the workers in the dispute. Community support grew as time went on. Individual support from people like Harry Black and Lindy Nolan was greatly appreciated.

John Tognolini and Francis Kelly produced a short video of the strike and this was copied and widely distributed around Australia and to other parts of the world.

Ultimately the issue was not only the survival of a workplace which employed a large, highly skilled workforce but the wider manufacturing sector in Australia. The very union officials who were prepared to sabotage the Cockatoo dispute were happy to follow a political party whose loyalty lay with the big end of town. What they did during that dispute was repeated as workplace committees and delegates structures were allowed to collapse or be sidelined. Union membership declined as industries shed workers or officials failed to organise struggles.

It eventually emerged Kerry Packer wanted to turn the island into an upmarket resort and casino. The wide news exposure brought on by the dispute was not what the investors wanted. Then when it was discovered soil on the island was full of industrial contaminants leading to litigation over remedial work, the federal government handed it over to the NSW government as a state park.

At least it is still publicly owned.

Those who took part in the dispute walked away with some redundancy money in their pockets and a sense of dignity, proud of their actions. The workers at Cockatoo Island seized the initiative and fought a valiant campaign which will be remembered by generations of workers to come.

Next article – Decision to extinguish landholders’ rights

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