Mudginberri: Confronting Contracting and the ‘Secondary Boycott’ Provisions

Allan Anderson

Allan Anderson has been involved with the trade union movement for almost 30 years and was a longstanding member of the Communist Party of Australia. He is currently an Industrial Officer with the Australian Services Union. At the time of the Mudginberri dispute, Allan was Federal Research Officer for the Australian Meat Industry Employees’ Union. Here, he recounts the legal and strategic difficulties faced by the AMIEU during that dispute..

It’s a long long time now since I’ve spoken about the Mudginberri dispute. During the conduct of it during the middle 80s, I think I could confidently say I was probably the only official of the union really that went out actively trying to educate people to what Mudginberri was about and also its consequences for the future. During the dispute I was single, I had plenty of time on my hands, I had plenty of opportunity and plenty of desire to try to educate as many people as I could about what the dispute was about. I must have addressed about fifty gatherings during those years trying to communicate to people just what the dispute was about and what its consequences were. I’d like to share with you to-day some of the anecdotal material that flowed from that particular period.

As you may know, the meat industry is a pay-by-results industry organised largely around piecework. And that piece work system, which amounted to people being paid on the amount of work that they did, was a system that had been developed in the first instance by the employers themselves to try to maximise productivity but it was embraced along the way by the workers themselves and the Meatworkers’ union into a system whereby people got paid as a result of the productivity that they achieved. And along the way, because the Meatworkers’ was an extremely strategic and militant union, we were able – and this of course predates my involvement with that union – we were able to institute, a system which rewarded quite handsomely our members and meat industry employees on the basis of the amount of work that they achieved.

Now these industrial awards that were both State and Federal in character are pretty well universal throughout the whole of Australia and where Mudginberri comes into this particular equation is simply this. In the early 1980s – approximately 1982 or 1983 – I was asked hy the then Federal secretary to prepare a log of claims to serve on employers in the Northern Territory. And one of those particular employers in the Northern Territory was a little known abattoir, Mudginberri Abattoirs, run by an individual called Mr J Pendarvis.

Little did I know at that time that this would lead to one of the most significant industrial disputes that has characterised this century. What happened, of course, was that in serving a log of claims on all these employers we got the matter before the then Conciliation and Arbitration Commission and we got a Commissioner who was quite renowned in many ways for his fairness. That was Commissioner Gough, who’d been looking after the meat industry for the Conciliation and Arbitration Commission for about 20 years. No big deal actually. We all thought, at that time, that this whole process would go swimmingly because Mudginberri Abattoirs, along with a lot of others, were essentially award free. We thought that it would be a reasonably easy passage to get all of those particular abattoirs under an award.

We had our own particular idea of what sort of standards of employment we might have wanted but we were in many ways prepared to wear something a little bit different. The problem was exacerbated by the fact that we did have a number of sheds or abattoirs in the Northern Territory that already had awards. And they said to the union: “Get these award free sheds under award coverage or we will not renew our agreement with the Union and we will become award free too and it will be very much a laissez faire sort of situation in the Northern Territory”. And I might say that the Northern Territory, as far as our union was concerned, was at that time rather a frontier situation. We had no full-time operatives in the Northern Territory, although we had a significant number of members that used to go up there to work on the seasons and we had a certain amount of influence but we didn’t have a particularly strong organisation.

Nevertheless, the Conciliation and Arbitration system enabled us to take the opportunity of getting these particular sheds under award coverage. The case started in the Conciliation and Arbitration Commission. It went along normally, as these cases do, until Commissioner Gough was knocked out of arbitrating this particular matter on a legalistic trick on behalf of the employers. Because he had taken part in conciliation of this particular award he couldn’t arbitrate it. It was the first time in my experience that this passage of the then Conciliation and Arbitration Act had been used. Anyway, Commissioner Gough was then history – out! Another Commissioner, Commissioner Ian McKenzie, was placed by the President to take over this matter.

This particular matter then changed quite significantly. After many, many hearing dates and many, many months had elapsed, Commissioner McKenzie handed down an award which in many ways was a watershed for Australian industrial relations. I think we did realise at the time that it was a watershed. Perhaps we realise it even more now. Essentially Commissioner McKenzie granted an award for all of these sheds in the Northern Territory but there was a particular clause in this award that said, in respect to wages and conditions, and wages in particular, that the employees had the right to bargain these particular matters between themselves and the employer without necessarily having any participation by the union, that is unless they chose to do so. Now really, when you look at Weipa and you look at all of the many other disputes that have taken place since, you can then see the significance of that particular decision. There you had a situation where the Commission was giving the imprimatur to employees to bypass the union.

Now perhaps if history had been kinder to us in the Northern Territory, and perhaps if we had been more skilful in being able to get those particular workers on side, Mudginberri might never have happened. But the fact of the matter is that Mudginberri did happen and it happened because those workers on that particular job decided almost unanimously (there were a couple of exceptions): “We want to negotiate our payment and our payment by results system between ourselves and the employer and we don’t want the union to be involved”.

Now what that meant, of course, was very significant. What it meant was that those particular employees were in fact doing on aO weekly basis perhaps three times the normal of work and probably being paid twice as much. Now remembering this was in the middle 1980s, $1,000 was a lot of money then. It still is, but it was a lot more money then. And when I was doing all these speeches around Sydney and other places, anyone who was prepared to listen to me, this was the problem. There would be always someone who would get up and say, “Is it true, Mr Anderson, that workers at Mudginberri earn as much as $1,000 a week?” Now I wish I could have told a lie at that stage but I like to be factual about these things and I would invariably have to say, “Yes, but …”. I very rarely got past the “yes”. Because people’s eyes would roll and say, “What’s wrong with a $1,000 a week, for Christ’s sake?” And then I would patiently try to explain that the meat industry was a piecework industry whereby you’re paid on the amount of work that you did. I would then patiently try to point out that employees were in fact being dudded on that particular situation by as much as $400 and $500 a week. Because they were carrying out far greater productivity, certainly being paid more, but had they been employed under the worst award that we had any where in Australia they would have been about $400 a week ahead.

Now you might think to yourself, well look one of the most fundamental characteristics of the human species is self interest. You would think that those workers at Mudginberri would have said, “Oh, yes we accept that argument. We’re being dudded; we know that and we’re going to be with the union.” But they didn’t and there was a very fundamental reason for that. Because these workers at Mudginberri were in fact largely itinerant. They were people who would go to the Northern Territory for a little while – maybe one or two seasons – with the expectation of making their fortune and they weren’t prepared to look at the consequences of their actions. Moreover, all sorts of forces came in on this dispute. The National Farmers’ Federation, the Bjelke Petersen Government, the Northern Territory Government, and why did they come into this? They came onto the side of J Pendarvis simply because it was a mechanism for destroying the award system throughout the meat industry. And that was how we saw it and why we saw it as being so important that we had to get in and, in the first instance, to convince those workers at Mudginberri to join us and see that what they were doing was in fact destroying the wages and conditions of meat workers throughout Australia or the threat thereof.

So we placed picket lines outside the establishment of Mudginberri. I might add that I’ve never been there myself, but I feel that I have at times. It’s about 150 kilometre trom Darwin and right on the edges of the Kakadu National Park so it was quite a logistical difficulty to put those picket lines there, but we did, and one or two of the employees actually joined the picket line trom inside the meat works, but largely production continued. Now the product was of course untested, uninspected and that added to the problems that we had later. But the placing of that picket line outside the Mudginberri abattoir placed us on a collision course with some very very powerful forces in Australia. And we were threatened on a number of occasions with the imposition of the Trade Practices legislation, sections 45D and E. But the Meatworkers’ Union, probably more than any other, had had those sorts of writs against it on numerous occasions before – in the live sheep dispute in ’77 for instance – and it was a fairly common thing.

We could paper the walls of our offices with the paper from these writs which were never gone on with. They were used, if you like, as a bargaining chip in the whole situation and withdrawn later. Now, again, you can look back in hindsight and say , “Well, why couldn’t we see what was going to happen?” But the fact of the matter was, the forces that were ranged against us in the Mudginberri dispute actually did go on with it and they took us right through the whole gamut. For probably two years we – or particularly the Federal officials of the Union, at that stage there were three of us – practically spent our entire time working on those cases. We went to practically every court in Australia, from the Supreme Court right down through the Federal Court, every court you can name. There was a phalanx of barristers and solicitors – enough to choke a bullock, there were that many of them – and it cost the union millions; millions and millions of dollars.

Let me say where we made our fundamental mistake legally. We were given legal advice that what we were doing was carrying out a legitimate dispute. But it was found in the case – and J Pendarvis was the particular person that took the action against us – the reason why he succeeded was that he employed three contractors and the three contractors were viewed by the Court as being the employer, but in the essence they were really J Pendarvis’s employees and J Pendarvis was, of course, the third party that was in fact effected by that industrial dispute. And, as such, they found against us that we had to pay the damages that he had incurred during that industrial dispute which came, from memory, to $1.75 million which was a lot of loot I can tell you. It was reduced somewhat by taxation down to about $1.4 million.

It was an extraordinary period of history which cost the Meatworkers’ Union dearly. It certainly helped to drive me into insanity as, indeed, it did a lot of others but I don’t think a lot of people really learnt anything very much about it. I don’t think we did enough to educate our members.