Australian dockers walk off the job

By , Sydney

THE first national dock strike in Australia in four years has escalated. Sydney ``wharfies'' walked off the job Feb. 10 in support of 55 fellow dock workers who were laid off after a breakdown in negotiations over an enterprise deal involving layoffs that all other ports in Australia had agreed to.

It escalated Feb. 14 and 15 as workers in Melbourne, Fremantle, Adelaide, and Brisbane - virtually the entire 1,400-strong Australia Stevedoring work force - went on strike. In all, 30 to 35 ships around the country are affected.

The strike is dismaying to the Australian maritime community, which has been working hard to change its image of being slow, corrupt, and hamstrung by unions.

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``Worried? Yes, I am,'' says Jim Sweetensen, managing director of Australian Stevedoring. ``We've been left with no alternative. The image I'm more concerned about is that of Australia as a trading nation. Our wharves have the reputation of being inefficient despite reforms because we started from such a low base.''

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