The strike by Australia's largest maritime union against one of the country's two largest stevedoring companies is expected to cost the company more than 5 million Australian dollars (US$3.4 million) in ship delays and lost revenue, government and maritime managers are predicting.

The company, Patrick Stevedore Co., acknowledges it is relying on bank support but is still close to collapse.The strike, begun last week by the Maritime Union of Australia, is against Patrick at Sydney's Port Botany cargo-handling terminal. Previous walkouts have been staged at Patrick's Webb Dock terminal in Melbourne.

Patrick Chairman Chris Corrigan, told Australian media early this week that his company is ''quite close, quite close'' to financial collapse.

He said he could not say specifically how close but noted his company has suffered nearly nine weeks of what he had previously called ''industrial thuggery'' by the MUA.

Mr. Corrigan was quoted in Australian media as comparing his confrontation with the MUA to ''the game of chicken, where two drivers speed toward each other to see who will veer aside first.''

''We are ever more convinced that real change is required and we have gone so far down the path there is no turning back.

''We are prepared to go on and take it to whatever conclusion it comes to. We are not prepared to do some deal that gives a whole lot more (in wages) on the basis of some vague promise of productivity.''

Last week, the Australian Peak Shippers Association, which represents cargo owners in negotiations with liner shipping companies over freight rates and shipping schedules and services, advised exporters to direct shipments away from Patrick and through rival P&O Ports as long as the strike persists.

The government's anti-MUA minister for workplace relations, Peter Reith, criticized the shipper group for not standing behind Patrick and for suggesting that the ongoing dispute between Patrick and the MUA is not likely to be resolved until Patrick quits the stevedoring industry.

Other maritime associations have supported Patrick, however. The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Australian Meat Council and the Australian Chamber of Shipping, which represents shipowners, called for improved waterfront efficiency and supported Patrick.

And P&O Ports Managing Director Richard Hein pledged not to try to take advantage of Patrick in its conflict with the MUA.

Meanwhile, the Australian Financial Review reports that Patrick shifted A$68 million in cash out of its companies that employ dockworkers: Stevedores No. 1 Pty. Ltd., Patrick Stevedores No. 2 Pty. Ltd., and Patrick Stevedores No. 3 Pty. Ltd.

The MUA responded by saying it is concerned that the move will jeopardize the security of its members' accrued employment benefits. The newspaper said a series of transactions moved $68.1 million to Patrick companies not employing dockworkers.

A Patrick spokesman replied that the move, made last September, was part of an internal restructuring that had ''absolutely nothing to do with the current industrial strategies.''