PATRICK GOES TO COURT TO FIGHT UNION REGISTRATION

PATRICK GOES TO COURT TO FIGHT UNION REGISTRATION

Some two weeks after 1,400 union members fired by Patrick Stevedore Co. won a temporary court order to return to work, Patrick terminals across Australia are operating more or less normally, but the outlook for both the workers' jobs and the union's future is unclear.

Patrick filed documents Friday in Federal Court seeking to have the Maritime Union of Australia stripped of its registration with the Australian Industrial Relations Commission. If the move succeeds, the MUA would lose many of the rights it needs to function as a union.A meeting of creditors of the four Patrick subsidiaries responsible for employing the men will be held this week.

If that meeting, intended to decide whether the companies can continue to do business, cannot reach agreement on job cuts and productivity improvements, accounting firm Grant Thornton, administrator of the companies, could decide to liquidate them.

The MUA has already rejected restructuring proposals from both the administrators and Patrick. The Patrick proposal included an offer to rehire 650 workers in permanent positions and up to 200 additional workers on contracts.

The Grant Thornton proposal called for postponing a decision on restructuring while an independent consultant looked into changes to work practices and manning levels that could make the companies viable.

Greg Combet, assistant national secretary with the Australian Council of Trade Unions, said outside Federal Court Friday that the MUA hopes to have the creditors' meeting adjourned so that the court can consider an MUA request to have the administrator replaced by a court-appointed receiver.

The union is one of the subsidiaries' creditors.

A court-appointed receiver could be instructed to keep the subsidiaries operating until the conspiracy case is heard, Mr. Combet said.

The union has argued that if the meeting is allowed to run its course and the companies are liquidated, it would achieve Patrick's aim of ridding itself of its unionized work force before the court case can be heard.

In April, Federal Court Justice Tony North ordered Patrick to reinstate agreements with the four subsidiaries to acquire its labor from them.

Patrick ended the labor-hire deals, taking away the subsidiaries' income and effectively firing the workers, on April 7.

Reinstating the arrangements was meant to enable the workers to keep their jobs while the court case is heard.

After an appeal by Patrick, the High Court of Australia upheld Judge North's decision and allowed the temporary back-to-work order to take effect early this month.