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Issue #1497      13 April 2011

Wharfies of the world act!

In recent weeks there has been a number of significant struggles featuring wharfies, known internationally as dockers or longshore workers. Wharfies in Australia have been pitted in battle for a new enterprise agreement with Patrick Stevedores. The national negotiations in both Bulk and General and Terminals have ground to a halt on numerous occasions with the company playing hardball around basic and fundamental rights of workers around matters of safety, training and rights which have been eroded over the period of the previous Howard government’s anti-worker WorkChoices laws.

The corporate media have tarnished the facts with their obfuscation of the reality of the MUA’s (Maritime Union of Australia) demands and have attempted to play the card of worker greed to skew public opinion away from the fact that three wharfies were killed on the job throughout 2010 and that waterfront safety and training standards are farcical in Australia.

Responding to a series of protected action strikes the capitalist press has rolled out the rotten carcass of former Workplace Relations Minister Peter Reith to add “integrity” and legitimacy to the employers’ cries for relief. This relic of unbridled capitalist class struggle cannot be taken in any objective or serious manner. The facts are that Reith’s and the media’s lies reflect their anti-worker core. The demands of the wharfies are legitimate and fair. No one should die at work. Everyone should be trained and certified in their profession. People must come before profit in the workplace.

Of course economic claims are part and parcel of enterprise bargaining and the wharfies have modified their wage position on many occasions and have stated that they clearly understand the outcomes of negotiations will be a package. The non-economic issues are clearly the main demands of the wharfies although it is clear that wharfies deserve pay rises like every other worker. The general employer hysteria about workers making wage claims is disgraceful. It rings every time workers make a claim for wages whether they are higher or lower paid workers. Employers just hate workers getting their hands on some of the surplus value created by their labour.

Wharfies in the Bulk and General and Terminal operations have applied for protected action ballots, voted in favour of taking action and in a number of ports Bulk and General workers have engaged in strike action.

In most recent news the terminal workers have suspended their actions after Patrick attempted to prove in Fair Work Australia (FWA) last Friday that the MUA was not bargaining in good faith. Arising out of that hearing the MUA was finally able to get commitments from the company that they would table a new offer.

On this note the MUA has suspended strike action planned for the weekend of April 9-10. Coupled with that the MUA secured rights to have their period of protected action extended enabling action to potentially occur if the terminal management don’t deliver on a package acceptable to the workers. After the hearing, MUA deputy national secretary Mick Doleman said: “It seems now at the eleventh hour we have made some real progress.

“We have now secured a commitment from Patrick to provide a revised offer on our existing claims by next Tuesday … With the company’s offer on the table by Tuesday (as The Guardian goes to press), negotiations can finally progress in good faith.”

In the Patrick Bulk and General sector workers in Geelong, Melbourne and WA have taken strike action to secure a decent agreement. So far that had been elusive. Further ballots in various ports are scheduled.

In a very disturbing event on last Friday workers at Webb Dock in Melbourne sat in overnight due to a FWA hearing in Melbourne that did nothing to prevent Patrick refusing to pay workers while still expecting them to perform duties. This curious situation has arisen due to the MUA electing to impose bans and limitations on the employers while still performing stevedoring functions.

The employer has refused to make payment for any work if there are bans imposed. The consequence was that the MUA was forced into a position of not working because they would not be paid. No doubt the MUA will also be blamed about any economic flow-on to the company as is the normal attitude of the blame-the-workers media in Australia.

This is a serious precedent which could mean that the only legitimate form of protected action is full withdrawal of labour. FWA made no directions to Patrick to rectify this. Workers are balloted on the form of action they intend to take. This makes a mockery of the rights of workers under the FWA to take limited forms of industrial action in pursuit of claims against employers. Clearly this position needs to be rectified as an ongoing element of IR reform.

Despite the eradication of WorkChoices employers have taken up the slack given to some workers under the FW Act by intensifying their belligerence. Patrick is taking a hard line as are other employers. The small concessions given to workers under the FW Act is being negated in a coordinated effort by employers who are taking a harder line on more militant unions that have the capacity to benefit from the slight benefits of the FW Act over WorkChoices. Clearly there is a major space for further campaigning for improved IR laws as the FW Act did not go far enough in repealing WorkChoices.

International actions

In further actions around the world Egyptian Dockers have gone on strike in the Port of Said. The Maersk terminal is massive with a throughput of around 2.7 million TEU (twenty-foot equivalent units). In a significant sign of the development of struggle in the Egyptian national democratic revolution dockers walked off the job and were able to achieve off Maersk a 100 percent pay rise and a three year contract as opposed to the usual three month contracts. This is an amazing result and reflects the developing level of the Egyptian working class in being prepared to struggle for further democratic, economic and political rights.

In the US, International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 10 Longshore workers in the Port of San Francisco participated in a 24 hour stoppage of all San Francisco and Oakland ports on April 4. Their stoppage was a political stoppage and was an act of solidarity with the amazing struggles of the people of Wisconsin who have taken on the state over collective bargaining rights. April 4 was also the anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr who was made an honorary member of Local 10, six months prior to his assassination.  

Next article – Editorial – A national climate plan needed

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