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Issue #1931      September 7, 2020

Struggle on the waterfront

The waterfront continues in struggle and wharfies are not backing down, nor should they. The whole container terminal industry is in struggle. The national operators are DP World, Patrick and Hutchison with Victoria International Container Terminal (VICT) which operates in Melbourne alone. The employers’ position targets previous Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) gains and is an orchestrated industry attempt to unwind those past victories and take wharfies back a few steps, but they aren’t having it and good on them all.

Cranes stand still at Hutchison Ports due to workers’ action.

The MUA was able to secure a national agreement with DP World but still has four ports with local agreements outstanding. The national agreement was a significant victory for the union and comes on the back of nearly two years of industrial action by wharfies at DP World. DP World have now settled nationally leaving Hutchison outstanding and somewhat isolated. Patrick workers have just begun their campaign and are now starting to unleash their industrial capacity to reach agreement to protect and extend the position of wharfies there.

Wharfies at Hutchison Ports have notified industrial actions which will begin on 5th September in Sydney and Brisbane on top of existing bans on overtime, shift extensions, and other flexibilities. Actions at DP World have waned for the moment due to the national agreement but there is no certainty that local rostering and working arrangements will not re-spark the dispute with the global operator across the four ports on local issues.

VICT, the Australian arm of the nasty global operator International Container Terminal Services (ICTSI) has failed to sell a non-union agreement to workers twice now and for the first time the hugely anti-union VICT will engage in negotiations with the MUA. The MUA were locked out of the Melbourne terminal but the inevitable excesses of the employer and attempts to further drive down the already forty per cent reduced rates and conditions at VICT have seen considerable organising growth that is now placed to challenge the company.

One of the features of this new phase of struggle on the waterfront is the new tactics the MUA are adopting across the industry. When workers take industrial action they are balloted with a series of questions which outline the form of actions which can be taken.

Waterfront experience has shown that a company facing industrial action will just move the vessel and outsource it to another stevedore.

The new ballot questions deal with this situation, directly banning work on subcontracted vessels. Other new questions in the union’s armoury include the slowest possible operation of a crane, driving a straddle carrier at ten km/h and working strictly to the employers’ load sheets which are notoriously incorrectly planned and formulated.

Following the instructions of the incompetent bosses will lead to certain failure and is a worthy way of making the point about the value of wharfies and their knowledge and experience in loading and unloading vessels.

Targeting the actual ship for action is a new and much more effective means of hitting the mark as a ban on a ship means the ship gets hit with action regardless of time-frame as opposed to nominating a specified period which allows employers to manipulate the work situation and avoid or at least mitigate the workers’ action.

Industry pundits are screaming wildly about the development of this new union power. Any challenge to the employers’ unbridled power under the Fair Work Act must surely be a good thing but bosses are out organising trying to tarnish the MUA with claims of irresponsibility during an economic meltdown and during COVID-19.

The MUA has clearly exempted any medical or COVID-19 related cargos exposing the employers’ rhetoric as hollow and self-interested. During the pandemic it has been employers using COVID-19 to try and get emergency services legislation in place to thwart the action of wharfies. The industry response to COVID-19 was also less than spectacular as every COVID-19 measure was fought out in every terminal including a ten-day stoppage over COVID-19 at Hutchison in Sydney. There was no coordinated COVID-19 industry response by employers which is a reflection of the devolution brought about by enterprise forms of employment.

The issues for wharfies are issues that affect the entire community and every worker. The MUA and its members continue to fight against automation and outsourcing of their work. They fight for decent family friendly rosters and permanent jobs against the scourge of insecure work.

The MUA has shown that it is not only possible to fight during the pandemic but it is essential as the employers will most certainly use every negative social circumstance to swell their profits at the expense of all workers and our communities. The employers will never stop waging the class struggle. If workers stop fighting it means they will lose.

Next article – REPORT: Justice for Tane Chatfield

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