- by Anna Pha
- The Guardian
- Issue #1981
Workers in the maritime and trucking industries are taking industrial action defending their jobs, safe working conditions, and wages. They face a wall of employers attempting to incorporate in enterprise agreements the temporary workplace flexibilities introduced by the Morrison government in 2020 during the pandemic.
TOLL FIGHT BACK
After a long campaign around a new enterprise agreement Toll workers had no option but to take national strike action. They went out on Friday the 28th of August for twenty-four hours and the possibility of further action remains.
Ninety-four per cent of Transport Workers’ Union (TWU) members who voted supported strike action in a ballot for “protected action” under the Fair Work Act. Toll refuses to guarantee that future work will be allocated to full-time employees ahead of lower paid, outside labour-hire. It is also trying to impose fixed term contracts of three months to two years for all new workers. These workers would be on lower wages and inferior working conditions, without the certainty of ongoing employment.
If Toll were successful, it would result in a two-tier workforce with all new employees on lower wages and in insecure employment. Over time Toll’s permanent, higher paid employees would be squeezed out in a race to the bottom.
STARTRACK WORKERS FIGHT
Several thousand StarTrack members of the TWU – drivers, freight handlers, and fork lifters – took a national 24-hour strike action for job security on the 23rd of September. The action is part of their enterprise bargaining campaign in defence of jobs, job security, and safe working conditions.
StarTrack, a subsidiary of Australia Post, is making record profits with lockdowns in Victoria and NSW creating a large increase in demand.
“For months now, the workers sweating it out in trucks and distribution centres to meet extreme demand have been battling behind the scenes to protect their jobs against an insurgence of outsourcing to lower-paid workers,” said Michael Kaine, National Secretary of the Transport Workers’ Union. The backlog is so great, that drivers are now delivering on Saturdays and Sundays.
Kaine pointed out that StarTrack workers want the same pay and conditions for labour-hire as employees, caps on the use of outside hire, and commitments to allocate work to employees before contracting out. The TWU said that outsourcing is as high as 70 per cent at some StarTrack yards.
FEDEX WORKERS STRIKE
FedEx workers took twenty-four-hour strike action last Thursday, 30th September. Ninety-seven per cent of TWU members who voted supported the strike action.
FedEx refused to guarantee caps on outside hires or for existing employees to be guaranteed work before it is put out to contractors. It also rejected agreeing to “same job, same pay” provisions when outside labour was used.
“If FedEx had no plans to outsource work, they would have given a commitment on day one,” Kaine said. Instead, FedEx workers have been battling with the company for the past six months without a satisfactory outcome.
“Workers shouldn’t have been put in the position of choosing between strikes and signing a shoddy agreement which would see their jobs express shipped out to the lowest bidder.”
LINFOX & BEVCHAIN
Linfox and Bevchain are next in line for industrial action. It is a similar tail of two large monopolies attempting to casualise and outsource jobs on lower wages and inferior conditions.
“It takes guts to stand up to your employer and strength to walk off the job, but they know they have no choice. If transport companies push ahead and flood truck yards with low paid, stressed, precarious workers, it will eradicate good, safe jobs in Australia’s deadliest industry,” Kaine said.
“Transport companies are under pressure from a constant squeeze on rates from the likes of Amazon and ALDI, but rather than facing off the cost cutting to ensure the work can be done safely and viably, they are passing the buck onto workers through attempts to replace decent jobs with an insecure workforce.”
Amazon, the world’s largest online retailer entered the Australian market in 2020 (see “Truckies in Fight of Their Lives” Guardian: Workers’ Weekly #1977, 6 September 2021).It is one of the most ruthless, union-busting companies. Amazon, through its logistics company Amazon Flex, is exploiting the lack of regulation in the industry, undercutting other delivery companies using a highly exploitative methods that are aptly described as “Ubersiation.”
AmazonFlex employs drivers using a gig economy model, forcing them to race dangerously against the clock where employees are denied basic entitlements like permanency, sick and holiday pay, superannuation payments, etc.
California passed a bill with the aim of enabling Amazon warehouse workers to be able to take toilet and meal breaks! That speaks volumes about its methods and where the unregulated trucking industry is headed.
Uber claims its workforce are not employees but contractors – “contractors” with no job security and below award wages and conditions. This is what TWU members are facing in the future if they do not defeat the attempts by logistics companies to casualise their workforces.
The Federal government must take steps to reinstate an independent tribunal to regulate the industry and stop the deadly squeeze on transport workers. This tribunal should have the power to enforce minimum wages and conditions; ensure secure employment with the full entitlements other workers have; and police safe conditions. It is the only way to prevent a literally deadly race to the bottom.
Toll, StarTrack, etc, are pursuing work conditions that in many respects are similar to the temporary provisions introduced in 2020 during the pandemic. These provided employers with a great deal of flexibility around hours of work, performance of duties, location of work, and gave the employer the ability to arbitrarily stand down workers.
They also provided for increased flexibility around annual leave arrangements and days and times of work. Employers are now pursuing similar provisions in enterprise agreements.
After three years of torrid negotiations, the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) reached an agreement with the world’s largest stevedoring company, Hutchison, setting new industry standards at container terminals in Sydney and Brisbane. The four-year agreement includes five 2.5 per cent wage increases.
Importantly, it provides for a strengthening of job security at terminals with protection against job losses due to the implementation of automation, technology, and contractors. It also includes measures to address insecure work with the capping of the number of casual employees and by putting an emphasis on rostered permanents. The inclusion of twenty days paid domestic violence leave is a significant victory that will reduce financial hardship suffered by people dealing with the challenges of violence in the home.
“We could not have achieved this outcome without the sacrifices of MUA members who were united in exercising their lawful right to undertake industrial action in defence of a fair agreement,” MUA Deputy National Secretary Warren Smith said.
“Nothing was given to us for free, and while negotiators spent countless hours working towards this outcome it was made possible by the efforts of every rank-and-file member at Hutchison,” Smith said.
MUA members at Patrick Stevedores in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, and Fremantle are set to take industrial action following more than eighteen months of negotiations over a new enterprise agreement (EA). Patrick is owned by Qube, a large transnational stevedoring monopoly.
Management is making exaggerated claims about the breakdown of talks, claiming that Christmas was at risk due to the MUA’s actions.
“The truth is there is ample capacity for other stevedoring companies on the Australian waterfront to load and unload cargo and we don’t accept that there is any threat that imported goods will be in short supply due to the commencement of protected industrial action by our members,” MUA Assistant National Secretary Jamie Newlyn said.
Patrick is insisting on unacceptable changes including increased casualisation that would limit future secure employment opportunities.
“Productivity is at a high and protected industrial action is a last resort to finalise an agreement that is almost 18 months past expiry,” Newlyn said.
“Patrick employees are rightly frustrated at corporate tactics to deny a modest pay rise and remove previously agreed conditions on secure jobs.”
Newlyn said instead of engaging in exaggerated PR “spin” Patrick should return to the bargaining table and conclude a fair and equitable agreement with its workforce.
The examples of the struggles around new enterprise agreements in the trucking and maritime industries illustrate the difficulties workers and trade unions face under a decentralised system where bargaining is at the company or workplace level. It facilitates a race to the bottom for workers as their employers compete.
The likes of Toll, StarTrack, etc, with permanent employees on enterprise agreements are at a huge disadvantage when attempting to compete with Amazon Flex and its gig-economy practices. Amazon’s workforce is paid below minimum award rates with no job security or other entitlements – an employer’s dream and a worker’s nightmare.
There is a common thread in all these struggles – the fight for jobs, job security, safe working conditions, wage rises, and retention of hard-won entitlements.
The Communist Party of Australia is calling for industry-wide agreements, where workers are not pitted against each other in a race to the bottom. Safety, job security, and caps on casuals are key rights.
The highly exploitative practice of substituting permanent workers with outside contractors must end.
Automation should not mean loss of jobs. The way forward is shorter hours on the same pay. After all, productivity has skyrocketed.
Employers are on the offensive, but workers are on the front foot fighting back. The fight for safe, secure jobs and decent wages and conditions never lets up under capitalism.
As Smith said, “nothing was given to us for free.”