Stand-off in battle to keep Australian crews
by Bob Briton Heart-warming scenes on the wharves of the upper Spencer Gulf city of Port Pirie have strengthened the resolve of the crew refusing to leave the bulk cement carrier, the Canadian Shipping Line (CSL) vessel Yarra. Local people have rallied to the cause of the workers who are facing the sack and the prospect of being replaced by a Ukrainian crew at inferior rates of pay and with reduced conditions. MUA officials, who rushed from Adelaide on May Day to advise their threatened members, have had locals press cash donations into their hands while walking through the town. Businesses, including the local management of Coles and Woolworths and the distributors of Buttercup bread and Vili's pies have chipped in with food. City Mayor Ken Madigan has gone public with his concern at the plight of the embattled seafarers and has made two visits to the ship. On the second occasion he came with crates of food after it became known that CSL had cancelled orders for new supplies. ACTU President Sharan Burrow was due to arrive in Port Pirie last Sunday to address a protest rally about the scandal and to lead a march to the stranded ship. Buses were ready to bring supporters up from Adelaide for the event. The company is very aware of the public relations disaster on its hands. Its plans to sell the ship to its Asian subsidiary, reflag out of the Bahamas and import a Ukrainian crew, have struck an unexpected snag. Until recently, things seemed to be going CSL's way. A fortnight ago the Federal Court rejected an application from the MUA that would have prevented the shipping company pulling off its coup. Even the subsequent decision of the Court to grant an injunction against the changing of the crews until a full bench considers the matter in October gave CSL workers only a temporary reprieve. The Federal Government, which has never missed an opportunity to portray itself as the defender of Australia's borders, is obviously quite happy to facilitate the plan that will nobble Australian operators trying to compete for trade in their own waters. Federal Transport Minister John Anderson has overseen changes in the industry that have resulted in the current calamitous situation where only 45 Australian flagged and crewed vessels remain in service. However, it seems that CSL has been in too much of a hurry for its own good. In response to the hammering it has been taking over the Yarra, the mainstream media has stepped in to help CSL out. Press reports repeatedly refer to the crew's protest as a "mutiny". The Advertiser's journalists, for example, would have to be aware of the seriousness of the crime of mutiny. Large circulation dailies do not have legal departments for nothing. While CSL presses ahead with its intention to switch crews despite the existence of an injunction against the plan until November, it is the 17 crew members that are being described as law breakers. The MUA's State Deputy Secretary Keith Ridgeway told The Guardian that the crew is continuing to work on board the ship. The protest is restricted to preventing another crew taking the ship off the wharf. He also said that reports suggesting some sort of conflict between the workers and the captain, John Briggs, are mischievous. As the Industrial Relations Commission was set to consider a report on the matter on Tuesday, the MUA was exploring all possible means of forcing the issue. It has challenged the Federal Government to answer three questions relevant to the crisis: * Have the Ukrainian seamen who will take the Australian jobs been granted access to Australia? * If so, under what visa conditions? * What dealings did the Howard Government have with CSL before it made the decision to de-flag and de-crew? Internationally, the union contacted its Ukrainian counterpart for support. Moral support was forthcoming but the sad fact is that the Ukrainian industry has been disorganised and virtually destroyed by the same practices now being pioneered by CSL in Australia. Keith Ridgeway was at pains when speaking to The Guardian to point out that the MUA's position in the dispute is not rednecked. They understand that it is misery and desperation that lead to guest labour crews moving in. In another effort to get co-ordinated international backing for the union's position on flags of convenience and related issues, MUA National Secretary Paddy Crumlin recently addressed the International Transport Workers' Federation in London. The case of the CSL again shows that the bosses are always prepared to take their struggle for increased profits to new levels. They never hesitate to take advantage of the opportunities presented by the process of globalisation to drive wages and conditions down. Their tactics are often breathtaking in their scope and ruthlessness. The trade union movement will have to redouble its efforts to find an effective global response to this challenge.