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Issue #1560      15 August 2012

MUA prepares for big fight

“No automation without negotiant”

“No automation without negotiation is the way it has to be and we won’t stop fighting until the battle is won”, Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) national secretary Paddy Crumlin said. The union looks set for another big struggle against the company that attempted to wipe it out in the 1998 waterfront dispute. This time the aim is full automation of its waterfront operation at Port Botany in Sydney, at a cost of more than half its employees’ jobs.

Driverless straddles part of the trend to full automation.

Patrick, now owned by Asciano, said it would be automating and expanding its operations and cutting 270 of its 511workforce at Port Botany by mid-2014. It is also considering automating its Melbourne and Fremantle ports. Patrick carried out a similar operation in Brisbane Port in 2005, which is still to deliver the promised productivity and cost-cutting results.

The company failed to mention its plans during 20 months of negotiations with the MUA around a new enterprise bargaining agreement. It callously waited until the agreement had been signed before publicising its plans last month to automate its facilities at the port.

Crumlin said the union would take “every legal, political, industrial and commercial step” and “will fight to the death over this.”

It has sought the support of the International Transport Workers’ Federation (IFT), paving the way for possible action at overseas ports against ships planning to visit Australia. Crumlin is the president of the ITF.

The union has already received dozens of letters of support from unions affiliated to the ITF expressing their support for the Port Botany wharfies.

The union has indicated its preparedness to enter into negotiations with the company on the introduction of technology, but Patrick is seeking to do it without negotiations or agreement with the union.

The automation is centred around the introduction of auto-stacking cranes which lift and transfer containers (from the wharf onto the truck) and driverless straddles for moving containers along the wharf.

It is not often that the Murdoch Australian (19-07-2012) is critical of an employer planning to sack workers. But in an article under the headline “Asciano boss Mullen should have been upfront”, John Durie takes issue with its methods: “ASCIANO boss John Mullen is either naïve or playing games when he expresses blind confidence in the Maritime Union of Australia’s acceptance of his landmark $348 million investment in automating his container operations at Port Botany.”

Durie said that “Mullen and his team appear to be guilty of an extraordinarily blinkered view in their dealings with their workers.

“Industrial relations is a two-way street, and the best way to get workers onside is to actually bring them inside the tent and work with them on new developments rather than deliver ultimatums, starting with job losses.”

Of course Durie did not oppose the job losses. The Australian has not gone soft on trade unions. It does not want what it sees as avoidable disruption to shipping which could affect the mining corporations and other exporters.

Patrick’s approach was provocative to say the least, as though it were looking for a fight with the MUA.

The other stevedoring company at Port Botany, DP World, is in negotiations with the MUA over plans to introduce auto-stacking cranes there. Unlike Patrick, DP World has not raised the question of automating its straddles.

A third stevedore, Hutchinson, is about to set up operations in the port. It is negotiating a Greenfield agreement with the MUA. Its plans so far are for auto-stacking cranes but not automated straddles.

Patrick is the only one of the three to announce its intention to automate the straddles. If it succeeds in its plans the only remaining wharfies will be the few who lash and secure the cargo.

Revolutionary change

The waterfront underwent significant changes in the 1950s with mechanisation and then again in the 1960s and ’70s, when thousands of jobs were lost through containerisation.

Workers on the waterfront now face a third round of significant change with new revolutionary technology that could see the operation of ports largely automated. The major stevedoring companies are introducing the new automated equipment in major ports around the world.

The companies have little concern for the social consequences of their actions. The aim of automation is to increase the rate of exploitation of what remains of their workforces and boost profits.

The MUA accepts that a certain level of automation is inevitable. It is fighting for the right to negotiate the terms and extent of its introduction and for some of the productivity gains to flow on to waterside workers.

Their demands include a 30-hour week, permanent employment for all workers and regular rostering arrangements that suit workers.

The new technology, as in previous changes on the waterfront has seen huge changes in the nature of the work. There is great potential for the technology to benefit workers and society, but in the hands of the private, profit-driven corporate sector its aim is higher profits. Workers count for little, as can be seen by Patrick’s attitude to its employees.

High tech changes are not confined to the waterfront. In the mining sector labour has been and continues to be displaced at a rate previously inconceivable. Across industry workers are being replaced by technology. More and more is being produced or transported by fewer and fewer workers.

Individual corporations might be wallowing in a profit bonanza for now, but further down the track the high tech revolution will come back to bite them. Who will have the money to buy what they produce? The less they share of the productivity increases with workers the faster they are building a crisis of “overproduction” and the next recession with the bankruptcies that follow.  

Next article – Editorial – Governments agree – blame the teachers!

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