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Issue #1698      August 19, 2015

Waterfront dispute

MUA wins first battle

“What we’ve basically won is the first battle in this war. And we are very hopeful this company [Hutchison Ports Australia – HPA] comes to its senses and recognises there is an enterprise agreement in place … and it needs to be upheld.”

Maritime Union of Australia at blockade in Brisbane.

Paul McAleer, NSW branch secretary of the Maritime Union of Australia, delivered this assessment last Thursday night to a gathering of waterside workers, after they had spent a week outside the gates of the Hutchison terminal at Port Botany in Sydney, in solidarity with their sacked co-workers and strongly supported by a community picket.

The workers, their families and their supporters were celebrating a Federal Court ruling that found the multinational port operator had breached its enterprise agreement by failing to use dispute resolution clauses in the agreement and to adequately consult with its workers before sacking them.

The court ordered Hutchinson to rescind its redundancy notices for the near 100 workers it had sacked and to continue paying their wages at least until a full court hearing at end of August.

This does not mean the workers’ jobs are reinstated for good, but their employer does have to sit down with the union that represents them to discuss matters affecting their work and future and negotiate in good faith over its plans to further automate its port operations.

The ruling is an existential win for the maritime workers – it reaffirms that the employer must recognise the union as the workers’ representative organisation, must negotiate with the union on matters affecting the company’s employees and must stick to agreements it has made.

Workers’ right to negotiate and to take action – up to and including the right to strike – to get justice from employers is a right that is hard won and constantly – and increasingly – under challenge.

The MUA is one of the core industry unions in Australia that is strong, with a history of militancy and internationalism among its members, positioned in a strategic sector and with a class conscious, committed leadership from delegate level up.

Hutchison has been trying on the MUA to see how far it could go in sidelining the union while ripping into the workers. But as MUA assistant national secretary Warren Smith said before the sackings, “Hutchison ought to know the MUA is not naïve to its tactics and we are gearing up to fight for the long-haul.”

It is absolutely necessary for maritime industry workers that they maintain their union, the MUA; that they prove time and time again that the workers must be respected and consulted with, not individually behind a closed door, but collectively, through their union.

Even as it has managed to reinforce its role as the workers’ tribune in relation to HPA’s try on, the MUA is close to sealing a new enterprise agreement with one of two other stevedores in Australian ports, HPA rival DP World Australia.

It has taken the MUA more than 18 months to negotiate this agreement, including a point last December where DP World locked out MUA members in Melbourne and Sydney, for taking industrial action that was at the time protected under the Act.

This has all been to get a deal which, if members vote for it, should see more than 1,000 waterside workers get an annual wage increase of 2.6 percent over the next three years, with an extra 0.3 percent increase for reaching certain productivity targets.

Despite the struggle to land even this deal, the MUA and maritime workers have ongoing concern about the impact of automation, which has already cost hundreds of jobs on the wharves, as well as the relentless pressure to remove penalty rates and other conditions through productivity driven enterprise bargaining.

This cartel of multinational corporations seeks to operate with non-union labour, with a casualised workforce, permanent but irregular rosters and stripped down awards.

It is nothing for companies like Hutchison to close down operations in one country to starve a workforce into submission. In preparation for this fight HPA has allegedly hived off contracts to its rivals as it prepares to construct more highly automated port facilities. In the lead-up to the sackings it threatened workers that it would close down the dock without notice and make them redundant “for no reason” if it wanted.

This pressure on workers is not unique to the waterfront – tens of thousands of jobs are being eliminated across most industry sectors in Australia and throughout the capitalist world generally as growth slows, investment slumps and corporate conglomerates are at each others’ throats for profits and market share, all for which they expect workers to pay the price.

To do this effectively in Australia successive governments have tweaked industrial laws to restrict workers’ ability to organise and take action in the face of these attacks.

Unions are portrayed as a third party interfering with the employer-employee relationship and gradually what was once normal union organising activity is being treated as criminal.

Corporations increasingly have the power to sue unions for “damages” resulting from union activity and industrial action beyond enterprise level bargaining is virtually prohibited. Unions have all sorts of restrictions in regard to entry, recruitment and exercise of workers’ power against the bosses.

Every action unions take must be considered in terms of the risk it takes in being bankrupted by the employers through the courts.

Through the device of enterprise bargaining employers endlessly demand concessions in the name of “productivity”, “flexibility” and “competitiveness”.

They increasingly use labour hire companies, as a way to spread casualisation and to place employees in the situation where they are no longer employed by those they are working for, but merely on assignment from the labour hire company.

This is the world that those workers who have managed to remain unionised and able to continue to take collective action are now operating in.

That they can is a testament to their resilience, their collective strength.

Next article – Port of Brisbane fight against Hutchinson

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