By Jennifer Thompson
The federal government on August 31 announced a two-month "cooling off" period before the sale of the publicly owned Australian National Line (ANL) to British-based multinational P&O. This is to allow P&O to reach agreement with the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) and other unions on maintaining jobs and working conditions. ANL workers have a lot to lose. The government has been promised veto rights over future proposed changes to privatised ANL operations to ensure compliance with Australian maritime working conditions under a so-called "golden share" agreement. However, the chief executive of P&O Australia, Richard Hein, has hinged its commitment to retaining Australian crews, award wages and working conditions on the "viability" of ANL's trade routes. Safety standards, wages and conditions on Australian-flagged ships are far above those of many lines that are ANL's commercial competitors.
Union antagonism to P&O is based on its anti-union reputation on operations which use west European officers and Asian or Russian crews, paid at Third World rates. As Jennifer Hewett pointed out in the May 18 Financial Review, "most international lines do the same". This includes the French-owned shipping company ANZDL, the MUA's preferred buyer before its bid was withdrawn.
Union acceptance of a sell-off has come quite a way since June 1991, when the ALP first discussed amending party policy to allow the sale of 49% of ANL. The MUA strongly supported the ALP in the last federal elections. By June 1993, federal cabinet had breached ALP policy and reneged on commitments made to the union on ANL's future.
Union officials, including deputy national secretary Paddy Crumlin, condemned the secret decision to remove restrictions on ANL's sale. He said, "The federal government has played a deceitful role ... With privatisation, you will see a massive loss of jobs, but more importantly, the jobs that remain will be casualised, the maintenance work force will disappear, and there will be a constant grinding down of workers' conditions."
In August 1994, the federal government sacked the old board and appointed a new one headed by Neville Wran, to turn ANL into a commercial operation. The government implemented the subsequent recommendation of the new board — selling ANL's 25% shareholding in Australian Stevedores, its most profitable section.
However, MUA opposition to privatisation has weakened. After a five-day strike by unions last September against the liquidation of ANL, the ALP made a deal with the leaderships to accept that ANL become internationally competitive. For the federal government, which was no longer willing to subsidise ANL's operations, this meant privatisation with concessions to the unions.
Many of these concessions have melted away. P&O's survival as the only credible tenderer for the line means the evaporation of any remaining government commitments on maintaining working conditions.
According to reports in the establishment press, the maritime union and ACTU have the federal government over a barrel, promising a nationwide sea and waterfront strike, supported by the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU).
However, the last minute abandoning of strike action says otherwise. The ALP is putting heavy pressure on the union movement not to strike, so as not to jeopardise big business support for its re-election.
With the union leaderships apparently unwilling to stand up to this pressure, the privatisation of ANL may have been deferred, but it is unlikely to be stopped.
ANL workers lose out
By Jennifer Thompson