Maritime Union of Australia: 150 years of internationalism and struggle

October 31, 2022
A still taken from MUA video made to mark 150 year anniversary
Photo: Still taken from MUA video made to mark 150 year anniversary/Facebook

The Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) marked the 150th anniversary of its formation on September 21. Dave Ball, deputy branch secretary of the MUA Victoria, spoke to Jacob Andrewartha on 3CR Radio’s Green Left show on October 21.

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How was the union formed?

The MUA was created as a result of different unions amalgamating over many years, starting with the Australian Seamen’s Union in Melbourne, 150 years ago.

Members held their first meeting in Port Melbourne. At the same time meetings were taking place all over Australia. There is always a bit of a tussle between Victoria and New South Wales about which union was formed first and when the first meeting took place. But, we stand by September 21, 1872, as the first meeting in Victoria.

What have been some of the MUA’s achievements over that time?

The union has an exciting history and what makes it so special for me is our internationalism, which comes from the Seamen’s Union.

Seafarers travelled all over the world, meeting people from different cultures and involved in different struggles. We have always had a very internationalist flavour, but that takes nothing away from the Waterside Workers Federation of Australia — the wharfies or dock workers — who are becoming more international all the time.

The wharfies have had some fantastic wins and achievements over the years.

The 1998 Patrick dispute was probably the most significant industrial dispute in modern times. It challenged the union movement to its very core.

The union won the dispute because of the solidarity of the community in Melbourne, Sydney and Fremantle who got behind the waterside workers. They understood that the conservative John Howard government was engaged in an ideological attack on their working conditions.

All the unions got right behind the MUA and, fortunately, we were able to maintain our presence on the waterfront, which was significant for all unions.

Had Howard been able to chase us off the waterfront then, who knows what would have happened to the union movement. Fortunately, we were able to push them back.

There have been lots of international events over the years. The Dalfram dispute in 1938 [when Port Kembla workers refused to load pig iron onto the steamship Dalfram headed for Japan, at a time when Japan was at war with China] and we helped a lot with Indonesia gaining its independence.

Not many people appreciate that a lot of vessels that were transporting supplies to our troops overseas were sunk during World War II. It was significant that one in eight merchant seamen died.

There was also our support for the Wave Hill walk-off in the Northern Territory in 1966.

We have the wonderful First Nations man Thomas Mayor working for the MUA. He is in a huge struggle, fighting for the Uluru Statement from the Heart to be accepted and to give First Nations people a voice in the Constitution.

That would be a great achievement for First Nations people and the MUA will be recorded as being a significant player in the history of that struggle.

What is the MUA’s view on the need to transition away from fossil fuels?

A lot of our members are employed in the fossil fuel industry, but it is a sunset industry and needs to be wound up.

We need to move to renewable energy. Fortunately, our workers’ skills can transition straight into the renewable energy sector.

Our focus is on off-shore wind, where seafarers and wharfies’ skills will be needed. The MUA has put several submissions to the federal government.

We constantly lobby the Victorian [Labor] government, with the assistance of Victorian Trades Hall, especially Colin Long, the Just Transitions Coordinator, as well as the Electrical Trades Union and other unions, which are all getting on board.

We are all trying to get the off-shore wind industry off the ground, with the exciting project Star of the South.

It will be the first off-shore wind project in Australia and will be the beginning of an entirely new industry. We are hoping that the wind turbines can be manufactured here too.

That is a big goal but we believe we have the skills and resources across all the different work areas and unions.

The Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU) would play a big role in manufacturing. Gippsland is crying out for such an industry to replace the closed power stations.

The MUA has always faced attacks by the right for its consistent organising for workers’ rights. How has the MUA managed to resist and build workers’ confidence to fight for their rights?

We work very hard to keep union density in workplaces in the high 90% to achieve strength and unity.

When you do shift work or work on a ship you develop camaraderie with your fellow workers that are deeper than the normal day shift, Monday to Friday job.

You get to see your fellow workers in every facet of the day. You share their hardships with their families and friends. That builds strength.

Our history, particularly the Patrick dispute, binds us together. Members still talk about that, even though it was more than 20 years ago. They talk about how we were up against it but with the help of the community and the other unions we managed to push back.

The “MUA here to stay” chant emerged from the Patrick dispute. We believe we will be here to stay and continue to fight, no matter what.

We often ask ourselves: “What are the bosses thinking? Haven’t they followed our history? Do they really think we will give up on this?”

We will always continue to fight. That was seen recently with the 2021 QUBE dispute in Fremantle, where our workers were put on the grass for 13 weeks and the whole country got behind them and gave then financial and emotional support. It enabled us to get through that dispute.

Can you give some more examples of the MUA’s internationalism?

One example that stands out for me is [former South African President] Nelson Mandela and the fight against apartheid.

The MUA was very outspoken when countries were turning a blind eye to what was happening in South Africa. The MUA invited Mandela to Australia. My father-in-law Charlie Weldon was his bodyguard. He was very proud to do that, and we were very proud of our role in opposing apartheid and making sure that everybody knew it was wrong.

The MUA also supported the Indonesian people’s struggle for independence after World War II. We also supported East Timor’s struggle for independence from Indonesia [in the 1990s].

What is the MUA focussed on now?

The Uluru Statement from the Heart is a massive campaign for us.

Automation on the waterfront is a massive concern for us and we are fighting against it.

Australian shipping is one of our biggest campaigns: we really want to get Australian seafarers back on ships that are moving between Australian ports around the coastline.

We also want to protect merchant seamen’s jobs in Bass Strait.

The Port of Melbourne has been privatised, unbelievably, by Labor. The Daniel Andrews government leased it out for 50 years. The privatised part of the port is bending over to big business and big shipping and they are forcing the Australian Bass Straight trade up under the river [Westgate bridge towards the Bolte Bridge], which will increase the costs for that trade. We don’t support that at all.

We don’t support big shipping dictating to the Port of Melbourne how it should run its business. We’d like to see the Port of Melbourne back under state hands.

The MUA would also like to see the state and federal governments invest a lot more in Australian shipping.

[Click here to see the MUA’s short video celebrating the 150 years.]

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