By Dick Nichols
When Ian Bray, the National MUA Rank and File candidate for assistant secretary , was due to speak at CTAL, P&O Ports' container terminal at Port Botany, he didn't know what to expect. "You never know what reception you're going to get", he told Green Left, "especially when you're from 'out-of-town'".
However, Bray, who has been touring the ports with fellow MUA National Rank and File candidate Grant Holden, got a pleasant surprise. Not only were the CTAL wharfies open to their message of the desperate need to democratise the union by re-establishing port committees and other rank-and-file structures; when Holden spoke he got a standing ovation.
Holden forcefully condemned the methods of the present MUA leadership in handling the negotiations with P&O Ports over the present enterprise bargaining agreement. He told the CTAL workers how the in-principle agreement had been rammed through the Melbourne meeting of P&O Ports workers: the presiding officials had declared the motion carried on the voices without allowing a division on a very close vote.
Holden's comments echoed the stance of Jim Donovan, deputy branch secretary for the MUA's Central NSW branch (covering Sydney and Port Botany).
In the most recent Sydney Port News, Donovan accuses the national negotiating team of incumbent assistant secretaries Jim Tannock and Mick O'Leary of stitching up the deal with P&O on the basis of agreement reached in other ports, but before serious negotiations had even begun in Sydney and Port Botany.
Donovan writes, "We feel that other branches are not being informed of their rights under the Workplace Relations Act (even though there are not many) with a major issue being the employers and national officials wanting to have the enterprise agreement in two separate parts, one being the motherhood issues and being registered and having legal standing, and the other having all of the working condition arrangements and agreements not registered in the Act."
The Sydney Port News asks, "How could people of leadership accept rosters that include 12 days straight, 14 midnight shifts with only two days off?" and claims that the deal involves the loss of up to $20,000 a year for certain grades and shifts when compared to the present award rate.
Bray, co-delegate on the Kwinana tugs, and Holden also won a friendly reception in Brisbane, where they toured Fisherman Island terminals, as well as in Holden's home port of Melbourne and in the Victorian "outports" of Portland and Geelong.
The growth of support for the National MUA Rank and File is reflected in the latest issue of the movement's journal, which features letters of support from the ports and ships, as well as messages of solidarity from such "icons" of waterfront unionism as Lew Hillier, the former vigilance officer for the Melbourne branch of the Waterside Workers Federation, and Ray Skeggs, a former leader of the Ship Painters and Dockers Union, one of the constituent unions of the MUA.
Their letter congratulates "you rank-and-file members for the enthusiasm you have shown in the every day struggles of maritime workers against those who may be described as among the most rapacious employers of labour in the world, i.e. the domestic and overseas monopoly shipowners and their hirelings, government officials, scabs and hoons".
Other articles in the journal explain how the National Rank and File movement would have handled the loss of the seafarers' industry roster, and outline why policies which the present leadership dubs impractical become feasible once the union is "returned to the membership".
In a separate development, the opposition came out against the April 3 declaration of national secretary John Coombs that the union would have to amalgamate if it was to survive. In the words of its journal: "Amalgamation is not the answer to the MUA's problems. Having our union absorbed by a bigger union machine may save a few full-time jobs, but it will do nothing to rebuild genuine democracy within the MUA.
"What's more, if we make the union democratic then it won't have trouble surviving, because the membership will want it to survive."
Ballot papers for the MUA elections will be sent out this week, and voting will close on June 14.