On December 8, national president of the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) Christy Cain told a peaceful assembly of trade unionists and their supporters that every dock in Melbourne had been closed.
On that day, some 3000 trade unionists attended a rally at Webb Dock in Port Melbourne called by Victorian Trades Hall Council (VTHC) in support of MUA members protesting the bullying, harassment and sacking of their members.
The official dispute began 10 days before after the Victoria International Container Terminal (VICT) refused to give casual shifts to a union representative on the basis of a disputed security process. This was after the company attempted to negotiate a sub-standard enterprise agreement that the MUA would not agree to.
Consequently VICT, represented by former MUA deputy national secretary Mick O’Leary and former Labor MP Lindsay Tanner, then reached an agreement with 5 supervisors for a non-union agreement. They locked out the broader workforce and union representatives from the negotiations and this escalated to the sacking and blacklisting of the MUA representatives. O’Leary is now Human Resources manager for VICT.
VICT had previously threatened legal action against any MUA member participating in the picket and also began legal action to end the picket completely on the basis that it was costing businesses millions of dollars.
Other unions supporting the picket and rally included large contingents of representatives and members from the health workers unions — notably the Health and Community Services Union and Victorian Allied Health Professionals Association — the Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union, the Australian Services Union, Australian Manufacturing Workers Union, the United Firefighters Union and United Voice. Many others also came together to support the wharf workers.
Speakers included ACTU secretary Sally McManus, CFMEU (Construction and General) Victorian secretary John Setka, MUA national vice president Will Tracey, MUA national president Christy Cain, Victorian TCFU secretary Michelle O'Neil, Victorian ETU secretary Troy Grey, Father Bob Maguire and Victorian Trades Hall secretary Luke Hilakari.
"They are trying to criminalise unionism. All MUA members who came here today were threatened with the sack," Setka said.
"Everything that we have today was won because we had to fight for it and break the laws. The federal court says you can't display a rat. Scabs didn't build this country. Workers, including immigrant workers from all over the world, built this country. If we abide by their laws, we will never win."
O'Neil said: "VICT and Corporate Australia are colluding with the federal government to drive down the pay and conditions of workers. Twenty years ago, the Victorian unions said they couldn't pick off one union—the MUA. We were victorious—we won."
The key issues unions have with the VICT agreement include the removal of all penalty rates, including those for overtime and a reduction in pay for casuals and that there is no maximum hours for work meaning that workers can be forced to work up to 19 hour shifts, undermanned and without meal breaks.
The VICT dispute is the latest in a long line of recent industrial disputes. The cases involve corporations entering into secret agreements and then forcing those agreements onto their workforce without consultation
These include the CUB and the Streets disputes, where community and union pressure ensured that those agreements were reversed. The recent dispute at ESSO, where UGL was awarded a 5-year maintenance contract and has tried to undermine pay and conditions of workers, is ongoing.
On December 10, Hilakari was served with court orders at his home — an attempt to destroy union solidarity with the picket. The CFMEU was also served with a summons.
Hilakari said on his Facebook page: “I got served at my home. This is the first time that the Secretary of Trades Hall has been targeted like this. Stopping workers from standing up for each other is wrong. It’s time to change the rules.”