Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) members at Patrick Stevedores terminals struck for 24 hours on January 18 at the ports of Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Fremantle to demand job security and an improved enterprise agreement. The strike followed the imposition of work bans at the Port Botany site in Sydney from January 4.
The campaign is continuing, with Sydney MUA members taking protected strike action for 48 hours from January 25. There will be a four-hour strike in Melbourne and Brisbane on January 26. The MUA action comes on top of industrial action by tugboat engineers around the country in support of their own demands.
This is the biggest industrial confrontation at Patricks since the historic 1998 waterfront dispute, when the company tried to sack its whole workforce and bring in balaclava-wearing thugs and scabs to drive out the MUA. Patricks is the largest stevedoring company in Australia, handling about 45% of all container cargo in the country.
The union insists the issue is "not about wages", but about ensuring job security for staff. MUA deputy national secretary Will Tracey rejected employer calls for the federal government to enter the dispute, saying there is "no need for the Turnbull government to intervene in this protected action, sanctioned by the Fair Work Commissioner".
Tracey said negotiations had stretched this far because the company refused to promise job security for its staff, at a time when the owners of Patricks, Asciano, were considering selling the business.
"The union is looking for assurances that the workers will not be used as cannon fodder so that Asciano can look more appealing to shareholders and its potential buyer," Tracey said on January 20.
"There are basically two components to the dispute, national and local, with significant disagreements in both areas," MUA Sydney branch secretary Paul McAleer told Green Left Weekly on January 20.
"On the national level, we are seeking job security, ensuring compliance with the agreement and the award and establishing a level playing field regarding dispute settlement.
"Gaining the last enterprise agreement in 2012 was incredibly difficult. Then, two months after signing the agreement, Patricks suddenly announced they were automating Port Botany, after failing to mention their plans at all during the previous negotiations.
"It is now incumbent on the union to ensure the new agreement is stronger, with greater transparency regarding a number of industrial issues, including safety.
"Regarding the local part of the agreement, concerning Port Botany terminal, we are seeking an enterprise agreement that improves job security and provides a better work/life balance. We are calling for the elimination of casualisation and pushing for a reduction in the work week from 35 to 32 hours.
"We want permanency, and an end to never knowing what shift you are on until you ring up each day.”
The union has been negotiating with Patricks since the previous agreement expired at the end of June.
“The MUA has been extremely patient so far, seeking a negotiated settlement before taking protected industrial action,” McAleer said. “But now we are forced to act.
"Michaelia Cash has described the MUA as a 'rogue union'. But the only opinion of our union that matters is that of the members.
"We are fighting a conspiracy between big business and the government over workers' rights. Workers are limited in what action they can take under law.
"The industrial playing field is not level for us. It is absolutely essential that workers understand the value of solidarity, manifested in the right to take industrial action by democratic decision.”