MUA wins in court: ‘The fight has just begun’

August 14, 2015
The August 11 rally was joined by Newcastle and Port Kembla members of the MUA
The August 11 rally was joined by Newcastle and Port Kembla members of the MUA , who marched over the road bridge to join

"We have won the first battle in a long war," Paul McAleer, Sydney secretary of the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) told a rally of several hundred waterside workers and other unionists at the entrance to the Hutchison Ports terminal at Port Botany on the evening of August 13.

He was speaking as news emerged of the important, if temporary, victory the union had achieved in winning a court injunction to order reinstatement of the sacked Hutchison workers in Sydney and Brisbane.

Federal Court judge Darryl Rangiah ruled in favour of the MUA in its "urgent" petition against the sacking of 97 workers at the two ports. The ruling said Hutchison had failed to properly "consult" with its workforce and had ignored a dispute resolution clause in its EBA when the company suddenly imposed forced redundancies by text message and email at midnight on August 6.

MUA assistant national secretary Warren Smith said: "It is a decision everyone out there on the picket line wanted to hear and it is a decision that every member of the Australian public who stands up for justice and a fair go wanted to hear as well.

"This is a company that has subcontracted its work to stevedores next door [Patricks and DP World] in the same harbour. It's very easy for them to recall their subcontracted vessels. They can do it overnight and there's easily work for everybody there.

"We're hopeful now that the company will start to engage in some fair dinkum negotiations to get across the problems that do exist."

The court will now hear the union's full case against the sackings on August 31, including a claim for penalties and damages. However, the ruling also leaves the MUA liable to pay the wages of Hutchison workers if it loses the full case when it goes to trial in September.

Hutchison workers and supporters at the peaceful assembly outside the Hutchison terminal at Port Botany were jubilant with the reinstatement orders.

A Hutchison delegate told the rally: "We stuck solid and have had a win. Thanks to all the other maritime workers and other unionists who have supported us so strongly.

"This is just the first round of the battle. The fight has just started.”

Helen, a worker at the nearby DP World terminal, said: "I'm a single mother with 14 years on the waterfront. Solidarity is the key word here. We're all in this for each other. We need to make these rich companies accountable to the people."

The rally at Port Botany followed a week of community picketing outside the Hutchison facility. Unionists from every sector gathered outside the gates, as various unions were rostered on by Unions NSW to organise a 24-hour presence on the site.

The assembly was a festival of solidarity, as members of almost every union mobilised in shifts to staff the gathering, block trucks arriving at the gates, cook food and occupy the site overnight for the whole week. A strong feeling of unity in struggle permeated the encampment.

Rallies and group photo-shoots sprang up every day. Unionists and supporters who hadn't seen each other for ages met up, and others were introduced for the first time.

The atmosphere was summarised in the slogans, "MUA, here to stay!” and “If you don't fight, you lose!"

At a rally on August 11 at the Port Botany site, McAleer said: "There is community ownership of this assembly. Unions and community organisations are running this gathering.

"No Australian worker deserves to be sacked by text message at midnight. The only person defending the company is [industrial relations minister] Eric Abetz. Hutchison has ignored the consultation clause in the company's EBA with its workers.

"This was a landmark clause for the waterfront. We told the company we were willing to discuss their concerns.

"We are supporting our members. This fight is about justice."

The August 11 rally was joined by Newcastle and Port Kembla members of the MUA, who marched over the road bridge to join the assembly, to rousing cheers from the workers occupying the entrance to the terminal.

Newcastle and Port Kembla wharfies, along with members of the retired MUA association, addressed the rally. Historian Rowan Cahill also spoke, reminding the workers of the struggles of previous generations of waterside workers.

The previous day, a rally at the site welcomed Barney Gardner, leader of the campaign by public housing residents of Millers Point in inner Sydney to defend their homes against attempts by Mike Baird’s Coalition state government to sell them to wealthy developers. Gardner reminded the crowd of the proud history of Millers Point as a centre of the maritime industry.

"There is a close link between Millers Point and the Hutchison dispute," Gardner said. "State and federal governments are taking our homes and your jobs. The Hutchison dispute is similar to the great waterside struggle at Patricks in 1988.

"Now, we all need to band together to fight these attacks. We will support you all the way.”

As Green Left Weekly goes to press, three port maintenance workers, who were among those sacked, have been refused entry by security to Hutchison's terminal in Sydney, prompting a renewed stand-off.

Sydney maintenance worker Martin O'Daly, one of those initially laid off, told the ABC he could not believe the latest development.

"[I] walked up and was confronted by security and asked to sign in, which was quite unusual because normally we just have a swipe card to swipe in," he said.

"I was told that my name wasn't on the list and I won't be allowed access to the site to work.”

A spokesperson for Hutchison Ports said that despite the Federal Court decision, those made redundant in Brisbane and Sydney would not be rostered on before the full hearing of the case on August 31.

Hutchison staff at the Port of Brisbane returned to work on August 14 although there are no ships in port for them to unload.

Now, round two of the longer struggle to maintain jobs at Hutchison Ports begins. But the Hutchison campaign has already won a victory in helping to revive the tradition of union solidarity in this country.

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