MUA’s struggle with Qube at Webb Dock


This is an abridged version of an interview with assistant secretary of the Victorian Branch of the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) Jeff Hoy, which was broadcast on Green Left Radio on 3CR.

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The wharfies are on strike at Webb Dock once again, 20 years after the infamous Patrick dispute. Can you tell us about the current strike and the factors that led to this industrial action?

Let's get one thing straight. This hasn't been aligned with the 20-year anniversary of the Patricks dispute. Our members would have loved this to have been resolved two years ago, when the EBA expired. So any connection between the two is just media hype and someone putting 2 and 2 together and coming up with 28.

It's been one of the weirdest negotiations I've ever been involved in. The Part A agreement, which is generally a national agreement, was completed in December 2016. There were two Part B negotiations, on February 7 and June 6 last year, prior to a vote on June 29 which went 0–43. The next vote was November 2 and it went 23–28. We have protected action that was agreed to, but we didn’t take it as we were getting closer in the negotiations, as was reflected in the vote.

It went to a postal vote from December 7–21, which went 25–43. But in the week leading up to the postal vote the employees were allocated seven consecutive 8-hour midnight, 10-hour midnight and 12-hour day shifts. That's what's annoying the workers. It's not automation: they are humans.

There are provisions in the agreement to do four consecutive 10-hour midnights, but the company is now doing anything up to four consecutive 12-hour midnights. This is completely inconsistent with community norms and our ability to serve our customers.

According to the fatigue manual from WorkSafe, anyone who has been awake for 17 hours is the equivalent of being drunk. You don't sleep well after midnight shifts. And after doing shift work for a while your body's all out of whack.

In this workplace they've had three deaths in 15 years. In one of those deaths, the worker was on the fourth consecutive 12-hour shift and he was killed in the last hour of the day.

So there are valid reasons why workers don't want to work like this. There are ways the company could work around it as well. They have put on an extra 40 or 50 workers in the past three months due to the increase in volumes of work. So there's scope to just work 10 hours, 8 hours and the occasional 12-hour shift.

No-one is saying they cannot ever do a 12-hour shift. It's just that the company run them consecutively and the employees don't want to cop it anymore; they don't want to bury one of their people.

This management is very oppressive. They have sacked 10% of the workplace in the past two years. That's their way of running it. There's no employer loyalty to the long-term employee: there's nothing but contempt.

Can you tell us a bit about the roster that was abolished by Qube a couple of years back that the MUA are trying to get back?

The roster is basically seven weeks on, where employees work an extra hour each day, so instead of it being a 7-hour shift it's an 8-hour shift. They work an extra 35 hours over a 7-week period and they have week 8 off.

Now week 8 has nothing to do with annual leave. It's just about allowing the body to correct itself after being thrown out on 8, 10, 12-hour shifts, on days, evenings and midnights all in one 7-day week.

We used to have an annual hour allocator who would factor in what was happening on either side of the shift. But now it's just a computer that spits out shift allocation and doesn't factor in when the employee last worked and recovery time after it.

The company's response to us putting in an application for the roster return was to terminate the agreement. We’ll have to wait and see whether that was an own-goal, because now it's engaging all the unions.

It seems like terminating agreements and putting people back on the award is the new black for the more authoritarian or regressive part of management in various industries.

It's interesting how it plays out. We know we can go to protected action to advance our claims.

There are companies that will initially say they will terminate the agreement to try to get an agreement over the line. But with this mob and with a federal election around the corner, with a little bit of control in the media, it's like they're trying to poke the bear and entice a bite.

As you say, it's about the workers doing obscenely long, 12 hour shifts back to back. We won this thing called the 8-hour day many years ago and it seems now employers think it's normal to make people do back-to-back 10- or 12-hour shifts.

After the [Patricks] dispute, a lot of workplaces moved to composite rates, which were 50% day shifts, 25% evening shifts, 12% midnight shifts, 7% Saturdays and 6% Sundays. Qube now have 22% 12-hour shifts. We've got no problem with a shift increasing beyond 8 hours, because there are about 20 start times at Qube. It's not just the three start times; they can start their shift any time during the day.

We’ve given a lot of flexibilites, so the company can make a decent profit, which they are doing. You make all these concessions and they try to hide behind "but you're paid well". But it doesn't matter if you're paid well if your conditions are crap.

The silly thing in all this is this agreement is achievable. It's there ready to go. But we can't have people across the table until they start parking their egos and come in there with a balanced view. We’ll get nowhere and the media will pedal the same crap about wharfies flexing their muscles, CFMEU and amalgamation.

But really we have to find that common ground, that balanced view. That's why we'll be building on the numbers that are currently there. There have been three weeks where it's just been the Qube Appleton dock labour attending because it's their picket. For a workplace that has had the shit kicked out of them for the past few years, it's really great the way they've come together.

The company's actually driven the membership because there were about 100 members when it went to the EA vote in December and now there are 138. The company has actually generated recruitment for the union, not that that was their intent.

Qube reckon it's not economic to return to that old roster that was abolished in 2014, but it is economic to helicopter in scabs?

Helicopters! They left at 4am this morning and they've put them up in apartments at the Docklands, so they've got no problem splashing cash on people that they want to break the picket and intimidate their long term employees.

This is about control; this is about we know where middle ground is but we don't want middle ground, we want upper ground. Their argument on the roster not returning is it's unsustainable because there is not enough work. But they put on an additional 40 or 50 people because they say: "There's been an increase in the volume of work and we need the labour".

What is the process if Qube terminate the agreement? It seems like it would be on for young and old if they try and push all of the Qube workers back onto the award.

That’s when it stops being an MUA dispute and it becomes a whole union movement dispute. If they want to poke the bear, they'll get the bear. The bear, unfortunately, is only 15% of the workplace these days; the other 85% are sponging off the 15% that are union members.

This dispute is either going to escalate and grow bigger and bigger or the penny might drop and we might have some people who say: "This is a quick fix. Why aren't we doing this?" But if they have ulterior motives and they want to terminate the agreement and run a media campaign leading up to the election, well we can't control that vested interest.

How can people show their support this weekend and in the future?

You can join the assembly which is at the entrance of MIRRAT at 46 Kooringa Way Port Melbourne any time to show your support — it’s a 24-hour assembly.

Your presence in solidarity at this assembly would be very much appreciated if this dispute escalates, as it most likely will. We've got ample food there. Obviously it's a dry picket, as in the '98 dispute. Have a bit of a chat. There are people from all different sides of life, including the local community, who cannot believe they are revisiting this after 20 years.

Another thing about the 20-year anniversary: It's a time we didn't want. We're celebrating the time because there are not many disputes like what happened 20 years ago. Nobody wanted to be thrown out on the street, not knowing if they would go back in or not. It's a bit sad for a lot of people as we celebrate the 20 years, so it's a bit conflicting.

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