Opposition grows in MUA

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Opposition grows in MUA

By Dick Nichols

A mood of anger and revolt is sweeping the ranks of the Maritime Union of Australia. The impact of the MUA-Patrick deal (set to be extended to P&O Ports) and the loss of the industry roster for seafarers are certain to make the 1999 MUA elections one of the most contested in the history of maritime unionism.

The elections, which will take place between April and June, will be the first in which any MUA member can nominate for official positions.

The signs of revolt include:

  • Sydney P&O wharfies' near-unanimous rejection on January 14 of the in-principle agreement between the MUA leadership and P&O Ports. This agreement had been endorsed by the November meeting of the union's national council. The only opposition then came from Jim Donovan, assistant branch secretary of the Central NSW branch (which covers Sydney and Port Botany). As a result, Donovan resigned from his position as the union's national presiding officer.

  • the resignation in December of Jeff Langdon, the wharfies' organiser in the MUA's Southern Queensland branch. Langdon's resignation followed the rejection by the December 7 branch annual general meeting of the report from the MUA National Council. This report recommended cutting 10 of the union's 50 full-time positions, including one in Brisbane, and was strongly opposed by many wharfies at the Brisbane AGM.

  • a public call by 23 wharfies, former P&O Ports workers in the West Australian port of Dampier, for MUA members to vote out the existing West Australian branch leadership of Terry Buck, Wally Pritchard and Dean Summers. The Dampier wharfies lost their jobs when the WA Liberal government of Richard Court replaced P&O as the contract stevedore at Dampier with the casual labour outfit Western Stevedores.

P&O deal opposition

Negotiations between the MUA and P&O Ports are starting on a rocky basis. At last week's mass meetings, the in-principle agreement between the MUA and P&O was not only rejected outright in Sydney, but passed by only the narrowest of margins in Melbourne and Brisbane.

The result of the heated Melbourne meeting has been contested by some of those present.

The main sticking point is P&O's push to reproduce the "one-man, one-machine" staffing levels now operating at the terminals of its rival, Patrick. While the agreement speaks vaguely of reaching "manning and work practices required to make the best use of equipment and employee resources", the December 14 Australian revealed that P&O's internal target was a staff cut of 40%, or around 520 workers.

Speaking after the Sydney P&O wharfies' meeting, Jim Donovan demanded that the company put a detailed negotiating position on the table.

"Our position is we want a document on the table before we are prepared to negotiate. I am not going to meet under their terms", he said. Donovan said of the rumoured redundancies, "If they think they want those sort of levels, they are in for a rude shock".

He conceded that "a reduction of labour" may take place but insisted, "Commensurate with that, [there should be] conditions to make sure it doesn't harm in any way the health or wellbeing of the members".

Various other conditions have been conceded in the agreement (for example, neither annual leave nor long service leave will be subject to additional leave loading), but many wharfies Green Left Weekly has spoken to say they resent the agreement less for its details than for the kind of unionism it represents — one that just accepts the employer's "need" to make an adequate return on investment and to cut jobs to reach this goal.

This acceptance was enshrined in the MUA deal with Patrick, which gave the shares of Lang Corporation (Patrick's parent company) the greatest percentage price rise of any Australian stock in 1999.

This result was defended by ACTU assistant secretary Greg Combet, the chief tactician of the MUA-Patrick dispute.

Combet told the November 28 Sydney Morning Herald: "[MUA national secretary] John Coombs and I made a conscious, deliberate decision to negotiate a settlement. We had the option of continuing to litigate and the one consequence of that would have been the collapse of Lang Corp. The alternative was to negotiate a settlement and we obviously committed ourselves to getting Patrick on track and improving productivity. We see no defeat in the share price going up; I see job security in that."

The response on the wharves has been a bit different. Wharfie anger with Patrick boiled over on New Year's Eve, when the stevedore tried to get workers to work that night's shift in accordance with the union undertaking to provide labour 365 days a year. The response of most Patrick wharfies was to ring in sick.

Such was the level of anger that John Coombs came out in support of their stance.

The latest news is that negotiations between the MUA national officials and P&O will go ahead despite the closeness of the vote by P&O wharfies.

Dampier wharfies protest

Another important expression of anger to surface in the MUA is the open letter from ex-P&O Ports members in Dampier to WA MUA members. The letter condemns the present WA leadership of the union for deserting them after P&O Ports lost the Dampier stevedoring contract to Western Stevedores.

The letter states, "We still can't comprehend how, at exactly the same time as an entire work force was sacked by Patrick that sparked a nationwide blue, our entire branch lost their jobs, and not a whimper from any official. As a branch we still haven't heard a single thing from the MUA."

The workers state that it is bad enough most of them are now unemployed and will never be back in the industry, but that what adds insult to injury is "to know that the port is now riddled with workplace agreements".

The letter concludes with the call "to remove these officials from office. They are now politicians, not union officials."

The appearance of the letter coincides with the failure of the December issue of the MUA Maritime Workers' Journal to mention the treatment the Dampier members received. This is in spite of the fact that an October MUA stop-work meeting in Fremantle voted by more than 100 votes to three to ask the union to place an apology in the pages of the journal for its neglect of these members.

A critical year

It's clear that there will be an increasingly sharp contest for the soul of the MUA in 1999.

In one corner stands the Coombs leadership, which is preparing further retreats from the union's traditions of militant action.

Coombs' presentation to the November National Council argued, "The Industrial Relations Commission has had its teeth pulled and Reith and Howard's new laws mean traditional methods of fighting are no longer open to us. We learned during the Patrick dispute that industrial battles are now fought in the courts, and that takes enormous sums of money."

In the other corner stand all those wharfies and seafarers who drew precisely the opposite lesson from the Patrick dispute — that whatever was won was achieved on the picket lines of East Swanson in Melbourne and Fremantle, and that if the pickets had been kept in place, the surrender to Corrigan need never have taken place.

The most organised expression of this trend is the WA MUA rank and file, who have already produced three bulletins and a pamphlet of MUA members' letters.

Spokesperson Chris Cain told Green Left Weekly that the response to the launch of their campaign had exceeded all expectations, especially as they were being accused of splitting the union.

"We certainly support unity among the membership, but to achieve real unity requires strong, honest leadership, and, above all, greater participation of the rank and file in union policies and action.

"In other words, the union is the members. There are plenty of reasons why there's a need for our campaign to restore the union to the members, and I challenge the incumbent officials to debate the issues before any meeting of the MUA."

[Dick Nichols is the national industrial convener of the Democratic Socialist Party.]

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