When the armed customs boat, the Triton, docked at Darwin's Fort Hill Wharf on January 27, nine of the ship's crew refused to disembark.
While at sea, the men, all members of the Maritime Union of Australia, had been told that their contracts would not be renewed after the ship arrived in port, and that they would be replaced by non-union British workers earning $25,000 less per annum. Other crew, who are not MUA members and have signed AWAs with Gardline — the company operating the ship — have continuing employment. The MUA members were later joined on board by other members who had been sacked earlier. A community picket was established at the gates of Fort Hill Wharf, with Darwin unions and local residents showing strong support.
The Triton is operated by British-owned multi-national Gardline and is contracted by the Australian government to provide offshore surveillance including the apprehension of illegal fishing boats and asylum seekers.
Regardless of the use their employer puts the ship to, the sacked workers need solidarity in their struggle to defend their right to be members of a union and keep their jobs. The struggle of the 11 workers against Gardline's union busting could become an important focus for union solidarity and is being seen as the first industrial relations test for the Rudd government.
Warren Smith, secretary of the Central NSW MUA branch, commented to Green Left Weekly from Darwin on the similarity between the Triton stand off and the 1998 MUA dispute. "What we have is a big company using a trick, a corporate manoeuvre, to sack workers and deprive them of their livelihoods."
A January 30 MUA media release stated, "until now, Gardline has used TeeKay as a manning company and Australian unionised workers under collective bargaining agreements. But under a new contract, Gardline is planning to supply its own crews effective from 29 January 2008".
The Socialist Alliance's national trade union coordinator, Sue Bolton, told GLW "Gardline's actions are typical of the hard-line, profits first, business rules climate that Work Choices promoted. Under the terms of the contract Gardline signed with the Howard government, the company is able to discriminate against union members and pressure workers to accept sub-standard conditions." A solidarity message from the Socialist Alliance to the Triton 11 reads in part "the Rudd Labor government must immediately inform Gardline that it will cancel all contracts with the company if it does not immediately reinstate you, compensating you for time lost, and guarantee your security of employment as union members". [See page seven for full statement.]
Speaking of the public opinion supporting the unionists, Smith commented, "Some of Gardline's actions might be technically legal but the Australian public have made it clear at the last elections that they don't consider such actions ethical or moral. Work Choices was the key reason the Howard government was kicked out." Smith said the MUA was calling on the Rudd government to review the contract with Gardline.
The January 29 Sydney Morning Herald quoted the Minister for Home Affairs, Bob Debus, saying, "Whatever the legality of Gardline's present action, it's just not possible that the present government can look favourably on the kinds of tactics that they have adopted".
Smith told GLW "this is one of first disputes since Rudd came into office, the first test for the Rudd government. We're calling on the federal government to make it very clear to Gardline that this is unacceptable." Labor MP for Solomon, Damian Hale, said in a press statement, "We went to the last election to prevent this sort of thing happening to working families, that is what the 'your rights at work' campaign was all about". Hale visited the picket line on January 29 and served breakfast to those assembled.
In a video on YouTube, the sea-farers explain that at the time Gardline initially asked them to leave the ship, there was no sign of a relief crew. The men stated that, as well as concern for their jobs, they didn't feel they could safely leave a large ship without crew in Darwin Harbour in the middle of the cyclone season. Since then ABC News has reported the arrival of a strike-breaking boat in Darwin Harbour which is believed to be holding replacement workers.
From on board the Triton, Mark Wheatley, the ship's bosun, told GLW, "everybody's 100% committed. There's no talk of doing anything but staying until we're reinstated." Speaking of a meeting that occurred between Stephen Nance, acting for Gardline, and Mick Doleman of the MUA, Wheatley said "this character Nance told Mick that they wanted us off and wouldn't discuss anything further until we were off the ship. But this is our decision it's nothing to do with Mick, we were advised by the union not to do it, but we're staying on board as long as it takes to get reinstated." The meeting was reportedly over in 10 minutes.
The Triton 11 have attracted support from the British seafarers' union, Nautilus UK. Assistant general secretary, Mark Dickinson, said Gardline's actions had met with "furious disbelief" and has warned Gardline not to draw British seafarers into the dispute by using them to replace the Triton's crew, according to a January 29 article on Global Maritime Net.
A statement from the crew of the Triton on January 31 said "All we want is: Our jobs back; A union collective agreement which is our democratic right (and); We want to sail this vessel out of Darwin harbour and have an iron clad commitment the company will not replace us while overseas."
At the time of writing, the picket line at Fort Hill Wharf remained healthy and positive. "We're getting great community support in a small town", Smith reported. "We're also getting tremendous support from the rest of the industry who realize that the struggle of the Triton 11 [is] not just for their job, but for all seafarers and for all Australians."
The video of the MUA members discussing their situation and taking the decision to stay on board the Triton can be viewed at <http://www.youtube.com>.