Union and community solidarity deepens for sacked wharfies

Issue 

The peaceful community assembly at the Port of Brisbane.

As the dispute over the August 6 midnight sacking of Sydney and Brisbane wharfies employed by Hutchison’s Ports Australia enters its second week, hundreds of workers from other unions, and community members have joined the community protests at both ports. No vessels have berthed and the terminals remain idle.

In Brisbane, the Queensland Council of Unions (QCU) has endorsed the action taken by members of the MUA. QCU president John Battems and secretary Ros McLennan have both visited the community assembly at the Port and have called on all unions affiliated to the QCU to be active in their solidarity with the sacked MUA members.

Unions have drawn up a roster to cover the assembly day and night. By day 6 the area had taken on an air of permanence. A row of port-a-loos, tents and marquees with chairs, tables and lounges donated by supporters are adorned with union flags. Gas heaters and a mess kitchen, as well as the familiar picket vans outfitted with BBQs and fridges by the Electrical Trades Union (ETU), Amalgamated Manufacturing Workers Union and the Transport Workers Union demonstrate that the MUA is definitely “Here to Stay!”

Every day begins with a meeting of MUA members and branch officials. Workers hear the progress of the various court proceedings, discuss media responses and make decisions about how the day will develop. They meet again at night to debrief. Queensland MUA branch secretary Bob Carnegie regularly updates those assembled, as well introducing speakers giving messages of solidarity

The community assembly at Brisbane Port has been well attended with many staying overnight. As well as members of the MUA (both current and retired), other unionists and community members, federal and state ALP members of parliament have also called in every day, including Queensland Deputy Premier Jackie Trad whose electorate includes the Port of Brisbane.

Don Brown, a retired member of the Queensland Industrial Court and former secretary of the Miscellaneous Workers Unions and as well as former Queensland President of the ALP, told Green Left Weekly: “There are so many ways in which the manner Hutchison went about this ‘restructuring’ is wrong. On a scale from 1 to 10 it doesn’t even reach a 1. It’s just a shade shy of the guards and dogs used by Patrick’s in 1998. As far as fairness goes it just doesn’t rate.

“I am also very impressed by the solid show by workers and supporters here.

“I fully endorse the leadership of Bob Carnegie. He is well known for his commitment and has great political authority: for example he was jailed for his solidarity with the sacked SEQEB (South East Queensland Electricity Board) workers.”

Sacked SEQEB worker and ETU life member Bernie Neville participated in the assembly. “I’m here not only to support the sacked wharfies, but to show my support for Bob Carnegie in this dispute, as he has shown his solidarity with workers over many years, going back to SEQEB, and more recently in the dispute at the Mater Hospital site,” he told Green Left Weekly.

Resistance Young Socialist Alliance members took up a bucket collection for the sacked workers at the marriage equality rally in Brisbane on August 8. It helped to provision the assembly the next day. They plan to continue this expression of solidarity with the MUA on university campuses.

Solidarity statements from workers across Australia have gone viral on social media. There have also been postings from around the world, including waterside workers in Barcelona (where Hutchison has an operation) and Hong Hong where the company’s owner is based.

The August 10 Fair Work Commission (FWC) hearing of the case brought against the MUA by Hutchison (under Section 418 of the Fair Work Act) confirmed the Interim ruling of Deputy President Anna Booth on August 7. The direction was that the workers cease all forms of industrial action and return to work immediately.

Since the sackings, vessels have been re-routed to other terminals. So there is in effect no work to which to return. Workers in Sydney have decided to defy the ruling. In Brisbane on August 11 and 12 a couple of workers, whose role is to monitor cargo already unloaded but still at the wharf and which may include perishables or medical supplies, entered the wharf for their shifts. They were escorted by Carnegie to the gate through a guard of honour of unionists and community members chanting “MUA here to stay!”

The union has two cases before the courts. They have lodged a case under section 739 of the Fair Work Act concerning the procedures used by Hutchison to initiate redundancies. The MUA is hoping that the FWC will rule that the sacked workers be reinstated, pending consultation. A submission has also been lodged in the Federal Court.

The Queensland MUA Branch Newsletter of August 11 includes a response to the public statement put out by Hutchison. MUA National Secretary Paddy Crumlin is quoted as saying that it is a “Clayton’s” press release, as it didn’t fit with reality. He called upon the company to release all staffing data and modelling to determine the true scope of the issue.

“Sacking workers by text and email — effective immediately — is not the Australian way. The MUA utterly rejects the suggestion that the company is reducing its Australian operations due to lack of competitiveness,” Crumlin said.

“Hutchison has been effectively subcontracting its existing work out to other stevedores and no-one except the company knows why. Any business Hutchison has lost recently has been of its own choosing.

“The MUA believes this is a strategy to increase automation as there are no logical reasons why the company would otherwise give away profitable contracts.”

Union busting is also part of the company’s game plan. At the Brisbane port the current Enterprise Bargaining Agreement (EBA) is due to finish in March 2016. Hutchison has breached the redundency processes of this agreement in the manner in which it has “downsized” the workforce as part of its restructuring plan.

Negotiations for a new EBA are due to commence in September — during which period industrial action is lawful under the Fair Work Act. To date no moves have been made by the company to set up the negotiation mechanism. This has echoes of then 1998 Patrick’s dispute, a lock out initiated by management during a limbo period when Patricks had not signed a newly negotiated agreement.

While the Patrick’s dispute was not successful in destroying the MUA, it did pave the way for job losses on the waterfront. However the positive lessons of the 1998 dispute of the importance of the support of the broader union movement and the community have been learned. The wider implications for this dispute for the MUA and the union movement are acknowledged. The next stage should see the solidarity go beyond the gate and to other workplaces and the street. Should the dispute not be resolved this week calls for a National Day of Action by the ACTU should be raised.

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