DP World, a Dubai government owned multi-national, is blatantly attacking the rights and conditions of 1800 waterside workers employed in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Fremantle.
In the middle of negotiations about a new enterprise agreement, the company announced via the media that it wanted to make 200 workers redundant. It seems that the threat has since been withdrawn, at least temporarily.
The announcement was timed to coincide with protected strike action being undertaken by members of the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA). DP World was clearly attempting to bully the workers into accepting cuts to their pay and conditions.
As MUA leader Warren Smith said: “…sacking workers and destroying families to achieve an industrial outcome was an extreme act that reflected the unfettered corporate power available to bosses in today’s society”.
Earlier in the year the company made an attempt to demoralise the workers when it unilaterally stripped them of income protection insurance. Now the bosses have upped the ante and are targeting their jobs.
The MUA is demanding decent pay rises of 3%, domestic violence leave, a limit on the use of casual labour and union consultation in respect to automation and outsourcing.
The MUA has undertaken a series of one-hour stoppages, as well as 24-hour and 48-hour strikes. As Smith said: “This major escalation of industrial action is about sending a clear message to management that the safety, dignity and job security of wharfies are absolutely non-negotiable”.
DP World management have since refused to meet and say there will only be an agreement if workers withdraw their claims – which, as any mug knows, will only result in a worse outcome.
The boss’s intransigence and refusal to negotiate might at first seem idiotic. This is especially the case given that most of the workers’ claims are not major costs but are about protecting current conditions, which were hard won by a previous generation.
What really lies behind this dispute is the desire of the company to automate and to outsource cargo care and maintenance work currently done by wharfies. Tellingly, management refuses to include a clause in the agreement that details a consultation and job saving process in the event of automation.
As Smith said: “Automation is being weaponised by businesses to cut costs, cut workers, and cut conditions. It is not the productivity driver that is reported, it is purely an anti-union attack and union-busting strategy.”
DP World is Australia’s largest port terminal operator, and it pays no tax in Australia. As a global stevedore company, it has operated for over 20 years with profit margins of up to 50%. It makes a global profit of $1.29 billion.
This rich company is hell bent on breaking the resolve of these workers so that it can increase its profits even further. The MUA has called on the wider union movement to push back at this corporate greed and demonstrate solidarity and support.
A number of statements in support of the workers have come in from the wider labour movement but the MUA will need more than just supportive words if they are going to win.
The workers will most likely need to engage in longer stop works, and mount mass pickets of the docks to ensure scabs are not used to break the strike. Other unions should pledge to support such actions – in both words and deeds – regardless of the fact that they will be “unprotected”.
The current industrial laws curtail effective strike and solidarity action. Workers will only be successful if they defy these undemocratic laws. This will require both practical and industrial support from across the union movement.
In addition to a bold industrial campaign the unions should fight on the political front. The source of DP World’s greed flows from the profit-driven nature of the shipping and waterfront industry. Only democratic, public ownership and planning can put an end to the race to the bottom.
This dispute is much bigger than the 1800 workers it immediately effects. Stopping DP World should be seen as a step towards lifting the wages and defending the conditions of all workers.
By Michael Naismith