Wharfies in Melbourne engaged in several days of strike action against the port giant Qube last month. The strike was part of their fight for a just workplace agreement. For years conditions at the port have been stripped back, leading to longer hours and concerns about the workers health and safety.
The biggest issue was the inhumane rosters that force wharfies to work consecutive 12-hour shifts. Previously there was a policy of a 7-and-1 roster which gave permanent workers a week off after 7 weeks on.
Several years ago the 7-1 roster was taken away. The workers had been told this was a temporary measure but management were refusing to reinstate it. Qube claimed that a decent roster could not be introduced because there is not enough work, but they have continued to hire new staff.
They are in reality pushing the workers as far as they can in order to squeeze more profits out of them. The stress the workers are under even led to a heart attack and death just days before the strike took place.
Showing further contempt for the rights of the workers, partway through the dispute the company applied to the Fair Work Commission to have the existing enterprise agreement ripped up. They threatened to put the workers back onto the minimum Award which would have seen the hourly rate drop from $52.78 to $21.67!
In addition, the workers would have lost out on gains the union had won over the years including union rights to organise, extra sick leave, improved safety conditions and more.
By mid-April the workers at Qube had conducted 6 days of stop work action and 25 days of partial work bans. The company has reportedly now put on hold its bid to put the workers back on the Award and an ‘in-principle’ agreement with the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) has been reached. A formal vote on a new enterprise agreement will be held in the coming weeks.
The issues at Qube however are not unique. A few months ago, workers at the Victorian International Container Terminal (VICT) at Webb Dock East also went on strike as part of their campaign for decent working conditions and union representation. Twice they defied court orders preventing them from striking.
The common thread between these disputes, and others on the waterfront, is the attempt of employers to drive down wages and conditions in their pursuit of increased profits. The logical thing to do is to link up the struggles and fight them on an industry-wide basis.
The beginnings of a unified struggle was seen late last year when 1,000 wharfies from other terminals walked off the job in support of those at VICT. This type of approach needs to be replicated and extended.
It is obvious that if any company manages to put workers on the Award, or if the MUA is unable to represent workers at a particular dock, all of the companies on the waterfront will seek to follow suit. With that being the case we must see an attack on one section of our class as an attack on all.
Linking up struggles across the industry and taking joint strike action would technically be illegal but it is the only way of effectively pushing back the employer offensive. If employers sought to fine the MUA then the strike could be expanded even further and the entire trade union movement could rally to the MUA’s side. Such an action would dovetail perfectly with the Australian Council of Trade Unions’ (ACTU) ‘Change the Rules’ campaign.
With the docks being such a central piece of infrastructure, it would be possible to exert enormous pressure on all employers, as well as the government, sending a strong message to all those who seek to drive down wages and cancel union negotiated agreements.
If we are serious about changing the rules we need to adopt a ‘whole of class’ approach’. We cannot allow disputes to be isolated and fought one by one. In addition to their propaganda campaign and the various rallies being organised, the ACTU should prepare the ground for an industrial campaign to break the rules in order to change the rules.
Given the proud tradition of struggle on the waterfront there would be no better place to start.
By Corey Snoek