A picket line has been in place shutting down Webb Dock East in Port Melbourne since November 27. It is said that more than 1000 containers are stranded on the premises in the lead up to Christmas as the picketers refuse to let anything in or out.
The Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) is in dispute with the multinational union-busting company, International Container Terminal Services Incorporated (ICTSI). The crux of the dispute is an attempt by ICTSI to stop the MUA organising the Victoria International Container Terminal, the first fully automated port in Australia.
The dispute escalated when ICTSI management sacked an MUA delegate, ostensibly because he had a non-compliant Maritime Security Identification Card. Twenty-two other workers also had non-compliant cards but they were allowed to keep their jobs.
Clearly ICTSI has targeted the delegate in the hope that this will hinder the MUA’s efforts to organise the workplace. Currently ICTSI has a dodgy workplace agreement in place that pays significantly below the industry standard. This agreement was signed off by five supervisors.
The MUA has made some inroads recruiting workers at the terminal and they had planned to be able to represent the workers in new negotiations when the agreement expires. They have said that they want to see wages and conditions at the facility brought up to industry standards.
Clearly ICTSI see this as a threat to their cosy arrangement and as such they are trying to cut the union off at the pass.
In the days after the picket was set up, ICTSI got a Supreme Court injunction which banned the MUA, and some other union officials, from going anywhere near the site. This did not end the blockade as the broader labour movement has maintained the picket since in the name of a ‘peaceful community assembly’.
On December 8 around 3000 people attended a rally at the site with waterside workers walking off the job at every dock in Melbourne. On December 14, senior MUA officials visited the picket in breach of the injunction and indicated that they were no longer prepared to abide by the courts ruling. They called for another rally to be held next week.
In many ways this dispute is make or break for the MUA. Because many areas of the docks have been automated in recent years, the MUA’s membership base has been in decline. The slowdown in world trade and the squeeze on shipping profits means that companies are seeking to offload their burdens onto workers by slashing jobs and cutting wages and conditions.
If the MUA are set back in this dispute it will provide a template for other employers to follow and it could signal the beginning of the end of unionisation on the waterfront. We cannot allow that to happen.
ICTSI have a record of attempting to break unions all around the world. In Australia they have solicited the help of the former MUA leader Mick O’Leary who is now their Human Relations Manager. This turncoat has the rabid Murdoch press on side and has been feeding them all sorts of lies in an attempt to turn the public against the union.
Clearly much is at stake. This dispute will not be won if the MUA are left to fight it with only a few allies. The entire union movement needs to come in behind the MUA, ensuring that the picket is solid around the clock, and that the solidarity rallies are well attended.
If the MUA officials are prepared to take a stand against the Supreme Court injunctions then the broader labour movement needs to ensure that they are ready to back them with escalating action, including strikes.
If the company makes any attempt to take further legal action, or if the police attempt to break the picket, then a nation-wide stoppage should be called across the entire waterfront. This should be supported by the ACTU and all the trades and labour councils with rallies organised in all the major cities.
There is no doubt that the laws are stacked up against the MUA but they can be made ineffective and defeated if the union movement responds with mass action. The Socialist Party urges all our supporters to visit the picket. Now is the time to turn all the fine words about defying the laws into action.
By Anthony Main
*UPDATE* The MUA has just announced that the sacked delegate has been reinstated. At this stage it is not clear if he will be allowed back on site or if the legal action against the union has been withdrawn. We will report further as the information becomes clear.