In May 2014, International Container Terminal Services Inc (ICTSI) won the contract to build and operate a robotic ship-to-shore terminal at Webb Dock East at the Port of Melbourne.
Its subsidiary, Victorian International Container Terminal Ltd (VICT) currently has three Neo-Panamax robotic cranes at the facility. These three will be expanded to eight cranes capable of handling 1.8 million containers annually.
ICTSI operates in thirty terminals across twenty countries, including in China and the US, and is renowned as a union busting company. VICT is headed up by a former leader of the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA), a turncoat who has put himself in the service of the class enemy.
The company recently made an underhanded workplace agreement which included the removal of all penalty rates for overtime and a 40% reduction in casual rates of pay. There are no maximum hours of work.
This agreement was made with the Australian Maritime Officers Union (AMOU) and signed off by five supervisors on behalf of a workforce of about 120. As a ‘greenfields’ agreement it was forced upon the dock workers without any negotiation.
Subsequently, an MUA member was employed as a casual worker by VICT and he began recruiting workers at the terminal into the MUA. The MUA planned to represent the workers in new negotiations for an enterprise agreement in order to bring wages and conditions up to industry standards.
In an attempt to head that off, the company sacked the MUA activist in late November on spurious grounds. In response the MUA mounted a picket forcing over 1000 shipping containers to be stranded in the lead up to Christmas.
On December 1, VICT applied to the Supreme Court for an injunction restraining the MUA from picketing. Judge McDonald (formerly part of the bosses’ legal team during the famous 1998 MUA dispute) predictably granted a seven-day interim injunction on the grounds that it was unlawful picketing.
Clearly VICT illegally targeted the worker because he was a MUA member, legally trying to recruit fellow dock workers to the union, yet the boss’s court construed that it was the union in the wrong.
Not to be deterred, the picket line was taken up by workers in the wider trade union movement. A 3000-strong rally was held at the site on December 8. Over 1000 MUA members at other terminals ‘illegally’ walked off the job to attend the rally, including the biggest port operator, DP World’s entire Melbourne workforce.
VICT responded by seeking, and getting, a second court order against the MUA, but also against the CFMEU and Trades Hall. Justice McDonald considered that the blockade of VICT had been outsourced to other unions.
Trades Hall Secretary Luke Hilakari was issued with a sweeping “representative order” basically aimed at anyone who attended the picket. In a positive move, these orders were defied again and the picket continued with an increased presence and a plan for a further rally on December 19.
At this point it would have been possible to use this dispute to challenge both the company and the anti-union laws by drawing the entire movement into the dispute. But instead the union leaders called on the state and federal governments to intervene.
On December 15, after 19 days on the grass, the unions agreed to lift the picket after the sacked worker was reinstated on pay. The problem however was that he was not allowed to return to the workplace. The unions have put their faith in a court hearing due in the coming months.
While the court may agree that the worker was unfairly treated, they may not agree that he should return to work. As we have seen throughout this dispute the courts are not designed to uphold workers’ rights.
It would have been much better to keep the fight going, including calling on MUA members around the country to take stop work action in support. This would have been in the workers interests as there is no doubt bosses elsewhere will seek to replicate VICT’s automated model.
The truth is that there is no effective ‘legal’ way to deal with this sort of union busting. VICT were on the ropes having already lost $2 million in revenue. Momentum was with the unions and people were prepared to defy the laws. It is conceivable that if the picket had continued the MUA would have been able to overturn the dodgy wage cutting agreement.
Instead false hope has been placed in the courts, which are the very instruments of workers’ oppression in the first place. A decisive victory was within reach, but VICT have been given an unnecessary reprieve.
By Michael Naismith