MUA conference sets course under Rudd government

By Ian Jamieson

“Organising Nationally is Organising Internationally” was the theme as some 300 delegates and more than 100 international guests met in quadrennial conference of the Maritime Union of Australia in Sydney in April. Delegates began to chart a course for the union industrially and politically in the climate of a newly elected neo-conservative Labor government. The challenges that this poses for the MUA began to be addressed through the many resolutions and campaigns adopted in the plenary session on the final two days.

The conference coincided with the 10th anniversary of the Patrick’s lockout, in which the Howard government conspired with stevedoring employers in a blatant attempt to break the union. Delegates were continually reminded that the massive victory in holding the union together, despite the use of scabs with snarling rottweilers, the state and federal police, the laws introduced by the Howard government and the criminal conspiracy, was a victory for the entire union movement in Australia.

International union officials, delegates and members present took heart at the outcome of the Patrick’s struggle. It came two years after the smashing of the Liverpool dockers and their union in the United Kingdom. Patrick’s became the next major international flashpoint in the struggle against the might of the powerful multinational shipping industry and marked a turning point in global campaigning, along with union victories in Europe, North America and New Zealand. Patrick’s also galvanised stronger links between dozens of unions globally.

Delegates also realised that in the 10 years since the lockout, the massive expansion of casualisation on the waterfront has created a significant problem. Permanent employment continues to be a national goal set by the union, and a number of resolutions reflected the determination to challenge employers and governments over the issue.

A conference dinner with more than 800 guests was organised to commemorate the 10th anniversary. Many union officials, activists and community supporters were invited to attend.

Internationalism

On each day of the week the conference met, international solidarity was a constant theme. Delegates recognised that the only effective means to counter the power of a growing globalisation of the maritime industry is to organise international solidarity.

The conference also served to forge further solidarity with a broad spread of international unions represented at the conference and with a number of specific campaigns outlined against global stevedoring and shipping companies. These included a commitment to fight against “flag of convenience” ships — rust buckets sailing the oceans exploiting Third World crews — and “ports of convenience”, an attempt to use scab work forces to break organised labour.

International political solidarity also featured strongly. The MUA has a long and proud history of extending support to those who suffer and struggle against repression. Conference resolutions reaffirmed the union’s commitment. The union is continuing its opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. A further resolution to support the people and governments of Cuba and Venezuela, supporting their right to decide their future democratically, without interference from the United States, was passed unanimously. The MUA has set up a Latin American support group and resolved to support future May Day Brigades, and fact-finding missions, to Venezuela. About $70,000 was collected and donated by the delegates to APHEDA, the ACTU-initiated international union aid arm.

Outlining the way forward

The conference delegates began a discussion on the direction the union should take on a range of fronts under a Labor government. Measures to strengthen union coverage in traditional areas, campaigns in other maritime industries where the union movement has yet to make headway such as recreational diving, reports on joint campaigning with the Australian Workers Union in the offshore industry and gains amongst offshore divers were registered by the delegates.

The conference was also addressed by representatives of the Rudd government, including an appearance by acting PM Julia Gillard and the transport minister Anthony Albanese. Although the defeat of the Howard government was marked as a big victory by the MUA and the election of the Rudd Labor government was warmly welcomed, there were cautious warnings that the MUA must not let its industrial and political guard down. MUA national secretary Paddy Crumlin noted in his welcoming speech to Gillard that there “will be discussions and debates that are necessary to have with the federal government”. Bob Crow, a leader of the British Rail, Maritime and Transport Union, made pointed remarks about the experience his union and working people have had with the British Labour government.
The general sentiment among delegates, expressed in the plenary session, was not to allow any government to pursue anti-union legislation and to fight for further social programs, such as parental leave, regardless of which brand of government was in power.

Through the course of the conference, there was a clear feeling that the MUA has mapped a course for its members that incorporates democratic decision making, strong bonds of internationalism, a belief in the strength of the union and a desire for solidarity with those in struggle for their rights. While there are many battles ahead for the MUA, and undoubtedly sharp debates within the union will arise over a range of issues, delegates finished the conference confident the union will forge ahead for the next four years.

[Ian Jamieson is attended the MUA conference as a delegate from the union’s Western Australia branch.]