MUA grows from strength to strength

The November issue of the Maritime Workers Journal (MWJ), published by the Maritime Union of Australia, records a 25% growth in the union’s membership over the past six years. Nationally there are just under 12,000 MUA members. Most of the growth has been provided by the WA branch of the union, which is now the largest MUA branch in the country with 3000 members. At the time the current branch leadership was elected in 2003, there were less than 1200 WA MUA members.

The growth in MUA membership is in stark contrast to the fate of most unions in Australia, according to the latest Australian Bureau of Statistics report, are still suffering a declining membership. According to data released in April, there were 1.75 million union members (one in five employees), down from 1,866,700 in 2003.

MWJ also quotes Chris Cain, the secretary of the WA MUA branch, who notes union density in the WA maritime industry is “95.44 per cent financial .... and we are seeing a big reduction in membership debt”. These figures again highlight that the WA MUA is doing something different in its approach to that of most other Australian unions. MWJ notes the continuing resources boom in the north-west of WA has fuelled the growth of the MUA. The massive investment in natural gas extraction on the North-West Shelf has opened the MUA to potentially thousands of new members provided the union organises them and cooperates with other unions in the area such as the Australian Workers Union.

While this factor has a big bearing in the WA branch’s growth, there are others at work as well. These also go beyond the prodigious workload the six WA branch officials and organisers manage in covering 13,000 kilometres of coastline and 14 ports. They also provide lessons for many in the union movement frustrated by the lack of willingness by most union officials to seriously challenge assaults by the employing class for fear of upsetting the electoral fortunes of the ALP at the federal or state level. Cain alluded to the key factor in his comments to MWJ. “We’re training our delegates, it’s a rank and file branch”, he said. Since the election of the Rank and File Team in 2003, democracy with the WA branch has been paramount. At every turn, the leadership has sought the commitment and backing of the membership, allowing the ranks to continually take control of their union.

Attendance at meetings and rallies has risen, state conferences have been organised to gauge the response of members, delegate structures have been revitalised. A real pride in the ability of the union to act has been generated. Through this, a branch leadership has risen that goes well beyond the three elected branch office-bearers. Confidence in the ability of locally elected delegates in the handling of safety and other industrial issues on the job has also secured a growing strength and militancy.

The leadership that is being developed around the elected officials is widely recognised as contributing to the militancy of the branch. Nearly every day there are a number of “blues” MUA members are involved in — over safety, victimisation, recognition, a healthy environment, working conditions. The WA branch has also gained a fierce reputation for a militant approach to enterprise bargaining.

Recognising the laws under Howard’s Work Choices and Rudd’s Fair Work Australia differ little in their restriction on the ability to strike, the WA MUA has used the bargaining period to wield maximum leverage through applications for a ballot for strikes of increasing durations. At first employers thought the union was bluffing, but utilising the collective strength and active involvement of the members at various workplaces in walking off the job has now seen employers cave in to the demands of the union members. This has resulted in substantial pay increases and benefits for the membership.

The WA MUA has also been actively seeking involvement in a range of social issues. The branch doesn’t hesitate to send rank-and-file members around the globe in acts of international solidarity with striking wharfies or when other maritime unions are under attack. It was the first union in Australia to endorse the goals of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Campaign directed at Israel’s continued oppression of the Palestinian people.

The branch has been actively supporting the Tamil asylum seekers when they were trapped on board the Ocean Viking last month. It is actively supporting Sea Shepherd’s campaign against Japanese whalers and invited international guests, such as Paddy Hill and Gerry Conlon from the Guildford4/Birmingham6 campaigns in Britain, to its November 24 annual general meeting (attended by about 300 members).

The branch’s militancy and democratic structures have gained it a very wide appeal within the union as a whole, reflected in the cooption resulting from recent retirements of Ian Bray, the WA assistant state secretary, to the position of assistant national secretary. Above all, it has been the willingness of the leadership of the branch to challenge any attacks on its members, including those that emanate from Labor governments that have earned it a reputation for principled union militancy.

Although the union is still formally affiliated to the ALP, there is little expectation within the branch leadership that Labor will be much different from conservative governments, and therefore the branch leadership has refused to subordinate the interests of the members to those of the ALP. That is one of the actual reasons the MUA, and its WA branch in particular, is experiencing membership growth while most other unions languish, unable or unwilling to go beyond hoping Labor governments will eventually accede to the demands of their members.

[Ian Jamieson is an MUA delegate working on the wharves in Fremantle and a member of the Revolutionary Socialist Party.]