MUA wins big gains in offshore industry

Amid howls of protests by employers, their representatives, the media and politicians, Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) members employed in the offshore gas and oil industry are concluding protracted negotiations for an enterprise agreement that will substantially improve wages and conditions.

A “heads of agreement” between the MUA and all major offshore employers provides for a 30% pay increase to 2013, a construction allowance where applicable of $175 a day, rising to $214 by 2012, superannuation based on salary earned and a number of other pay increases to mitigate the lengthy time union members spend away from home on Western Australia’s North West Shelf. This would mean an average pay rise of approximately $35,000 over the next three years for offshore workers who are MUA members. It is expected a full enterprise agreement will be drafted between the employers and union officials and delegates shortly.

The shortage of skilled workers on the North West Shelf, as in the mineral-rich Pilbara, has forced employers to pay above the usual rates to entice workers to fly in and out. Hundreds of billions of dollars are tied up in construction and the development of the resource industry there. The substantial pay rises won by the MUA for its members are not only deserved and set a benchmark for the thousands of others toiling in the area, but were also gained partly because major employer groups conceded the need for parity as MUA members involved in construction were historically behind others in the industry.

15-month campaign

The agreements are the culmination of a carefully planned and executed campaign by the MUA, spearheaded by its WA branch. Fifteen months in preparation and implementation, the campaign is the biggest win for the MUA in many years. Officials, delegates and members fought every inch of the way against hostile employers and their organisations, such as the Australian Mines and Metals Association (AMMA), Chamber of Commerce and Industry (CCI) and Australian Shipowners Association. For example, Peter Anderson from the CCI, referring to a stoppage by the MUA under terms of the new federal FairWork laws, claimed, “This ... has now morphed from a local dispute to one threatening our national economic interest”.

AMMA press releases falsely warned of pay rises of up to $180,000 per year. Liberal Senator Eric Abetz went even further, claiming that an MUA kitchen hand would be paid $20 for every plate washed in the galley and that the union had won pay increases of up to $230,000 a year! The AMMA talked of MUA “piracy”, and even leaders of the marine engineers union accused the MUA of “thuggery”. And of course there were the usual accusations that the MUA threatened “Australia’s resource-led recovery” and was making overseas investors nervous about the multi-billion dollar liquid natural gas project.

The AMMA and the CCI also falsely claimed that there were no productivity gains as part of the negotiations. Yet throughout the life of past enterprise agreements and no doubt through the new one, management continually meet with the workforce to improve safety and self-management on the job, which employers always factor in as part of their productivity goals. What they were really complaining about was that there were no deals done to give up conditions in exchange for a pay increase. MUA members still often spend a month away from their families, working up to 12 hour shifts in hot and potentially dangerous conditions.

Ironically, the industrial campaign, which included three 48-hour and two 24-hour stoppages against the employer Farstad and two 48-hour stoppages against Total Marine Services, was completely legal under the FairWork laws of the Rudd government. Workplace relations minister Julia Gillard refused to intervene, despite hysterical calls by the AMMA for her to do so.

The FairWork laws differ little from John Howard’s Work Choices laws. The only legal recourse to industrial action occurs when an application to the Fair Work tribunal is made after a secret ballot of union members conducted by the Australian Electoral Commission. To proceed lawfully strikes must have the approval of the Fair Work tribunal, necessitating well-constructed legal arguments and a show of strength by union members.

This is not the approach the MUA would prefer. It considers that the laws contravene International Labor Organisation policies concerning the right to strike. But the MUA complied with laws which the AMMA, the CCI and other employer organisations clamoured for as a means to delay workers being able to take industrial action, demoralise workers and prevent unions from gaining the upper hand in negotiations.

Power of example

What alarmed the AMMA and its allies was the manner in which the Western Australian branch of the MUA campaigned on the job, with continual meetings explaining each step and getting the agreement and involvement of every member before a ballot was taken. It was unprecedented that in every secret ballot there was 100% support, something no other trade union has succeeded in doing under such restrictions.

The victory is significant in a number of areas that have major employers concerned. The pay rises are not the major factor that worries them. What lies behind their vitriol is the fear of this well-organised, concerted and united campaign led by the MUA becoming an example of how to beat the rich and powerful moguls in the resources industry. For two decades, major resources companies such as BHP, Rio Tinto and Woodside have had a compliant workforce, having succeeded with a union-busting campaign against the Pilbara workers in the early 1990s. Even today, most workers in the industry are still employed under individual industrial contracts signed in the Howard years.

The MUA has now shown it is a force to be reckoned with in a strategically important sector, having built its membership to nearly 100% in the area and being willing to take on its adversaries by involving the membership every step of the way. In the past five or six years many local safety and conditions issues have been won — some through industrial action but always through united action on the job. A careful building of delegate structures, a fundamental belief that the rank and file members are the union and democratic decision making also contributed to the MUA win. The MUA’s WA branch has more than doubled its membership over the past five years, and the potential to grow has now increased markedly with the conclusion of the new offshore enterprise agreement.

There is another fear employers harbour when faced with the growing strength of the MUA. They have begun to realise that this power could be used to challenge Labor’s FairWork laws and protect workers’ rights outside the legal framework set by Liberal and Labor legislation. The WA branch has shown its willingness to give moral support to civil rights, indigenous Australians, oppressed nationalities and other unions internationally.

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