Another death on the wharf sparks anger

Thousands of waterside workers across Australia mourned the death of yet another workmate and comrade on July 23, walking off the job to attend memorial services and shutting all ports for nearly 24 hours.

Steve Piper, a Maritime Union member and an employee at POAGS at Appleton Dock in Melbourne, was killed on the job when a 2.5 tonne steel pipe slipped and crushed him. Steve Piper was the third death on the waterfront in the past five months, the seventh death in the past four years.

The memorial services held in cities and regional centres coincided with Piper’s funeral in Melbourne and union members decided, in a mark of solidarity respect for their fallen comrade and his young family, not to return to work until the following morning. It left all ports idle, something that had not occurred for decades.

It was particularly galling for wharfies that another death should occur on the job when the MUA has been involved in campaigning for national safety regulations since 2006. Negotiations with the federal Labor government have been slow and laborious, despite a commitment that national standards should be set.

Under the Howard government the stevedoring industry was effectively deregulated, allowing industry bosses to set their own standards — in many cases using weak state regulatory authorities to undermine safe work practices on the job.

The MUA has consistently fought for a single national standard, backed by enforceable regulations that reflects the best international practices on the wharves. However since serious negotiations with government and industry began, seven needless deaths have occurred, many more serious injuries have happened and countless near misses. The MUA believes it is the fundamental right of all waterside workers and seafarers to return to their families after a shift in the same condition as they began work.

MUA members on the wharves are consistently subjected to increased productivity drives as competition between private employers becomes frenzied in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis, safety and union delegates are bullied by management if they insist on implementing even negotiated safe outcomes and a focus on safety becomes secondary in a highly mechanised industry. State regulatory authorities often give little satisfaction and at times bureaucratic wrangling between various state safety bodies leaves no enforceable laws at all to protect workers in the industry.

The death of Steve Piper was the final straw for waterside workers. POAGS members immediately walked off the job nationally for 24 hours and were joined by all MUA members the following week for his funeral. In response, all stevedoring companies clamoured for the MUA and individual members to be prosecuted under Labor’s FairWork legislation. They sought and won an injunction the day before the memorial service to prevent wharfies paying their respects. The MUA responded that this was not an act of industrial disruption but a legitimate means to allow respect, grief and anger to be expressed.

And their callousness has not ended there. Many wharfies were rung by management during the memorial services asking why they were taking part in “illegal” industrial action. Officials have had traditional “right of entry” to the ports revoked and delegates and members are being targeted for sackings for attending the services and fighting for better safety standards on the job.

But the solidarity and strength within the MUA will endure. It will continue to use whatever means necessary to win enforceable, national, uniform safety regulations to prevent further deaths and injuries on the job.