MUA declares 2011 'Year of the Wharfie'

With hundreds of members rolling in for the opening of its third biennial state conference in Fremantle February 21-25, the Western Australian branch of the Maritime Union has declared, to the enthusiastic and unanimous endorsement of its members, that 2011 is the “Year of the Wharfie”.

850 people packed out the first few days of the conference, displaying a militancy and enthusiasm that bodes well for the industrial campaigns that the union wil be waging in the year ahead.

Enterprise agreements on Australia’s wharves have begun to expire, and by the end of the year every collective agreement with every major stevedoring company and many port authorities is up for negotiation. Although the goal has national implications, the WA branch seeks to use its success in the offshore gas and oil industry last year, dubbed the “Year of the Seafarer” as a benchmark for an industrial campaign to secure safe working conditions.

The militant industrial campaign initiated and led by members of the MUA in the north-west, ably backed by the state union leadership, brought substantial gains for seafarers. These included a 30% wage increase, substantial allowances in areas such as construction, improved conditions for the many who fly in and out of their work “swings”, better live-in arrangements at work and more control over safety conditions, for the next three years.

Although prevented by law from pursuing “pattern bargaining” in the industry, the MUA is confident that the Year of the Wharfie can be reflected in enterprise agreements on the waterfront. Wharfies have also described the coming year as one of “retaliation” because waterfront conditions have remained stagnant or, in the case of safe working conditions, have eroded. There were three deaths in the industry in the past year and innumerable cases where safety remains a secondary consideration for the stevedoring bosses.

For example, out of a workforce of 67 in Fremantle working for P&O Bulk and General, 16 are either on compensation or work-related medical treatment. In a historic decision in the courts, shipping giant Patricks was fined $180,000 for harassment of an MUA member who was diligently carrying out his duties as a safety officer.

The determination of MUA members on the wharves, hammered home again and again throughout the conference, has not been unnoticed by the industry. The Financial Review commented: “The industry is worried that the MUA is trying to capitalise on big pay rises won last year by the union’s militant West Australian branch for crews working in offshore construction for the booming liquefied natural gas sector”.

Early start

Even before the February state conference began, the Year of the Wharfie kicked off in dramatic fashion in Patricks Bulk and General with a number of protected industrial strikes. MUA members there in Fremantle and Albany in WA and Geelong and Webb Dock in Victoria have voted almost unanimously in a secret ballot to conduct strikes of lengthening duration to force meaningful negotiations. Fremantle was the first cab off the rank in late December, walking out the gate for three days, followed closely by Albany for four days and Webb Dock in Melbourne. Darwin Patricks POAGS workers have also voted for a series of protected industrial actions.

The strike in Fremantle was enthusiastically supported by a vibrant and militant picket called at very short notice. Three hundred turned up to support the union’s claims.

There are three major areas that strike a common theme in the wharfies’ demands. Safety remains a paramount concern, particularly in response to the fatalities in the industry and the hundreds who have suffered work-related injuries. Waterside workers are fed up with mealy-mouthed statements from the shipping lines and want federal legislation and enforceable regulations in every aspect of their innumerable duties.

Secondly, substantial wage increases are being sought to maintain, and even catch up, with cost of living rises in basic areas such as food, health, housing and utilities. This is particularly so in WA’s north-west, where weekly rentals for a house amount to nearly $2000, and single room accommodation is around $500. The union is seeking an allowance for its members working there.

For the past 12 years, the union has been seeking an end to casualisation of its workforce. There are many instances where union members are still not part of a permanent workforce, having to ring every day for the next shift “orders”, which has an enormous impact on job security and social and family life.

Rank and file in control

Although it may be only the beginning of the campaign to make 2011 the Year of the Wharfie, it is not the scale of the log of claims presented that worries the shipping industry. It is the means by which the MUA is determined to win its demands.

As with the offshore campaign, the campaign is driven by the rank and file, unafraid of restrictive FairWork laws, using militant industrial tactics, precisely defining goals and targets and, above all, involving and mobilising the union ranks in every decision. That is how the Year of the Seafarer succeeded, and those are the lessons wharfies will take into 2011.

The unhesitating support given by the state leadership of the MUA will again buoy the confidence and strength of the membership. This alone makes the WA MUA unique. It is testified to by the increasing numbers not only joining but being active in a militant, progressive and democratic union.

A lesson most, if not all, unions in Australia should learn.

[Ian Jamieson is a rank-and-file delegate for the MUA at DP World, the largest Fremantle stevedoring company.]