A tale of two conferences and an ugly attack by the bosses on Auckland wharfies

Two important conferences were held in March for waterside workers in Australia and their comrades internationally. Although the conferences had different priorities, the MUA National Conference in Sydney and a meeting of international wharfie delegates under the auspices of the International Transportworkers Federation held in Aqaba, Jordan, both had an overriding objective: to strengthen dockers unions in the face of enormous challenges from rapacious bosses and their servants in government.

Both conferences met under the darkening shadows of a major dispute in the Port of Auckland. Delegates in Australia and Aqaba pledged themselves to an unequivocal campaign of international solidarity through demonstrating the strength of the international union movement. This has already had a big impact on the resolve of the New Zealand dockers and their union, the Maritime Union of New Zealand.

The MUA pledged $100,000 to assist, and on March 10, a week after the MUA quadrennial conference, 95 Australian wharfies flew to Auckland to help on the Auckland picket line.

International delegates in Aqaba, around 200 unionists from 30 countries representing hundreds of thousands of dockers worldwide, took an unprecedented step as members of the ITF dockers section, deciding to launch an active campaign of solidarity including pickets of New Zealand embassies and consulates, stepping up the campaign to a Day of International Action if the dispute in Auckland remains unresolved.

Attempt to casualise Auckland docks

The Auckland dockers face a brutal attack from the publicly owned Port of Auckland that has been building for a year. The POA CEO had indicated initially that he wasn’t interested in bargaining in good faith when MUNZ began a legitimate campaign for better conditions for its members.

The bosses’ intention finally became clear late last year when they revealed they wanted to casualise the workforce, creating — in wharfies’ parlance — a port of convenience, where the employer rules the roost to the detriment of those who create the wealth in the port.

In Late February, the entire unionised workforce, 300 breadwinners, were sacked. They were told they could reapply for their positions if they were ready to forego their permanency of employment, relying for work by telephoning the day before to see if they were to be rostered on. And this casual work was to be paid at a far lower rate that they currently enjoyed.

So MUNZ was forced into a fight for its survival. The Auckland dockers took legitimate strike action to save their conditions. The POA Authorities replied with a series of lockouts and began advertising for scab labour, even as far afield as Australia. Nearly all 300 have stood solid against this union busting attack. The picket line at the gates of the port remains solid, and very little work has been carried out in the terminal, most ships being diverted to other ports in New Zealand.

Sydney wharfies defeat provocation

There was, however, one provocative attempt to test the resolve of the picketers and their comrades on the wharves internationally. A major shipping line, Maersk, sent a vessel into Auckland and was subsequently loaded by scab labour. The next port of call for this ship was Sydney, where it arrived on March 10 at the DP World terminal.

This was provocative not only in attempting to find weaknesses in international solidarity among wharfies, but particularly so a week after the MUA national conference, where emphatic support was given to the MUNZ; it also happened to be the home of the ITF president, Paddy Crumlin, who is also the national secretary of the MUA.

The Sydney wharfies replied magnificently. On the morning the Maersk ship docked, it was met by a community picket of several hundred, bolstered by Patrick’s wharfies as they came off shift. DP World MUA members voted not to work the ship, defying the Fair Work Act, Trades Practices Act and other anti-union laws the federal government has to prevent solidarity actions by organised labour. The MUA members knew that they had to act defiantly and immediately to break the resolve of those who had relied on scabs to work on international cargo and continue to give international solidarity for those who lost their jobs for the profit-lust of greedy employers.

The refusal to work the vessel was applauded as delegates met in Aqaba, and immediate pressure was planned on the Maersk shipping line internationally.

As the ship remained idle for 48 hours in Sydney, agreement was reached allowing the ship’s cargo of containers to be unloaded and quarantined until the next Maersk vessel docked. The quarantined scab containers were loaded onto this vessel and then unloaded using union labour, amounting to triple handling of the cargo. Maersk has found it wise not to attempt to repeat this provocation.

However, the result of this magnificent solidarity action by Sydney wharfies has yet to be fully resolved. Managers for DP World applied to the Fai rWork courts before the scab vessel arrived for an injunction against any industrial action. The injunction was issued and the MUA faces fines of up to $10million and individual DP World employees in Sydney face $33,000 in fines for taking industrial action in defiance of the courts.

It is hoped that negotiations with DP World will result in injunctions being lifted. DP World is currently negotiating with the MUA over an enterprise agreement and is keen to have this issue resolved.

Internationally important

The picket lines are still on in New Zealand. The MUNZ has been assured that there is continued support from the international wharfie community until every MUNZ member retains his or her job and that the scourge of casualisation does not remain a threat to their survival. Every Auckland docker knows this is a fight not only for their employment, but for a decent living for their families; a defeat in Auckland would signal further attacks by employers, the National government and the mainstream press against all working people in New Zealand.

For wharfies internationally, this is an extremely important dispute to win. From the defeat of the Liverpool dockers in the 1990s, to the attacks on the MUA during the Patrick’s dispute, to the unsuccessful attempts to break the US International Longshore Workers Union a few years ago, the Auckland industrial war is part of a global pattern by huge multinational corporations to impose their will on dockers internationally.

It can be defeated only through solid defence on the ground and an international campaign militantly asserting the rights of waterside workers the world over. Those lessons are now solidly ingrained within the MUA and the dockers section of the ITF.

Direct Action — March 28, 2012