WA MUA charts a fighting course

By Ian Jamieson

Heat is building on the waterfront as the stevedoring industry and a number of port authorities are digging in their heels against attempts by the Maritime Union to address safety concerns and improve wages and conditions on the wharves.

Most enterprise agreements have already expired, or will in the next few months, which has enabled wharfies to seek improvements under FairWork laws. Although the MUA has shown that it is flexible in its claims while holding to fundamental criteria such as ensuring no more deaths occur in the industry, the stevedoring bosses and shipping lines behind them are proving to be intractable.

Protected action ballots
Under FairWork legislation, the MUA has successfully applied for protected action ballots of its membership in a number of cases where EAs have expired and has proven the companies are refusing to “bargain in good faith”. These ballots, which are conducted in secrecy by the Australian Electoral Commission, enable union members to vote on industrial action to pursue their claims — the only legal avenue allowed workers faced with an array of anti-strike laws.

But to win these ballots, the union has found it must continually organise, convince and involve its members. In every instance there has been resounding success from this approach. In some ballots there has been 98-100% votes in favour of industrial action.

Ballots have been sought and approved at Patrick’s stevedores in both the container and bulk and general divisions. In Patrick’s Bulk and General, there has been a combination of tactics, including strikes and — very successfully so far in Melbourne — bans on overtime and reclassifications on the job. For nearly four weeks, MUA members have been turning up to work but refusing any upgraded positions, leaving managers no alternative but to shut the job down and yet pay the workforce for not refusing to work.

In Patrick’s Terminals, or container depots, a number of yards are conducting the first round of industrial action, east coast terminals beginning on April 30 and Fremantle on May 2, which will be accompanied by a community picket outside the gate.

The determination of the WA MUA in conducting a campaign has largely been determined through a state conference at which delegates and members voted unanimously to declare 2011 the Year of the Wharfie. More than 800 members and national and international guests gathered in Fremantle for the five-day conference in February. This was the largest biennial conference the branch has held, and it noted some remarkable achievements and set ambitious goals.

In sharp contrast to the stagnating membership of most unions in Australia, the WA branch has more than trebled its base in the past eight years, recorded a 97-98% density of membership in areas where it is organised and is projecting another 20% growth from the 3200 it represents across WA. Growth has been rapid and obvious in the continually expanding resource boom in the north-west.

The expansion of the branch has occurred in the face of increasingly bitter employers, whose attacks on the MUA have grown more shrill and organised. The union has faced harassment and intimidation of delegates and officials, threats of court action and massive fines, the use of the ABCC and sacking of members, and has been able to thwart these attacks. However, conference delegates and members are fully aware that the union can expect more of the same.

Control by the ranks
The branch’s growth has been achieved because the ranks have effective control over their union and its leaders have been prepared to lead and back the members’ demands. This has fuelled a fighting militancy and pride.

This was very evident at the conference, where members declared their support for making 2011 the Year of the Wharfie. Waterside workers are keen to emulate the industrial campaign by seafarers and others last year that not only greatly improved conditions but generated pride in the achievements of the union.

The conference also posted other benchmarks. One was stepping up local, national and international solidarity, evident again by the array of officials and delegates from other national and international unions and an increased willingness to involve the MUA in social issues.

Social solidarity
Two good examples indicate the growing recognition of the MUA’s leading role in solidarity and social awareness. First is the ground-breaking social compact with Australia’s Indigenous people, in which collaboration and close ties were forged with communities and land councils to help them in negotiations with the huge resource-hungry employers, emphasising Indigenous employment and training and ensuring that some of the profits are directed back into the local community. There was also a recognition that the land the mining companies want to exploit belongs to the traditional owners, and that it is an inalienable right of these owners to determine their future. The MUA pledged to back traditional owners’ decision over all tracts of land that the resource giants want to grab.

Secondly, the WA membership again heard from two human rights activists who were wrongfully imprisoned for 15 and 17 years in Britain — Gerry Conlon (from the Guildford Four) and Paddy Hill (from the Birmingham Six). Their experiences as innocent Irishmen was no aberration, as they and Miscarriages of Justice Organisation activist John McManus explained. Laws are designed against minorities, the weak, the persecuted and unions to divide opposition to the rich rulers. The three urged all MUA members to be very aware that laws are designed for political purposes, whether anti-union laws such as the powers of the ABCC, or laws against terrorism that vilify religious groups or ethnic minorities. The three were particularly appalled at the treatment of Indigenous Australians.

The MUA commitment to social issues to complement solid campaigning around the Year of the Wharfie has set a new standard for unions in Australia: a realisation that wharfies have to continually renew their drive for a better life for all working people. H