Maintenance workers at Port Botany are coming up against the anti-union Fair Work Commission and anti-strike laws in their bargaining campaign.

The 48 Kalmar employees, members of the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA), work at the Patrick terminal, where they do maintenance work dealing with breakdowns and conducting checks on cranes and machinery on the wharf. Unlike at the other terminals, Patrick maintenance is outsourced to a separate company. This was one of the set backs that resulted from the 1998 lockout.

When Kalmar workers staged a 24-hour strike on 14 April the company brought in scab labour. Wharfies who operate the cranes at Patrick refused to work, citing safety issues arising from working alongside maintenance workers who were not sufficiently qualified and not experienced working on the Patrick wharf. This occurred over three shifts on the Saturday.

But the Fair Work Commission (FWC) issued an order that placed a ban on refusing to work with substitute labour, effectively ruling that the Patrick workers were taking illegal industrial action.

Kalmar workers are bargaining for job security to stop work being contracted out to labour hire, such as changing ropes. They are also bargaining for a shorter working week and a decent pay rise. But the company haven’t budged over months of negotiations. A company spokesman, John Payne said “we can’t guarantee job security because no one can”.

The MUA had given notice of a seven-day strike at Kalmar beginning the next week, but this was withdrawn following the FWC ruling. There is every likelihood further protected industrial action will occur. But the workers and union now face the challenge of how to stop scab labour undermining this action.

The wharfies and maintenance workers work shoulder to shoulder, but because they are artificially divided between separate employers, this makes it an “illegal secondary boycott” for workers to take industrial action in solidarity with each other. The Fair Work ruling shows how the anti-strike laws undermine unions and their ability to bargain.

Bringing in scabs to do such highly skilled work is a serious threat to safety at the port. But workers should have the right to strike in support of other workers regardless—especially their own workmates. This is yet another example of anti-worker rules that need to be broken. If Patrick workers defy the FWC ruling, we should all back them.

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