Ninety-seven wharfies are fighting for their jobs after being callously sacked by text message and email from Hutchison’s port terminals in Sydney and Brisbane on 6 August. But the workers are fighting the sackings with pickets in Sydney and Brisbane, ongoing as we go to press.
“They have picked heads—most of the 50 who got the message [in Sydney] were members of the MUA union committee, or Health and Safety Reps—anyone who spoke up,” one worker explained.
In Sydney, those still with jobs are refusing to go back to work, in defiance of orders from Fair Work Australia.
“I couldn’t go in while these guys are out here! No way,” explained another worker on the picket line, one of the 70 who were not sacked in Sydney. “I think we are all in the firing line anyway. I think they are just taking turns in coming at us.”
The dispute highlights how restrictive the Fair Work Act is. The Hutchison workers have shown that the laws against industrial action must be defied to organise an effective strike and picket.
In Brisbane, some workers have obeyed the Fair Work direction and returned to work, though a protest remains.
The workers’ union, the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA), was set to argue in court for an order against the sackings as we went to press.
But whether Hutchison caves in will depend on the strike remaining solid. The union has the power to bring off workers across the rest of the ports, an action that would cost the companies millions of dollars.
The sackings are a major attack on union organisation. If Hutchison gets away with it, it will have ramifications for workers employed by other port operators, Patrick and DP World.
Hutchison is newly established in Sydney and is the biggest private port operator in the world. It is owned by Hong Kong billionaire Li Ka Shing, who also owns Vodafone Australia.
Australia’s main ports have historically had two container terminals, Patrick and DP World. The establishment of a third container terminal was designed to break up the waterfront “duopoly” and drive down stevedoring costs.
Hutchison won 30 to 40 year contracts to operate both the new Sydney and Brisbane terminals in 2008 and 2009.
The company then spent over $700 million building the terminal and bringing in the latest automated heavy machinery and cranes, most of it never before used in Australia. Following suit, Patrick Port Botany and DP World Brisbane sacked workers as they introduced automated equipment.
Hutchison workers, however, won an agreement including a 30-hour full time week and full permanency; the Financial Review bemoaned that the agreement rolled back “gains” that companies had won through the 1998 Patrick dispute.
In July, Hutchison indicated it would be mothballing its Australian operations and the financial press tut-tutted that Hutchison had been too generous with its EBA and advised company that it needed to take on the union.
A little over a week before the sackings, it circulated a memo announcing it would sack 40 per cent of its 225 workers across both ports. Now the company is playing hardball, refusing to even talk to the union.
Worker Martin explained, “The company is telling us they’ve lost work. But we know that’s not true,” According to The Australian, “it is understood the company has subcontracted the bulk of the work to rival Patrick Stevedoring.”
Workers say they have heard management talk about a secret operation called “Phoenix Rising”, indicating Hutchison may have a plan to replace the existing unionised workforce with workers on worse conditions.
Recent government projections show trade rising 6 per cent a year in Brisbane and 4.5 per cent a year in Sydney. The colossal investment the company and the states have made seem to indicate the company is not going anywhere.
But one thing is for certain—the company has declared war on the MUA in a new round of union busting on the waterfront.
Solidarity has poured in for the wharfies. MUA members working for other port operators as well as delegations from across the union movement have visited the picket lines. Students, marriage equality activists and members of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy have visited and collected donations for the striking workers.
International support has poured in from dockworkers and seafarers in places like Hong Kong, India and Indonesia.
Holly Matthewson, one of the five women employees to get the sack, told Solidarity, “We’ve all got to stick together. The company wants to divide us but we’ve got to stay strong. No one should go through the gate. Come down and help us fight. Save our jobs. We have to fight this government.”