Workers at Manly Fast Ferries in Sydney have staged a number of strikes as they fight for a decent enterprise agreement and push to reduce casualisation. Solidarity spoke to Maritime Union Australia delegate for Manly Fast Ferries Brock Mamo about the dispute

How did the dispute start?

The Manly Fast Ferries negotiations started about four years ago when the company gained the government contract to run a service for 364 days a year, with shifts starting from 4.45am in the morning and finishing at around 11pm at night.

The crew thought it’s about time to get fairer rates of pay because the work changed from hospitality and tourism work to predominantly ferry type work, which fall under different awards. The crew said four years ago, we want to start negotiations for a better deal, and all the company has done since then is found ways to slow down the fight by stitching everything up in the court system. Everything takes three to six months per action to get a response back through the courts. So if you want to get something done you could be looking at a 12 month turnaround time just to get an answer of ‘no’. All the rulings kept going in favour of the company. The crew kept fighting because they knew things weren’t fair, and the company kept stalling.

However, approximately 18 months ago NRMA took majority share in the Fast Ferries. The crew thought that there would be a positive change, particularly around safety conditions because the safety was very poor. However, when NRMA did come into our company all we noticed was rebranding happening, looking at ways to build profits. After about six months we said hold on, what about everything else which is the most important for us which is number one: safety for passengers. So we coordinated with the MUA a strategic attack on the company to get them to improve safety measures which worked and safety improved.

Has winning on the safety question given people a bit of a confidence boost?

Definitely. When the MUA stepped in on the vessels and bringing the unsafe nature of the vessels to the company’s face and the crew got to witness a lot of it, it really put a lot of their faith that the MUA is here to fight for its members and is here to get a good outcome for its members.

Safety remains a priority but our fight continues over rates of pay, permanent positions. They have casualised our workforce over a number of years. Everyone is casual except for about 5 per cent of the workforce. And those 5 per cent have negotiated their own deals with the previous owners. So it’s an unfair system because people doing the same job might be on different pay because one of them negotiated a better deal.

Fatigue management was also a big issue. Eighteen months ago they would have us finishing at 10.45pm with a 5am start the next morning. I spend an hour driving to and from work every day. So if you look at a six hour turnaround between shifts by the time you go to and from work, showering, you are literally coming to work with your eyeballs hanging out of your head. And someone that is the captain or crew of a vessel shouldn’t have to work in those circumstances as it becomes dangerous for themselves and their passengers.

However, there was a big problem if you speak up. It was called death by roster: because you’re casual they would cut your hours until you can no longer live and would have to find work elsewhere. We have changed that now, because we fought for that and it was another big safety issue. Now if the company does not provide proper fatigue management then they have to pay them double time for the entire next shift, which the company avoids. Because we went public with it, they had to adjust it. So now instead being put on a PM shift followed by an AM, we get week solid blocks of AM or PM, and so on, so we will have sufficient rests between our shifts.

There’s no guaranteed hours still for casuals so if they wanted to cut your hours they can? 

Yes, which is what they’re doing. They have over-supplied the workforce and dropped people’s hours. One of our union delegates specifically—he’s got a family, rent or mortgage to pay—he was employed here on 40 hours a week, he’s now getting 30 hours or below.

There is a strategic reason why they are doing this and that is because they are keeping people’s hours below the threshold that is needed for conversion to permanency. So we are pushing for a clause in our new agreement that says if you have been working consistently over 32 hours weekly for a period of six months then you qualify for a permanent full-time position. So if they can stretch this out and reduce people’s hours to under 32 then they reduce the number of full-time offers they have to give out.

So they want to keep the workforce casualised. And that’s where we are standing strong because we can see what they’re doing and we’re not going to sign a deal which is going to allow them to continue doing this.

So pay is one of the main sticking points?

They’ve said they can’t afford our pay rise, the MUA has said ok let us see your figures before we can believe that. They provided us a bunch of dodgy figures they typed up on their spreadsheet. We said give us a profit and loss statement. They refused multiple times even though the Fair Work Commission recommended that it would be advisable to help negotiations. We’ve exhausted all options through the commission. We make a pay offer, we get a no in response with no explanation why. We asked them to make an offer—once again, below award payment is what they’re offering us.

This contract is over in 2022 and there is no guarantee the company is going to get it back. So they have almost exhausted the whole life of the contract casualising the workforce, paying below award rates of pay. Our current offer on the table to avoid the strike is $67,000 per annum for deckhands, going up to $94,000 for the master/captain. We are currently operating a government service like Sydney Ferries do. Their deckhands are on $90,000 and $130,000 for masters/captains. Sydney Ferries workers get ten weeks holiday, we’re only asking for four weeks. So we don’t believe we’re being greedy, we are substantially below the workers that are doing the same work as us.

How did you build support for the strike in a mostly casual workforce?

It is very difficult, it’s been our hardest obstacle. It’s only been in the last 18 months that unionisation has picked up, from 40-50 per cent to over 90 per cent union members. By treating their workers the way they do, the company should have just given out union sign up forms for us. Employees were told they would get a certain amount of hours, then they don’t. They were told they would get a certain rate of pay, then it doesn’t happen.

We’ve been negotiating very heavily for a very long time. The crew on masters’ grade organised a specific 30 minute rolling stoppages strike and the company immediately rushed to the commission claiming that we were striking unfairly. The commission disagreed but said to try and sort something out. So the arrangement that was made that we would agree to stop striking for 20 days if NRMA agreed to remove the deckhands enterprise agreement from the courts so they could join with the masters in fighting for a combined enterprise agreement. NRMA really wanted to stop the strike so they agreed to it and we went back to the table at the commission. However, we’d take two steps forward, five steps back in the commission.

Then we’ve landed in this position where we went back to the members and said this is what they’re offering us, we’re going to send out a vote to strike and put forward different actions and you need to vote on what strike actions you want to take.

The results were unanimous in favour of strike action on all six counts we put forward. So we held our first stop work meeting and gathered all the members at the MUA office and we had a big chat and we put the options forward.

The members have chosen strike action and we are going to be making an escalation from some small stoppages to some bigger stoppages, we held a strike and picket on a Friday between 5pm and 11pm at circular quay wharf two in the prime Vivid Festival time and we held our first full day strike last week where we headed to Homebush to the NRMA office and yelled and screamed for the CEO of NRMA to come and talk with his workers. He apparently wasn’t there however they had organised an unbelievable amount of police to stand in front of us trying to intimidate us. We will not be intimidated!!

We will continue to escalate with the option of rolling stoppages. Last time around, when we did the rolling stoppages that’s when they caved in. We’re remaining optimistic that we won’t have to get there, that NRMA will come to the table and put some good deals forward. However, if that doesn’t happen we will need to escalate until we get action.

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