Since February, the maritime union’s ad “Sacked for Being Australian” has been playing on TV and radio, and is part of a marginal seat campaign saying the union is fighting for “Australians and Australian jobs’”. But the ad, and the nationalist ideas behind it, are counter-productive to building a real fight for jobs.
Seafarers in Australia have been unionised since 1872, and over time have achieved wages and conditions that are among the best in the world. Their spirit of internationalism has also been an inspiration. The Seamen’s Union of Australia and other seafarer unions in 1985 led the oil boycott of South Africa and the ban on South African products that was a real practical contribution to the fall of apartheid.
This history makes the MUA’s current campaign slogan particularly disappointing. It is a diversion for workers needing to understand why they are being sacked and what they can do about it. Greedy bosses, not foreign workers, are the real enemy.
The slogan was launched from the MUA national office in the wake of the heroic struggle of the crew of the Portland to save their jobs. In November 2015, US aluminium giant Alcoa announced that they were getting rid of the ship and its crew, which carried alumina from Western Australia to Victoria. MUA members occupied the ship for two months.
In January 2016, security guards raided the ship, forced the occupiers to leave, and escorted Indian seafarers on board to replace them. The ship then left Australia, with Australian officers and engineers (represented by different unions) but without any MUA members. In February 2016, a similar raid saw NSW police remove MUA members occupying the CSL Melbourne in Newcastle at the request of Rio Tinto.
Last year, Caltex, BP, and Viva also removed ships from the coast after workers’ occupations, although none lasted as long or ended so brutally as the Portland occupation. Seafarers are justifiably worried about their future. With the loss of these jobs and those in the offshore oil industry due to the low oil price, they are facing a jobs crisis. That is what makes the facts of this campaign and its slogans so important.
First, workers were not sacked for being Australian. They were sacked because they were a part of union that has been successful in negotiating excellent conditions. They were targeted by companies seeking to cut costs and boost profits. The compliant Australian officers and engineers were not sacked.
Second, the slogans should point to the real enemy and not ape the politics of right-wing governments on nationalism or border security just to get media sound bites. In the long-run, nationalism simply strengthens the idea that Australian workers have more in common with Australian bosses than they do with foreign workers. But, no matter what their nationality, workers everywhere have a common struggle against bosses who want to drive down wages and conditions.
The campaign’s claim that Australians have “a right to work in their own country” is another appeal to nationalism. Everyone should have the right to a job, but the truth is that Australia is a capitalist economy that does not give anyone the right to work. The ad promotes the idea that “Australians” are being discriminated against, and that thousands are at risk—from foreigners. But Australian bosses sack Australian workers all the time.
The slogan also appeals to racism. Everyone knows that “Australian” and “Aussie” implies “white”. Australia was established as a whites-only country, and non-white Australians and migrants regularly experience racism—in applying for jobs and in many others areas of life. The claim that workers were “sacked for being Australian”, reverses everything we know about racism.
It is no coincidence that the racist Australia First party (run by neo-Nazi Jim Saleam) has embraced the “Sacked for being Australian” campaign. Tragically, it fits with their racist narrative that foreigners are taking over Australia.
The alternative to this approach is actually contained in the campaign petition: to “ensure that Australian labour conditions are enforced within Australian borders”—that every seafarer, regardless of their nationality, travelling to and from or around Australia is paid the same as an Australian resident.
The MUA actually has a strong history of campaigning for this. Over 5000 ships visit Australia every year but Australian laws to pay seafarers at Australian rates are rarely enforced. This kind of campaign that could unite Australian and foreign workers in a common struggle.
The other key demand should be to scrap the restrictions in the Fair Work Act on industrial action so that workers, like the crew of the Portland and other ships, can organise and carry out real fights for their jobs without being pursued and prosecuted by the so-called “Fair Work Ombudsman” or the Federal Court.
It is in this kind of struggle where the real fight to improve the lives of workers must lie, not in visa conditions, or border security.