Wharfies in Sydney and Brisbane are a month into their campaign of industrial action to secure a decent Enterprise Agreement (EA) with Hutchison Ports.
They are fighting for improvements to safety, training, a roster, and a right of return in case of future redundancies.
Hutchison has declared ambitions to become the “Tiger Air of the waterfront”. They opened negotiations with claims to slash existing conditions—everything from meal breaks to the roster, outsourcing core roles and further automating the port.
So far, the workforce has taken two 24 hour strikes and continues with daily 30 minute stoppages every two hours, along with bans on overtime and upgrades.
The strikes forced Hutchison to back off from cuts to long service leave, redundancy payments and superannuation. However the company now say this is “conditional” on cost concessions and more flexibility. The MUA (now the Maritime division of the CFMMEU) is pursuing a claim for a roster for the entire workforce. Currently, half the workforce have a roster, while the rest wait for daily text messages for their shifts. The company wants to eliminate any roster at all, making everyone slaves to their phones.
Hutchison are spinning an argument they cannot afford the union’s claims and their Australian operations are losing money. But they are refusing to agree to many cost-neutral claims.
And they are an enormous multi-national company with ports in 51 countries and assets in telecommunications, retail and infrastructure. They were the third company to set up in Port Botany and did so expecting to lose money on that investment for at least ten years while they establish themselves.
Already, the so-called “Fair Work Act” that governs industrial action has created difficulties for wharfies. “Protected action” is the small window of time negotiating an Enterprise Agreement when strike action is “legal”. But this process is covered in paperwork and legal hurdles.
In December, the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) refused to send out the protected action ballot in the lead up to Christmas, claiming there was too much post!
Wharfies at Hutchison Sydney implementing supposedly “protected” 30 minute stoppages have been accused of taking unlawful industrial action.
Maintenance workers have different breaks and therefore took their 30 minute stoppage at a different time. It is unheard of for wharfies to work without maintenance coverage, so all wharfies stopped too. Yet the company refuses to accept this as a safety issue, claims the stoppages were “illegal”, and is docking four hours pay per shift in penalty. The workforce sat in for four hours every shift over three days—no pay no work!
The Fair Work Act stipulates a minimum of three days’ notice must be given to the bosses of any planned action. This gives the bosses time to organise scab labour, outsource work, stockpile, or reschedule and make the strike as ineffective as possible. Companies can also appeal for up to seven business days’ notice.
Hutchison applied to the Fair Work Commission (FWC) for five days’ notice and thankfully lost this application. However, DP World, another terminal operator entering a bargaining period, has just won an identical claim.
To undermine industrial action, Hutchison has been outsourcing ships to neighbouring terminals Patrick and DP World. Due to secondary boycott laws, it is illegal for wharfies at other terminals to refuse to work these ships.
On the first strike day on 24 January, Hutchison wharfies marched from their carpark down Foreshore road—stopping two lanes of trucks—to the neighbouring Patrick terminal to protest this outsourcing. They were met with a wall of riot police with horses and dogs and two people were arrested, including Branch Secretary Paul McAleer.
Traffic chaos and a sit-in in front of police lines meant wharfies due to start the 2pm shift at Patrick could not enter the site for another hour and a half, severely disrupting the ship.
The latest ship to be outsourced went to DP World. This was not during a strike period and is a clear attempt to cancel shifts and starve the workforce—a version of a lock out. DP wharfies found significant safety issues with the ship and demanded maintenance before working it. Union branch officials were refused entry to the terminal. The ship was still languishing in the port as Solidarity went to press.
Hutchison wharfies are digging in for a long fight. It will require a major escalation to force concessions from the company.
With DP World also now balloting for action, it is set to be a hot few months on the waterfront. Crucial to any victory at both terminals will be co-ordination of action across the waterfront and a willingness to defy the laws currently shackling union power.