The WA branch of the Maritime Union of Australia is facing a major battle with the shipping and resource industry as negotiations over an offshore enterprise agreement remain unresolved.

After 15 months and more than 100 meetings with industry and its representative – the Australian Mines and Metals Association (AMMA) – union members at a number of shipping contractors have now voted for industrial action.

However, at one major company, Tidewater, the AMMA has wormed straight in at the Fair Work Commission to have the proposed two-day stoppage delayed. It won the argument that any strike would be illegal because the MUA “has not attempted to bargain in good faith”. The union says that the commission is using a technicality to block workers from striking legally in pursuit of their aims.

The AMMA’s concern about good-faith bargaining seems only fleeting; it has been waging a malicious public campaign designed to poison perceptions about the role of the MUA in the resources industry. Its message has included claims that MUA members earn $400,000 a year, that the WA branch is “rogue” and that the entire resource industry is at stake in this dispute.   

Backing these nonsensical claims has been the federal government, which has been keen to use AMMA’s anti-union stance to tighten industrial laws further. Industry minister Eric Abetz has flagged imposing further restrictions on the existing small legal opening for union members to take industrial action during enterprise bargaining.

The Abbott government has also just announced that it will introduce regulations allowing companies running pipe-carrying construction vessels to bypass local workers and those on 457 visas and instead employ workers on special maritime crew visas.  Workers on these visas have fewer rights than local workers and likely less even than those on 457 visas. This regulatory manoeuvring is part of a strategy to allow the resource industry to get around important workplace standards and protections under Australian law. 

The latest moves by industry and the federal government have been backed by a minister of the previous Labor government. Martin Ferguson, a former secretary of the ACTU who now works for the petroleum industry, has joined the AMMA in labelling the WA MUA a “rogue union”. He has also accused the union of critically damaging the resource industry.

Last year, Ferguson was publicly bid a fond farewell by the AMMA when he resigned from his parliamentary career. Today, he continues to fight the bosses’ battles. At the instigation of the MUA, the WA branch of the ALP unanimously carried a motion calling for his expulsion from the party. 

On yet another front of the attack on the MUA, again spearheaded by the AMMA, tug workers employed by TeeKay Shipping (one of the world’s largest marine energy transport companies) operating from Port Hedland have postponed industrial action over their claims for a pay rise of about 4 percent per year and four weeks’ annual leave. The delay is to allow negotiations to continue.

The AMMA has been ramping up its public campaign around the dispute with claims that a strike would cause losses of $100 million per day, along with false claims as to pay rates and other tales about how the current roster provides TeeKay workers with six months a year off the job.

The AMMA has remained deliberately silent on the length of the working day for tuggies  –  a minimum of 12 hours per day for 28 days straight. This means that, over each of the 52 weeks in a year, a tuggy works an average of 39 hours a week. TeeKay workers are right to fight for four weeks’ annual leave, a condition that is shared by nearly every other permanent worker in the country.