A 24-hour national strike by Patrick waterside workers on 18 January caused major disruptions to container cargo movements at Australian ports, according to Patrick NSW and Queensland general manager Anthony Jones.
Appearing before the Fair Work Commission on 21 January, Jones said that the strike – the first national stoppage of wharfies since the 1998 waterfront dispute – put container movements in some ports seven days behind schedule. “It just keeps cascading down”, Jones told the commission, according to a report in the Australian Financial Review.
The current dispute between Patrick and its workforce, represented by the Maritime Union of Australia, is about enterprise agreement negotiations in which job security is a major unresolved issue. It also comes amid plans by Patrick’s parent company, Asciano, to sell the stevedoring business.
Prospective buyers of Patrick include Qube Holdings, now headed by Chris Corrigan, former Patrick Stevedoring boss and architect of the 1998 offensive against waterfront workers.
The MUA is demanding that Patrick management grant all workers permanency and guarantee that none will be sacked as a result of the sale or any ensuing restructure. The union is also seeking to address existing issues around workplace safety and redundancies.
The company has moved quickly to slander the union in the press. Asciano’s head of HR, Alexandra Badenoch, accused the union’s Sydney branch of making claims that are “out of touch with community standards of what is considered acceptable in an Australian workplace”. Badenoch singled out the demand for weekend and night shift penalty rates as an example of the union’s “unacceptable” claims.
“This is corporate propaganda”, MUA Sydney branch deputy secretary Paul Keating told Red Flag. “It’s breathtaking for the company to claim that we’re demanding penalty rates. We have penalty rates. This is not part of the claim”, he said.
“They accuse us of demanding 35 hours’ pay for a 32-hour roster, which is false. As part of a 32-hour roster, workers are working ‘penalty shifts’ including on weekends, which, according to industry standards, should be accompanied by an increase in salary. In fact, the roster as it currently stands is $1,000 short of the industry standard salary”, Keating said.
The right to permanency and job security has long been an issue on the waterfront. Increasing automation of operations at ports across the country, despite guarantees to the union, has been used by Patrick (and other operators DP World and Hutchison Ports) as a pretext to sack permanent staff and rehire them as casuals.
These workers lose the entitlements owed to permanent workers (long service leave, annual and sick leave) and are not paid any additional loading when they work multiple shifts with fewer than eight hours’ break.
David (not his real name), a delegate at Patrick, described the devastating impact job insecurity has on workers, including the advent of a new category of worker – PIRs (permanent irregulars). “You don’t know you’re working until the night before. You have no regularity, you live day to day. There’s no way to plan in advance or have a life outside of work. You can’t plan holidays.
“People’s marriages have broken up because of the toll it’s taken on their relationships. You have no regular income, and they use it to control you. They target workers who speak up. If a casual calls in sick, they use it to penalise them by not calling them in for four days – that was until the union stopped them doing it.”
David says that if Patrick gets away with these attacks, then the bosses will come after everyone else. “It’s the same as with the attack on penalty rates; they come for us one by one.”
The union had served notice of a 48-hour stoppage at Port Botany on 25 and 26 January, with shorter actions at Melbourne and Brisbane ports.
However, late on 22 January, after an urgent application by Patrick, the Fair Work Commission ordered a 35-day ban on any industrial action by Maritime Union of Australia members. Coming down heavily on the side of Patrick, Fair Work Commission vice president Graeme Watson accepted the company’s claims that its managers couldn’t simultaneously deal with strike action and engage in enterprise agreement negotiations.
“The issues in dispute are important to a major employer and require careful and detailed consideration”, his ruling said. “An escalated industrial campaign creates significant complications for that type of consideration.”
The union has said it will appeal the decision which shockingly shrinks even further the already narrow scope for legal industrial action in Australia.