Defiance on the Melbourne waterfront

Melbourne’s waterfront came to a virtual standstill on Friday. Cranes were left idle at the country’s largest port as workers walked off their jobs to rally at Webb Dock – the scene of a developing confrontation between a union-busting multinational and the Maritime Union of Australia.

This is a crucial test of strength for our movement.

Maritime workers, community members, and their many union supporters have been picketing Webb Dock East for the past two weeks. Not a single container has moved in or out of the terminal in that time, despite a Supreme Court injunction against the MUA.

The company is International Container Terminal Services Incorporated (ICTSI). It has grown rapidly in recent decades by expanding into war zones such as Iraq (where it runs the port of Basra), by picking up privatised assets and by vicious attacks on unions – including a three-year dispute in Portland in the US, union-busting in Madagascar and Papua New Guinea and death threats against union activists in Honduras. Billionaire owner Enrique Razon Jr recently told an international conference: “The countries with the best infrastructure in the world are dictatorships”.

In Melbourne, this notorious union-buster was handed the lease for a new container terminal by the former conservative government. The company, operating as VICT, has spent $700 million constructing the most highly automated container terminal in the country, abolishing hundreds of blue collar jobs. Management has threatened the screen-based workers who monitor the operation of the equipment: if crane rates fail to hit an arbitrary target, their jobs will be done remotely from the Philippines by workers on $15,000 per year.

Following a wage-cutting trend increasingly popular among Australian employers, VICT has struck a cut-price enterprise agreement for workers at its Melbourne terminal. It cuts the casual rate of pay by around 40 percent, abolishes penalty and overtime loadings and removes any limit on the number of hours worked. Shifts of 18 hours or more have been not uncommon.

One experienced wharfie and one younger worker organised the workforce covered by the agreement (around three dozen people – at full capacity, the terminal will reportedly employ around 100 blue collar workers). Within a few months, a big majority were signed up to the MUA. This gave the union some legal options and opened the prospect of a major dispute to improve the enterprise agreement when it comes up for renewal in late 2019.

ICTSI management responded in typical style.

The company announced an audit of the Maritime Security Identification Cards held by its workers. Twenty-two were non compliant. Only one worker got sacked, however: the senior delegate.

In the two weeks since the dispute broke out, the company has claimed that it had no option but to sack the worker. This is bullshit. As the MUA’s deputy national secretary explained to ABC radio, it’s not uncommon for wharfies to find themselves without an MSIC card. But it’s possible to get a police check and be issued with a discretionary permit. All the company has to do is withdraw its notice of termination against the delegate and give him shifts when he gets his permit back.

Until this happens, the Webb Dock picket remains around the clock, blocking containers from entering or leaving the giant facility. One ship, having been delayed for days, has already left and offloaded its cargo in Adelaide. Another has been redirected to another Melbourne dock.

ICTSI management last week mocked the picket as “fifteen people in plastic chairs ruining Victoria’s investment reputation”. Management wouldn’t have been laughing on Friday, however, as around 1,500 workers gathered in a show of defiance at the community assembly at Webb Dock. Workers across the Melbourne waterfront marched off the job to attend, despite many being threatened with the sack and potential fines. At Webb Dock, they were joined by hundreds of unionised construction workers along with members of the United Firefighters Union, the Rail Tram and Bus Union and many others.

The Webb Dock wharfies are far from the only group of workers involved in a bitter dispute. Other unions are attempting to draw a line in the sand against vicious employer attacks. Nearly 200 coal miners at Oaky North in Queensland have been locked out since July; dozens of maintenance workers at the Collie coal mine in West Australia have been out the gate since mid-June, as have 200 oil and gas workers at Esso in Gippsland.

But this dispute at Webb Dock stands out.

A solid, “nothing in/nothing out” picket line is a rarity in Australia today. Even rarer is a picket that continues as a community assembly, even after the union has been injuncted off by the Supreme Court. The threat of crippling fines is often enough to discipline even militant unions. This is obviously what ICTSI has been hoping for, throwing around figures of $100 million in damages.

It’s to the enormous credit of the unionists and community supporters at Webb Dock that the response to this, so far, has not been to back down but to escalate with the solidarity walk-offs that stopped most of the Melbourne waterfront yesterday.

John Setka, secretary of the Victorian branch of the CFMEU (the main construction union) addressed the crowd:

“If they’re shit laws, and they’re designed to never let you win, why would you play by them? … Everything we have today, every single thing we have, was won by breaking the law and taking industrial action … If we follow their laws, and abide by their laws, we will never ever win. That’s why the MUA’s going to win: you’re going to defy them. And to all the MUA members under threat of being sacked [for being at the rally], you’re to be congratulated because you’re what this country was built on.”

The picketers have many challenges to overcome. Numbers on the picket line are sometimes low – though many off shift maritime workers, retired workers, community members and unionists are making regular picket line visits. The picketers have, so far, faced no serious challenge from the police. More court injunctions will no doubt land. And there’s plenty of ground to make up on the Melbourne waterfront (as in so much of our union movement) in building the basics of worker organisation needed to sustain a serious industrial fight.

But the Webb Dock picket should be a rallying point for every unionist and supporter in Melbourne and beyond. A solid picket, backed by more than 1,000 striking workers on a solidarity rally, is a sight for sore eyes. It’s a sharp reminder of how our workplace rights have always been fought for, won and defended. The Webb Dock picketers deserve the active support of every worker.

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Support the Webb Dock community assembly: 78 Webb Dock Drive, Port Melbourne