Media lies on port dispute

“Is that the truth, or did you read it in the Herald Sun?” – asks a bumper sticker commonly seen around Melbourne.

When Rupert Murdoch’s paid-up scribes aren’t railing, usually to an audience of millions, about how their “free speech” is being undermined by political correctness, there’s nothing they like better than good old fashioned union bashing.

The dispute on Melbourne’s docks – between Victoria International Container Terminal (VICT) and its workforce, members of the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) – has provided them with a rolled-gold opportunity to practice their craft.

The facts of this dispute aren’t very complicated. VICT – owned by the giant multinational and renowned union-buster International Container Services Incorporated – is attempting to rid itself of any union presence in its new container terminal at Webb Dock.

It wants to do this because a successful organising drive by the MUA means the extreme, cut-price enterprise agreement that VICT has signed with its workers may come under threat when it comes up for renegotiation in 2019. A workforce that can negotiate with the company collectively will always get a better deal.

To put a stop to this outrage (from the company’s perspective), VICT recently sacked one of its workers. The worker, Richard Lunt, is a senior MUA delegate who was one of the driving forces behind the organising campaign.

It’s a story that every active unionist will be familiar with. If you stand up and fight for a better deal, management will be looking for any excuse to get you out the door.

It’s here that the campaign of lies begins. According to the company, Lunt was sacked because he had no current Maritime Security Identification Card (MSIC). It’s true that Lunt had no current MSIC, but neither did 21 of his co-workers. And surprisingly enough, none of them have been given the boot.

To get an MSIC, you need a letter from your employer saying why it’s necessary. Knowing that his card would expire, Lunt had, reportedly, requested such a letter from VICT management. It failed to provide him with one.

If this seems like a set-up, it’s probably because it is. Clearly, the company was looking for an excuse to get rid of Lunt, and the expired MSIC gave it one.

Lie number two from the company and the media is that Lunt was ineligible to receive an MSIC because of his criminal record. It’s true that Lunt has a conviction for assault dating back 20 years, but he would only be ineligible to receive an MSIC if this record had been added to since. It hasn’t.

Any doubt about this has been dispelled by Lunt now being granted an MSIC by federal authorities. If his sacking was about his security clearance then the resolution of this issue should be enough to end the dispute. Rehire Lunt – problem solved.

Surprise, surprise – the goal posts shifted. As reported in the Australian Financial Review on 12 December, the company won’t rehire him because “the new security clearance was conditional on him having a job”.

So he was sacked, apparently, for not having an MSIC. He now has an MSIC, but it’s not valid because, wait for it: he has no job. George Orwell eat your heart out!

Perhaps sensing that the claims about security clearance don’t hold water, the Herald Sun has since changed tack. An article on 12 December highlighted Lunt’s alleged connections to “outlaw bikie” Toby Mitchell.

In making these claims, it’s reading from a well established script – used most regularly in recent times in the attempt to smear officials of the CFMEU. In that case, alleged links between the CFMEU and Norman Meyer, the sergeant-at-arms of the Comancheros, were revealed during the Trade Union Royal Commission to be based entirely on a photo of Meyer at a CFMEU rally attended by thousands.

And if the “bikies under the bed” story about Lunt was based on anything much of substance, you would have expected him to have been refused his MSIC, which involves both a police background check and a “security assessment” conducted by ASIO.

Another howler being peddled by the Herald Sun and others is that the dispute is holding up deliveries of essential medical supplies – in particular EpiPens, which are used to treat people with severe allergic reactions. As of 14 December this lie was still being peddled, although EpiPen manufacturers have assured the Victorian government that their product comes by plane, rather than via the docks.

Also missing from the Herald Sun’s version of events is that the MUA has repeatedly said that it would let medical supplies out.

Perhaps the biggest lie, however, is that this is about VICT workers and their union “holding the community to ransom” for a single worker’s job. When you look at this dispute in a broader perspective, it’s clear the opposite is the case.

What does the Herald Sun care about the community? It’s part of News Australia Holdings – the Australian branch of the Murdoch empire – which raked in a massive $2.9 billion in revenue in 2016, and yet paid no tax.

The paper doesn’t give a shit. The future that VICT, and its “propaganda department” at the Herald Sun, is fighting for is one where big corporations can trample over the rights of workers with impunity and laugh all the way to the bank.

If VICT is allowed to get away with ridding itself of a union presence to maintain its cut-price agreement, it will have gone a long way to achieving this.

Already, other companies on the docks, such as DP World and Patricks, are looking to the VICT agreement as a model to be imposed on their own workforces. And if the conditions of dock workers, historically some of the most militant and organised workers in Australia, can be undermined in this way, what hope is there for the rest of us?

Included in the Herald Sun’s list of “goods held hostage” by the dispute are: 58 tonnes of shoes, 121 tonnes of canned tuna, 97 tonnes of peanut butter and 22 tonnes of Oreo cookies. The list convinces the reader that they, as consumers, are liable to be impacted by the dispute.

To go through Christmas without canned tuna or Oreo cookies is one thing. To go through Christmas unemployed, or in the insecure work with cut-price wages that companies like VICT expect their workers to put up with, is another.

It’s the company, backed to the hilt by the mainstream media, by undermining the working conditions fought for by Australian dock workers over generations, that is holding not just their workforce to ransom, but the rest of us.