Striking for their lives: Qube wharfies want an end to dangerous conditions

Bound for Singapore, the cargo ship Figaro was scheduled to leave a Melbourne port on 18 March. Instead, a dockworkers’ strike left the 75,000 tonne vehicle carrier stranded; its valuable cargo floating in Port Phillip Bay for days. 

Ships such as Figaro are responsible for moving 90 percent of world trade. The workers that facilitate this trade – seafarers and stevedores – have immense industrial strength. In Melbourne, wharfies at Qube Ports are exercising this in their fight against the gruelling conditions that characterise working life on the docks. 

Backed by their union, the Maritime Union of Australia, they first walked off the job for two days in March. After imposing work bans that limited the length of shifts, they struck again on 5-9 April. The Qube wharfies are fighting for permanency, certainty and a liveable roster. 

Red Flag visited the 24-hour community picket at Webb Dock West, which was set up at the beginning of the industrial campaign. 

“One of our claims is to end 12-hour night shifts, because we know they’re dangerous and debilitating”, one of the striking workers explained. Marathon shifts are not only common; workers have no certainty about when they’ll be working. “We only find out at 4pm every day whether we have a shift or not. It’s very difficult to plan your life.” 

Days before the first strike, a Qube stevedore died of a heart attack. Workers insist that Qube’s rostering practices contributed to his early death. “I’ve worked 24 hours within the space of 36 hours. It completely wears you down”, one worker said. 

To win reasonable stretches of time away from work, the strikers are demanding that they be given a choice about working from other ports, such as Geelong. 

“Qube expects us to consider Geelong as a home port”, a worker explained. “Some people may live on the Mornington Peninsula and be expected to go to Geelong [a 140km drive] without any sort of compensation. Some of the shifts we’re allocated, we’ll only have eight hours rest between them.” 

With the eight hours starting when a shift ends, commuting to Geelong could leave some with as little as four or five hours between shifts.

Related to this is the 7-and-1 roster, in which supposedly permanent workers are assigned scattered and irregular shifts for seven weeks at a time, before getting one week off. Qube abolished this roster in 2014, leaving workers with no guaranteed time off.

The union has been bargaining with the company for two years over this enterprise agreement. “Qube has been completely belligerent”, according to one stevedore. “They’ve taken everything off the table.” The company has also added itself to the growing list of bosses attempting to terminate the enterprise agreements through the Fair Work Commission. 

If the commission supports Qube, the wharfies will be pushed back to Award conditions. According to Australasian Transport News, an industry publication, the CEO of the bosses’ association Shipping Australia admitted – while suggesting that it was a good thing – that “workers stand to lose up to 59 percent of their pay if the existing EBA is cancelled”. 

Already, Qube stevedores in Melbourne are the lowest paid in the country. “We’re simply asking to keep up”, explained one worker.

“We’ve had a pay freeze for three years. We’re only asking for 9.5 percent over the next three years. In the negotiations prior to this, there was a pay freeze for a similar length of time.” 

Meanwhile, Qube Holding, the parent company of Qube Ports, just reported a half year profit of close to $50 million. But the strikers know that Qube is feeling the pressure. A wharfie discussed the fight so far: 

“[The March strike] completely disrupted shipping lines and held up five ships – it was hugely effective. The strike we’re currently on, which is for four days – 96 hours – is costing Qube $250,000 a day … and it’s also disrupting shipping lines of other companies.”

Qube has responded to the workers’ actions by flying in, via helicopter, managers from around the country to act as scab labour.

“They’re not doing the job as effectively as us. We’re a professional workforce – we’re dealing with quite complicated pieces of machinery and some of the lifting procedures we do are quite dangerous. The last dispute, when they scabbed, they did a significant amount of damage to a ship’s crane, which cost about $450,000.”

As a sign of the union members’ willingness to dig in, their tented picket resembles a cosy lounge room, couches and chairs being set up around a TV tuned into the footy, a barbecue out front and a kitchen stocked with necessities in the back. It serves as a home away from home for the strikers. 

Visitors are warmly welcomed to the workers’ protest camp. More than 100 turned out for a solidarity lunch event on 8 April. Warren Smith, assistant national secretary of the MUA, said: “Workers at Qube want their lives back but Qube management want to keep punishing them with an unsafe roster and use of the extreme tactics of terminating the agreement”. The Qube dispute hinges on solidarity.

“We need the solidarity of all maritime workers, seafarers and waterside workers to come down and give us support, but also to be prepared to engage in industrial action with us”, one worker said.

“We also need the community to join us on the picket line, to prevent our jobs being undermined by a scab workforce. We’re a workforce of only 145 people, but the port is absolutely massive, so in order to picket it we need huge numbers. We’ll need the support of the whole union movement to win this.” 

Already the dispute has increased union membership. Many younger workers have joined during the campaign. “We’ve gone from about 85 members up to 135 out of 145.” The turnaround is impressive because Qube is a known anti-union outfit and has been trying to shut the union out of the waterfront. 

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Update:  Qube workers have ended their four day strike and talks with the company are scheduled. The Qube workers’ community protest continues at the Melbourne International Roll-on Roll-off Automotive Terminal in Kooringa Way, Port Melbourne.