Qube wharfies hold their ground

A protracted dispute at Qube Ports Melbourne is drawing to a close. For two years, workers have been negotiating with the bulk and general stevedoring company for a new enterprise agreement. An in-principle agreement was endorsed by members of the Maritime Union of Australia at a meeting at Appleton Dock in late April.

The new agreement provides a 9.5 percent pay rise over three years. It also imposes restrictions on the use of gruelling 12-hour night shifts. Workers will no longer be compelled to work more than two consecutive such shifts. The agreement provides for a minimum 32-hour rest period following any two consecutive shifts. However, it allows workers to work up to four consecutive 12-hour night shifts if they volunteer to do so.

According to the in-principle agreement, workers will no longer be required to travel to Geelong to work. A $500 sign-on bonus also forms part of the agreement.

It took significant pressure to bring Qube to the negotiating table, including six days of rolling strikes over a 25-day period starting in March. Workers also imposed bans on shift extensions and engaged in work-to-rule activities.

A community protest was established outside the gates of Webb Dock West. Workers had a limited capacity to set up a hard picket at the site because the massive multi-user terminal has many entrances. Even if they had picketed with the help of reinforcements, Qube had contingency plans. The company resorted to flying in dozens of scabs via helicopter.

Negotiations were vicious, with Qube raising the prospect of sacking one of the union delegates. The company also threatened to terminate the existing agreement, which would have forced the workforce back onto the award and resulted in a 59 percent wage cut. Management made it clear that they had a replacement workforce on stand-by and were willing to lock out existing workers. They also threatened to “flood” the workforce with casuals, which would have significantly diluted the earnings of the existing workforce.

The majority of Qube Ports workers are casual. Of a workforce of 145, only 23 are permanent. One of the most important outcomes of the enterprise agreement campaign was a jump in union density; up from 60 to 93 percent in just a few months.

The challenge now for the union will be to build on the success of the industrial action. The next agreement at Qube will need to go further and secure demands that improve conditions related to hours of work while maintaining the decent wages that have been fought for.