A win on the docks in Sydney

A two-month campaign by wharfies at the DP World Port Botany terminal in Sydney has ended with a victory: 15 new permanent jobs. The workers’ campaign included a golf day held on 10 May, as reported previously in Red Flag. The day before it was scheduled to occur, casual workers’ participation in the social day was deemed by the Fair Work Commission to be unlawful industrial action. Nonetheless, around 100 casual wharfies took long sips from tall glasses of Fair Work defiance as they enjoyed a few holes at Botany Golf Club.  

That same afternoon, wharfies on the evening shift discovered that the cables holding up the large banks of lights on towers throughout the terminal were rusted through. This imminent threat to safety quickly resulted in the closure of one third of the terminal, throwing shipping and trucking movements into chaos.

The next day, DP World’s Port Botany terminal general manager, Bastiaan Hokke, addressed the workforce and gave a commitment that no warning letters would be issued to golf day attendees. He also promised that a labour review to consider an increase in permanent jobs would begin within days. So far, not a single person has been disciplined for taking part in the golf day.

On 6 June, a two-hour mass meeting (known as a yard meeting on the waterfront) was held, at which an offer was put to the workforce for endorsement. The offer included the creation of seven new maintenance jobs (four mechanical fitters and three trades assistants) and eight upgrades from the semi-permanent variable salary employee (VSE) category to the permanent fixed salary employee (FSE) on the 35-hour week roster.

However, several caveats were introduced that had not been aired prior to the yard meeting. These included: changes to the existing order of pick between gangs on the two main operations rosters – the older, established 36-hour week roster and the newer 35-hour week roster; and that all future VSEs shifting to the FSE category would be placed on the 35-hour week roster as required by management. This change opens up the potential for “grandfathering” (phasing out) the 36-hour week roster. This move was seen as another attempt by management to divide the workforce.

A heated discussion ensued. Many were incensed that the job offers that had been wrung from management were bundled into a package along with changes sprung on union members. This was seen as the company trying to give with one hand and take with the other.

The offer was endorsed by the union official and the elected site committee on the basis that it was the best we could get. However, during discussion about the vote, some argued to reject the offer. One worker spoke from the floor: “We’ve got them [the company] on the back foot, our golf day had 96 percent support – why would we accept this? Let’s have another golf day. No – a golf week!” After the debate, a large majority voted to knock back the offer and push for more. 

The DPW workers were encouraged by the four-hour stop work and defiant rally held by maritime and construction workers outside the Fair Work Commission building in East Sydney the week before. This highlights the importance of having an engaged rank and file, concerned with pay, conditions and the outcomes of disputes.

Two days after the yard meeting, Hokke again addressed the workforce and, in flagrant disregard of the decision from that meeting, spoke of implementing all parts of the package previously put to the meeting. On 12 and 13 June the workforce voted across three shifts to reinstate the previous industrial campaign demands. 

On 14 June, the company backed down. A total of 16 permanent jobs are to be granted (the original 15 jobs plus one extra “backfill” position), with none of the changes that had been announced as part of the earlier package.

There is an important lesson to come from this: even in Australia’s anti-union industrial climate, when workers want to fight they can fight, and they can win.