Mass picket shuts down Webb Dock—and shows the need to defy the law

For three weeks in the lead up to Christmas a mass picket shut down operations at the Victoria International Container Terminal (VICT) on Melbourne’s Webb Dock. The new terminal’s bosses have tried to keep out the union and introduced an enterprise agreement undercutting industry wages by 40 per cent, getting rid of penalty and overtime loadings, and ditching limits on casualisation.

Jobs are also under threat from automation. Cranes are controlled by offsite computers, allowing management to give crane controllers an ultimatum: either meet managements’ efficiency targets, or have their jobs done remotely by workers in the Philippines earning $15,000 a year.

The MUA has been attempting to unionise the site. But in late November, management sacked the main union delegate. This was met with a 24 hour a day community picket which blocked all goods coming in or out of the terminal—putting a total freeze on the VICT operator’s profits.

Unions often use community pickets staffed by retired unionists and other supporters to get around the laws that prohibit strike action outside bargaining periods. But this time, the courts ruled that the MUA were in fact organising the unofficial picket, and issued injunctions against their officials returning to the site.

For the first time, they also issued injunctions against the CFMEU and Victorian Trades Hall for supporting and speaking at the picket too. MUA officials defied the injunctions to return to Webb Dock. Union official Will Tracey said it was “a way of escalating this that the federal and state officials come down today and defy the federal court injunctions”.

It was an important move. VICT lost $2 million in revenue, showing how union action can hit bosses’ profits. The company then agreed to keep paying the sacked union delegate, pending a court case—and the union called off the picket.

The court decision against the community picket shows that there is no easy way around the law. Unions will need to defy the law in order to win. Strike action by workers on site is the strongest weapon unions have.

Workers at VICT are still employed on a dodgy enterprise agreement that massively undercuts wages and conditions on the docks. The union aims to wait until the current enterprise agreement expires, so that workers can legally take action to demand a better agreement.

But if VICT succeeds in sacking the union delegates, the union will need to act. Illegal industrial action is needed to force the bosses’ hands.

By Jasper Bell

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