Last month tug boat operator Svitzer dramatically escalated its attack on its workforce, moving to lock them out indefinitely at 17 ports around the country.
Svitzer has a monopoly over tug boat operations in Australia. Ports all around the country would have ground to a standstill, since ships cannot be in port without tug operators on standby.
The workforce has been on an expired agreement since 2019, when they received their last pay rise of just 1.5 per cent.
The Fair Work Commission (FWC) rushed to intervene, holding an immediate hearing.
While the Commission stopped the lockout, it also suspended all industrial action for six months, from both the company and the workforce—jointly represented by the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA), the Australian Maritime Officers Union (AMOU), and the Australian Institute of Marine and Power Engineers (AIMPE).
The whole affair was a calculated move to try and terminate workers’ ability to take industrial action completely.
Svitzer were hoping the Commission would agree to this and then arbitrate—deciding on an agreement and imposing it on the workforce.
The unions argued successfully against this outcome, and hailed the Fair Work decision as a victory. But they also mistakenly dropped all planned industrial action instead of escalating against Svitzer’s threat. Tug boats were operating in the harbour right up to the time of the planned lockout, awaiting the decision.
Svitzer was able to manipulate the anti-strike laws to their benefit, smashing the ability of the unions to take action over the Christmas period, and further dragging out the dispute.
Industrial laws ban any strike action causing “significant damage to the economy”. These laws are routinely used against workers seeking to flex their industrial muscles.
In fact the FWC ruled against Svitzer’s workforce taking 48 hour strikes across ten ports in February.
Tug boat operators were hailed as heroes in July, and again in October, after performing daring and highly skilled rescues of cargo ships that lost power at sea.
Yet the company has been able to get away with a savage attack on its workers.
One Svitzer worker at a solidarity protest in Sydney told Solidarity:
“Svitzer’s trying to casualise the workforce. They haven’t filled a vacant permanent position for 12 months—they’ve filled them with casuals or contract labour, paying them 25 per cent less per week.
“This is an industry that works 24/7, 365 days a year. Rosters with permanent employment is a necessity. They want employees to be on two hours’ notice 365 days a year.
“We don’t want two people doing the same job and one of them being paid 25 per cent less.”
Rob Campbell, another Svitzer worker and delegate, said that Svitzer was taking a “death by a thousand cuts” approach and dragging out the dispute so they could maintain a three year wage freeze, with no back pay on the table. “That’s the way they wanted it. But we’re not just going to lay down and let them smoke us.”
Svitzer are owned by Danish company Maersk, one of the biggest shipping lines in the world. Last year Maersk turned a profit of over $US22 billion.
Svitzer have never been serious about reaching agreement, but the unions have let bargaining drag on for three years.
In February the company applied to terminate the agreement altogether, threatening major cuts to wages and conditions through pushing workers back onto the award.
Employment relations minister Tony Burke has used the dispute to promote the government’s Secure Jobs, Better Pay Bill, which gives the FWC new powers to “resolve intractable disputes before it ever comes to this”.
This new Bill will allow the Commission to arbitrate agreements after just six months if a dispute is judged “intractable”.
This is terrible news for unions. It is the democratic right of workers to fight—and to withdraw their labour— in pursuit of decent working conditions. Having government appointed technocrats decide on our workplace agreements will weaken our collective power and threatens the loss of hard-won conditions.
Companies are able to drag out disputes because the industrial laws are designed to stop workers taking decisive industrial action. Labor’s new legislation does nothing to change this. As a result unions usually restrict themselves to actions such as overtime bans, go-slows or short strikes—but these take longer to get a result and allow companies to grind the workforce down.
Svitzer workers need to prepare for a powerful confrontation to build the strike action that can win.
Unions also need to mobilise against Labor’s new attack on our right to strike. Our unions still have enormous power—but we need to use it.
By Erima Dall