MUA should defy effort by Patrick bosses and the Liberals to ban strikes

Scott Morrison has threatened wharfies at Patrick Terminals with federal government intervention for daring to request a pay rise “in the middle of a COVID-19 recession” accusing them of “a campaign of extortion against the Australian people”. His comments repeated hysterical and dishonest claims from Patrick’s media campaign against the union.

Morrison has claimed that “we’re all in it together” to protect jobs and tackle the pandemic. But his extraordinary attack showed what he really means—that workers must accept cuts and sacrifices to help restore bosses’ profits.

Workers at Patrick are all members of the Maritime Union of Australia. Their Enterprise Agreement (EA) expired in June. After the pandemic began, the union offered Patrick a rollover of their existing agreement for one year with a 2.5 per cent pay rise.

Instead in July Patrick offered a miserable 1.5 per cent annual pay increase locked in for four years that would barely keep pace with inflation. Patrick also proposed slashing 50 pages of conditions from the EA—clauses that govern rosters, hours of work, breaks during and between shifts to ensure safety, family-friendly provisions, rights to training, and limits on casualisation.

Their greed and arrogance forced wharfies to sacrifice pay by going on strike to defend hard won conditions. But under the Fair Work Act the MUA even faces bans on strike action during the period of EA negotiations, where it is supposedly protected.

Patrick is notorious for putting profits ahead of workers’ safety and job security. The previous Patrick EA took two years to complete.

Patrick is also infamous for conspiring with government. In 1998 Patrick locked out its entire unionised workforce and attempted to replace them with a scab workforce of ex-military mercenaries secretly trained in Dubai, all with the support of Liberal Prime Minister John Howard.

In August, after months of negotiations, workers at Patrick were balloted for protected industrial action. The union staged “a single 4-hour stoppage”, according to the MUA Sydney branch, “along with bans on working excessive hours.”

The MUA then provided Patrick with several weeks’ notice that workers would strike for one day in October in Sydney and Brisbane. The response from Patrick was hysterical.

Banning strike action

Patrick immediately applied to the Fair Work Commission to ban all industrial action and launched a media campaign slandering the union.

Patrick claimed there was a backlog of 40 container ships sitting off the Sydney coast unable to be serviced at Port Botany which would take months to clear. But the actual backlog of ships was two and both were quickly cleared. The Patrick website confirmed to its customers that there were only minimal delays.

Patrick also claimed vital medical supplies were being delayed, some required for COVID-19 treatment. The claim was repeated by Health Minister Greg Hunt. Wharfies at Port Botany asked Patrick to identify any containers carrying medical supplies so they could be prioritised. The company was finally forced to admit that medical supplies had not been affected, after industry group Medicines Australia said no delays had been reported to the Therapeutic Goods Administration.

The company should have been punished after its lies were exposed, and its effort to use the law to stop legitimate industrial action defied. But instead union officials retreated.

In September, workers had the chance to take protected industrial action at the same time at Patrick, Hutchison, and DP World terminals at Brisbane, Fremantle, Sydney, and Melbourne. Their protected action ballots included a motion agreeing not to work any sub-contracted ships.

This was an important step forward. Coordinated industrial action between workplaces has not been openly organised for decades on the wharves.

A common tactic of bosses during EA negotiations is to sub-contract the loading and unloading of ships to other companies. This has repeatedly allowed them to circumvent industrial action and defeat union campaigns to defend wages and conditions.

The MUA first called off industrial action at DP World, after the company ran to Fair Work for orders to terminate the union’s right to take strike action, fearing this would give Fair Work the final decision on the EA. The union accepted a 2.35 per cent pay rise.

Then they agreed to suspend all industrial action at Patrick, in the face of the company and the Liberal government’s moves to outlaw it through the Fair Work Commission. This was a missed opportunity to push back against restrictions on the right to strike.

A full hearing on the attempt to remove the right to industrial action at Patrick will begin on 26 October.

The anti-union rhetoric from Morrison against workers at Patrick is a taste of what is to come. Morrison is using COVID as an excuse to introduce new anti-worker laws, with draft legislation to be released in late October. It is going to take action in defiance of the law to defend workers’ rights.

By Michael Douglas

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