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Hutchison Ports Dispute Enters its Fourth Week

The ongoing dispute between Hutchison Ports Australia and the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) has entered its fourth week. The 97 dockworkers, sacked by text message and email on August 6, still remain locked out.

Sean Robertson

September 1, 2015
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Photo: Hutchinson Ports – Stop Union Busting facebook page

However, as part of an agreement to re-enter discussions with the MUA, Hutchison Ports has agreed to continue to pay the sacked workers their base pay for at least another six weeks.

As this dispute approaches its second month, it is becoming increasingly clear that while negotiations between Hutchison and the MUA may be slowly moving forward, at the industrial level the fight to reinstate all 97 sacked dock workers has suffered a real setback.

After initially refusing to meet with MUA leaders during the first days of the dispute, management from Hutchison Ports Australia have since held a number of meetings with MUA leaders. The recent progress is in part due to two factors: 1) the company’s international leadership has now stepped in to take charge of this dispute, and 2) protests by the MUA and other unionists that have targeted Hutchison’s telecommunications subsidiary, Vodafone Australia.

Mark Jack, one of the company’s Executive Directors and the Managing Director for South East Asia and Australia, arrived in Australia on August 26 to take charge of negotiations with the MUA. The arrival of Jack in Sydney has sidelined the initial intransigence of local management.

August 26 also saw MUA members, construction workers and other unionists hold small but spirited protests outside Vodafone retail outlets in Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne. This new step in the campaign against Hutchison has targeted the conglomerate’s 50 percent stake in Vodafone Australia, the country’s third largest mobile telecommunications provider, and its annual revenue of AU$4 billion. Senior Hutchison executives have expressed alarm at the union’s targeting of the company’s retail operations.

The various meetings that have been held at the Fair Work Commission (FWC – Australia’s industrial commission) have finally started to bear fruit. On August 28, FWC Deputy President Anna Booth released a statement, which outlined an initial deal that Hutchison and the MUA have reached. First, both parties have agreed to a six-week negotiation process. During these six weeks, outstanding issues are to be conciliated or, if necessary, arbitrated at the Fair Work Commission. Second, the 97 sacked workers are to continue to receive their base pay until October 14 or later. Third, the proceedings in the Federal Court that the MUA brought against Hutchison—due to start on September 1—have been deferred. As explained in a previous Left Voice article , a judge ruled on August 14 that there was enough “prima facie” evidence to suggest that, in sacking the 97 dock workers, Hutchison has potentially contravened the Fair Work Act. If this case was to go ahead and the company was found guilty, it would have to pay multi-million dollar fines.

Legally, the company may now be off the hook. However, the MUA might not be so fortunate. The Fair Work Ombudsman has launched an investigation into the role of the union in the protests outside the Hutchison Ports terminals. From August 7 until August 14, the “community assemblies” were stopping all trucks from entering and exiting the terminals in defiance of Fair Work Commission return to work orders issued on August 7 and 10. The Fair Work Ombudsman has the power to hit the MUA with multi-million dollar fines, which then open up the possibility of legal claims for damages.

While negotiations slowly move forward, the industrial campaign has suffered a real setback. The community assemblies are still continuing, but these protests have since August 14 taken on a very different character. Trucks are no longer being stopped from entering and exiting the terminals, and the number of people attending these protests has dropped away significantly.

Much of this can be attributed to the confusion caused (perhaps deliberately) by MUA leaders on August 13 and 14. As reported previously in Left Voice , MUA National Secretary Paddy Crumlin told the Sydney community assembly on August 13 that the judge was “going to make an order that all Hutchinson workers will be reinstated until our court case is heard”. MUA leaders then directed MUA members to return to work the next day. But the judge had ordered no such thing, which the 97 sacked workers found out the hard way on August 14. The elation of the previous day soon turned to confusion and demoralization.

Whether this was a conscious plan to derail and neuter effective, well-supported community assemblies; or a confused and excited but incorrect reading of a court order; there can be no doubt about the outcome. The vibrant protests outside the Hutchison terminals are now significantly smaller and they are no longer blockading the terminals. The only upside for MUA leaders is that these ineffectual protests no longer run the risk of the union being fined by the Fair Work Ombudsman for taking “illegal” industrial action.

This winding down of the industrial campaign should come as no surprise to MUA members. The union leadership around National Secretary Paddy Crumlin has made it clear that their aim is not to save the jobs of all 97 sacked workers, but instead to be part of a negotiation process that saves some jobs but not others.

Hutchison Ports Australia announced on August 27 that it had incurred a loss of $87 million in 2014, that it “desperately needed to scale down its workforce to continue Australian operations”, and was “still prepared to engage in a dialogue about the redundancy program”. That same day, Paddy Crumlin was rubbing shoulders with big business leaders and addressing the National Reform Summit, an event hosted by the conservative newspapers The Australian and the Australian Financial Review. The next day, Crumlin responded to the Hutchison statement by saying that with a “mature and normal process of consultation and negotiation,” he was certain that “a solution can be found that . . . deals with the difficult commercial reality the company is facing”.

Such statements are not a one-off. An MUA statement published on July 28, over a week before the sackings, makes this crystal clear: this statement says that the MUA was prepared to accept job cuts if the company could justify them. MUA Assistant National Secretary and Communist Party of Australia national leader Warren Smith went on to say, “If [the company are] genuine, we are prepared to come back with a range of creative solutions to get through whatever difficult times the company is confronting”.

Unfortunately for the 97 sacked dock workers, waging an industrial battle to save all of their jobs will not be one of the “creative solutions” that the MUA leadership around Paddy Crumlin is willing to entertain.

One hundred years ago, 10,000 engineering workers in Glasgow, Scotland took unofficial strike action in their fight for a wage increase. The leaders of this movement, the Clyde Workers’ Committee, coined the now famous phrase: “We will support the officials just so long as they rightly represent the workers, but will act independently immediately they misrepresent them.” If all of the 97 sacked Hutchison dock workers are to win reinstatement, they will need to take this motto to heart – fight alongside our union leaders when they fight, but be prepared to fight without them when necessary.

There is a Facebook page that readers can join to show their support for the sacked wharfies:
Hutchison Ports – Stop union busting (English content only).

The MUA has already received dozens of messages of international solidarity. Please email all messages to:

MUA Queensland Branch – [email protected]
MUA Sydney Branch – [email protected]
MUA National Office – [email protected]

With a copy to:
[email protected]
All Spanish-language sent to this address will be translated into English and forwarded on to the MUA.

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