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Issue #1712      November 25, 2015

Hutchison port workers win return to work

New enterprise agreement a testament to character of Hutchison workers and a victory for common sense over anti-worker ideology

A few minutes before midnight on Thursday August 6 this year multinational port operator Hutchison Port Holdings, the biggest stevedoring company in the world, sent a text and accompanying email to 97 wharfies in Brisbane and Port Botany (Sydney) telling them they were sacked.

Showing support for the picket at Port Botany, Sydney.

On Monday November 16, 102 days after this act of bastardry, an enterprise bargaining agreement (EBA) between Hutchison and the Maritime Union of Australia was endorsed 149 votes-1. The agreement gets everyone back in the gate with no forced redundancy.

The agreement gave every worker the right to go back through the gate, or to take an extremely generous voluntary redundancy package that allowed workers to come back as casuals and return as full-time employees as work volumes increased.

The agreement is an amazing outcome in an industry sector where both government and industry invariably see unions as an unnecessary hindrance to their business and unionised workers as something companies should be rid of. This victory in this context is a testament to the character and resilience of the maritime workers and their union.

MUA national secretary Paddy Crumlin pointed out at the conclusion of the new agreement that what had begun as a “shabby, mean spirited and heartbreaking attack on an innocent workforce by Hutchison” had slowly turned into the “building of respect and proper involvement of those workers.”

Workers are “essential to the productivity and good health of any successful enterprise” he said, “and have a social and legal right to be treated with respect and decency regardless of commercial cycles.”

Mr Crumlin said he hoped the big maritime multinationals in the industry in Australia had got “a strong signal” that “they are diminished and devalued by the workplace policies of subterfuge and industrial and legal harassment of their workers as a preferred course of action.”

MUA assistant national secretary Warren Smith called the agreement “a step forward for workers” and “a victory of common sense over anti-worker ideology.” He declared it a “major victory for the MUA and all Hutchison workers” who had fought hard to win from their employer a new enterprise agreement that retained the key components of the former agreement and cemented in “the best safety clauses in the industry – in fact any industry.”

“This achievement is testament to the character of all Hutchison workers” who, he said, “remained united, determined to beat an injustice which was not acceptable in a modern workplace or society.”

Mr Smith pointed to the determination of the whole of the workforce and their supporters in Australia and internationally in getting “common sense” to prevail.

“This has been a long hard go. We have been forced into a battle with the world’s biggest stevedore and we have won the battle by returning to a mutually agreed outcome.”

The MUA achieved a fantastic agreement, at all times negotiated with the rank and file, which retains the capacity to fight on the job. The agreement actually improves working conditions and despite some detractors, mainly the ultra left, the workers all realise this agreement is a fantastic step forward.

MUA Queensland branch secretary, Bob Carnegie, paid tribute to “the rank and file, the leadership involved and thousands of supporters who stood by us during this most difficult of times” saying that in a perfect world the preferred outcome would have been no redundancies, but “times have been very grim at the Hutchison terminal in Brisbane” which is currently running at a “tiny” throughput.

Mr Carnegie said “what we have achieved is an outcome which I believe we can look anyone in the eye and say ‘We did our best’”, knowing that all rank and file delegates and officials “left no stone unturned in our battle to get the best possible outcome in a very difficult situation”.

The MUA had also put up “very strong fences around the use of casuals and how they must be sourced”, while ensuring Hutchison could not use the new enterprise agreement to undercut its competitors.

A long hard struggle in a difficult situation

Outside the Port Botany terminal on the Monday August 3, assistant national secretary Warren Smith had declared that “Hutchison ought to know the MUA is not naïve to its tactics and we are gearing up to fight for the long-haul … This is a plot to remove union delegates and activists and bring in a disposable, casual, pliable workforce...” He pointed out that Hutchison was using textbook union busting tactics.

When three days later Hutchison emailed the 97 port workers to tell them they were sacked, it told them to not even bother showing up at work to collect their belongings – Hutchison would post anything left behind out to them, along with a cheque for a final week’s pay.

This, not surprisingly, had the opposite effect on the wharfies who dug in.

Despite being confronted with security guards that Hutchison had installed overnight to block workers from entering - dismissed workers showed up at the gates at both Brisbane and Botany ports in strength. The remaining workers joined their comrades, refusing to return to work until the 97 sacked workers were reinstated and the company agreed to meaningful negotiations with the MUA that included putting the facts on the table to determine the true nature and scope of the employer’s situation.

Company arrogance

However, Hutchison immediately obtained an interim order from the Fair Work Commission directing Hutchison employees to cease all forms of industrial action. The company then announced, in all its arrogance, that it expected the MUA to “facilitate the orderly return to work and the continuation of work at terminals in Sydney and Brisbane.”

The Fair Work Commission (FWC) ruled that the employed port workers picketing outside their work places with their sacked workmates constituted a secondary boycott under the Act; the union also was not in a formal bargaining period, so not authorised to take action.

In granting its interim order against the workers the Fair Work Commission, acting in accordance with the FW Act was forced by law to ignore the fact that it was the employer who violated the existing agreement to start with, by sacking workers without discussion or negotiation.

It also ignored Hutchison’s collusion with the other port operators, to whom Hutchison had off-loaded job contracts so its plans could proceed, with the possibility of breaking the union, something which the employers all saw as a benefit.

Class leadership

The workers were not having a bar of the orders from the FWC and the orders were subsequently ignored for near on a week with pickets ensuing in both Brisbane and Sydney. This in itself is a brave and outstanding piece of class leadership seldom seen in today’s IR environment.

The MUA took Hutchison to the Federal Court on the grounds that the company’s action had breached its enterprise agreement with its workers by failing to consult adequately with respect to redundancies and by ignoring the dispute resolution clause. The MUA sought an injunction, plus penalties and damages.

The Federal Court granted an interlocutory injunction against the sackings the following Thursday (August 14) and set a full hearing of the Court for the end of August. It protected the dismissed workers’ jobs on the grounds that the company did not consult about employment terminations as the enterprise agreement required. This was never something that could be relied on into the future but it kept bread and butter on the tables of the sacked workers.

While the workers who still had their jobs returned to work after the federal Court injunction, the pickets at the Brisbane and Sydney ports remained in place, pending the full hearing. This was a tactical position by the MUA which in the end was part of the key to its success in finalising the dispute in a manner favourable to the workers.

Under the mandate of the FWC, Hutchison management agreed to hold formal talks in the FWC after it had been temporarily defeated in the Federal Court.

Meanwhile MUA supporters blitzed Employment Minister Eric Abetz with text messages “sacking” him for characterising Hutchison’s email and text sackings as an “appropriate methodology” for shedding employees.

The MUA also used the launch of a national brand campaign by Vodaphone towards the end of August by publicising the Hutchison workers’ sackings at its launch events in three capital cities. Hutchison is half owner of the telecom company.

Just prior to the full Federal Court hearing set for August 31 the MUA and Hutchison agreed to a six-week negotiation process to be overseen by the Fair Work Commission under FWC Deputy President Anna Booth. These hearing dates were extended and talks continued in and out of the FWC with the MUA negotiating committee which at all times included rank and file members.

The core condition of this negotiating process was that the sacked workers would remain on the payroll for the duration.

A multi-prong strategy

However, as central to the MUA strategy of getting Hutchison to the negotiating table and winning was the maintenance of pressure on the company “in the field” as well as “at the table”.

MUA assistant national secretary Warren Smith summed this up well, referring to the pickets, or community assemblies that were kept for the duration of the dispute outside the gates of Hutchison’s ports in both Sydney and Brisbane.

As the union moved into negotiations with Hutchison in the Fair Work Commission he pointed out that the company would never have negotiated if the assemblies had not been initiated and declared that:

“The sacked 97 workers, despite being ‘reinstated’ by Federal Court injunction, remain in limbo for the time being. They are receiving wages but are yet to get through the gate and still require moral support in this trying time. Therefore I am asking all members and supporters to continue their attendance at the two assemblies.

“The support from members, other unions and the community has been amazing up until this point and it’s important that we show our solidarity and that the MUA won’t be going anywhere until we secure an acceptable result.”

The success of the community pickets managed to attract widespread community support and often had a festive atmosphere, with concerts and barbeques a regular feature. Most importantly, the MUA was able to attract support because of its own long history of support for community struggles, as well as support for other port workers and unions within Australia and internationally.

The union also drew on its international connections in its struggle with the world’s largest port operator.

The International Transport Workers Federation (ITF), to which the MUA is affiliated and the International Dockworkers Council (IDC) provided huge international support. The capacity of workers’ organisations to target international trading vessels in 10 countries across its entire international voyage is testament to the effectiveness of maritime unions globally.

Rank and file MUA delegates from Hutchison also attended the 20th anniversary celebrations of the Liverpool dockers strike where they were able to meet face to face with international docker unions covering Hutchison employees, many of whom were actively supporting the MUA struggle.

The realisation by Hutchison management that their actions in Australia had galvanised the workers in their operations globally could only have had a very salutary effect on how they would come to regard the workers they had dismissed so off-handedly in August. This added to the fact that it was clear that the MUA would not go away. MUA Here to Stay has proved to be a highly political slogan considering the number of bosses and governments who really want the MUA to Go Away.

Unions and the ultra-left

The MUA’s victory in overturning Hutchison’s sackings is an existential win for maritime workers – it has reaffirmed that the employer must recognise the union as the workers’ representative organisation, must negotiate with the union on matters affecting the company’s employees and must stick to agreements it has made. If it doesn’t it now knows it has a highly politicised and militant workforce largely of their own creation.

Unions can be regarded as communities of workers who join together to protect and advance their rights and interests at work and in opposition to the relentless attacks by capital. Capital fears the collective power of workers and does everything to undermine it.

Hutchison tried to use targeted sackings to see how far it could go in sidelining or busting the union while ripping into the workers.

But the MUA is one of the core industry unions in Australia, a strong union with a history of militancy and internationalism among its members, positioned in a strategic sector and with a class conscious, committed leadership from delegate level up.

Despite these facts and the reality of this dispute the MUA has come under attack by ultra-leftists peddling their own barrows.

Ultra-left parties and sects on the fringes of the labour movement have the habit of informing workers that their union is betraying them because it has entered into deals. This and other misinformed notions of union sell-outs have been published by a number of Trotskyist outfits during this dispute. The results arising from the blue and the fact that the MUA rank and file delegates were key negotiators and always a major part of the decision making process ensured those forces are now treated with derision on the waterfront particularly amongst the Hutchison workers and wharfies in general. Workers have seen the lies and distortions from the SEP and Solidarity, all of whose naysaying amounted to nothing. Workers have seen the MUA, with considerable CPA and experienced class leaders, ensure that they were fully involved and take actions fundamental to a significant and historic win on the waterfront. Those workers now see clearly that the sage-like wisdom of the Trotskyist forces would have led them into oblivion and destroyed the union. The line of the ultra-left would have certainly seen the dispute crash into a huge defeat.

What the Trotskyist critics are ultimately saying is unions are not revolutionary parties, something for which they blame the union not themselves. The critics are also almost always screaming from the sidelines. They don’t represent workers just have a misguided theoretical understanding about the importance of workers. They don’t understand unions or workers it would seem. The simple notion of voluntary membership in an organisation of workers is an anathema to these people. None of the leaders of these organisations critical of the union lead workers, except down the garden path. They have never delivered outcomes for workers nor have any of their kindred organisations ever led workers in any revolutionary situation.

These organisations also refuse to recognise their errors. Their position during the dispute was clearly wrong but we are not holding our breath for retractions of articles where the union (and CPA) was proven right and the Trotskyist anti-union mantra, as expected, was wrong in practice.

The CPA recognises it is only at the political level – backed by industrial strength - that policies and programs can be implemented that address the extended priorities of working people. We however see no contradiction between our Party and militant unions, in struggle, fighting to defend their position.

While the Hutchison workers will continue to see CPA members in the direct course of their ongoing employment, we do not expect to see the hangers-on who are only about participation at workers’ struggles based upon what they can get out of it themselves. The CPA sees unions as the primary form of class organisation in Australia and recognises the need for painstaking, long and patient work in this area – we refuse to flit in and out like these critics based on nothing other than their own self-interest. It didn’t take the workers long to see that fact.

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