After 102 days of bitter struggle, Hutchison port workers in Brisbane and Sydney, members of the Maritime Union of Australia, voted on 16 November to rescind their previous Enterprise Bargaining Agreement and to vote in another EBA for the next three years.
The dispute started on 6 August, when 97 workers, about half the workforce, were sacked overnight by text message and email. The sacked workers ran a 24/7 protest line at the Brisbane and Sydney terminals, with the support of the workers not sacked, who were called in for minimal working hours but handled very little traffic.
In the eventual deal, the job losses have been reduced and MUA members who accept the Voluntary Separation Package will receive no less than the equivalent of 26 weeks’ pay. Since no worker at Hutchison has been there for as much as three years, without the deal redundancy payments would have been minimal.
The union has put up very strong fences around the use of casuals and how they must be sourced, and made sure the new EBA cannot be used by Hutchison to undercut its competitors and help “level down” conditions on the wharves.
MUA Queensland branch secretary Bob Carnegie said: “My heart feels heavy with the loss of jobs, but my conscience is clear, knowing that the rank and file delegates and the officials left no stone unturned in our battle to get the best possible outcome in a very difficult situation”.
The dispute suffered from loss of momentum after it was pushed into a war of attrition, with the protests at the gates hanging on week after week to see what would come of court proceedings or promises from Hutchison to negotiate.
Hutchison bosses were evidently willing to keep the terminals barely “ticking over” for a long time, despite the big losses that must have brought them on their hundreds of millions of dollars of fixed-capital investment in the cranes and other equipment at the terminals. Throughput in Brisbane is currently running at a tiny 20,000 teu per year. Hutchison have stalled on releasing financial facts, but our best calculation is that to make the investment profitable, Hutchison would have to do something like 300,000 teu.
Hutchison, the world’s biggest container-terminal operator, surely have plans in mind for the future of this, their first foothold in Australia, and the aim of the sackings would have been to clear the ground for those plans.
The union was not able to escape some losses, but remains standing, and capable of fighting the next round.