January 12, 2022

Australian Prime Minister harasses port workers over limited strikes

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison last week assured business lobbyists that the federal government was ready to step in if more strikes were called by workers at Patrick Terminals.

Speaking to the Australian Industry Group (Ai Group) on November 30, Morrison said, “We encourage the parties to this dispute to negotiate in good faith to resolve their issues. At the same time, I can assure you that the government will take action, if necessary, to protect the Australian economy from serious damage. “

Morrison’s comments have been touted as an attack on the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA), which covers ports. The union, however, has already agreed to a pitiful 2.5% annual wage increase, well below the current CPI, and has blocked any sustained union action that would threaten the operations of the shipping industry, ports and shipping. multi-billion dollar logistics.

Container cranes at Swanson Dock, Port of Melbourne (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The real target of Morrison’s comments was growing anger within the working class, which the ruling elite fear is increasingly being expressed, including through escalating strikes. The MUA, which has imposed massive job destruction for more than two decades and suppressed any fight against this continuing restructuring, shares the same concern. That’s why he isolated a series of recent waterfront conflicts and signed multiple clearance deals ending limited industrial action.

It should be noted that Morrison, while harassing port workers and threatening to intervene against them, explicitly called on the union to work with management to resolve the dispute.

The union released a statement denouncing Morrison. But he immediately pledged to execute his main demand. Asked about Channel 7 Sunrise TV program Thursday if there would be more strikes before Christmas, MUA National Secretary Paddy Crumlin replied, “No, of course not.” It is an argument for the ruling elite that the unions can be counted on to quell the growing opposition among the workers.

This is only the latest demonstration that, as an integral part of the capitalist establishment, the fundamental task of the MUA, and any other union, is to serve as an industrial police force. By launching isolated and limited strikes when workers’ unrest demands it, then seizing any pretext that arises to cancel them, the union fraudulently seeks to arise by opposing the management’s militant.

Early last month, the MUA suspended industrial action against Patrick until December 10, after the longshoreman asked the FWC to step in and end the action. In October, the union ended scheduled shutdowns in Melbourne to limit disruption after a COVID-19 outbreak forced hundreds of Patrick’s workers and other port handlers to self-isolate.

In October 2020, when the company first called for the FWC to intervene in this dispute, the union proposed a “peace deal” that included a two-year strike ban, a 2-year “increase” in wages. , 5% and the maintenance of the EI Conditions. Although the company did not agree to the deal, the MUA called off planned strikes and did not carry out any further industrial action at Patrick’s ports until May of this year.

This allowed the company to intensify its offensive. Patrick asked the FWC to end the existing EA. As well as slashing wages by more than 50%, this would allow it to do away with multi-week lists, potentially moving to a Qube-like system where workers are notified of work schedules at 4 p.m. the previous day.

While the corporate press has reacted hysterically to the strikes and work bans carried out in recent months in the country’s ports, the reality is that this industrial action has had minimal impact on the profits of Patrick or other longshoremen.

In the year ending June 2021, Patrick generated $ 679.5 million in revenue, 8.8% more than the previous year, and $ 25.6 million in profit. Its parent company, Qube Holdings, saw profits rise 14.1% year-on-year to $ 182.9 million.

Clearly referring to the 1998 waterfront dispute, Morrison said Liberal-National governments “have always been ready to take action to ensure that our ports can serve our economy to the best of their ability.” . In fact, in this founding conflict, it was MUA’s collaboration with the Howard government that proved to be a turning point, leading to the layoff of nearly half of the workforce and paving the way for decades. attacks on jobs and waterfront conditions. and throughout the working class.

Morrison’s statement is in line with growing calls from the ruling elite for sweeping changes to industrial relations law, with particular emphasis on the corporate bargaining system.

Last month, Ai Group CEO Innes Willox called for the creation of an industry code to limit what could be contained in company agreements in the maritime and port industry.

Willox’s demands for industrial relations reform have extended beyond ports to a broader program to reshape Australia’s corporate trading system into one “that stimulates improved productivity at home. enterprise level ”.

Willox said that “company agreements should not be able to affect the supply or acquisition of goods or services by a company, including with respect to the recruitment of employees, the use of labor. ‘work and outsourcing of work “.

In other words, workers should not be able to demand from their employer a written commitment beyond their own salary and basic conditions. Under Australia’s draconian industrial relations laws, which prevent strikes outside of company negotiations, this would effectively prevent workers from tackling the erosion of permanent jobs.

Labor and unions have also signaled that changes to the Fair Work Act are on the agenda ahead of next year’s federal election.

Australian Council of Trade Unions secretary Sally McManus said last week: “Our current system was designed in the last century and is no longer fit for the purpose or results that Australia needs.”

The reality is that the current system was designed by Labor and unions, and the purpose it has served so far has been to facilitate the massive suppression of jobs, wages and conditions and to prevent the development of a mass movement of the working class. against aggression.

Now unions fear that the proliferation of casual jobs, manpower and labor savings that they allowed under previous EAs threatens to exclude them completely from the bargaining process. Unions see sectoral bargaining, in which they are granted automatic coverage over entire sectors where they are not already present, an opportunity to reverse this decline.

ACTU sought to use the pandemic to map out such an arrangement. When the COVID crisis began, McManus entered into daily talks with Morrison’s industrial relations minister Christian Porter and representatives from big business. Within weeks, they suspended or changed rewards covering millions of workers, allowing employers to respond “flexibly” to the pandemic, including changing working hours and reducing overtime payments. All of this was done without a single meeting of the affected workers, let alone a vote on these sweeping changes to their terms.

At the time, McManus told employers they could “get anything you want” by working with unions. Porter described her as his “new BFF [best friend forever]. “

The unions’ goal was also stated on Sunday by Labor leader Anthony Albanese, when he presented his vision of a “government that supports Australian industry” and a country in which “unions and businesses work. together”.

The recent strikes at Australian ports and the trucking industry reflect the deep anger of the working class, which has escalated for decades but sharply accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic as workers have been forced to risk a serious illness and death along with the union-imposed wage freeze and the massive destruction of secure jobs.

One sale deal after another has been struck by the MUA, the Transport Workers Union (TWU) and all other Australian unions. While unions have declared these disputes over, key issues for workers have not been resolved. At best, companies have agreed to pay “raises” that will barely keep pace with inflation, and vehement promises that hiring and contracting out labor will not be increased beyond the caps. which enshrine current practices.

Australian workers should have no illusions. The corporate bargaining system, established by Keating’s Labor government, is utterly hostile to the working class. Its aim is to divide workers and suppress industrial action. But it cannot be “fixed” by the reforms proposed by Labor and the unions, the very forces which conceived the fair labor system as a tool of class suppression, and which now intend to sharpen it. .

Instead, workers must fight against fair labor and big business, coalition, labor and union initiatives to build an even more draconian regime, based on the promotion of their own independent class interests. .

It means a break with Labor and the unions, and a fight to build a socialist movement in the working class, starting with grassroots committees in every workplace, to lead a struggle for a workers’ government.

From this socialist perspective, ports and trucking companies, as well as banks and other large corporations, must be brought under the democratic ownership and control of workers, and operated to serve social needs rather than corporate profits.