Unions a port in a storm of trampled workers’ rights
AS YOU turn the corner into Peregrine Drive at Port of Brisbane, the background noise of giant straddle cranes and heavy transports gives way, almost incongruously, to a more human hum.
At the gate to Hutchison’s berth 11 cargo terminal, where normally there would be little more than a security guard watching over trucks as they grind up and down the bitumen, flags and pennants wave amid a mini jamboree of marquees and tents.
As the sun comes up on this otherwise unremarkable Monday morning, the remains of an overnight fire in an old oil drum puff acrid smoke into the air, mingling with the smell of frying onions and bacon and the steam coming from countless coffee cups. Hundreds of unionists and supporters have already gathered; many of them have been here overnight, huddled around the fire or dossing down in sleeping bags.
Port of Brisbane hasn’t seen anything like it since the bitter maritime dispute of 1998 and, like that epic struggle, the men and women here today will not back down.
As Maritime Union of Australia state secretary Bob Carnegie puts it: “We’ve paralysed this part of the port, and we’ll last this out one day longer than they will.”
“They” are Hutchison Ports Australia, which last week sacked more than 40 per cent of its workforce in Sydney and Brisbane.
Workers were notified late at night with a text message telling them their services were no longer required and advising them to check their email.
Even in the hard-edge industrial relations environment that is the Australian waterfront, firing close to 100 people via text message is inflammatory in the extreme.
One of the casualties of the
Hutchison purge is Hannah Matthewson, who was woken at about midnight by a flurry of phone calls from colleagues urging her to check her messages.
The veterinary nurse-turned-wharfie then learned that her father and sister – employed by Hutchison in Sydney – had also been dismissed.
Her whole “panel”, or work gang, in Brisbane was made redundant.
Matthewson and her workmates maintain Hutchison told them some weeks ago the company was struggling and there would be redundancies.
Not good news, but these things do happen.
What has stoked the anger though is their contention that the company reneged on a pledge to consult with workers through an interview process.
“All we want them to do is negotiate in good faith,” she says.
“If they had gone through with the consultation process none of this would have happened.”
“I don’t think,” she adds as she looks around at the hundreds of men and women making up the picket, “that they realised how big this was going to be.”
For the Hutchison workers – ordinary people like you and me with partners, families and mortgages – it is as much about respect and basic decency; about not treating your workforce like an overstocked cow paddock that needs to be culled.
The Hutchison workers’ rage was further fuelled by comments from Federal Employment Minister Eric Abetz, who lowered the compassion and decency bar to footpath level by suggesting the Hutchison tactics could be viewed as “an appropriate methodology”.
One irony in this sort of heavy-handed corporate thuggery is that it serves to generate public sympathy and support for the MUA a union which, over the years, has earned a fairly well-deserved reputation for being one of Australia’s most militant. Right now though the MUA stands united with unionists from across the spectrum.
At Port of Brisbane this early Monday morning the wharfies are there alongside the likes of the CFMEU, the transport workers, the ETU, the nurses and a host of others.
The solidarity and camaraderie on display, the spontaneous support of sympathisers, is inspiring.
It is a simple and peaceful recognition that without the power of a union – without a united front – Australian workers risk a constant erosion of hard-fought working conditions and the loss of job security.
The other irony at play on the Brisbane waterfront right now is that the Hutchison sackings came just two days after the Productivity Commission delivered its draft report on workplace relations.
The report concluded that: “Contrary to perceptions, Australia’s labour market performance and flexibility is relatively good by global standards, and many of the concerns that pervaded historical arrangements have now abated. Strike activity is low, wages are responsive to economic downturns and there are multiple forms of employment arrangements that offer employees and employers flexible options for working.”
So when you see news reports of hundreds of workers standing shoulder to shoulder and picketing injustice, don’t dismiss them as bolshie, leftist or any other pejorative term that comes to mind.
Think of them instead as people standing up for each other and demanding nothing more than to be treated with dignity.
As for “militant”, well, ask yourself if you were in a similar situation who would you want fighting in your corner?
I’d choose militant over meek any day.