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Nothing In or Out: Tugboat Crews Shut Down Melbourne Port

MUA members and supporters rallied outside the Svitzer terminal on Friday to demand an end to the lengthy negotiation process.

MUA members and supporters rallied outside the Svitzer terminal on Friday to demand an end to the lengthy negotiation process.

Last Friday at midday, MUA members at the Port of Melbourne took their first protected industrial action against tugboat operator Svitzer, in order to ramp up their fight for a new EBA. The tugboat crews are currently eighteen months into EBA negotiations, with no end in sight owing to the company’s refusal to negotiate. It is the uncertainty that has been the hardest thing about the dispute.

In early 2020 there was almost an in-principle agreement but things broke down when the company initiated 30 new clauses out of nowhere that would undermine the conditions workers had fought for and won.

Now, as a union, the workers have initiated protected action and Friday was the first 12-hour stoppage of work. 

“Without the tugs, there won’t be any vessels coming in or out of the port in the next 12 hours,” said MUA State Secretary Shane Stephens. 

Shane explained that members had been denied pay rises they were entitled to, “especially when the role they perform enables the company to earn billions of dollars in profits.”

Svitzer is owned by Maersk, the largest shipping company in the world with $7 billion profit last year. Despite this, workers are being denied their share of the booming business and left out in the cold. 

The seafaring life isn’t easy, and it’s getting harder

MUA member and Svitzer employee Jim is beyond frustrated with the lengthy and disingenuous process. 

“The claims they want are either impossible to implement, or they just undermine our conditions and try to take us back 20 years,” says Jim. He would know, too - he’s worked at sea since 1990.

Jim says the company wants to keep them on board for extended lengths of time - to live on the ship, rather than going home to their families.

“We already spend a lot of time away from our families. Here we all work 12-hour shifts on an equal-time roster. 12 hours on, 12 hours off. If you calculate that out for a whole year, it’s quite considerable. We get paid a salary, not an hourly rate. 

“Twenty five percent of my life is spent on night shift, and there’s no penalty rates to compensate for it.”

Like many Australians, Jim is feeling the pinch of wage suppression. 

“I’m happily married, four kids, a mortgage. I’ve got a good job and I earn a fair wage because I work a lot of hours, but like most Australians, I’m struggling. It’s very difficult at the moment. Cost of food, cost of fuel, all the bills keep adding up, but wages aren’t keeping up with it.”

A Target On Their Backs

Jim also suspects that employers see the MUA as something of a prize scalp to be claimed, and they each want to be the one to bring it down. 

“The MUA is held up on a pedestal sometimes because of how we use our industrial power for political and social causes. 

Image description: a banner hanging on the side of a truck, which reads "Union solidarity wins disputes."

“We fight for gender equality. We fight for Indigenous causes. We fought back against apartheid, we fought back against exporting pig iron for the war. Social conscience is part of our proud history.” 

Jim thinks that the MUA are viewed as a bastion to be knocked off.

“It’s a big risk for us. We saw it in ‘98 with the Patricks dispute: they tried to defeat us there in the hopes that it would flow on to other, less-organised places and industries.”

Looking around at the hundreds of people in attendance at the rally, Jim is full of pride.

“This is just fantastic,” he says. “It shows that people have a social conscience, it just needs to be encouraged. Governments and global companies will try to intimidate people, but they’re still going to show up and show solidarity.”

The dispute is set to continue for as long as it takes Svitzer to come back to negotiations and bargain in good faith. If they think they can outlast these staunch union members, they don’t know what kind of fight they’re in for. 

MUA, here to stay!

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