Dock workers threatened with lock-out as strikes hit Melbourne waterfront

Excerpt from: The Age | By: Nick Toscano | April 20, 2016

Australia’s largest port operator has threatened to lock out its entire workforce nationwide for the first time since the infamous 1998 waterfront dispute and just months before a federal election.
Hundreds of wharf workers at Patrick Stevedores terminals have gone on strike in recent weeks, with a potentially damaging 48-hour staff walkout imminent at the country’s busiest container port in Melbourne.

Escalating a year-long battle over pay and conditions, the strike is expected to land a heavy blow to the company’s operations at East Swanson Dock between 7am on Thursday and 7am on Saturday.

Patrick has announced it will put a proposed workplace agreement directly to a vote of employees, but warns it could move to lock out the heavily unionised 850-person workforce if the ballot does not succeed.

Security guards at Port Botany Patrick terminal 1998 Photo: Dean Sewell

Security guards at Port Botany Patrick terminal 1998 Photo: Dean Sewell

Senior Patrick executive Alex Badenoch said the company had deliberately avoided lock-out powers so far, but would consider taking the “dramatic step” if a deadlock remains. “There is no doubt our options are narrowing and if this vote fails we will continue to look at how we can bring these negotiations to a close as quickly as possible,” she said. “The remaining options include going to another vote, a consent arbitration process if the union agrees, but it also includes a lock-out.”

The possibility of a lockout – which increases the company’s chances of having the Fair Work Commission arbitrate the dispute – revives memories of the Howard-era waterfront crisis, when Patrick shut out 1400 workers and replaced them with non-union labour.

Maritime Union of Australia deputy secretary Will Tracey said balloting the workforce was a sign of desperation that was likely to prove fruitless for Patrick. “As an organisation that is based on democracy, we welcome the vote, which will only endorse what the union has been telling Patrick throughout the year,” he said. “The membership are willing to fight for a fair [enterprise agreement] even with the looming threats of lock-outs.

Patrick’s proposed four-year pay deal would provide a 1 per cent pay rise in the first year, 2.5 per cent in the second and 2.75 per cent annual for the remaining two years. The company said it had originally been prepared to provide 3 per cent in the first year, but slashed that offer in the wake of continuing strike action.

The maritime union said it was demanding better conditions that could protect existing jobs against the threat of automation on the waterfront. Ms Badenoch said the union’s demands for workers at Sydney’s Port Botany – including for 32-hour weeks to be paid at a full-time rate – were “out of step with reality” and were the main cause of the deadlock.

She said the union-led industrial action had cost Patrick “multiple millions of dollars” and at least 14 days in lost productivity. The company’s four port terminals handle almost 45 per cent of all container cargo in Australia.

It’s been very damaging for our business and damaging for Australia’s reputation,” Ms Badenoch said. “We are not taking this issue lightly.