(Image: Adobe)

“I cannot have Australians who need what’s on those ships being held on those ships — 40 of them out there,” Scott Morrison told the Canberra press gallery on Tuesday. Then he added: “You can go down to Port Botany or down to Kurnell and have a look out there and you can see them lining up.” 

You know that line about how if someone says it’s raining and someone says it’s not, it’s not journalism to report them both — you should stick your head out the window to see if it’s raining? 

Well if anyone bothered to stick their head out of the window in Botany or Kurnell they wouldn’t see ships lined up. But let’s not let facts get in the way of a convenient prime-ministerial spray: militant unions, Labor, extortion and so on. It’s been a long time since a Liberal leader has had a union head to kick, so the opportunity is not to be missed.

Anyone who has been around for a while knows to take claims by both sides during a waterfront dispute with a cuppa tea, a Bex and a good lie down. A grain of salt isn’t nearly enough. And when politicians pile on, a stiff drink doesn’t go astray. 

Industrial disputes have become so rare that expertise in reporting them has atrophied.

There are only a couple of unions left that might be called “militant” or “strong”, depending on your point of view. 

Aside from the lack of committed membership, their ability to conduct industrial campaigns has been severely curtailed over the past three decades. This makes the stoush between the Maritime Union of Australia and port operator Patrick almost a novelty for the broader community — and nostalgia for those embroiled in the 1998 waterfront crisis. 

The casual observer of general media might think there are 40 ships lined up at Australian ports, the dispute is about a pay grab, the wharfies are on strike and the country is being brought to its knees with already-weakened supply chains breaking.

Someone not bothered with facts might even think all those ships are off Port Botany and the country was “being held to ransom”. As Patrick’s media release shows, courtesy of a map, the ships delayed by various MUA go-slow tactics are spread from the middle of the Indian Ocean to north of Indonesia to New Zealand.

According to Patrick, they’re proceeding slowly to avoid queueing at Australian ports.

(Image: Patrick)

The dispute isn’t really about pay. Yes, the MUA started negotiations with a claim for 6% pay rises each year for four years. But it has since accepted a 2.5% rise from another stevedoring operator and has offered to roll over the old EBA that expired in June with a 2.5% rise. 

The 6% was never going to happen and everyone playing the game knew it.

On the other side, Patrick started negotiations wanting to scrap 50 pages of existing conditions, as highlighted by a union media release. Most importantly, it wants to take full control of rostering away from the union.

Scrapping all the very generous conditions of the old EBA was never going to happen either and everyone knew that too.

The Patrick media release plays up the high pay enjoyed by wharfies. The MUA media release points to Patrick’s owner, Qube, handing out $10 million in bonuses to those at the top after picking up $19 million in JobKeeper payments… So it goes. 

Is the union holding Australia to ransom, practising extortion, as Morrison alleges? Patrick is but one of three major stevedores operating here. Goods are still moving in and out of Australia. 

The union, having won extremely good conditions and wages by playing tough, is playing hard to keep them. Patrick is playing hard to improve its efficiency and profitability. 

You don’t want to believe everything you hear about it. 

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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