EXPLAINER: Why Australia's longshoremen companies are fighting the Maritime Union

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It’s street-fightin’ time again on the Australian waterfront. Every three years each of the stevedore companies enter into a protracted and bitter dispute with the local longshoremen’s representative body, the Maritime Union of Australia.

And that’s because Australian law gives the right to workers to join together to force their employer to bargain for collective employment rights. Employers that refuse to bargain for an “enterprise agreement” (a collective employment contract) will quickly find that their workers will begin industrial action - bans on overtime, short rolling work stoppages, strikes and so on.

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Employers that do enter into bargaining can also find themselves subject to industrial action because Australian law both recognises, and protects, the rights of workers to strike in pursuit of closing a collective employment contract.

When employees want to bargain for a collective enterprise agreement, then they usually nominate an appropriate union to bargain for them. The Maritime Union of Australia is the main waterfront union. It’s part of a bigger union called “the CFMMEU”, which covers construction, forestry, mining, maritime and energy.

Negotiating an Enterprise Agreement on the Australian waterfront has historically proven to be fraught with difficulties involving at least some industrial action as described above. An enterprise agreement will normally run for three years. A union will normally seek approval from the workforce to negotiate a new enterprise agreement when the end of the life of an existing enterprise agreement is in sight. As industrial action can only legally be taken during negotiations for an enterprise agreement there is a three-year cycle of strikes on the Australian waterfront.

And that’s what’s happening right now to two of the container terminal stevedores, Hutchison and DPW Australia. Both corporate groups are at the end of their enterprise agreements and are in negotiations with the Maritime Union.

Between them, DPW Australia and Hutchison account for about 50 percent of the total box-throughput across the Australian wharves.

However, industrial action at DPW Australia is much more significant than at Hutchison because the former has about a 44.4 percent share of the 5.1 million container lifts (which equates to about 8.0 million twenty-foot equivalent units) that take place in Australia. Hutchison, a somewhat new entrant, only has a 5.7 percent share, according to the local competition regulator.

Enterprise-scale industrial disputation on the Australian waterfront is seldom resolved smoothly or quickly. Expect these disputes to be rocky and to last for some time.

Further reading:

Industrial unrest spreads to Australia’s largest stevedore

War on the wharves – Aussie longshoremen’s dispute worsens

Striking longshoremen cause chaos at Australian box terminals

Wharfies fired up over alleged threat to income protection benefits