A STEVEDORING company chaired by Chris Corrigan has locked out hundreds of wharfies and helicoptered in non-union labour over union pickets to unload ships, in an escalating dispute that presents Bill Shorten with his first challenge as Julia Gillard’s new Workplace Relations Minister.
POAGS, a supplier of stevedoring logistics and port management services, has locked out 320 workers at Fremantle and Bunbury in Western Australia and Port Kembla in NSW after claiming bans imposed by the Maritime Union of Australia had rendered parts of its business unviable.
In a key development last night, the union’s assistant national secretary, Warren Smith, said the company told him late yesterday the workers at Fremantle and Bunbury would remain locked out even if they lifted their bans.
Mr Smith said the company warned that the employees would not be let back through the gates until a national agreement was reached. “They’re doing an Alan Joyce on us,” he said, referring to the airline chief executive’s grounding of the Qantas fleet and threat to lock out workers in October.
Management staff unloaded at least two vessels at Port Kembla after being flown by helicopter over a picket line set up by MUA members.
Union officials sought to blame the escalating dispute on Mr Corrigan, the POAGS chairman and former Patrick chief who took on the MUA during the bitter 1998 waterfront dispute. “It is like Chris Corrigan is the Grinch, who cannot help himself but ruin Christmas for wharfies,” said the union’s assistant West Australian secretary Will Tracey.
Mr Shorten refused to comment last night, claiming it was inappropriate for him to talk about the dispute as Chris Evans remained Workplace Relations Minister until a swearing-in ceremony of new ministers today. This is despite Mr Shorten giving interviews yesterday when he spoke about a range of workplace relations issues.
A spokesman for Senator Evans said last night the government was concerned by the “apparent breakdown in negotiations and the tactics that are reportedly being employed”.
“Nothing is achieved in our modern workplace relations system by engaging in adversarial behaviour,” Senator Evans’s spokesman said.
“The government urges both parties to negotiate in good faith and, if necessary, seek the assistance of Fair Work Australia rather than escalating the issue.”
POAGS managing director Don Smithwick said earlier yesterday the union had imposed indefinite bans at Fremantle and Bunbury and union members at the two ports would remain locked out until the industrial action was lifted.
The bans at Port Kembla are due to end this morning.
The company was also using management labour at Bunbury and has contracted out work at Fremantle to Patrick stevedores, Mr Corrigan’s former company.
Mr Smithwick said the indefinite bans had made the businesses at Fremantle and Bunbury “unviable”.
“Given the nature of the bans and limitations the MUA has imposed at our Bunbury and Fremantle sites, POAGS will not be able to effectively and safely operate in those ports until all bans and limitations are lifted,” he said. “Employees have been advised . . . we will not be operating in Fremantle or Bunbury and are therefore unable to provide work until either removal of the bans and limitations or the reaching of an agreement on the terms and conditions of a new enterprise agreement.”
Mr Smithwick said the union action, which included a recent round of strikes at different ports, was ” totally unjustified and have stalled what had been productive negotiations” over a new enterprise agreement.
POAGS, which had offered annual pay rises of 4 per cent over three years, claims the union’s bid for better pay and conditions, including higher superannuation, represented an average 29 per cent increase over the life of the proposed deal.
Mr Smith said the “scab workers” helicoptered in to Port Kembla were given a 20-minute induction before starting a 12-hour shift, endangering themselves and other workers. A POAGS spokesman said the workers were adequately inducted and trained.
The union’s southern NSW branch secretary, Garry Keane, said: “Rather than bargaining in good faith, POAGS is declaring war on its workforce and, in the process, recklessly endangering safety on the waterfront.”
Mr Smith said the union was pursuing average 5 per cent pay rises and additional superannuation at most ports. While parity was being sought at two ports, he said awarding the union claim around a new grading structure would not have the financial impact asserted by the company.
Union officials said the company had unsuccessfully applied to Fair Work Australia to end the bans, which were legal and supported by the workforce.
South Coast Labor Council secretary Arthur Rorris said the company’s decision to fly in workers at Port Kembla was a “gutless” attempt to avoid coming face-to-face with hard-working employees who just wanted a safer work place and equal pay.
Mr Tracey said: “We’re still hoping for an outcome. . . but that’s looking less and less likely.”
Additional reporting: Mitchell Nadin