Automation through negotiation, not Patrick-like corporate shadiness, says Crumlin

During a dynamic global automation conference hosted by the MUA, National Secretary Paddy Crumlin and leading maritime union leaders briefed the media to bring to light a key message: Automation is a fact of life on the docks, and unions are willing to negotiate the terms of introduction of technology but the global maritime labour movement will confront automation imposed via Patrick-like "corporate shadiness".

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The Australian Financial Review carried a full report on the media briefing:

Maritime Union of Australia national secretary Paddy Crumlin has accused Patrick Ports of acting in bad faith and claims the plan to automate Port Botany in Sydney is designed to hurt the union rather than make the port more efficient.

Mr Crumlin said there would be no automation without negotiation and accused Patrick – Asciano’s ports business – of corporate shadiness. He criticised the lack of consultation in the decision to automate Port Botany and halve its 500-strong workforce.

“It looks like, smells like, tastes like union-busting,” Mr Crumlin said at a press conference in Sydney. “It’s not about [container] volume, it’s about removing the MUA from the workplace. The MUA hasn’t been around for 140 years to put up with this kind of corporate buffoonery.”

The MUA, arguably Australia’s most militant union, says it is not opposed to automation itself but is angry with Asciano for failing to flag the automation plans during 20 months of negotiations for a workplace agreement.

Asciano and the MUA remain embroiled in legal action, but the union drew a distinction between satisfaction of the law and meeting moral obligations to employees as it declared that strikes were an option in the next round of negotiations.

Mr Crumlin, who is also president of the 5.5 million-strong International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), was speaking alongside ITF dockers’ section secretary Sharon James and Ray Familathe, the vice-president, mainland, of the US International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) after a two-day strategy conference for international maritime unions to discuss automation.

“We’re going to pool our resources together,” Mr Familathe said. “We’re going to let the ship owners and terminal operators know: make your capital investments in machinery but if anybody is repairing them, if anybody is pushing the buttons, it’s going to be the dockworkers.

“The fact is they’re just trying to circumvent having to deal with the trade unions in the port . . . We’re committed to campaign with the ITF globally.”

Last July, Asciano announced the $348 million expansion and redevelopment of Port Botany, with an anticipated loss of 270 jobs when the upgrade is completed in mid-2014. The company forecast an increase in capacity from 1.15 million TEUs (20 foot equivalent units) to 1.6 million TEUs a year. Asciano expressed at the time its commitment to redeploying redundant employees.

“As a company we are very comfortable that we have always and continue to act in good faith. We are engaged in an ongoing process of consultation with our employees, which will continue until the project is completed in 2014,” an Asciano spokesperson said on Tuesday.

Ms James said: “We’re not opposed to automation, we’re not luddites. We want to be consulted. This is about people, not statistics.”

The union leaders compared global giant Orient Overseas Container Line’s union negotiations on the implementation of automation with the alleged absence of consultation by Asciano.

“They openly invited the North American unions, the ILWU, to sit down and work the issues through,” Mr Crumlin said. “They knew it was going to be a difficult process...but notwithstanding that they were keen to get an understanding with labour about how that technology was going to be implemented.”

Automation of ports is rolling out around the world. Last month Asciano rival DP World incorporated the first three of its manual straddle carriers into its Brisbane facilities as part of a $250 million expansion and transition to automated and semi-automated waterside operations.

DP World expects the first stage of development, which is set to be completed by the end of 2013, will boost handling volumes from 600,000 TEUs to 850,000 TEUs.

It is expected to deliver significant capacity for further expansion.