FIREBRAND is a tag that sits easily with Padraig Crumlin. He works a crowd, presses all the right buttons and speaks with passion about the fight against flags of convenience and ships of shame.
Known as Paddy, Mr Crumlin’s Irish roots show in his rhetorical skills. Add his Australian upbringing and willingness to confront authority, and it is easy to see why he is such a powerful champion of workers’ rights.
As president of the International Transport Workers’ Federation, he puts those assets to good effect, urging union activists to keep up the pressure on bad employers and defend workers’ rights.
But he is aware that the ITF must not hark back to the past, and must move forward with the rest of the industry.
Take automation, one of the most contentious issues for dockworkers, and one that threatens to bring disruption to US east coast ports.
As national secretary of the Maritime Union of Australia, Mr Crumlin has been at the forefront of protests against certain terminal operators over new work practices. Just a few weeks ago, he described the way in which Patrick Stevedores was automating container handling at Sydney’s Port Botany as “a return to a darker time of industrial relations” with the plans based on “a flawed and ideologically driven strategy”.
Yet some port owners escape criticism: Mr Crumlin says he is not a Luddite.
He cites Hong Kong operator Hutchison, which sat down with the union to discuss how automated processes could be introduced in Sydney. DP World, APM Terminals and PSA are also prepared to listen.
“It’s a social contract — no one stopped containerisation, and that has had a massive impact on work on the waterfront,” he points out.
Nevertheless, in parts of the world, “there has been a headlong rush to implement automation regardless of the impact on the workforce”, he says. Some employers “have taken shortcuts basically by union-busting”.
Likewise, Mr Crumlin praises the Red Ensign, despite the prevalence of foreign names. Although the UK register has revived, thanks largely to the influx of non-British shipowners such as Maersk, Zodiac Maritime and Evergreen, standards have not been compromised.
Britain “has been able to establish a quality flag,” he says. The model has been copied elsewhere. Australia is heavily influenced by the UK as it sets up an international ship register, Mr Crumlin says.
The ITF’s long-running fight against flags of convenience received fresh impetus with the revelation that Panama, having taken action that will delay the mandatory introduction of container weight verifications, declined an invitation to join a correspondence group to address specific concerns raised by the country.
Speaking to Lloyd’s List during the ITF’s Maritime Round Table in Casablanca, he described both Panama and Cyprus as “notorious flags of convenience” that suffered from poor governance in their apparent inability to recognise what harm they were doing by interventions that will hinder efforts to improve maritime safety.
He knows as well as anyone what dangers lurk in ports and at sea, having joined the Australian merchant navy in 1978, and worked on containerships, tankers and bulkers.
He has been a full-time union official since 1987, including branch secretary and assistant national secretary of the Seamen’s Union of Australia. After amalgamation with the Waterside Workers’ Federation of Australia in 1993, he became the deputy national secretary, and subsequently national secretary, of the Maritime Union of Australia.
He was elected ITF president in August 2010, and has represented international seafarers at the International Labour Organisation on maritime conventions for more than 15 years.
Mr Crumlin’s next target is international governance of the industry, supported by more bilateral policy-setting.
As part of the global infrastructure, shipping needs to be more predictable, with long-term contracts rather than volatile spot markets. That is already becoming a feature of Australia’s bulk trades, and Mr Crumlin dismisses suggestions that such stability will never be achieved in the more fragmented container sector.
Much of what he says would never convince employers that there is an alternative business model, but Mr Crumlin is rarely lost for an answer.
Not so long ago, “shipping was leveraged against bad conditions and poor regulation”, with ships of shame bulk carriers “disappearing on a regular basis”. That has changed.
He insists “we are outward-thinking people, and we are organising the trade union movement to either complement, or put the brakes on, depending on the behaviour of a corporation”.
The trade union movement, he says, “wants to be a genuine shareholder”.
“You don’t get anywhere in industrial relations unless there is mutual respect.”
Behind the rabble-rousing language, Mr Crumlin is willing to engage with those ready to have a conversation.