Threat Of New Waterfront War Over Automation On Wharves

[Originally published in The Australian, 8 August 2012]

The maritime union has threatened an international campaign to disrupt Patrick's Port Botany operations, vowing to "fight to the death" controversial plans by owner Asciano to unilaterally replace employees with machines.

Paddy Crumlin, the national secretary of the Maritime Union of Australia, said he would seek the support of the International Transport Workers Federation to co-ordinate a campaign against Patrick, including action at overseas ports against vessels destined for its Port Botany facilities in Sydney.

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Mr Crumlin, who is also the federation's president, said the union would use "every legal, political, industrial and commercial step" necessary to fight the company's announcement last month that it would cut 270 of its 511-strong workforce at Port Botany by 2014, and replace the workers with automated straddle carrier technology.

The union has accused the company of resorting to the "mean and tricky ways" employed during the infamous 1998 waterfront dispute, when Patrick fired its workforce en masse and tried to replace them with non-union labour. The federation's general secretary, David Cockroft, has vowed to replicate the tactics used during the 1998 fight, when the ITF mobilised worldwide support, including persuading the rulers of Dubai to prohibit the use of camps for the training of former Australian soldiers as strikebreakers.

"The Patrick dispute was a watershed in Australian history, and in the history of the ITF too. The lessons we learned then will be applied again now, until Patrick steps back from this latest attempt," Mr Cockroft said.

Port Botany, already the nation's second-biggest container port after Melbourne, is undergoing a major expansion.

Asciano said last night that automation was a key part of its strategy to transform the port into a world-class facility that was more productive and safer.

But Mr Crumlin said it was a "return to a darker time of industrial relations" that Asciano had felt comfortable keeping the automation plans secret during 20 months of negotiations over an enterprise agreement struck earlier this year.

Mr Crumlin said the union was prepared to enter into negotiations over the introduction of the technology, but Patrick was seeking to introduce automation without any negotiations, let alone agreement with the union.

"Automation without negotiation and agreement is the most controversial issue in the international stevedoring industry, and is as industrially contentious in the current round of contract negotiations on the east coast of the US as it is here in Australia," the union leader said.

"For Patrick's management to overlook informing the MUA in the long and difficult negotiations on the enterprise bargaining agreement while squealing about the union being the problem in those negotiations brings them into international focus as the type of stevedoring employer the industry can do without."

Mr Crumlin insisted the union was committed to maintaining the productivity targets developed in the agreement.

"This is not about productivity, this is about getting rid of people with no correlation to productivity whatsoever," he said. "We will fight to the death over this this."

He said the union was negotiating with Asciano's two main competitors, DP World and Hutchinson, about the level of automation that would be allowed under their new enterprise agreements, underlining how Patrick was pursuing a "flawed and ideologically driven strategy if ever I've seen one".

"This threatens to return Patrick to a controversial and dysfunctional stevedoring operation due to the cynical and dismissive fashion in which the company seems to view good-faith bargaining in one of their major new EBAs," he said.

"To reach a landmark agreement and put out joint statements about a new era of stability and maturity with the company and then be slapped in the face with this adversarial and dismissive approach is simply not acceptable."

In a statement last night, Asciano said it recognised that automation would "lead to redundancies, but we will be consulting extensively with our employees and working hard to identify redeployment opportunities across other growth areas of our business".

"The redevelopment of our Port Botany container terminal will significantly upgrade old infrastructure, cranes and machinery and amenities, transforming it into a world-class and internationally competitive facility," the statement said. "Automation is a core building block of our growth plans at the terminal and is critical to improving customer service, increasing our capacity and improving efficiency - all of which we must do if we are to maintain our position as Australia's leading stevedore in the face of a third operator.

"Automation is not new. We have been a leader in the use of port automation technology since 2005 in Brisbane, and it's only logical that we would look to replicate these achievements in Sydney to provide a better, safer and more productive workplace for our employees and customers.

"As an example, we now achieve 90 per cent of on-time windows in Brisbane versus 50 to 60 per cent in Port Botany, meaning a more efficient and productive trade gateway for our customers. Our safety record in Brisbane is also impressive. We achieved a 75 per cent reduction in safety incidents in the first year at Brisbane, increasing to a 90 per cent reduction in following years."