[First published on news.com.au 15 December 2011]
West Australian wharfies employed by stevedoring company POAGS have voted to end their industrial action and return to work at Fremantle and Bunbury ports, effectively ending the nationwide maritime dispute.
Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) organiser Danny Cain said the WA workers had voted unanimously at meeting in Fremantle on Thursday morning (WST) to accept conciliation.
They will now begin a four-week "cooling off" period while negotiations continue between the union and company.
Newly appointed federal Workplace Relations Minister Bill Shorten stepped in to end the three-day dispute late Wednesday, after stevedores remained locked out of Fremantle and Bunbury ports by POAGS following their industrial action.
A similar lockout at Port Kembla, in NSW, had ended earlier on Wednesday.
Thursday's vote saw WA waterside workers agreeing to return to work as POAGS lifted its lockout to take part in national negotiations with the MUA.
The union is seeking an 18 per cent pay rise over three years and improved safety conditions at POAGS ports, while the company has offered a 12 per cent rise over the same period.
Mr Cain said while the decision to end pickets outside Fremantle and Bunbury ports and return to nationwide pay negotiations was unanimous, the union would not budge on its safety concerns.
"We need to make it clear that we won't be moving on our safety claims - that's something we're not willing to move on," he said.
"One third of the workforce is on workers compensation in WA at POAGS.
"If that can't be resolved, we'll be back to protected action as soon as the four-week period is over."
Mr Cain said the main issue was a lack of fatigue management at POAGS, which saw many stevedores working protracted 12-hour shifts with inadequate breaks between them.
The MUA claims occupational health and safety figures point to a 40 per cent higher risk of death for those employed by POAGS compared to other Australian workers.
"We need a clear and precise fatigue management system," Mr Cain said.
The federal government had stepped in on Wednesday after POAGS applied to Fair Work Australia for urgent conciliation, saying it had reached a dead end with the MUA.
As well as locking out workers, POAGS took the step of flying non-union stevedores over picket lines in helicopters and ferrying them in by boat.
POAGS is chaired by Chris Corrigan, who was in charge of Patrick Corp during the 1998 waterfront dispute in which Patrick tried to sack thousands of union workers and recruit former army commandos, but was overruled by the High Court.
The company on Thursday said it was pleased operations around the country had returned to normal but claimed the MUA was demanding pay rises and benefits amounting to a 29 per cent increase.
"We hope the MUA is prepared to come back into negotiations with a genuine desire to settle this dispute in a sensible way that delivers pay increases to workers and ensures our business is sustainable," a POAGS spokesman said.
"We look forward to the conciliation talks before Fair Work Australia commencing as soon as possible so that the opportunity to settle this dispute is not wasted."