Wharfies, Dockers, Longshoremen: Building Local, National and International Strength

Warren Smith, MUA Assistant National Secretary headed up the session of international heavyweights in describing how dockworkers around the world face the same issues: automation, casualisation, contracting out, with attacks often coming from the same companies. 

“It makes sense that we are all committed to internationalism, to breaking down barriers and borders that are artificially placed between workers,” Mr Smith said.


Jacqueline Smith, Maritime Coordinator of the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF), described how the ITF Dockers Section is moving away from short-term “fire-fighting” to long-term strategic campaigning and organising. ITF affiliates decide on a work program that determines our focus for the next four years. One of the things we are focussed on is organising and coordinating union actions in the large Global Network Terminal (GNT) companies, especially Dubai Ports World and APM Terminals.

The ITF also supported the MUA in the Hutchison dispute. Hutchison were using their lack of shipping contracts as an excuse for the redundancies, so the ITF contacted relevant shipowners to ensure they supported the long-term future of the Sydney and Brisbane terminals.

The ITF is running a campaign to organise and build union power in ICTSI, a company that is growing quickly and aims to become a big GNT.

Ms Smith said ICTSI was an anti-union company, which is currently building the new Melbourne container terminal. The ITF is carrying out research and mapping to examine their vulnerabilities and identify potential leverage.

The ITF was also supporting a campaign to save union jobs in lashing.

She said these jobs were important because they cannot be automated, but in many cases they have been contracted out.

“We need to ensure we get them back under union coverage,” she said.

Warren Smith introduced Niek Stam, General Secretary of Ports, in the Dutch FNV, in thanking him for his solidarity during the Hutchison dispute, and warned delegates about the reality of the highly automated stevedoring technology used on an enormous scale in the port of Rotterdam.


Stam complimented the MUA on the conference, which he said was well-organised and top-quality, from the participation of women, to veterans and the film unit. “We learn a lot from you,” he said.

“No matter what name you give us, in what language, dockworkers are the same working men and women all over the world,” said Stam.

“We work for same terminal operators and shipping line customers. But as the struggle intensifies, we need to do more and be more clever,” he said.

Stam explained that companies selling automated technologies make up all kinds of stories to sell their goods.

He said generally the equipment was more expensive, didnot improve productivity, and was not flexible. In Rotterdam the company only achieves a box rate of 16 per hour.

“The fault is in the system,” said Stam.

“Machines do not have common sense. Human crane operators can watch and feel and think and solve problems.”

Steve Turner, Assistant General Secretary of UNITE the Union in the UK, described the determination of current governments to eliminate any opposition, strikes, boycotts, or collective organisation.

“We fought for the vote, for civil rights, and against apartheid in South Africa and Palestine. The trade union movement was at the heart of these struggles,” Turner declared.

He described the ITF Industrial Hubs program being rolled out in the UK. Ports are now logistics hubs, so they are organising across sectors in those hubs: in warehousing, distribution, transport, chemicals, and oil and gas.

“Too often unions operate in industrial silos,” said Turner.

“It is important to organise now, not just when we need solidarity. We need to understand how capital works, and how it exploits workers. We need to create rank and file worker combines. We need to find the real economic employers in our disputes and go after them. We need to grow our unions and build power.”

UNITE has also implemented community membership, as struggles cannot be won by the union movement alone.

“Corporations and governments have deserted our communities, so we are including them and building solidarity,” said Turner. UNITE now has 10,000 community members paying $1 per week and building community resistance against cuts and deregulation.

Turner concluded by emphasising that “it is not called the struggle because it is a walk in the park. We fought for everything we have gotten and they have never given us anything.”

Torben Seebold from German union Ver.di and vice-president of the ITF Dockers Section described the massive overcapacity that container terminal operators and shipping companies are building into the industry.


“They are creating a framework to bust the union,” Seebold said.

“Rotterdam is an example of the impact this is having on workers. We cannot accept this.”

Seebold described how terminal operators need to buy new ship to shore cranes to accommodate this expansion, and are squeezing workers in order to pay for them.

Seebold told Conference delegates about the major struggle of dockworkers in Poland, in a terminal owned by the Australian Macquarie Bank. “We have been pressuring Macquarie all over the world,” he said.

Rounding things off was the big man himself, Bob McEllrath, the International President of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union.


McEllrath reflected on his 47 years on the docks, and his upcoming retirement. “It is so exciting to see younger people coming through, and staying strong,” he said.

He told Conference about a dangerous new bill being proposed by the government. The bill dictates the number of box moves per hour, and also says that Longshoremen cannot go on strike. If they do go on strike, they will be found in contempt of the government and the union will be decertified.

“We would be indentured slaves,” McEllrath said.

McEllrath told Conference delegates that the union is beating back this attack. “But if they take out ILA and ILWU so we can’t move, who is next?” he asked.  

“We will prevail, but it will be a hard slog.”