Industrial strife looming on the waterfront

Australia’s busiest port, the port of Melbourne, faces a two day stevedores’ strike as negotiations over a new enterprise bargaining agreement with Patrick reach a crucial point

Maratime Union of Australia (MUA) assistant national secretary Ian Bray said the union had filed an application with the Fair Work Australia, forshadowing a 48 hour shutdown at Patrick’s Webb Dock in Melbourne.

Under industrial law, the union must give three days’ notice of any strike, meaning the shutdown could begin at midnight tonight.

Against the backdrop of a 24 hour strike atht eport of Geelong, MUA officials met Patrick representatives yesterday to continue talks on a new enterprise agreement.

Talks are scheduled for today and tomorrow, and Mr Bray said there was “every chance” that the workers in Melbourne would go on strike.

“If there is significant change [in the companies position] they will review that and pull up.” he said.

Mr Bray said the union’s original request for a 30 percent pay increase over three years was an “ambit” claim. The union was willing to sign a four year agreement to increase certainty, featuring wage increases of between four percent and 6 percent over the final three years.

But Mr Bray said he could not provide an estimate of the increase in the first year as it would feature other points in dispute in the negotiations, such as the reduction in casual labour and the halving of the number of grades for the workforce, as well as an analysis of data that Patrick had only recently provided the union.

“If the average was five percent, if your offering up a four year agreement, you are looking at twenty percent anyway; I don’t think we are that far out of the ball park.” he said.

A key issue in the negotiations has been the use of casual labour, which the union argues is too high and contributes to safety problems.

Mr Bray said the casualisation rate, of about sixty percent, was excessive but declined to nominate a target. The union was willing to work with the company on a program to cut back the use of casuals and did not expect it to occur on “day one”.

Mr Bray said he was not able to comment on how far apart the parties remained in the absence of a formal offer from Patrick, which he expected to receive in the next day or so.

He said it was “bizarre” that the negotiations had been going on for six months and Patrick had not produced an offer.

A company spokeswomen confirmed that Patrick expected to present an offer to the union by the end of the week, as had been agreed by the parties.

She confirmed the company had been notified of the potential for strike action at its facilities. The company had sought clarification from the union on when exactly any industrial action would be taken because a number of notices had been lodged.

The company had notified its customers of the potential for disruption last year and had taken steps to mitigate any impact.

It was expected that the strike would affect only two bulk carriers, she said.

The spokeswomen said the biggest issue for the company was the 30 percent pay increase which, together with other benefits, would have led to a 24 percent increase in Patrick’s wages bill in the first year.

Source: Australian Financial Review (January 11, 2011)