Analysis: Maritime Union in Battle with Multinational Svitzer

The Maritime Union and tug workers at ports across Australia are locked in battle with the country’s largest towage operator, Svitzer, in industrial action to protect their hard-won working conditions in the face of Svitzer’s sabotage of enterprise bargaining talks and in addition, their sacking of 18 tug workers at Geelong.

Svitzer Australia is owned by Maersk, a highly-profitable multinational shipping conglomerate which is the largest container ship and supply vessel operator in the world. Svitzer owns a fleet of more than 100 tugs at 28 ports in Australia, making it the largest towage company in the country. The Maritime Union of Australia has been in negotiations with Svitzer for a new Enterprise Agreement (EA) for 2 years now, as Svitzer persistently dragged out bargaining after the expiry of their workers’ previous EA. In February last year, when EA talks were on the verge of completion and the MUA regarded the new draft EA to already be over 95 percent completed, Svitzer suddenly added an additional 30 claims to the draft EA. Each claim was nakedly designed to erode members’ conditions. Svitzer had intentionally derailed the whole negotiating process and clearly made a provocative ambit claim to strip away their crews’ basic working conditions and entitlements. This was despite Svitzer having previously had a fairly amicable relationship with the union.

On 12 November last year, MUA members working on Svitzer tugs took protected industrial action across Australia to oppose these unilateral attacks on their conditions. A month later, on 23 December, eighteen Svitzer tug workers at the Port of Geelong were suddenly made redundant by the company. Svitzer told these sacked workers it had done so because it planned to depart the Port of Geelong for good as it was no longer a “viable” port - but only 6 months later this June, the company contracted a labour hire outfit, Strategic Workplace Solutions (SWS), to bring in a dozen fly-in-fly-out (FIFO) workers from interstate to replace the sacked 18.

Svitzer and SWS’ scabbing on the sacked 18 is clearly part & parcel of Svitzer’s war to remove its unionised workforce and slash & burn its workers’ conditions. As MUA Victorian deputy secretary David Ball said, “It appears Svitzer never really intended to leave Geelong. It just manufactured this arrangement where it could terminate its entire local workforce and use a sham contracting arrangement with a labour hire company that has no experience in maritime towage to slash costs.”

The sacked 18 tug workers at Geelong were everything from deck hands to tug masters and skippers, some with more than 30 years’ experience of the job and a wealth of local knowledge of sea and maritime conditions which is simply irreplaceable in the maritime industry. Aside from the kick in the guts to the Geelong community and tug workers’ families, the MUA has rightly raised safety concerns around fatigue and the new FIFO workers’ ability to adhere to other safety requirements, as without a sound knowledge of the waters the safety and integrity of the port is easily compromised. MUA organisers have tried to do safety inspections at the Port, but have been hindered or obstructed by Svitzer from speaking to the workforce operating the tugs to see if they are being affected by fatigue or the altered working conditions.

On Monday 28 June more than 100 maritime workers and other unions’ supporters rallied in Geelong to protest the sacked Geelong workers’ replacement by the FIFO scabs. Then on Friday 9 July, Svitzer tug workers took 12 hours industrial action as part of their EA campaign. Hundreds of unionists and supporters joined the rally at the Port of Melbourne to support the striking Svitzer workers, where a combative and determined mood was evident to stand shoulder to shoulder with the workers and beat off these attacks.

The MUA and Svitzer workers’ campaign for a fair EA continues, as does the Union’s parallel campaign to reinstate all 18 sacked Geelong workers. The MUA is still in negotiations with Svitzer around the EA, and other maritime unions including the Australian Maritime Officers’ Union (AMOU) and Australian Institute of Marine and Power Engineers (AIMPE) are also involved in the campaign. AIMPE have now also applied for protected action. 

The MUA has advised supporters to stay tuned for more rallies and ways to support their members at Svitzer. Svitzer workers and the MUA must be able to continue to count on the solidarity and support of all unionists and activists until their campaign to beat off this criminal attack on their dignity as workers has been won. One placard at the 9 July Port of Melbourne rally, which read ‘Patricks 2.0’ captured well the mood and appreciation of what is at stake in this fight. Workers Solidarity will continue to update comrades to any developments in the campaign and alert you to any needs to support Svitzer’s workers. 

Touch One, Touch All - MUA, Here to Stay!