COMMENT: Crumlin - workers’ rights or self-interest?

COMMENT: The act of implementing a picket to back the case of a Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) worker who was refused shifts by Victoria International Container Terminal (VICT) appears to be something of a sledgehammer to crack a nut. Why go to this length, even allowing for the fact that the MUA has something of a reputation for robust action, Mike Mundy asks.

And why keep the picket line in place after VICT successfully applied for and was granted an injunction by the Victorian Supreme Court ordering the MUA not to maintain the picket line and to adhere to a 100 metre exclusion zone? The picket line is no longer fronted by MUA and has undergone something of a rebranding into a so-called “Port Community Picket” without the MUA formally appearing on the front-line - what is the merit in such a radical course of action?

Given the stature of this problem why can’t it be resolved via Fair Work Australia which operates workplace tribunals to resolve just such minor problems?

Why do 120 employees of VICT have to forgo working every day and why do all the satellite industries associated with VICT, including trucking and logistics companies, have to grind to a halt?

Why are there hundreds of containers waiting for delivery to Melbourne City and surrounding areas negatively impacting businesses and the Christmas activities of families and individuals?

It might sound trite, but why is that little girl on Christmas Day morning not going to get her present from her Grandmother in England?

Is it really rational to bring about all of this just to support the case of one MUA member who, as VICT underlines in its most recent press release, has a criminal record that makes it illegal for him to work in the secure areas of Webb Dock under Federal Law?

Surely, this is not by any standards rational action? So why whip up a picket line with clear large scale consequential damage?

Central figure

The central figure here is Paddy Crumlin, the national secretary of the Maritime Union of Australia and secretary general of the International Transport Workers’ Federation. He has held the former office since 2000 and the latter since 2010, and is now trying to secure a ground-breaking third term at the ITF.

The VICT debacle appears consistent with MUA behaviour under his leadership whereby a pattern is apparent. Simply put, it goes like this:

From a relatively small incident escalate it into a big conflict, and

Appear as the saviour and offer to deliver a workable solution.

Remember at the start of 2016 when Patrick Stevedores blasted “extreme forces” within the MUA for escalating a dispute over wharfies’ pay and conditions which was set to culminate in the first national strikes to involve the company since the 1998 waterfront turmoil!?

Also, at the start of 2016, a Royal Commission, set up by the Abbot Conservative Government, stopped short of referring the MUA for prosecution in conjunction with payments made by employers to the Maritime Employees Training Fund, but it did conclude: “The true motivation for the payments is to make industrial peace with the MUA and was in breach of professional standards.” Mr Crumlin, appearing at the Royal Commission hearings, praised the dredging companies Dredging International and Van Oord, “who take pride in training local workers…” A solution acceptable to the MUA and seemingly a righteous one had it not been for the actions that preceded it.

Mr Crumlin has traditionally wielded considerable power at the head of the MUA and ITF, and deployed tactics that effectively reinforce this power. The rallying cry of major dispute has a strong bonding effect and thus grass roots support. But isn’t this approach getting a little threadbare in the modern age?

As we have seen, the tactics often have little relevance to the real situation. And it comes at a human cost to the troops on the front line. Are these tactics really there to uphold the principles of workers’ rights or to reinforce a power base?

The current dispute can also be seen as another nail in the coffin of the port of Melbourne securing its status as Australia’s number one container port. Equally, economic damage in the State of Victoria does little for job security.

Taking a wider view, what the dispute might serve is Crumlin’s ambition of gaining a third term as ITF President by garnering support from the ILWU, a union which has recently been the recipient of a court ruling that states it has violated labour laws at a former ICTSI terminal, the same parent company as VICT.

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