Victoria International Container Terminals is the latest Australian terminal operator to be dragged into conflict with the Maritime Union of Australia. The MUA cites failure to reach an Enterprise Agreement as the cause but is this the whole story?


The MUA has initiated its action against VICT together with two other unions representing employees at VICT – the Australian Maritime Officers Union and the Electrical Trades Union – but as the Container Transport Alliance notes by comparison to the MUA these two unions have been relatively quiet

Why attempt to implement industrial action now when supply chains are stretched and generally under pressure due to the Pandemic? Are the stated reasons for industrial action now and in the recent past only part of the story? Is the bigger story the back story?

These are two key questions to ask against a background of what seems to be continual work stoppages and other actions initiated by the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) in Australia’s number one containerport, the port of Melbourne.

Ironically, the latest MUA dispute in Melbourne – against Victoria International Container Terminals (VICT), a fully automated terminal and ICTSI Group company – was initiated in early February just a few days before DP World announced that it had successfully concluded negotiations with the MUA for four new Enterprise Agreements for its terminals in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and Fremantle. Settling this latter dispute was, however, by no means straightforward as the time taken to reach an agreement underlines; around two and a half years!


With the round of industrial actions, including stoppages, the MUA implemented in Melbourne in the latter half of 2020, directed against terminal operators DP World and Patrick, the union came in for significant criticism over the staging of stoppages, in particular when supply chains were under pressure as a result of the Pandemic. It was widely seen as an opportunistic move designed to capitalise on an already difficult situation. The same feelings prevail with the latest union action, albeit that the MUA has attempted to avoid the ‘landmines’ it trod on previously.

The MUA has announced that that any containers carrying medicines, medical supplies or urgent medical equipment will be exempt from the dispute coverage. Similarly, it has declared that refrigerated containers will be exempt ensuring foodstuffs, perishable goods and agricultural exports were not negatively impacted.

How this will work in practice, is the focus of some scepticism. It has, however, not, at the time of writing, been put to the test with the Fair Work Commission suspending the action early on as a result of submissions made by VICT highlighting the risk of economic harm and other serious negative impacts.

A mid-March hearing has been scheduled and up until this time no industrial action will be undertaken. The Victorian Transport Association is one prominent body that believes the MUA action in conjunction with VICT is a calculated one and as such labels it fundamentally “opportunistic and irresponsible.” Equally critical, the shipowner industry body Shipping Australia identifies the MUA statements on cargo exemptions as cynical PR.


The official line from the MUA is that all the recent disputes are focused on Enterprise Agreements – and they are, but this is not to say that there are no other wider objectives. The first point to factor in is that the MUA is a very left leaning organisation – entities that at one time or another have given support to the MUA include the Socialist Alliance, Solidarity, Socialist Alternative and the Communist Party of Australia as well as the Australian Labour Party and the Greens.

This strong political colouring is an influential driver in the union’s engagement with employers and it is fair to say it is a divisive factor. It also goes some way to explaining the MUA’s resistance to change or as some put it, “unwillingness to move with the times.” With Australian port sector employer’ negotiations the MUA has repeatedly resisted change to the extent that it can even attempt to wind the clock back.

Tim Vancampen, CEO, VICT, as part of a written statement formulated in response to the MUA action, highlights the MUA demands as unviable, the proposed strike action as certain to damage the economy and the demands overall a serious attempt to steer the waterfront back into the past.

He underlines that “…by ignoring the efficiencies of automation and hobbling VICT with outdated ways of working and inapplicable wages and benefits,” it effectively signals a return to the ‘old ways’.

Tellingly, he adds: “As the first automated terminal in Australia we never expected to be popular with traditional waterside unions but we couldn’t have anticipated such unrealistic demands. We’ve been in negotiations for months however the MUA is unwilling to consider reasonable differences in VICT’s operation.”

The MUA consistently fields an aggressive approach and one where history shows reaching a conclusion on Enterprise Agreements is invariably a torturous business typically commencing with unrealistic demands and highly likely to involve industrial action.

It has to be said that this conflict based approach seems more appropriate for the 19th Century than today’s world especially in the midst of a Pandemic!