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Australasian Spartacist No. 227

Spring 2015

Maritime Union Under Attack

Hutchison Ports Struggle Buried in Bosses' Courts

OCTOBER 25—It has been nearly twelve weeks since Hutchison Ports Australia (HPA) fired 97 workers in an open provocation against one of Australia’s most powerful unions, the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA). At that time workers from multiple stevedores and unions stood as one across the entrance to the HPA terminals in Port Botany and Brisbane in a real show of strength as the machines stood useless behind them. For the first week the MUA leadership coordinated the walkout and made sure the sackings were widely publicised, drawing in broad support. However instead of wielding the militancy and solidarity of the workers to beat back the HPA attack, the MUA leadership soon disarmed the struggle. As described in the following article, the militancy was purposefully dissipated by taking the defence of the union out of the able hands of the workers and into the hands of the lawyers and magistrates.

Since then the MUA has set up an encampment on the dock in Port Botany where the sacked workers (who are still being paid at the base rate) can gather and wait for a court to decide their fate. The Hutchison picket line has been replaced with a symbolic and toothless “24 hour community assembly.” The potentially explosive fight against the firings has been turned into a waiting game—a chain of court deadlines that have been pushed back further and further. The sacked workers are left in limbo while the rest are told they must continue working to show how “reasonable” the union is.

Spartacist supporters visited the encampment to offer our support and our class-struggle program—the key to unchaining the power of the union. The reformists of Socialist Alternative, Socialist Alliance, Solidarity and the Communist Party of Australia also visited the docks and wrote articles that were basically press releases for the MUA leadership. They decried the injustice of the situation while uttering not a single word of Marxist analysis or a breath of criticism for the legalism and class-collaboration of the MUA tops. Solidarity offered a mild rebuke against sending the workers back on the job, but could not explain why the union leadership did this. This is because all of these groups share the pro-capitalist Laborite politics of the current trade-union leadership at large. Far from helping the workers draw political lessons from this experience, in part to forge a new class-struggle leadership that will get the unions off their knees, these reformists reinforce the control of the current misleadership. One example of this is the electoral support these fake socialists give to the political party of the trade-union tops which seeks to administer the racist imperialist Australian state: the Australian Labor Party (ALP).

Across the benches in Canberra the despised Tony Abbott was recently toppled by multi-millionaire merchant banker Malcolm Turnbull who is preaching consensus on “economic reform” and the need for a more “agile” economy. While sections of the petty bourgeoisie are ecstatic that the prime minister is no longer an embarrassing meat-headed buffoon, the working class is watching their wallets. Turnbull claims he has no interest in waging war against the unions yet he is leading an attack on penalty rates and is backing the government’s attempt to deregulate coastal shipping, which could result in the loss of hundreds of union jobs. Standing at the helm of the capitalist state, whose sole purpose is to protect the interests of the bosses against those of the workers, Turnbull is squarely behind the witchhunting Royal Commission into the trade unions and for restoring the Australian Building and Construction Commission, which targets the CFMEU construction union.

The CFMEU has been one of the more visible unions outside the HPA docks in the past months. Under siege by the bosses, particularly since their defence of union rights at Grocon in 2012 (see “For Class Struggle to Defeat Grocon/Baillieu Union Busting,” ASp No. 217, Spring 2012), the CFMEU has been financially weakened after handing over around $14 million in penalties in the wake of that struggle. With both the CFMEU and MUA feeling the heat from the bosses, news has emerged that they are in merger talks, which the leaderships hope will strengthen their positions. Merger or no merger, if the unions continue to play by the bosses’ rules—appealing to the courts, emptying their coffers in subservience to anti-union laws and spruiking the professional back-stabbers of the ALP—their power will continue to be sapped. The following article (reprinted from Workers Vanguard No. 1074, 18 September) lays out our program for forging a new class-struggle leadership to revitalise the unions and bring workers to power.

* * *

SYDNEY, September 7—On 6 August, Hutchison Ports Australia (HPA), the Australian branch of the stevedoring conglomerate of Hong Kong tycoon Li Ka-Shing, fired 97 of its 224 workers in Sydney and Brisbane. Under the code name “Phoenix Rising,” HPA had for some time been preparing the ground to renege on manning levels previously agreed with the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA). By not seeking new shipping contracts and by offloading current contracts to other stevedoring companies, HPA reduced the volume of work to create the “need” for redundancies.

In a blatant anti-union attack, the company then targeted MUA militants and safety committee representatives for the sack, according to maritime workers. Reportedly, the company is now aiming to introduce automation with minimal unionisation. If successful, this would lead to speedup and the slashing of safety and other conditions. Indicative of HPA’s fear and contempt for the unionised workforce, the company stationed security guards at its gates to prevent any sacked worker access, even just to clean out their locker.

Picket lines went up the morning after the firings, as maritime workers, other unionists and supporters rallied outside Hutchison Ports terminals. Angry maritime workers in Brisbane briefly occupied the lunch room. In the days that followed, the pickets were visited by many other unionists, leftists, youth and Aboriginal and gay rights activists. In Sydney, the first cargo ship to arrive was sent back out to sea and trucks were turned away by pickets at both Sydney and Brisbane. Having earlier received solidarity statements from ports around the world, Hutchison workers defied orders by the government’s union-busting Fair Work Commission to return to work.

While the MUA leadership supported the pickets, at the same time they undermined the elementary defensive actions of port workers. Committed to obeying the letter of every anti-union law rather than to waging class struggle, they handed the fate of the fired workers over to the bosses’ courts by seeking a federal court injunction to stop the sackings. The union tops directed unionists at DP World and Patrick Stevedores to unload ships diverted from Hutchison. Sowing defeatism among the ranks, they did not demand the reinstatement of all workers but merely condemned the company for not negotiating with the MUA about the firings! On 11 August, MUA national secretary Paddy Crumlin, mired in legalism, denied any MUA involvement in establishing pickets, referring to them as a “response from the community.”

Two days later, when the federal court granted a temporary injunction against the firings, the MUA tops hailed the ruling as “basic justice.” As a “gesture of good faith,” the MUA leadership directed HPA workers back to work without any guarantee that the sacked workers would be reinstated. Hutchison’s cranes are now operating while the sacked workers, temporarily paid at the base rate, are not allowed through the gates. After sending workers back, the union tops then set up a meeting with Hutchison’s management to “find a long-term solution which benefits both the company and its workers.”

Pushing such fantasies is standard fare for the class-collaborationist union tops, who energetically promote the lie that there can be a successful partnership between labour and capital to the benefit of both. Capitalist society is riven between two main contending classes. The interests of workers, who are forced to sell their labour power to survive, and those of the bosses, who grow fat profiting from that labour power, are irreconcilably opposed. The strength of the working class lies in its numbers and organisation and above all in the fact that its labour makes the wheels of production turn. By withdrawing its labour the proletariat can choke off the bosses’ profits. The proletariat’s place in production uniquely endows it with the potential power and interest to put an end to the system of exploitation by shattering the capitalist order and rebuilding society on an egalitarian socialist basis. Supporters of the Spartacist League/Australia who visited the pickets have found some workers open to our arguments against reliance on the courts and for independent class struggle. But the workers’ desire to fight is being kept in check by a union leadership committed to class collaboration.

The leadership’s strategy is a losing game. In fact, the MUA leaders’ approach in the HPA dispute is a carbon copy of what they did during the 1998 struggle against anti-union attacks by Patrick Stevedores. Then, the result was almost half the Patrick workforce losing their jobs and a growth in casualisation, rolling back employment conditions to what they were in the decades before militant union struggles had won some measure of job security. Particularly over the last three decades, beginning with the Hawke/Keating Australian Labor Party (ALP) governments (1983-1996), the ALP-loyal union misleaders have acceded to the slashing of wages, conditions and jobs. After each round of givebacks, the capitalist rulers invariably come back for more.

The ALP is the key political obstacle to advancing the ability of the proletariat to fight against capitalist rule. Based on the unions, but with a thoroughly pro-capitalist leadership and program, the ALP serves to tie the proletariat to the interests of the bourgeoisie and its state. At the same time, they make a pretence of representing the interests of workers, as did ALP leader Bill Shorten when he turned up for a photo-op at the picket outside Hutchison Ports in Sydney. Historically, a key Laborite means of selling out workers’ struggles has been to preach faith in Australia’s Arbitration system, which mandates settlement of industrial disputes in supposedly neutral courts. The fact that the MUA and HPA have now deferred the federal court hearing and agreed to a six-week period of conciliation in the Fair Work Commission is cold comfort to the sacked workers.

For Union Control of Hiring—Equal Pay for Equal Work!

The dispute at Hutchison highlights the need for union control of hiring such as exists (albeit increasingly subverted) for longshoremen organised by the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) on the West Coast of the U.S. Through a series of hard class battles, beginning in 1934, against the shippers and their corrupt gang bosses, the ILWU and union allies won union control of hiring (see the Spartacist League/U.S. pamphlet Then and Now). The hiring hall and ILWU-run job dispatch were set up to equalise work opportunities amongst all longshoremen and to maximise pay and benefits at the highest rates. Over the past 60 years, the ILWU bureaucrats have acceded to the division of the workforce into categories (e.g., “steady men,” “A men,” “B men” and casuals), undermining the equal distribution of work. The hiring hall system, when linked to the struggle for equal pay for equal work and equal manning levels at all ports, cuts directly against the shipping and stevedoring companies’ attempts to divide workers, and against layoffs like that at Hutchison.

In Australia, there was a measure of union control over hiring on the docks from the 1940s through to the 1980s. However, beginning in 1989 under the Hawke Labor government’s Waterfront Industry Reform Authority, a deal between the government, unions and stevedoring employers resulted in the loss of thousands of jobs and the weakening of union influence over hiring. This shift to company-based employment was a major loss for wharfies. It served to undercut industry-wide union solidarity, while enhancing the ability of the employers to hire and fire. Currently, on the Australian wharves, the stevedoring companies hold most of the aces. Union control of hiring is a necessary goal, but winning it will take a major class battle.

The current misleaders’ strategy of suiting up in the bourgeois courts and playing by the bosses’ rules can only pave the way for more defeats and a further weakening of the union movement. To take on and beat union-busting attacks, like those levelled by HPA, requires a seriously organised class-struggle fight. At Hutchison this means stopping work with the backup of mass pickets and bans on all ships rerouted from Hutchison Ports to other stevedoring companies until all sacked workers are reinstated at full union wages and conditions. In the face of the company’s automation drive, it is necessary to fight for a shorter work week with no loss in pay. Such a fight points to the need for a political struggle to replace the current Laborite misleaders with a class-struggle leadership of the unions that would reject the servile legalism of the union tops and declare no reliance on the bosses’ courts. The capitalist state—its courts, cops and military—are not some independent arbiter but the repressive apparatus of the capitalist rulers. The job of this state is to enforce, including by violence, exploitative capitalist class rule over the workers and the oppressed.

For Proletarian Internationalism

Waterfront workers internationally have been following the MUA struggle against HPA’s attack on the union. They know that this attack is part of a broader offensive by maritime bosses the world over to smash unions in order to cut labour costs and increase profits. In 2013, the MUA sent a delegation to Hong Kong in solidarity with Hutchison dockworkers who were on strike against their pitiful wages and inhuman working conditions. After a 40-day struggle, the strikers won a 9.8 percent pay increase. This year, the Hong Kong dockworkers gained a further 5.5 percent pay increase as Hutchison sought to avert further strike action. Reporting on the 2013 stoppage, the MUA revealed that during 12-hour shifts, crane operators were not allowed to leave their cabins, even to use the bathroom. They were given buckets instead! The company had also installed surveillance cameras in the cabins, as well as alarms to harass workers if they slowed down. As one crane operator said, “When you get into that metal cage, there’s no difference between you and a dog.”

These are the conditions that the union-busting stevedoring and shipping conglomerates would like on all the seas and ports across the globe. In this, they are ably assisted by reactionary governments such as the Liberal/National Coalition government of Tony Abbott in Australia. Escalating its attacks against the MUA, the Abbott government has prepared legislation to deregulate coastal shipping. If successful, this would mean the loss of hundreds of unionised seamen jobs and the proliferation of so-called “flag of convenience” shipping manned by unorganised and heavily exploited seafarers on starvation wages with little or no rights. Against a “race to the bottom,” it is vitally necessary that maritime unions such as the ILWU and MUA take concrete actions to assist union organising amongst seamen and dockworkers around the world. It is a good thing, for example, that longshoremen at Panama Ports—a subsidiary of Hutchison—recently affiliated to the ILWU, leading to an immediate improvement in their pay and conditions.

The history of the Australian waterfront includes numerous examples of powerful international solidarity actions. Following WWII, as Dutch and Allied imperialists sought to move troops and supplies into Indonesia to shore up Dutch colonial rule, Australian and New Zealand waterfront workers, alongside Chinese, Indian and Indonesian unionists, placed bans on Dutch shipping. Known as the Black Armada, this boycott was a powerful impetus to the renewed Indonesian independence struggle. Several times, the maritime unions in Australia slapped bans on the transport of war matériel to Vietnam during the U.S./Australian imperialists’ dirty losing war against the Vietnamese workers and peasants. In contrast, the ILWU moved American military cargo throughout the Vietnam War, despite the union’s paper opposition to it.

The consistent and determined proletarian internationalism required to improve the livelihoods of workers in ports across the globe is constantly undermined by the union tops’ protectionist poison. Dripping with Australian nationalism, the MUA’s current campaign—“Our Coast. Our Fuel. Our Security.”—dovetails with their longstanding calls for governments to act against the use of “foreign” products on major projects and against the hiring of overseas workers “at the expense of Australian workers.” Such campaigns by the union misleaders are the road to ruin for the MUA. By promoting the lie that workers in Australia have a common interest with Australian-based corporations and the bourgeois state that defends the Australian capitalist rulers’ interests, the union tops undermine class struggle, including prospects of international labour solidarity, and disarm the union in the face of inevitable future attacks by the capitalist rulers.

In opposition to the anti-China vitriol that frequently accompanies the union tops’ poisonous chauvinism, we Marxists stand for proletarian defence of the 1949 Chinese Revolution, a historic victory against the Chinese capitalists and their imperialist overlords. Despite the revolution being deformed from its inception by the rule of a parasitic, nationalist bureaucratic caste, it resulted in a collectivised economy, which delivered great social progress to the Chinese worker and peasant masses. Although years of “market reforms,” opening the door to large-scale investment by foreign corporations, have led to the emergence of a layer of capitalists on the mainland, China is still not a capitalist country.

While there are elements of capitalism in China, the economy as a whole is not organised on the basis of capitalist production for profit. The most important sectors of industry remain collectivised and owned by the state. We stand for the unconditional military defence of China, a bureaucratically deformed workers state, against the imperialists’ relentless drive to restore the brutal imperialist exploitation that existed before 1949. Key to our defence is the struggle for proletarian political revolution to oust the Stalinist bureaucrats, whose mismanagement and pipedream of “peaceful coexistence” with the imperialists fuels the forces of capitalist counterrevolution. Fighting for this program, a revolutionary leadership in China would oppose the Stalinists’ “one country, two systems” policy and mobilise to expropriate the Hong Kong tycoons such as the union-hating Li Ka-Shing.

Echoing the nationalism of the MUA bureaucrats, many workers have labelled Hutchison’s actions “un-Australian.” Anyone who thinks that workers will get a better deal from an “Australian” or “local” company would do well to remember the history of brutal profit-gouging by iconic “Australian” companies such as BHP or CSR, or the union-busting conspiracy between the Australian government and the then Australian-owned Patrick Stevedores in 1998. Be they Australia-based or international conglomerates, corporations are in business only to make profit for their shareholders from the sweat and blood of those they employ. The true allies of workers are not the “local” bosses but workers across the country and throughout the world. Workers should be guided by the clarion call put forward by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels more than 160 years ago: Workers of the world, unite!

The multiracial working class in this country and elsewhere need the leadership of proletarian internationalist parties, sections of a reforged Fourth International, to fight for socialist revolutions around the globe. Unlike under capitalism, where automation typically leads to job losses and speedup, under the rule of the working class new technologies will not only serve to increase productivity but allow workers more time to pursue science, the arts or whatever other pursuits take their interest. Free of the grinding exploitation and oppression that define the capitalist-imperialist system, such a society will guarantee that everyone will gain full access to quality training, employment, education, housing and healthcare as part of a truly egalitarian society where the needs of all are fulfilled.  


Australasian Spartacist No. 227

ASP 227

Spring 2015


Maritime Union Under Attack

Hutchison Ports Struggle Buried in Bosses' Courts


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