Within days of Bob taking office as MUA Queensland secretary, the union faced a major dispute. On 6 August 2015, Hutchison, the world’s biggest container operator, summarily sacked half their workforce in their Brisbane and Sydney terminals, 97 workers out of 194. The sacked workers ran a 24/7 protest line at the Brisbane and Sydney terminals, with the support of the workers not sacked, who were called in for minimal working hours but handled very little traffic.
After 102 days of bitter struggle, the workers did not win a complete victory, but pushed Hutchison back considerably. They won reinstatement for almost all the workers; sizeable severance pay for those who chose to quit; and strong fences around the use of casuals and how they must be sourced. Two of the union delegates at the terminal talked about the dispute.
Damien McGarry: I came from a wharf in Sydney where, while we were strong unionists, there was an us-and-them attitude. The older men had been on the waterfront thirty years, and we were only a year or two in. They did not let us have the same rights as them when we came in the gates. We were the casuals. I was one of the first ones to come up here to Brisbane, and I decided that I would never let it get like that again. I wanted everyone who came into this place to be on an equal level.
Yes, I had twenty years experience, but with the new kids coming in, we did not go down the path of “I’m the crane driver, I’m the team leader, I’m better than you”. A lot of the new workers were non-union. I said to them: you’ve heard a lot about unions, but it’s what we do in here that will define us as a union. The type of people we are, we will look after each other. We’ve got to work the joint, and we will work all as one. So we’ve got a good close working relationship with everyone. We worked to keep this place going because we saw it as our future.
That rug has been pulled out from under us now due to gross mismanagement. It all started six months ago when they brought new managers in. Now we know what their plan is: it is to get rid of all of us. I think this is a Free Trade Agreement blue now. I think Hutchison are heading down the path of “when we invest in your country, we expect the same results as back home.” Do they get their own way back in China? My word, they do.
Workers’ Liberty: Not entirely. The Hong Kong port workers had a big strike in 2013 and won some things, and although proper unions are illegal, there are probably more strikes in mainland China than in the rest of the world put together.*
DM: OK. But it worries me. There’s so much Chinese investment in Australia now. If they get away with this here, then they’re going to do the same thing in the mines and all the other places where they invest. While it’s our blue, it’s also a blue for everyone in Australia. What now?
We’ve made a decision to abide by the court orders. My view, on the ground, is that we keep those containers in there. If there comes a time when we don’t have many containers in there and we’re at risk of losing our bargaining power, I’d put a stop to it. We will see whether they’re working in good faith if they start running boxes in. If they just run out, and they don’t bring any exports in, the game has changed.
Hannah Matthewson: There are a lot of strong individuals in the workforce, and not just people who have been in the industry a long time. We’ve always seen the first 18 who started, the Phase 2 boys, as seniors, but they don’t look down on us. We’re all multi-skilled, and everyone was being trained at the same time. No-one is better than another person here. We’re really lucky with that. I’ve talked with other women on the waterfront, and here is completely different.
There are two girls, me and Crystal, and we don’t get picked on or anything like that. We’re treated the same because we work the same. Before, I was a vet nurse for seven years, and this is so much better. I loved vet nursing, but here you have the camaraderie, you feel you are part of a collective, whereas before I was a nurse at the university and it was very divided. Here, we’re all one, and the managers are... up there. Here, the work is hard, but you’re working with your mates every single day. And the money is so much better.
What next? I reckon we just have to show a presence, make sure the company knows we’re still here and we’re not going anywhere. I don’t think the company understands how strong people are here.
Workers’ Liberty: We’re socialists, so the big picture, as we see it, is that all this stuff should be owned by the community, democratically controlled by the community, and the workers should decide how things are done in the workplace. Does that make sense to you?*
HM: A hundred per cent. At first, when we said we were going to go on picket, I thought it would be twenty of us, sitting out in front. Never in my wildest dreams did I think all these people would turn up. Before we started, I didn’t understand how close-knit unions are. I’ve never been in anything like this before. I’ve only been on the waterfront two years, and I wasn’t in a union when I was a vet nurse.