Mark Jack, Hutchison Ports worldwide Executive Director and Managing Director for South East Asia and Australia, came to Sydney on 26 August. The 97 wharfies sacked in Brisbane and Sydney still didn’t get straight answers from Hutchison, but the union made progress.
If the union presses on with plans for sustaining, increasing, and varying the campaign in the next weeks, then the wharfies can win.
The 97 - 41 in Brisbane out of an operations and maintenance workforce of 84, and 56 in Sydney out of 122 - were sacked by text messages and emails at 11:30pm on 6 August telling them never to turn up to work again.
The talks between the MUA negotiating team (which included two rank-and-file delegates) and Hutchison got an undertaking that the 97 are to be kept on wages up to 14 October, and that the issues will be conciliated or if necessary arbitrated through the Fair Work Commission.
There will be further talks next Monday-Wednesday, 31 August to 2 September. The union is waiting on business plans to be supplied from Hutchison in Hong Kong.
Mark Jack admits that mismanagement at the top has been central to Hutchison’s problems in Australia. Queensland MUA state secretary Bob Carnegie says: "With him leading the Hutchison negotiations, we are talking with a person who understand the industry and understands the problems both sides are facing. We may bitterly disagree; but it is infinitely better than trying to work things through with the current Hutchison Australia HR team, who have tried to drive an extreme right-wing ideological attack upon employees and the MUA".
Union negotiators have made it clear that the MUA has the strength to ensure that Hutchison cannot even think of running a non-union operation in Australia. Hutchison’s talk of mothballing the terminals has receded.
Influential in making Hutchison think again were the Vodafone protests on 26 August. MUA members, with tremendous support from CFMEU construction members from city centre sites, protested and leafleted outside outlets for Vodafone, which in Australia is 50% owned by Hutchison since they folded their own “3” mobile phone franchise.
Jack agreed to a Memorandum only slightly amended from what he backed out from only at the last minute in previous talks on 20 August.
The case in the Federal Court which was to open from 1 September has been adjourned.
Hutchison had already subcontracted-out all their customers for six weeks, before declaring the redundancies, and in the negotiations they threaten to mothball the entire operation. Only now have they started to bring a few containers for export into the terminals.
From the morning of 7 August, a crowd often of hundreds and in daytime rarely of fewer than a couple of dozen has sustained 24/7 community assemblies at the terminal gates in Brisbane and Sydney. There have been large contingents from other unions - the ETU, CFMEU construction and mining divisions, AMWU, United Voice - students, and left-wing activists.
The not-quite-what-was-first-reported Federal Court decision on 13 August, and pressure from the national union leadership to avoid “unprotected” industrial action which could lead to fines and claims for damages, have damped down the assemblies since then, but dozens of wharfies continue to protest at the terminal gates 24/7.
In Brisbane, the wharfies rostered on for each shift have gone to work, but marched in to the terminal cheered by the other workers and supporters and carrying union flags, or left the terminal for their morning meal break to eat with their workmates on the protest line.
In work, they have monitored the refrigerated containers, but insisted on full observance of safety requirements where previously corners were cut. The first day, management returned every couple of hours to try to instruct the workers, but of late the local managers, who seem not in the loop of the Hutchison top bosses’ discussions, have retreated to their office.
Renewed pressure on Hutchison will require remobilising big broad turnouts for the terminal-gates assemblies, and organising protests at other Hutchison businesses like Vodafone Australia.
The Brisbane wharfies have met regularly at the terminal gates. They have elected a committee, though in practice that hasn't get much further than being a list of people responsible for different jobs. Their new union state secretary, Bob Carnegie, has provided unusually astute and democratically-minded leadership.
Just as remarkable has been an unusually united workforce. Almost all the Hutchison operations and maintenance workers are members of the union, the MUA, Maritime Union of Australia. That high union density is not unusual on the waterfront. Unusual is the solidarity which has enabled the action to be "carried" by small groups of workers who hadn't been sacked going into work and defying management pressure.
World container traffic is growing much more slowly than it did up to 2008, and with China's economic downturn that trend is unlikely to reverse soon. Hutchison's ports operations are still profitable overall, but Hutchison's Australian management wanted to break union organisation and beat down conditions in order to cut costs.
Hutchison's $750 million investments in the two terminals, opened in 2013, provide the workers with their point of pressure to defend their organisation.