Unions vow to get tough in battle to protect jobs

Release date: 15/09/2012

AUSTRALIA'S most influential transport unions have pledged to use their alliances with overseas worker organisations to hamper plans to send jobs offshore and to limit job losses.

By: Clay Lucas, Sydney Morning Herald

It comes as the battle heated up yesterday between the nation's biggest listed port operator and the maritime union over plans to sack hundreds of waterfront workers.

The Maritime Union of Australia and the Transport Workers Union have this week announced new industrial alliances with overseas labour bodies, in the face of major Australian employers in their sectors moving to merge or cut jobs.

The maritime union yesterday succeeded in gaining a hearing in the Federal Court next month to try and stop Asciano replacing 270 Port Botany wharf workers - more than half the workforce - with 44 automated straddle carriers, which can move and stack containers within an accuracy of two centimetres.

Along with the court bid to stop the plan, the union this week enlisted the support of the US's Maritime Labour Alliance, which yesterday pledged a ''collective, global strategy to [protect] maritime workers … in the efforts to automate workplaces as a means of union busting''.

The maritime union's national secretary, Paddy Crumlin, who met with the alliance in Washington, is also the president of the International Transport Workers' Federation, which represents 779 unions in 155 countries.

Mr Crumlin said his union would try to stop Asciano's plan to automate Port Botany - Australia's second-largest port after Melbourne - through ''legal, political, commercial and international campaigns''.

Meanwhile, the Transport Workers Union, at the centre of last year's bitter Qantas staff lockout, began a new alliance with powerful American counterpart the Transport Workers Union of America.

It followed plans by Qantas to forge a profit-sharing alliance with Emirates on key routes, which the transport union says will threaten jobs within the Australian airline.

The union's national secretary, Tony Sheldon, said Australian transport unions had much to learn from the tactics and strategies used by American airlines to slash investment, reduce staff training and cut wages as a means of boosting profits - or stemming losses.

''This is the challenge with Emirates, which is in a highly volatile part of the world, both in terms of political stability and worker rights,'' Mr Sheldon said.

But the influence of international labour organisations had dwindled, said Adelaide University industrial law expert Andrew Stewart. It was more common in Australia until the 1980s for unions to act internationally on behalf of kindred organisations.

''Laws have been tightened up quite considerably; the Fraser government introduced secondary boycott laws, which had a provision about interfering with international or interstate commerce,'' Professor Stewart said.

''Other countries haven't changed their laws quite to the same extent, with the exception of the Thatcher government, which cracked down on sympathy action.''

Australian laws were often in breach of many international labour standards, Professor Stewart said, ''because they are so restrictive of the right to take lawful industrial action''.

Click here to read this article on the Sydney Morning Herald website.

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