Australian Dockworkers Accused of Threatening Christmas With Strike

Australian dockworkers plan rolling strikes against container terminal operator
Labor action will center on the Patrick terminal in Melbourne (Patrick)

Published Sep 28, 2021 7:20 PM by The Maritime Executive

Australia’s major ports are bracing for the impact of a dockworkers’ strike against the country’s largest terminal operator. The labor action comes as the ports continue to struggle to maintain their operations in the face of continuing COVID-19 related restrictions. As Australians prepare for the busy summer season and the upcoming Christmas holidays, fears of supply chain disruptions and shortages are rising, claims the labor union has been quick to dismiss.

The Maritime Union of Australia announced that after 18 months of negotiations with Patrick Terminals, they will begin a rolling labor action against the operators, which handles over 40 percent of all the container freight coming into Australia. “Wharfies are expected to walk off the job of 12 hours every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday,” said the MUA. The focus is the port of Melbourne, but it will also include other actions in Sydney, Fremantle, and Brisbane.

A spokesperson for Patrick called the actions “bewildering,” saying that they have been bargaining with the union for over 19 months and provided “a very generous pay increase, guaranteed no redundancies, and provided a commitment to preserving jobs.”  

Patrick CEO Michael Jovicic said, “The MUA is clearly embarking on a major pre-Christmas industrial campaign. It seems that the union is trying to starve the Melbourne public of Christmas presents after all that Victorians have gone through over the past 18 months – it is truly mind-boggling.”

The MUA was quick to counter, saying that the company is engaging in “exaggerated PR spin,” firmly declaring that rolling strikes throughout October “won’t ruin Christmas.” The union accuses the terminal operator of “corporate tactics to deny a modest pay raise and remove previously agreed conditions on secure jobs.” The union says it declined an offer to continue the previous contract due to changes that would impact job security for its members.

“That Christmas shelves won’t be stocked in time, that’s a complete fabrication,” said MUA Assistant National Secretary Jamie Newlyn. “There’s plenty of capacity on the Australian waterfront with other container terminal operators to make sure that our stores will be full of stock and the kids will get their Christmas presents. We’re trying to limit impact on the public by just quarantining the action to Patrick, where the dispute lies.”

Patrick Terminals, however, says that the rolling strikes will have a far greater impact as they will spread to neighboring operations and other ports around the country. Retailing associations are fearful of the impact on smaller stores, with Patrick saying the strike was most likely to impact imported electronics, furniture, sporting gear, and building materials in the lead-up to Christmas. 

Talks between the union and terminal operator reportedly collapsed last Friday, September 24, after the union rejected an offer of 2.5 percent wage increases for four years. The union began serving notice of the planned labor actions over the weekend.

Earlier in 2021, the Maritime Union of Australia reached separate deals in February with DP World and in June with Hutchison Ports for its terminals in Sydney and Brisbane. The MUA and Patrick have been locked in a protracted dispute. The union staged a labor action in September 2020 against the Patrick terminal at Port Botany in Sydney. Before the union was ordered back to work, an estimated 100,000 containers were reportedly backed up in the port.