Waterfront disputes like the one now tying up Fremantle and Kwinana will severely compromise the ability of Australian ports to remain internationally competitive as economic conditions soften, the peak body representing Australia's port authorities has warned.
Chief Executive Officer of Ports Australia, David Anderson, said port costs were a key factor in maintaining competitive pricing for exports and imports and this would become even more critical as commodity prices flattened out.
Members of the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) and other port workers are striking in support of a roster of four days worked followed by six days off and pay rises of between 12 and 20%.
With the strike action estimated to cost hundreds of millions of dollars, Mr Anderson said the MUA's national leadership should step in to call a halt and start talking seriously about national productivity improvements.
"This is becoming a typical pattern of wharf labour demanding large increases in pay and conditions without any productivity trade-offs. The WA branch of the MUA has shown itself to be the most aggressive in this regard and the national office needs to bring it into line," Mr Anderson said.
An independent analysis commissioned by Ports Australia earlier this year found that while the wages of workers at Australia's five major ports have continued to increase, their productivity has gone backwards in recent years, potentially costing billions of dollars in lost GDP.
"We can't coast on the back of the oil, gas and mining sectors forever. Unlike in previous decades, maritime unions have failed to take a long term view of their industry and realise that unreasonable claims like this will make Australia's trades uncompetitive.
"As the mining boom cools and we return to an environment of strong price competition attached to commodities and lower trade growth generally, our ability to retain our markets and sustain imports will be highly exposed by these wage demands," he said.
Mr Anderson said the fact that this was a protected strike also underlined the failure of the Federal Government's Fair Work Act to constrain unreasonable industrial action.