Tugboat Unions to Disrupt Australian Ports in Long Contract Dispute

Australian tugboat strike
Three unions plan to disrupt operations at 10 Australia ports in their long-running contract dispute (Svitzer file photo)

Published Aug 4, 2022 7:32 PM by The Maritime Executive

Three of Australia’s maritime unions are threatening to disrupt operations at ten of Australia’s seaports on Friday, August 5, in their long-running dispute with Svitzer Towage, one of the country’s leading operators of tugs. Svitzer, a part of the Maersk Group, and the unions have been without a collective bargaining agreement (known as an enterprise agreement in Australia) since their 2016 contract expired in 2019.

Media reports indicate that the company and the unions, the Maritime Union of Australia, the Australian Institute of Marine & Power Engineers, and the Australian Maritime Officers Union, had met more than 50 times over the more than three years attempting to come to terms for the new contract. At one point, they reportedly had an agreement in principle that later collapsed. The long-running dispute has resulted in labor actions, but on August 5 the unions hope to broadly disrupt port activity across Australia.

Union officials are reporting that the duration and scope of the strikes will be determined at the local level. Workers in Melbourne and Brisbane reportedly will walk off the job for 24 hours, which is expected to create widespread disruptions in those ports. However, workers in the other eight ports involved in Friday strikes, at Cairns, Newcastle, Sydney, Port Kembla, Adelaide, Fremantle, Geraldton, and Albany, were expected to stop work for only four hours beginning at 9 a.m. local time. They have promised that tugboat services for naval vessels and cruise ships however would continue during the work stoppage.

In a statement released by the MUA, they accuse Svitzer of not negotiating in good faith while “lodging a laundry list of unreasonable demands, and threatening to slash the pay of its seagoing workforce by almost 50 percent.”

A spokesperson for Svitzer responded to the union allegations saying that the company had offered to “maintain crew salaries and core conditions” as part of a new contract. They contend the stalemate is over “reasonable productivity improvements” which the unions refuse to consider.

The new job action is timed to call attention to Svitzer’s attempt to abandon the collective bargaining process. Following the example set by other Australian companies, including Patrick Terminals in 2021, Svitzer threatened to seek government approval to end the bargaining process. Unlike other companies in Australia, Svitzer however is following through on its threat and is set to go before Australia’s Fair Works Commission starting on August 8 to make the case to end the enterprise agreement. The company said it needs certainty for itself and its customers, and that the unions have left it no option.

“Svitzer’s militant brinksmanship threatens to throw the smooth and efficient operation of almost every Australian seaport into complete chaos,” said the MUA’s National Secretary, Paddy Crumlin. “We are confident that the Fair Work Commission will look at the reckless and belligerent behavior of Svitzer throughout this process and respond to the company’s court action appropriately.”

The union says Svitzer’s desired course of action would devastate workers by slashing their pay, cause massive fatigue risks, and undermine the capacity to provide reliable and efficient towage services to international shipping companies and various port authorities.