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Strike action leaves deep scars on beef

Jon Condon, 25/05/2011

Opinion

The seven-day industrial action launched by the Maritime Union of Australia yesterday has potential to leave deep and perhaps indelible scars on the reputation of the Australian beef industry in the international market.

Not since the late 1990s when Patrick’s Chris Corrigan crashed through the Union ranks to score a decisive win for workplace reform, has the export sector seen direct industrial action on this scale on the nation’s container wharves.

While this latest episode has not yet turned into the crippling crisis it became in 1998, it has potential to escalate, sources say. Part of that may be a long-standing get-square for the last time the union and the Patrick stevedore company clashed.

Prime Minister Gillard’s recent industrial relations legislation reforms have not helped the process.

The Port of Brisbane, which handles about 60 percent of Australia’s export beef traffic, will bear the brunt of this week’s strike action. The sheer volume of refrigerated container trade through the port will only intensify any logistical and cold storage problems associated with the strike.

Port of Brisbane last fiscal year handled 52,000 chilled TEU beef containers, totalling about 738,000 tonnes in weight.

Using an alternate Patrick terminal like Melbourne, which remains open for business this week, does not present a realistic alternative for most East Coast beef exporters, because of the logistical problems and additional cost associated with longer-distance transport to port.

Readers should be careful not to misinterpret the reasons why the Port of Melbourne MUA members have not engaged in the current strike action. Rather than any noble decision to withdraw on the basis of impact on the broader business community, the Melbourne chapter of the MUA was effectively denied the right to strike.

In an earlier incident, it was found by Fair Work Australia (FWA) to be engaging in unprotected industrial action because of members’ involvement in a ‘go-slow’ campaign.

Lawyers for stevedores, Patrick, told the court that the number of container movements per crane per shift had fallen from an average 2006 in April to about 150 movements during the ‘go-slow’ action. The Union unsuccessfully argued there was no ‘go-slow’ in effect, and that the delays were caused by technical problems and a push for better safety.

Don’t be surprised to see other industry union action tag-teaming off the MUA’s activity in coming months. Enterprise Bargaining Agreement renewals are approaching at several large export beef plants in Australia, and a possibility exists that unions may cooperate to maximise impact in those negotiations, as well as this week’s waterside issue.

By any standards, the MUA employees working for Patrick Stevedores are on a fantastic wicket.
Patrick says its employees currently work on average 35 hours each week or 185 days per year for an average annual salary of $100,000.

It says the MUA’s revised claim will cost the company $32,000 per employee, without any change in productivity. The cost of the union claims over each of the three years is $32m, $39m and $50m respectively, without productivity offsets, Patrick suggests.

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