[I have submitted this article to Green Left Weekly about the current struggle by MUA members in the offshore oil and gas industry. It has been published here.]
Seafarers in the offshore oil and gas industry who are members of the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) are on the verge of winning historic improvements to their pay and working conditions. Among them are a 30% pay rise and construction allowances that would give them parity with other workers involved in the construction phase of oil and gas projects.
There are twelve shipping companies who are subcontracted to the big oil and gas operators (such as Woodside and Chevron) and a number of them have been hit with 48 hour stoppages since November 2009.
While spread over a dozen employers and required to negotiate with each one individually, the MUA has created a situation in which its members are able to take legally protected strike action against each employer in the course of the bargaining process. This required the union to demonstrate to Fair Work Australia that it had been negotiating in good faith with each of these employers but had not been able, through talks alone, to reach a compromise. The MUA then had to separately apply for a ballot to be held among the workforce of each employer asking if they supported industrial action.
The MUA has won every single one of these ballots with almost 100% approval. By itself this signals to the employers that the workers are rock solid behind the union claims and that there are next to no divisions they might exploit. This has already compelled a number of them to move very close to the MUA claims.
The commentary by employers' organisations, the corporate media and conservative politicians has got increasingly desperate and hysterical. In a press release the Australian Mines and Metals Association says, "AMMA is disappointed to see the archaic leadership of the MUA choose to remain out of touch, remaining fixated on class-warfare battles of the past....They continue to display a dinosaur mentality which has no place in modern Australian workplaces."
Teresa Hatch the executive director of the Australian Shipowners Association claimed in the December 7 Australian that the "cash grab in the offshore industry and particularly in the construction industry will be highly inflationary and distorts the labour market." The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry claims that the MUA's campaign is a "national economic threat". WA Liberal Premier Colin Barnett chimed in too. In the January 9 Australian he called for federal government intervention because of the "great damage to Western Australia's economy and its reputation on an international level."
These commentators say that the dispute is evidence of a broader "failure" of the Rudd government's industrial laws that have supposedly "turned back the clock" in favour of union militancy. It’s worth remembering that the unconditional right of a worker to withdraw their labour, a basic human right, has never been recognised in Australian law (under both Liberal and Labor governments), in defiance of International Labour Organization conventions to which Australia is a signatory.
Australian workers can only take legal industrial action during the so-called bargaining period at the expiry of their enterprise agreements. Even then they are very restricted. The Howard era WorkChoices process has remained mostly unchanged in the transition to Labor’s Fair Work Australia.
The irony is that MUA has been sufficiently well organised and disciplined to jump through all the legal hoops and carry out its campaign under the very regime that these same commentators were so enthusiastic about only three years ago. WA MUA Assistant Branch Secretary Will Tracey explained, "We should be clear on one thing though, any legal strategy run by industry employers and their boffins will not prevent the outcome we are chasing and that we deserve. That is one certainty you can bank on."
To turn public opinion against the MUA, the employers and their scribes keep complaining that seafarers are “greedy” and “outrageous “ for thinking that they as “semi-skilled” workers might earn over $120,000 for “only working half the year”. The spectacle of bosses whinging that workers are greedy is too pathetic for words.
However it’s certainly true that well organised militant workers in strategic sectors of the economy that require very specific skill sets and that are making huge profits can win better than average wages and conditions. While bosses might begrudge every penny they have to give away, they can easily afford the MUA’s wage claims. The newly launched Gorgon project off the WA coast will require $42 billion worth of infrastructure before it even comes on line. The projected profits to justify this sort of investment are gigantic.
What most worries Australian employers is the possibility that the achievements and confidence of the more militant and well organised sectors of the working class will flow through to the rest of the workforce. Ross Fitzgerald a columnist for The Australian summed up these fears on January 16 when he said, “…there is a significant risk of a wages breakout and an inflation spiral of the kind that led Australia into recession in the 1980s and 1990s.”
However it’s precisely this sort of “breakout” that Australia needs in order to reverse the three decade long decline of wages compared to profits as a proportion of national income. That is why a victory by the MUA in its current dispute will be for the benefit of all Australian workers.