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MV Portland crew and MUA fight for all workers

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Alice M.

The two month struggle by the crew of MV Portland and their union, the Maritime Union of Australia, with the US-based multinational miner and steel producer Alcoa, points to a long fight ahead for the working class and its allies in Australia. (See the fantastic youtube at end of article)

It’s a fight to roll back attacks by the multinational corporations and their complicit governments on the jobs, hard won wages, conditions and livelihoods of working people.  It’s a fight for Australia’s sovereignty and independence from the economic stranglehold that multinational corporations and foreign banks have on this country.

Ultimately, it’s a fight for the working class to take control and collective ownership of this country’s natural resources, industries and the enormous wealth created by our labour, and to use it for the well-being of the majority of working people, rather than the 1% profiteering big business class who currently hold state power.     

Alcoa sets the scene for more deregulation and destroying Australia’s maritime industry
For more than 27 years, 2-3 times a week, MV Portland has been hauling tonnes of alumina from Western Australia to Portland, a working class regional centre in south-west Victoria, for processing at Alcoa’s aluminium smelter.  The smelter employs 700 local workers.  The alumina processing plant and wood chip exports to Japan are the only other heavy industries left in this formerly vibrant industrial manufacturing hub.  Several MV Portland crew members are also Portland residents.

Present maritime regulations allow vessels moving between Australian ports to be crewed only by Australian workers on local wages and conditions that had been won through long struggle.

In a move designed to crush local workers’ wages, conditions and the union, and break the present regulations that protect what little remains of Australia’s maritime industry,  Alcoa applied to the federal government for a temporary exemption that would allow MV Portland to be replaced with a foreign flag-of-convenience ship crewed by overseas low-paid workers. The federal government granted Alcoa the exemption, and opened the gates to full de-regulation and decimation of Australia’s maritime industry. 

As an island, Australia’s economy relies on shipping for 90% of exports and imports, and has the fourth largest movement of ships in the world.  After years of maritime de-regulation by successive Liberal-National Coalition and Labor governments there are only 15 merchant ships and 1000 seafarers left in Australia.

More than 3000 other ships calling into Australia’s 70 ports are foreign owned. Almost all of these 3000 vessels are flag-of-convenience ships owned by international banks, finance and leasing companies, who hide their ownership by registering them as shell companies in small developing nations, such as the Marshall Islands, Liberia, Panama, the Bahamas, Myanmar and the Cayman Islands, to avoid taxes, liability for safety, and to maximise profits from the rock-bottom expendable cheap labour of developing countries.  There is a lot of big time corruption, crime, bribery and thuggery in the flags-of-convenience industry that’s frequently exposed by the maritime unions. There are no safety standards for the crew, who more often than not, are treated worse than cattle.

Alcoa unveils multinationals’ plans for workers in Australia
Within 10 minutes of leaving West Australia in October last year, the MV Portland crew was put on notice by Alcoa that after the delivery of the alumina cargo to its Portland smelter, the crew would be ordered to take the vessel to Singapore where it would be decommissioned and all crew sacked. A substitute flag-of-convenience ship would replace MV Portland’s route between Western Australia and Portland.   It was a meticulously planned manoeuvre to replace local seafarers with low-paid overseas workers on pittance wages, as little as $2 an hour, and with miserable working conditions on board.   

On arriving in Portland, MV Portland’s engineers, maintenance workers, seamen and officers all refused to leave the ship or take it to Singapore, where redundancies were waiting for them all.

Seafarers defy the bosses’ court and occupy the ship 
For many, it came as no surprise that the complicit federal government and the legal instrumentalities of the state fell in behind the multinational Alcoa.  The Federal Court, un-Fair Work Commission aided by un-Fair Work legislation, gave the nod to Alcoa’s plans. They ordered the crew and the MUA to cease their occupation of MV Portland and take the ship to Singapore.  But the workers on board MV Portland defied the orders and dug in, with the strong backing of their supporters around Australia and overseas.

For 65 days the MV Portland cargo vessel sat in the port of Portland, in south-west Victoria, 350 kilometres from Melbourne, with its crew refusing to leave the vessel or take it to Singapore, its final destination.  The threats by Alcoa, the Federal Government, the Federal Court and Fair Work Australia did not intimidate the MV Portland crew and the MUA from continuing their struggle to defend local jobs and conditions in Australia’s disappearing shipping industry.  The seafarers’ and the MUA’s defiance in the face of these vicious threats only succeeded in galvanising and gathering wider support from around the country and internationally.

Strong and wide support
The courageous stand by MV Portland crew and the MUA in defending jobs, wages, conditions and the local shipping industry resonated across Australia and internationally.The International Transport Workers’ Federation mobilised support through its global affiliates.

A strong community assembly in support of the MV Portland crew and the MUA sprung up and drew wide support. Hundreds visited the community assembly, spending days in Portland and meeting the crew, MUA members and some of the local community.

Supporters made their way to Portland from as far as Darwin and Queensland. The graphic above shows MUA workers in Western Australia blockading Alcoa.

In the period just after Christmas, in solidarity with the local community, the crew of the MV Portland even agreed to change its moorings to allow 2 cruise ships with hundreds of tourist passengers on a short stopover in Portland. The MUA members and local community handed out leaflets to cruise ship passengers explaining the struggle of the MV Portland crew and the union to defend local jobs.  Many cruise ship passengers voiced their outrage at Alcoa’s actions and gave overwhelming support for the struggle.  Hundreds signed the petition before departing Portland.

Class rule ultimately relies on force
Stung by the growing support for the crew, Alcoa reacted. As if its orchestrated sacking of the Australian crew on MV Portland two months ago wasn’t ruthless enough, its naked corporate face was exposed in the early hours of Wednesday 13 January. Under the cover of darkness it sent 30 private security guards on board the MV Portland to forcibly evict seafarers who had been defending their jobs, hard won wages, conditions and livelihoods.

Within a few minutes of the forcible eviction of the local crew, MV Portland was boarded by low-paid overseas workers who were ordered to immediately take the ship to Singapore.  By dawn, the MV Portland was nowhere to be seen.   

Going unanswered are many questions being asked about the complicity and collusion of several government departments with Alcoa in the fast tracking of the foreign crew’s entry into Australia, including compliance with all the immigration and visa requirements and local maritime regulations.

At the time of writing, the courts will have their say again, but the workers have already passed their verdict on the guilty party. Meanwhile, the union has pledged to continue the battle.

A history of blackmail and threats
For many years the Alcoa smelter has been subsidised by Victorian tax-payers through large electricity subsidies. Any talk of cutting back electricity subsidies has met with Alcoa’s threat to pull out of Victoria and Australia and move its smelter operations to cheap labour countries.

Alcoa’s blackmail surfaced again when it started making threats to unions and the local Portland community of closing down the entire Portland smelter with its 700 direct and 350 indirect jobs, unless MV Portland was replaced with a foreign flag-of-convenience vessel crewed by cheap foreign labour to haul alumina from Western Australia to Portland.

Recently, Alcoa closed down its two smelter plants in the US with loss of thousands of jobs, only to re-open two smelters in Saudi Arabia where the cost of labour and infrastructure are dirt cheap.

Working class internationalism
The Maritime Unions’ fight with Alcoa is universal.  It throws the spotlight on urgent problems facing all working people in Australia who have fought long and hard for decent jobs, wages, conditions and livelihood, which are now being decimated by multinational domination of this country, with the compliance of subservient governments.

The struggle of the MV Portland crew and the MUA is part of the international working class struggle. Continuing this struggle to defend decent wages and conditions inspires and gives confidence to other workers around the world.  That is working class internationalism.

The constant compulsion for capitalist expansion and the falling rate of profit is driving Alcoa’s (and all multinational corporations) determination to force down the cost of labour and remove all obstructions and restrictions standing in the way of their global investments.

The problems of the 2008 global economic crisis of capitalism have not been fixed.  Quite the opposite, they are only mounting in size and intensity, preparing to implode.  Imperialism and its capitalist state inevitably make the people pay, hoping it will resolve the crisis of its own making. And the people are thrown into deeper hardship and suffering. 

In Australia, US imperialism is the dominant section of a ruling class representing multinational corporations and foreign banks.  This is the class of parasites that the working class will eventually take on and evict.  The workers’ fight with the multinational Alcoa forms a part of that anti-imperialist struggle for an independent and socialist Australia.

Nationalise key resources and industries, put them in the hands of the working class!


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