A bitter nearly four near contract negotiation between Maersk’s towing company Svitzer and Australia’s three maritime unions came to an end with a narrow victory in the voting to adopt a new contract. While it provides the first pay increase for employees in four years and preserved many of the work rules, one of the unions ultimately recommended voting no while another is still seeking to fine-tune the agreement.
Union officials are alleging that the final agreement was rushed in mid-May during two days of negotiations with Australia’s Fair Work Commission mediating the talks. They were also up against a pending deadline as the Commission in November 2022 had imposed a six-month cooling-off period to stop a series of strikes and walkouts causing Svitzer to announce plans to lockout employees.
Tugboat crews had been working without a contract since the 2016 agreement expired in 2020. They alleged that Svitzer was trying to remove many of the previously agreed work rules while the company said it was seeking productivity improvements to enhance its competitiveness and response to changing markets. Unable to reach an agreement in 2022, Svitzer had moved to void the collective bargaining agreement entirely, a step that the union fought, and which was withdrawn earlier this year after Australia adopted changes to its labor laws.
The employees are represented by the Maritime Union of Australia, the Australian Maritime Officers Union (AIMPE), and the Australian Institute of Marine and Power Engineers. Each union was involved in the negotiations and had to accept the final agreement. AIMPE highlighted the ability to maintain the work rules on key issues such as recruitment, qualifications, and maintenance, and while saying the pay increase was lower than they targeted they recommended accepting the proposal.
Portions of the National Maritime Union however in the days leading up to the vote objected to the deal saying it was rushed and that there had not been time for proper consultation with members, delegates, and officials. They contended that Svitzer still has too much latitude to make changes, while AIMPE is looking for an undertaking added to the agreement sent to the Fair Work Commission for language that they said was agreed to in the talks governing outsourcing. They said that had been excluded from the Enterprise Agreement sent for the vote but could be added in the form of an undertaking included in the final version sent to the Commission.
In 2021, a resounding 92 percent of the tug crews voted against a previously proposed agreement. In the voting that concluded on June 10, a majority of 63 percent accepted the agreement. According to AIMPE, it provides for a five percent initial pay raise retroactive to April, a CPI increase next year of between two and five percent, and in the following three years CPI increases of between two and four percent.
Svitzer sent a message to customers reporting the acceptance of the new agreement. They said it would ensure reliability and the efficiency of the towing operation while enhancing productivity.
The agreement now needs to be submitted to the Fair Work Commission for final acceptance.