Tug boat crews in eastern Australia plan strikes next Tuesday and Wednesday for 12 hours, halting all coal carriers, fuel carriers and bulk container vessels into the ports of Brisbane, Newcastle, Sydney, Botany, Melbourne and Geelong.
The strike action will effectively shut down Australia's eastern ports for 12 hours from next Tuesday, January 12, in the first of a series of planned strikes.
The strike threat is likely to be taken to the Fair Work Commission this weekend by the company running the container tugs.
Tug boat crews plan to strike in Brisbane and Melbourne ports on Wednesday, January 13, while they plan to strike the day before in Sydney, Botany, Geelong and Newcastle ports.
The surprise planned strike comes after the company that manages tug boats in these Australian cities tried to force the three-person crews onto a new industrial agreement.
For 25 years the three-person crews – the skipper, the deckhand and the engineer – have been represented by three different agreements recognising different sets of skills.
However, Svitzer, the Danish company that operates tugs in Australian ports, wants the crew under a new single agreement.
A vote on Wednesday morning by members of the Australian Institute of Marine and Power Engineers, the union representing tug boat engineers, has backed the strike action.
The strike would bring ports in these cities to a 12-hour halt, because they are dependent on tugs manoeuvring bulk carriers into position at container wharves.
Svitzer was last night is surprised by the potential strike action and believes it may be linked to the union fear it is at risk of being absorbed into the Maritime Union of Australia.
Brisbane has six tugs; four run by Svitzer and two run by Dutch company Schmidt.
Brisbane tugs, most frequently used as pairs per large ship, performed 4000 ship assists – or 400 a month - between January and October 2015.
There were twice as many operations in the larger port of Newcastle (8000) and more at the larger ports at Sydney, Melbourne and Geelong; where Svitzer is the sole tugboat operator.
The tug boat strike does not apply to cruise ships or to defence ships.
Three Chinese Navy ships berthed in Brisbane over last weekend for a five-day training and recreation break and after anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Oman.
The Australian Institute of Marine and Power Engineers said they have been negotiating with Svitzer for several months over their planned change to the work place agreements.
AIMPE federal secretary Martin Byrne said workers hoped the issue could be resolved without the need to strike.
"AIMPE has not made any outrageous pay claims and our members hope that the company sees good sense and agrees with AIMPE to settle on a separate agreement to cover Engineers," Mr Byrne said.
"AIMPE has as late as Tuesday sought further discussions with Svitzer with this objective in mind," he said.
"It is important to note that holiday makers on cruise vessels will not be affected by any protected action. Also national security operations will be exempt from any action."
Svitzer on Wednesday night expressed surprise at the potential strike by AIMPE tug boat crews and said it had already reached agreement with the two other unions involved.
"We have the in-principle support of two of the three unions – the Australian Maritime Officers Union (AMOU) and the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) – for a new four-year enterprise agreement (EA) that will provide industrial stability and certainty," a Svitzer spokesman said.
"AIMPE has chosen to put all that at risk," he said.
"Together the MUA and AMOU represent two thirds of our workforce.
"In the maritime industry of 2016 one agreement simply makes common sense – one tug, one crew and therefore one agreement.
"Under the proposed new agreement all the conditions, entitlements and protections engineers receive today will remain unchanged for the next four years.
"For example, the Engineers' Duty Clause is fully retained in the proposed new agreement, meaning any changes to an engineer's duties at any point in the future could only occur after consultations with their union, AIMPE."
In July 2015 the Newcastle Herald reported on the issues surrounding 55 tug boat jobs that were lost after the port was privatised in April 2014 for $1.5 billion in a 98-year lease.
In New South Wales three ports have been privatised since 2013; also including Botany and Port Kembla which attracted $5.1 billion.