Joe Tullio's shipping container of Victorian pears worth $45,000 has been stranded at the Port of Melbourne for more than 10 days.
Along with hundreds of other containers carrying frozen prawns, grain and milk products, EpiPens, toys, Christmas decorations and machine parts, Mr Tullo's is caught in the middle of a deepening industrial dispute at the nation's busiest port.
Mr Tullio, managing director of Australia Fruits, fears he could lose all his money or have to heavily discount the produce which should have arrived in Indonesia by now.
He dropped the pears off at the dock on Friday, November 24, for shipment the following Monday when a union picket at the Victoria International Container Terminal stopped the shipment and any trucks from entering to pick up imports or deliver exports.
The Supreme Court on Friday ordered the Maritime Union of Australia to lift the picket but it has continued as a "community protest" with support from other unions including the national construction union, the electrical trades union and Victoria Trades Hall Council. VICT is now monitoring the picket line to check no MUA members are taking part.
The Victoria International Container Terminal, which runs the first fully automated terminal in the country, has become the latest employer to face assertive campaigning from the trade union movement over what it claims are substandard wage agreements and violations of workplace rights.
The union protest began with a dispute over one MUA member who was refused a security permit to continue working at the site.
It is also a protest against VICT's refusal to negotiate an industrial agreement at the highly-automated terminal with the MUA. Instead, it struck a greenfields agreement with another union called the Australian Maritime Officers Union which was signed off by five to ten workers on behalf of a current workforce of more than 120.
The MUA claims workers are being underpaid, but VICT disputes this saying typical earnings range from $140,000 to $160,000, topping out at $180,000.
"We reject the implication that making an agreement with the only employees we had at the time was somehow unfair or otherwise unacceptable," a company spokesman said.
In the meantime, people like Mr Tullio are caught in the middle of the dispute and they stand to lose a lot of money while it continues.
"It is a bit nerve-racking when it's our money sitting there," Mr Tullio said.
It is a bit nerve-racking when it's our money sitting thereJoe Tullio
"The pears weren't put on the boat because of the union dispute. We can't even go in and retrieve [our container]."
Dominic Jenkin, chief executive officer of the Australian Horticultural Exporters' Association said he knew of several other containers of fresh produce being held up on the dock for more than 10 days. If and when Mr Tullio's pears finally arrive in Indonesia, their value will be degraded.
"You can't hold perishable products indefinitely," Mr Jenkin said.
"This disrupts the trading relationship and our reputation as Australian exporters"
Russell Zimmerman, of the Australian Retailers Association, said the wharf dispute was threatening the delivery of retail products during the busy Christmas trading period.
"Our concern is that there are retailers who will be waiting for product," he said. "This will disrupt commerce particularly at this time of the year.
"Coming this close to Christmas, our concern is that there could be gifts or other products that people would be expecting to have in time.
"There could be some very disappointed people."
A spokesman for VICT said the stranded imports included EpiPens, frozen prawns and other seafood, toys, Christmas decorations and machinery parts. Stranded exports included frozen meat, chilled cheese, wine, fruit, cotton, clay, timber, lead, zinc and aluminium, hay, grain, wheat and milk products destined for China.
The company has threatened to seek damages of up to $100 million it says it stands to lose because of the union blockade.
Container Transport Alliance Australia, representing trucking and logistics companies, said many of its members had taken a financial hit after having their trucks turned away at the gates.
"It's affecting big and small logistics companies, and family businesses who have sent their trucks down there to pick up a container," spokesman Gerard Langes said.
"The cost of the round trip will never be able to be recouped from the customer ... we call them futile trips."
Mr Langes urged the waterside protesters to comply with orders to break the picket line, and stop hurting businesses that were caught in the middle.
"If this is a legitimate protest, why don't they protest the government authority who said they wouldn't issue the security card?" he said.
MUA Deputy National Secretary Will Tracey has said there were 22 workers at the site who did not have a Maritime Security Identification Card to work in a restricted zone and were awaiting processing.
Mr Tracey said the MUA was seeking minimum standards for wages and conditions, but the company refused to negotiate with the union.
"VICT is continuing a disturbing recent trend by employers who want to engage in a race to the bottom by accepting a workplace agreement voted on by five staff chosen by the company that slashes penalty rates and casual loading," he said.
"The Port Melbourne community has decided to take a stand against a company with an atrocious labour record around the globe that should not be allowed to operate in this country."
Thousands of unionists and supporters in the wider community are expected to converge on the Port of Melbourne from 10 am on Friday to "take a stand" against VICT.
Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union Victorian secretary John Setka posted on social media for union members to join the "Webb Dock peaceful assembly" on Friday, comparing it to Patrick's historic 1998 waterfront dispute.
Union leaders this week launched a fierce attack on former Labor Party veteran Linsday Tanner who is a director of Victoria International Container Terminal, and Mick O'Leary, a former MUA official, who is now the company's HR manager.
"We are furious at the former Labor has-beens that are dabbling with this company," Victorian Trade Hall secretary Luke Hilakari said.
"They earned their careers off the backs of working people, now they are earning their dime at the expense of working people.
"If they have a conscience, the right thing they would do right now would be to resign from that company."
Fairfax Media contacted Mr Tanner for comment but its calls were not returned.
The Webb Dock picket line is being widely supported by the broader Victorian union movement, with officials saying they stand "shoulder-to-shoulder" with the MUA.
A spokesman for Employment Minister Michaelia Cash said militant union officials pulling the strings at the picket "do not care about the jobs of workers throughout the supply chain or the thousands of other members of the public who will be disadvantaged by it".
"Worse still, this reckless action is preventing millions of dollars of export earnings for local businesses and preventing the import of much-needed medical deliveries in the lead up to Christmas," she said.
Anna Patty is Workplace Editor for The Sydney Morning Herald. She is a former Education Editor, State Political Reporter and Health Reporter. Her reports on inequity in schools funding led to the Gonski reforms and won her national awards. Her coverage of health exposed unnecessary patient deaths at Campbelltown Hospital and led to judicial and parliamentary inquiries. At The Times of London, she exposed flaws in international medical trials.
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