Prime Minister Scott Morrison has accused the wharfies' union of extortion and holding the country to ransom on the eve of its dispute at Sydney's Port Botany going to the industrial umpire.
The Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) has been accused of crippling operations at Patrick Terminals' Port Botany facilities and risking nation-wide medicine shortages with the industrial action it has undertaken over the past month.
Mr Morrison on Tuesday backed the company, accusing the union of "extraordinary and appalling behaviour" over its supposed claim for a six per cent wage rise.
He said there were 40 ships and 90,000 containers trapped on ships offshore, a claim the union disputes.
"We cannot have the militant end of the union movement effectively engaging in a campaign of extortion against the Australian people in the middle of a COVID-19 recession," the prime minister said on Tuesday.
Patrick Terminals chief executive Michael Jovicic said the industrial action has reduced the company's operations in Sydney to 50 or 60 per cent of usual levels, and has caused a backlog of 90,000 containers.
"I'm getting phone calls every day and night from importers and exporters complaining about this industrial action," he told the ABC on Tuesday.
With the federal government's support, the company has taken the dispute to the Fair Work Commission.
After conciliation between the parties on Wednesday and a hearing on Thursday, Patrick hopes the FWC will terminate the union's industrial action.
"We have been negotiating for seven months and seemingly we haven't gotten too far," he said.
"We're at our wits end quite frankly, and that's why we going to the Fair Work Commission."
But union boss Paddy Crumlin says Patrick is spinning fake news "a-la-Donald Trump" and bullying their employees.
The union has only undertaken a single four-hour work stoppage and imposed an overtime ban, he says, and there's no way that could have the adverse impact Patrick is claiming.
He says the delays claimed by Patrick are "bulls***", and that any backlog is the fault of the company's own mismanagement.
"(This is) just the company's cynical exercise in using COVID to get industrial leverage in a legitimate negotiation," he told the ABC.
The National Farmers' Federation said the dispute is threatening the sector's recovery from the drought and COVID-19.
Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese said the government should be encouraging unions and employers to have a co-operative relationship.
"If I was prime minister ... I would be trying to bring the parties together... rather than engaging in rhetoric for political purposes," he told reporters.
Australian Associated Press