08 January 2016
by Lucille Keen

Ports to close as tug boat engineers plan strike action

Ports on Australia's east coast could be forced to shut down for 12 hours next week, after tug boat engineers voted to strike over a new enterprise agreement.

The strikes, planned for Tuesday and Wednesday, are expected to result in coal and fuel carriers, as well as bulk container ships, being stopped from entering the ports of Brisbane, Newcastle, Sydney, Melbourne and Geelong.

The dispute between the Australian Institute of Marine and Power Engineers and operator Svitzer Australia is over the company's push to have three unions representing workers under one agreement.

A Svitzer Australia spokesman said despite having the in-principle support of two of the three unions – the Australian Maritime Officers Union and the Maritime Union of Australia – for a new four-year enterprise agreement that would provide industrial stability and certainty, the "AIMPE has chosen to put all that at risk".

"In the maritime industry of 2016 one agreement simply makes common sense – one tug, one crew and therefore one agreement," the spokesman said.

"What's more, 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."

The biggest disruptions will be at the Newcastle, Sydney, Melbourne and Geelong ports, where Svitzer is the sole tug boat operator.

It is expected 200 engineers will walk off the job over the two days but the company will be unable to seek an injunction from the Fair Work Commission to stop the action until it begins.

The current agreement expired on December 31.

AIMPE federal secretary Martin Byrne said the union was prepared to have further discussions with the company.

However, he said the tug boat engineers should be entitled to a separate agreement.

"There are issues that are relevant to our members and we're very keen to make sure they're not traded off for pay rises [by the other two unions]," Mr Byrne said.

It is understood there are longstanding tensions between the AIMPE and the MUA.

The AIMPE is seeking the conditions around engineers' duties, the qualifications and recruitment procedures for new engineers and entitlements around dry-docking and emergency maintenance terms remain in place.

"We're not after huge pay rises," Mr Byrne said.

"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."

Cruise ships and national security operations will not be affected by the strike action.