In the middle of the night on 13 January, 30 security guards boarded the Alcoa motor vessel Portland to remove five union crewmembers and escort foreign seafarers on to the ship that immediately left for Singapore.
The crew onboard the MV Portland is organized by the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA), affiliated to the International Transport Federation (ITF), a sister global union of IndustriALL Global Union. MUA has been in dispute with the ship owner who wants to make the crew redundant after sailing the Portland cargo ship to Singapore for scrap.
The MV Portland has been used to transport minerals from Western Australia to Alcoa’s Portland smelter. According to Australian laws, cabotage ships like the MV Portland have to be Australian flagged and crewed.
When the ship required repairs and maintenance Alcoa received a temporary license from the Australian government. However, associated capital reparation costs were not paid and the Australian workers were replaced with a foreign crew that was paid less and had worse conditions.
Replaced by a foreign crew and the ship exempt from taxation, union members decided to block the MV Portland from its final voyage to Singapore.
Even before the dispute was resolved, Alcoa started to operate a replacement ship. MUA believes that Alcoa is trying to use the replacement ship to undermine rights and conditions of Australian workers.
In a show of support with the Australian seafarers fighting for their rights, a special resolution on Alcoa was adopted at IndustriALL’s Executive Committee meeting in Phnom Penh in December 2015.
Alcoa is no stranger to controversial practices in order to increase profits, including closing unionized facilities.
Earlier in January, Alcoa announced closures of two of its U.S. based facilities; the county Warrick smelter and the Point Comfort refinery plant.
Both facilities are operated by members of IndustriALL affiliate United Steelworkers (USW), the closures will have a dramatic input on workers, their families and communities.
The company argues the facilities are no longer competitive. However, in the same time Alcoa has refused to support efforts to crackdown on illegal Chinese steel imports to U.S. and built smelting operations in Saudi Arabia, which the USW believes can be used to displace U.S. production and staffed with non-unionized workforce while still having access to U.S. market.
“The global overcapacity in aluminum, as well as within our other basic commodity industries, has created systemically weak markets and pricing conditions. How are American workers supposed to compete against unfairly and illegally traded products in the face of such over built and un-needed global capacity? Our nation’s trade laws need a real and honest re-examination and overhaul in light of that over-capacity," says Tom Conway, USW international vice president.