The Maritime Union is spoiling for a fresh industrial fight in the Pilbara, winning permission from the workplace umpire to ask unionised Port Hedland tugboat crews if they want to strike next month.
Industry sources say the MUA, described this month by former ALP resources minister Martin Ferguson as a "rogue union", had been seeking a 20 per cent pay rise and big increases in annual leave on top of the existing four weeks on, four weeks off roster.
MUA assistant secretary Will Tracey said yesterday that the union had dropped the 20 per cent pay demand, which he described as "an initial claim only and was taken off the table months ago" but would not provide further details because negotiations were at "a critical juncture".
The unionised deckhands are now paid an annual salary of $137,144 and can earn a $26-a-day living away from home allowance while they are in Port Hedland, or a $1100-a-week housing allowance for permanent residents of the town. They are also provided with a mobile phone and $90 a month of calls.
Mr Tracey said tugboat masters and engineers were paid up to $220,000 a year but were not MUA members.
It is believed the MUA is pursuing a "relativity" argument because unionised deckhands are paid relatively less than masters and engineers in Port Hed-land compared with other ports.
Non-unionised Port Hedland masters and engineers, however, are paid more than at other Australian ports. Masters at Fremantle Port, for example, are paid between $89,000 and $103,000 a year.
The MUA won permission yesterday from Fair Work commissioner Daniel Cloghan to conduct a protected action ballot of its members, a precursor under the Fair Work Act to strike action.
Mr Cloghan said he was satisfied the MUA was "genuinely trying to reach agreement" with Teekay Shipping Australia, a contractor to BHP Billiton which runs tugboats at Port Hedland on behalf of all users of the world's biggest bulk export port.
About $100 million of iron ore a day is shipped out of Port Hed- land and the tugs are essential in getting the tight schedule of giant Cape-sized vessels in and out of the tidal harbour.
A strike could cost BHP, Fortescue Metals Group and a host of iron ore juniors that use the port's multi-user facility millions of dollars.
It could also cost the State Government millions of dollars a day in forgone iron ore royalties.
Teekay, which could not be contacted for comment, did not attend a Wednesday Fair Work Commission hearing into the MUA's application but tendered a written statement.
"Our client does not consider that MUA is genuinely trying to reach an agreement in circumstances where it has made and maintains a demand that any agreement with Teekay has to include at least an 11.9 per cent increase of the base (pay) rates, by reference to a so called relativity argument, without any justification by reference to work value changes by its members," Teekay's statement said.
Mr Tracey rejected suggestions the MUA was asking for six extra weeks of annual leave.
The MUA and Teekay are due back in the Fair Work Commission on Monday.