Work umpire to consider Svitzer action

The industrial umpire is set to hear the case of a major tugboat operator aiming to indefinitely lock out workers from 17 ports.

Svitzer has sought to finalise a new enterprise agreement for workers for the past three years but called for a lockout after weeks of union strike action.

The company planned to lock out more than 580 workers at the ports indefinitely from Friday.

The Fair Work Commission held a brief hearing on Wednesday, listing the hearing before the full bench in Sydney on Thursday at 1pm AEDT.

A further hearing will be held on Friday morning if necessary.

The commission will consider whether "the indefinite lockout of employees ... is protected industrial action for a proposed enterprise agreement that is threatened, impending or probable".

It acted on its own initiative to intervene as the scenario had the potential to "cause significant damage to the Australian economy".

"Svitzer's announcement has caused the commission to consider making an order on its own initiative to suspend or terminate protected industrial action by (the company)," the commission said in a statement.

The threat of an employee lockout led to fears the action could cause supply-chain chaos in the lead up to Christmas.

In an address to the National Press Club on Wednesday, Workplace Relations Minister Tony Burke said the government was being represented at the hearing, where it was arguing the lockout must be stopped.

"What Svitzer are now doing is basically playing a game of blackmail with the Australian economy," he said.

"The damage to the Australian economy ... proposed by Svitzer is completely unacceptable."

Svitzer managing director Nicolaj Noes said in a statement on Tuesday the lockout had been the only remaining point of action.

"We had hoped it would never come to a lockout - but we are at a point where we see no other option but to respond to the damaging industrial action underway by the unions," he said.

"Svitzer has an obligation to serve its customers safely, reliably and efficiently and to ensure imports and exports, and our nation's trade and supply chains run without disruption."

Maritime Union of Australia national secretary Paddy Crumlin said the threats of lockouts were an overreaction.

"There's been a little bit of industrial action but only after three years and it's like nickel and dime stuff," he told ABC Radio.

"Whereas these guys have then turned around and dropped the nuclear bomb on the place, 17 ports, to stop the Australian economy because their workforce is frustrated that they just can't continue to present them with these adversarial and aggressive and bullying policies."