* Potential strike postponed to late June at earliest
* Fortescue to press labour tribunal to block strike
* Strike would halt over half of Australia's iron ore
(Adds comments from union and Fortescue CEO)
By Sonali Paul
MELBOURNE, May 22 Tugboat workers agreed on
Thursday to suspend plans to go on strike at Australia's biggest
iron ore port till at least late June, just as miners stepped up
efforts to avert action that could halt a quarter of the world's
seaborne iron ore supply.
Deckhands represented by the Maritime Union of Australia
(MUA), working on tugboats that guide iron ore ships in and out
of the port, have threatened to go on strike for up to seven
days, blocking $100 million a day worth of iron ore sales.
The MUA said on Thursday it would hold off industrial action
for 30 days but would seek a 30-day extension on an existing
approval for a possible strike to allow more time for talks with
the tugboat operator, Teekay Shipping.
"Discussions between the two parties this week have been
productive and both parties would like to see if we can reach a
negotiated outcome without the need for industrial action," Will
Tracey, the MUA's West Australian secretary, said in a
The deckhands, who work for 28 days and then get 28 days off
for A$135,000 ($124,400) a year, want more than a 20 percent pay
hike and four weeks extra leave, arguing their long work hours
are equivalent to what people usually put in over 54 weeks.
Any strike at Port Hedland would halt more than half of
Australia's iron ore exports, hitting its No.2 and No.3 iron ore
producers, BHP Billiton and Fortescue Metals
Group Ltd, respectively, as well as Atlas Iron Ltd
, who have all slammed the union's demands.
"There is something wrong with our industrial relations laws
when a small group of 45 people who would like to only work 22
weeks a year and be paid a base rate about three times the base
wage of a first year nurse...can hold to ransom an industry that
generates more export earnings than any other," Fortescue Chief
Executive Nev Power said in a statement.
Fortescue said it was preparing to apply to the Fair Work
labour tribunal to stop a strike on the grounds it would
significantly harm the company, which is not directly involved
in the dispute.
"In the event of a strike, Fortescue will be forced to
consider standing down its operations and the associated
workforces for indefinite periods of time," Power said.
The miners have also been highlighting the potential impact
on Australia's economy, given iron ore is the country's biggest
export earner and a major source of royalties and taxes, which
could also be grounds for the labour tribunal or the government
to stop a strike from going ahead.
Iron ore exports are expected to surge 35 percent to A$76.8
billion this year, according to the Australian Bureau of
Resources and Energy Economics.
Australia's top iron ore producer, Rio Tinto
, would not be affected by a strike at Port Hedland, as
it does not use that port.
($1 = 1.0850 Australian Dollars)
(Editing by Tom Hogue and Muralikumar Anantharaman)