MUA occupies Rio Tinto: lessons in our #righttothecity

rio tinto
Credit: Queensland Unions

Anni and I were walking down Albert St after having lunch and talking shit and we ran straight into a foyer occupation by the Maritime Union of Australia. There were about 50 members there, and some others from the CFMEU and the ASU – I don’t know if the latter were officials or not but the bulk of the MUA were members. The occupation was a protest against Rio Tinto (whose office is in the building) crewing ships in Australian waters with non-Australian crews paid with lower wages than they would have to pay locals.[i]  As we got there the cops were assembling and were threatening to arrest people if they didn’t leave. The threat was that they would be locked in, arrested and charged with trespass. The crowd were standing tall and answering back to the cops – who were obviously flustered and made a few not so vailed threats ( ‘you will be arrested and I hope we can keep it all non-violent’.)

The occupiers started discussing who would stay and who wouldn’t. I ran across the road and got ten big bottles of water – because I had to do something practical to help and it was still hot as hell in Brisbane.  By this stage the whole build had been effectively shut down and hundreds of workers who worked in the building were stranded outside. Timing the occupation at lunch time was brilliant.

I was able to get the bottles to the occupiers and soon afterwards the doors were locked. I was by this stage running late for work and had to leave; Anni and another comrade Bec stuck around with the crowd outside.

Back in the office Anni let me know that the occupiers were able to negotiate with the cops and/or Rio Tinto and marched off to the pub in high spirits.

Whatever the specifics of the dispute what was amazing was how effective 50 people were in jamming a building. This tower full of multiple business and staffed by hundreds if not thousands of workers was impacted because the flow of people, of labour, was halted. I don’t know how many cops there are in the Brisbane CBD but they did look a bit stretched – and caught off guard. If there was another or two or three occupations at the same time I think the state’s capacities would be genuinely overextended. They would certainly be able to reassert control in a matter of hours (if people were generally resisting passively) but it would put a real pressure on the system. It would push them organisational and tactically out of the norm and tarnish the idea that order reigns in Brisbane.

The state in Australia seems so powerful. The social order here is still generally coherent. Anni said at lunch that Australia isn’t in crisis but it is in malaise and in a slow descent. I think this is true. And this means the kinds of social eruptions we have seen overseas haven’t been present here in the same way but also that the coordinates are loosening – perhaps they can be pushed.

This action by the MUA and friends punctured just for a moment this coherence, this stability, and showed the practical fragility of the state. Such a crack in the facade opens up our horizon.

As the EZLN (2016) write what is important is to attempt to make a crack in the wall. Despite how small this crack may be, how unlikely overcoming the social order seems, such a crack opens the possibility for others to struggle too, keeps it open, and with it makes possible the idea that society can be radically different, can be a society of dignity and justice.

Today the comrades from the MUA and friends in that occupation made that crack. ‘Well worked, old mole!’ as Marx would say (1992, 237).

Walking back to the office I couldn’t help think that if the horizontal links between workers were stronger, if more people could be pulled from the office buildings, shops, cafes, restaurants and building sites, if 50 students from QUT could be mobilised, if the streets on the corner were effectively blocked and shut down, if someone had locked on …

The city is increasingly talked about as the terrain of our conflict with capital. That morning on the way to work #stopAdani graffiti was chalked everywhere.


Comrades have been organising under the name of the Right to the City to contest the way the city is being shaped – opposing certain forms of real estate development and a planned casino and attempting to assert more democratic forms of organising urban space. Hardt and Negri (2009, 250) probably over-egg their point when they say that today the metropolis is analogous to the factory – but certainly it is a site of capital accumulation, the exploitation of labour and thus also our struggle against exploitation and the world of exploitation. And like the factory the processes of capital accumulation can be shut down. This is what the MUA showed today. This was today’s lesson.

What would it take to be effective? The organisational capacity to mobilise a couple of hundred people, links and legitimacy with a broader section of people, a certain sense of defiance, a tactical form of disobedience that beaks the law and stands up to the police but doesn’t collapse into a pitch battle that we will lose, the preparation to face arrests and pay off fines…

At the same time being able to hand out some bottles of water, shake a few hands and have a few chats, seemed also to be the first kinds of steps for different sections of our highly heterogeneous and segmented workforce to start to encounter each other. How different this all seemed from the atomised strategy of the ACTU’s #penaltyrates struggle where we all sit at home emailing clubs and signing petitions …

Struggle transforms.





Contributions by the Sixth Commission of the EZLN. 2016. Critical Thought in the Face of the Capitalist Hydra I. Durham, North Carolina Paperboat Press.

Curthoys, Ann, and Andrew Markus. 1978. Who Are Our Enemies: Racism and the Working Class in Australia. Neutral Bay: Hale & Iremonger.

Hardt, Michael, and Antonio Negri. 2009. Commonwealth. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Marx, Karl. 1992. Surveys From Exile: Political Writing Vol. 2. London: Penguin Books.

McQueen, Humphrey. 1986. A New Britannia: An argument concerning the social origins of Australian radicalism and nationalism. Ringwood, Victoria: Penguin Books Australia Ltd.

[i] Here we enter troubled waters where there is a thin line between opposition to the hyper-exploitation of workers without Australian citizenship and a (white) nationalist labour protectionism. The latter has been historically the shameful dominant tendency within Laborism (Curthoys and Markus 1978, McQueen 1986). To their honour the MUA have been one of the more internationalist unions.

One thought on “MUA occupies Rio Tinto: lessons in our #righttothecity

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  1. It has been hard for the MUA. For example, Rio have introduced contracts on the tugs in Gladstone resulting in smaller crews and loss of members. Their organisers are stretched. Members have resigned for the lure of running their ‘own’ business. Off-shore rigs are serviced by non-union ships with deplorable wages and conditions. Protest is being used as a weapon but not one of resurgence, more a tactic of last resort.
    Without workers united and able to stop Rio and developers on the ground, both battles will fail not withstanding efforts of solidarity by workers such as yourself. Many members in my union wanted to go on strike in solidarity with the MUA in the 1998 dispute but we were stopped by secondary boycott legislation retained by Labor and Liberal governments.

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