Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards: Political round-up: March 7

Port workers in Auckland have been told hundreds of their jobs will be outsourced. Photo / Getty Images
Port workers in Auckland have been told hundreds of their jobs will be outsourced. Photo / Getty Images

The showdown between workers and bosses on the Auckland's wharves has finally arrived. The sacking of all the wharfies today ensures that this industrial dispute has just become the most confrontational of our times. There will now be all sorts of court action - by employers to prevent other workers supporting their Auckland colleagues with strike action, and by the Maritime Union to challenge the Ports of Auckland restructuring process - but the real action will be decided by raw industrial muscle. Which side has the most industrial strength?

Radio New Zealand reports that Auckland has been declared a 'port of convenience' which marks it for international unions as one of the worst ports in the world for industrial relations and employer behaviour - see: RNZ's Industrial action spreading to another port. Time is money, as they say, and delays caused by support action at other ports will already be costing shipping companies caught up in the dispute - see: Mathew Dearnaley's Ships caught in dispute depart with goods to keep to their schedules and Kurt Bayer's Christchurch port workers to strike in solidarity.

Time is running out for a negotiated settlement and the stakes really couldn't be higher for the union, its members and the management of the Ports of Auckland. Politically, this will rapidly increase the pressure on Auckland Mayor Len Brown. Seeing him standing on the sidelines and watching the Council-owned company lay into the union will infuriate the political networks that got him elected - listen, for example, the CTU's Helen Kelly on RNZ this morning complaining that Brown has 'had his time to get his shit together on this, and he's let us down'. See also, TVNZ's Len Brown accused of 'absolutely disgusting' attitude. On top of that there seems to be broader concern in Auckland about the management of the ports company, not just in terms of industrial relations, but also its expansion plans.

If the dispute is 'class war', then some Auckland employers haven't got the memo. Jenny Keown reports that a union and business coalition, including Mainfreight, Bell Gully, and Simpson Grierson is asking to meet with Brown and has drafted a charter for the ports that includes more progressive environmental and labour relations - see: Union, business groups meet over Auckland port.

John Minto looks at the broader trend of employer demands for greater flexibility and contracting out in Workers made to pay the price. Minto currently works for Unite union, which represents fast food and hospitality workers who have worked for many years under the conditions being proposed at the Ports of Auckland. He warns that 'There is a lot at stake on the Auckland port. It's not just 300 permanent jobs because other employers are watching carefully to see if they can use the same approach to add more to their profits at the expense of workers'.

Government employees under pressure from austerity measures are also starting to get militant. One of the increasingly popular weapons in the public servant's arsenal is the use of leaks, as evidenced in Matthew Backhouse's article, Senior diplomat slams Mfat cuts in leaked cable. Public servants have taken to Twitter and there is talk of protest marches, social media activism, and creative street performances - see Andrea Vance's must-read article, Public servants plan to bite back against cuts.

David Farrar does the Government's work in replying to this, with his blog post, Will the Empire strike back. Farrar says that such austerity requirements are a simple fact that opponents cannot escape: 'The deficit has been running at around $10b a year. That is several times larger than the cost of the entire civil service'. He effectively challenges Labour and any other opposition to come up with an alternative credible plan to deal with the growing deficit.

Chris Trotter answers that challenge - see his blog post, Intensifying The Vicious Circle. As well as putting forward some social democratic policy proposals for dealing with the economic downturn, Trotter warns against the Government's fiscally austere response, suggesting it will make things much worse: 'New Zealand is thus caught in a vicious circle, with falling revenues necessitating further cuts in spending, triggering more economic contraction, more unemployment, reduced consumer spending, lower profits and falling real wages. The Government's tax-take will fall correspondingly, depressing its revenues still further'.

In a must-read opinion piece - Harder to smile in face of second term-it is - Vernon Small says there has been a clear mood shift against the Government since the election and the asset sales, ongoing leaks, deteriorating financial forecasts and cost cutting are challenging John Key now, let alone in a few weeks when rumoured radical state sector changes may be announced. Small makes what is likely to be a dreaded comparison with National in the early-1990s: 'Watching the House yesterday was like a blast from the past, circa the Bolger-Shipley government; leaks from public servants, unpopular asset sales, economic woes, and tough cost cutting.'

There certainly seems to an almost daily release or leak about state sector cuts and restructuring - see: TVNZ's All police jobs at threat in budget squeeze - association, John Hartevelt's Defence bill about making cuts, says Goff and TV3's MAF to be renamed Ministry for Primary Industries.

Other interesting reads today include David Farrar's Should List MPs be able to stand in by-elections?, Nicholas Jones' John Key's teapot fetches $6000 and The Political Scientist's What ground is 'left' when it comes to land, assets - and nationalism?. Finally the Herald acknowledges the death of Owen McShane in Respected planning consultant, adviser dies and you can read McShane's final column for the NBR: The economy is no greater than its parts.

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Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago. He teaches and researches on New Zealand politics, public policy, political parties, elections, and political communication. His PhD, completed in 2003, was on 'Political Parties in New Zealand: A Study of Ideological and Organisational Transformation'. He is currently working on a book entitled 'Who Runs New Zealand? An Anatomy of Power'. He is also on the board of directors for Transparency International New Zealand.

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