Brian Rudman

Brian Rudman is a Herald columnist looking at Auckland and national issues

Brian Rudman: Brown risks credibility in port struggle

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Photo / Supplied
Photo / Supplied

What on Earth is Mayor Len Brown waiting for? From China, where he's leading a trade mission, comes word that he will sack any senior Ports of Auckland staff or board members if an inquiry by the Privacy Commissioner finds any of them leaked an employee's personal details to right-wing blogger Cameron Slater.

Surely it doesn't matter whether the leak came from the top of this shaky empire or further down the chain, the fact is that CEO Tony Gibson has said in a letter to the Maritime Union that not only did the leak come from the company, but that he is refusing to give an undertaking it won't happen again as a means of "putting accurate and corrective information in the public domain".

Nowhere in the Privacy Act is an employer permitted to release private information on those grounds, and the mayor and his advisers must know this. By procrastinating, Mr Brown is just risking what credibility he has left in this bitter struggle.

It's not as though he owes the bosses of city-owned POAL any more favours.

Instead of replacing them a month ago when they suddenly up and sacked nearly 300 workers so they could replace the unionised workforce with contract labour, Mayor Brown let them off the hook by claiming his powers to intervene were "severely restrained by legislation".

Now the port bosses have repaid this reprieve by saying POAL leaked the details of a striker's leave.

While Mr Gibson apologises "for any distress he may have felt", he effectively says, in my opinion, that the worker had it coming to him. The ungrateful wretch had gone on television complaining that the proposed new roster system would have bad effects on family life, without sinking to his knees and saying how generous his bosses had been in providing him with compassionate sick leave four years ago while his wife was dying of cancer.

The company's actions at that time do appear generous, though no more than you would expect of a decent public employer. But doing the decent thing four years ago doesn't give it the right, either legally or morally, to rub the good deed in the employee's face now during a bitter industrial dispute and to label him a hypocrite.

POAL knows as much, which is why the information slipped out in the underhand way it did. It didn't even challenge the employee with the details in public and give him the chance to respond; instead, the details were leaked to Cameron Slater. Why him? Well, only yesterday, Mr Slater was proudly stating, "Anyone who is a long-term reader of this blog knows that there are two things I loathe. Teachers and unions ..."

Was it purely by coincidence that this leak was channelled to this union-hater's website?

The Privacy Act makes it clear that only the subject of a personal information file can ask for access and the right to correct errors. The act does not provide rights for anyone else to access or correct the information. There's certainly no right for an employer to hang an employee's personal records out to the public gaze for this reason.

Mr Gibson's comments throw further doubts on POAL's claim to be bargaining in "good faith".

Having been outmanoeuvred in mediation and forced to put on hold its "bullet-proof" plans to fire its workforce, POAL now seems to be engaged in a form of psychological warfare against its union staff.

They've returned to work to discover spy cameras in the straddle carriers and cranes, security guards in the tearooms and a ban on wearing union insignia. Council of Trade Unions president Helen Kelly calls it "paranoia" at ratepayers' expense, and she has a point.

After yesterday's round of mediation went nowhere, the mayor issued a statement saying the "dispute has gone on way too long" and it was time to call in a facilitator to "get this sorted for the good of Auckland". Facilitation is one step up from mediation under the Employment Relations Act, to be used when parties are having serious difficulties concluding a collective agreement.

Given the dirty tricks being employed by the city-owned company, is it any wonder there are serious difficulties.

By refusing to take sides, Mayor Brown is, in effect, closing his eyes to the port's actions. And if they sink, he risks going down with them.

- NZ Herald

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