Matt McCarten on politics

Matt McCarten is a Herald on Sunday political columnist

Matt McCarten: 'Greedy wharfies' tale hides ambitions for port

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Striking union members have been painted as ungrateful layabouts. Photo / Dean Purcell
Striking union members have been painted as ungrateful layabouts. Photo / Dean Purcell

Ports of Auckland chief executive Tony Gibson wants us to believe he can't make the port work because he's obstructed by greedy wharfies who work 26 hours a week - even though he pays them $91,000 a year.

He says he's offering them a 10 per cent pay rise but they refuse to make compromises.

These ungrateful layabouts have gone on strike and are threatening more, resulting in millions of dollars of losses to Auckland as shipping companies and exporters consider taking their business elsewhere.

Readers would probably think from all the publicity that the wharfies should realise they're on a bloody good wicket and pull their heads in.

But I got suspicious when Christine Fletcher, the leader of the right wing on the Auckland Council, which owns the port, said that the wharfies' behaviour meant we should privatise the port.

Intriguing also was the wharfies' response to Gibson's claims about their pay. They offered not take any increase. In fact, they'd cut their annual wage by $10,000 as well as extend their working week from 26 hours a week to 40 for no extra pay. When media contacted Gibson, he wouldn't comment.

Strikes planned for this week, according to Gibson, will put the very viability of the port in question. Yet he has refused to attend mediation to avert it and, according to the wharfies, is still on holiday in Papamoa.

A ratty smell was in the air, so I popped into the wharfies' office to ask their president, Garry Parsloe, more.

First, a wharfie on 40 hours a week gets $56,000. The hourly rate is $27. With overtime, some can earn up to $71,000. The union says that to earn $91,000, a worker would have to work additional overtime equal to 32 weeks fulltime in a year.

Second, a statement from Gibson to his employees in September said the rate of cargo unloaded off ships is "the best ever recorded at the Ports of Auckland". The union says the port is the second most time-efficient in Australasia, next to Tauranga. The advantage Tauranga has is not its workforce, but the system it uses. The union has offered to assist implementing that system in Auckland.

Third, what hasn't been spelled out is that Gibson from the start demanded fulltime employees become on-call casuals and agree to daily shifts between two and 12 hours.

When the union negotiators pointed out that half of the workforce were part-timers and casuals so he already had enough flexibility, Gibson responded by saying this was his "best and final offer". He followed up by offering existing casual employees permanent jobs paid at 10 per cent more than the union rate, provided they resigned from the union.

Gibson told the union he had to play hardball as his board of directors insisted that he got a financial return of more than 8 per cent. That's insane. Most ports in the world are losing money because shippers are forcing ports to lower their container rates or they'll go somewhere else. That's what Fonterra is doing now. Despite that, the port still makes close to 6 per cent. The directors wouldn't understand this because only one of them has any shipping experience. The other six are all professional directors. Half have been on the board barely a year and none more than two years. Rodney Hide got rid of the experienced directors.

Has the penny dropped yet? That's right. These directors aren't there to run a port. They're there to sell it. I note that Gibson's key adviser is one of Roger Douglas' ideological mates on privatisation.

Fortunately the mayor and two thirds of his councillors have pledged to keep the ports in public hands. The wharfies will have the support of the NZ trade union movement and more importantly the maritime unions internationally.

Gibson is lucky. The wharfies will give him a way out this week. They will withdraw all strike action for a modest 2.5 per cent pay rise. Over the next six months, they will negotiate ways that Gibson can get his efficiencies without necessarily cutting jobs. This allows time for common-sense solutions.

He needs to get off his holiday butt - beach, I mean - and gratefully accept it.

- NZ Herald

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